When Holly Holm dropped UFC bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey with a beautifully timed left high kick in the second round of their UFC 193 main event in front of a UFC record 56,000 attendance in Melbourne, Australia, all of the talk about a potential blockbuster fight between the formerly undefeated Rousey and top pound-for-pound fighter Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino ceased.
The much-anticipated superfight had been brewing since Rousey made her UFC debut in early 2013 with another first-round submission win that earned the UFC an estimated 400,000 pay-per-view buys, a surprising number considering both Rousey and Liz Carmouche were making their promotional debuts as the first female fighters to enter the Octagon. The fight showed that women could indeed headline successful pay-per-view events in the male-dominated sport. That credence grew exponentially with each dominant Rousey win, increasing her popularity among casual fans, from children to adults, male and female.
Rousey starred opposite Miesha Tate on The Ultimate Fighter 18, exposing Rousey, Tate and the female bantamweight division to potential fans who wouldn’t otherwise watch fights. The two fighters went back and forth, both verbally and physically, during the show and raised interest for their second fight, scheduled for the UFC bantamweight title at UFC 168 in December 2013. Rousey submitted Tate with an armbar in the third round of the co-main event. The event was the birth of a star: the estimated numbers of the pay-per-view were above the one-million mark, the first time the UFC broke the six-figure milestone since UFC 116: Lesnar vs. Carwin in July 2010.
Rousey continued to build upon her success by dominating one opponent after another. She stopped Sara McMann in 66 seconds with knees, Alexis Davis in 16 seconds with punches, Cat Zingano in 14 seconds with an armbar, and Bethe Correira in 34 seconds by brutal knockout. Rousey’s stardom was rising with each victory, but the search for a formidable opponent kept Cyborg, one of the best female fighters, always in the discussion.
Cyborg was dominating her opponents in much the same way as Rousey, but while fighting 10 pounds heavier. She has been undefeated as a mixed martial artist for nearly 11 years. She has finished 13 of her 15 wins inside the distance, including her last three opponents, in which she finished in under a combined seven minutes. Cyborg defeated top fighters Gina Carano, Marloes Coenen, Hitomi Akano and many others on her 10-year path of destruction through EliteXC, Strikeforce and Invicta Fighting Championship.
Many factors stood in the way of the potential superfight between Rousey and Cyborg, with weight being one of the frontrunners. Rousey most recently contested that the fight be fought at 135 pounds, because she was the champion and any challenger must come fight her at her desired weight. Cyborg argued that she couldn’t make the cut down to bantamweight, even claiming she would die (in what she says was a mis-translation). She stated that her doctors told her she shouldn’t fight the rest of her career at 135 pounds, a move she claims the UFC wanted her to make. Cyborg insisted the fight be fought at a catchweight of 140 pounds, but Rousey and the UFC weren’t interested in the bout without the title on the line.
Another factor — one that may have been the biggest decider in the fight not happening — is Rousey’s disdain for Cyborg’s failed performance-enhancing drug test in her Strikeforce featherweight title fight in December 2011. Cyborg tested positive for the synthetic anabolic steroid stanozolol. The Brazilian was banned for one year by the California State Athletic Commission. Cyborg used that year to transition in both her personal and professional life. During the suspension, she moved from Strikeforce, which was being absorbed into the UFC and eventually shut down, to the upstart Invicta Fighting Championship, the new home of the top female fighters in the world but a still growing brand at the time.
Cyborg has since made her fans forget about her one and only failed test. She knocked out her next five opponents, including her most recent victim, Daria Ibragimova, whom she fought at Invicta FC 15 in January. The best featherweight in the world was originally scheduled to attempt her second drop to 140 pounds, but after another dominant win and Rousey’s loss to Holm in November, the Brazilian declared her intentions to not cut down to 135 pounds to fight in the future.
The potential Cyborg-Rousey superfight lost much of its steam following Rousey’s knockout loss at UFC 193, but when Cyborg said no way to a drop to bantamweight, it seemed to close the door completely on the fight.
But as one door closed, another opened. That door opened for the aforementioned Holm to become a star with her shocking upset win. Even more doors opened for potential superfights involving the Invicta featherweight champion Cyborg.
Tate upset Holm in an amazing fifth-round comeback as the clocked ticked down at UFC 196 earlier this month. In what was biggest pay-per-view event in the UFC’s history, the two fighters emerged as budding stars for the promotion, and as potential opponents for Cyborg.
The UFC announced on Monday that Cyborg will make her UFC debut against Leslie Smith at UFC 198 on May 14. How does she fare in her debut? And how does the promotion approach her career going forward? Here to help me answer these questions is fellow Combat Press writer Sal DeRose.
DeRose: It’s not the question of how Cyborg will fare in her UFC debut — she’ll be completely fine — but more so how Smith will fare five pounds up and against a killing machine. Smith is as tough as they come in any division the UFC has to offer, but this is an entirely different ballgame. She has some fought some good names in women’s MMA, including Jessica Eye, Sarah Kaufman and Barb Honchak. However, Smith failed to get past any of those fighters.
Smith needs to be able to last the course of three rounds. Perhaps by the third round Cyborg, an aggressive striker, will tire out. Those power shots may come farther apart and with less strength. Cyborg’s last three fights have failed to go past the first round, though. In fact, since her return to MMA after her suspension in 2013, the Brazilian has won four of five fights in the first frame. The only fight that didn’t end in the opening stanza was a fourth-round TKO of Marloes Coenen, another top featherweight fighter.
Maybe with Cyborg forced to cut an extra five pounds, it will play in favor of Smith. However, it’s difficult to see this in Smith’s favor without some help from a tough Cyborg weight cut or Smith being able to outlast Justino.
This isn’t exactly how the UFC should have introduced Cyborg to its roster, either. Putting her in at a catchweight bout seems weird. There is no belt for Cyborg to aim for in the end to help make her more threatening to Rousey, Holm or Tate. Even creating a 145-pound division will be extremely tough given the considerable skill gap between Cyborg and the rest of the fighters in the weight class, many of whom have already fallen victim to the Brazilian’s brutal assault. It’s an extremely shallow division. Bantamweight isn’t exactly overflowing with talent either, but the women’s featherweight division is more akin to the men’s heavyweight division, where you’ll see the same small group of guys near the top of the division year after year.
If the Cyborg-Smith fight goes well, the next Cyborg outing needs to be something where the UFC truly capitalizes on having Cyborg on the roster. Whether it be the aforementioned Holm or Tate is an entirely other question dependent on which lady ends up with the title.
Aittama: The announcement that Cyborg would be meeting former flyweight Smith in her debut was both confusing and somewhat underwhelming. That is not to sell short the fighting ability and toughness of “The Peacemaker,” but myself and probably many fans wanted to see Cyborg take on a more recognizable name in her debut. Smith fought her way into the UFC with a reputation for exciting fights during her time inside the Invicta cage, but the 33-year-old resides outside of the UFC’s top-15 rankings and hasn’t built the fan following of the other top fighters in the division.
Cyborg will enter the fight with what seems like an increased promotional push, but the promotion opted to schedule the fight at a catchweight rather than showcase Cyborg in her natural weight category. This could mean the UFC has decided to go with superfights instead of creating a featherweight division, or it could simply mean Smith was willing and able. UFC President Dana White stated via Twitter that Smith “is the only one that wanted to fight Cyborg. Leslie begged for it.” Holm, Tate and many fighters have come out in the past in support of Cyborg getting her shot in the UFC, and they have discussed the possibility of meeting her at 140 pounds once she officially signed. The statement from White could be alluding to the fact that Smith was willing to take the fight without a huge investment from the UFC, both in terms of money and risk.
Yes, if Cyborg were to lose to Smith, it would most likely affect her future with the promotion and how she will be perceived. It would likely be the worst-case scenario for the Brazilian and the UFC. And that is why this match-up is so confusing. It doesn’t create a scenario to account for a historic upset at the hands of Smith. If Smith were to beat Cyborg, she would likely get some form of promotional backing, and maybe even move into the bantamweight rankings, but does it move her closer to a title shot? Maybe, but it would be difficult to sell a fighter as a challenger to the top three women in a division where her most recent win just put her over the .500 mark in her UFC career. That’s not to say that something similar hasn’t happened in the past — fighters have been given title shots while coming off losses. It just feels like there were better options to take, and maybe a fight between two fighters who are naturally 20-plus pounds apart isn’t the greatest fight for either combatant.
If I was calling the shots, Cyborg would have entered the Octagon in a win-win situation. She should have been matched with a fighter who either is a draw — Rousey, Holm or Tate — or someone who has something to gain with a win. The prime candidates to gain the most with a win, assuming a victory over Cyborg would lead to a spot in the bantamweight rankings, would be Cat Zingano, Amanda Nunes and Jessica Eye. These three women stand out as fighters who would benefit the most from handing Cyborg her first loss in a decade.
Zingano holds a win over the current champion Tate in a fight that came to a brutal end in the third round when Zingano connected with knees against the cage. The win earned Zingano a title shot that she would have to forgo due to injury. Tate stepped in to star opposite Rousey on TUF 18 and fight for the title. While Zingano was out of competition with a knee injury, tragedy struck her family. Zingano returned with a win over top bantamweight Nunes, but she suffered her first professional loss against Rousey in her title challenge at UFC 184. Zingano has yet to step foot back in the cage since the 14-second armbar defeat, but a fight and win over Cyborg would immediately catapult her back into the title picture, especially if Tate remains the champion. Even if Cyborg finishes Zingano just as fast as Rousey did, Zingano would have only ever lost to two of the very best female fighters in MMA history.
Nunes is the odd woman out at the top of the division. While Holm, Rousey and Tate sort out the title, the No. 1 contender will have to sit around and wait, despite picking up solid victories over Sara McMann and Valentina Shevchenko. Nunes could benefit greatly if she were to defeat Cyborg, but a loss could be devastating. Nunes has yet to face any of the top three fighters, giving some hope that even with a loss, her value as a contender wouldn’t be set back to far. However, she does have the aforementioned loss to Zingano.
Eye lost her opportunity to earn a title shot when she dropped a decision to Tate in what was marketed as a No. 1 contender fight. It turns out Tate wasn’t awarded the title shot with the win, but she did eventually get a crack at the championship after Holm defeated Rousey. Eye is scheduled to return against McMann at UFC Fight Night 88 in May, but with a win over McMann and a potential victory over Cyborg, she would put herself right back in the title picture.
Nonetheless, Cyborg will meet Smith in her debut. As of right now, there won’t be a featherweight division. As my colleague suggested, neither the 145-pound nor the 135-pound division is overflowing with talent. That just happens to be the case in some of the shallower weight classes, but the UFC still promotes a championship in each division. The plans for Cyborg aren’t completely known, providing for some wiggle room in how the UFC approaches her career. Cyborg said she won’t fight at 135 pounds following her most recent destruction of Ibragimova, which gives the impression that she will not be fighting for the UFC bantamweight title anytime soon. A title isn’t necessary to sell Cyborg or a potential blockbuster superfight, but putting a strap on the line certainly looks better to the casual viewers. Whether that means the UFC could potentially develop a few featherweight fighters and eventually look to bring in a title, it gives the promotion a few options in selling a potential fight with some of its biggest stars.
The ever-elusive champion-vs.-champion bout doesn’t come along often in the UFC, let alone MMA. A nasty foot injury recently foiled the UFC’s most recent attempt featuring Conor McGregor and Rafael dos Anjos at UFC 196. By creating a featherweight title, presumably wrapped around Cyborg’s chiseled waist, the UFC further opens its promotional options for Cyborg and the bantamweight division.
One match-up that could tie together the weight, cross-promotion, the UFC Fight Pass platform and enough personality to appeal to the casual fans, is a champion-vs.-champion bout with Invicta bantamweight champion Tonya Evinger. Evinger is not afraid to tell it how it is, and she certainly can make a claim for some of the best trash talk in the bantamweight division. Evinger has been among the best female fighters above flyweight for the past 10 years. She not only brings a veteran presence to the cage, but she could be the piece that ties together Invicta, Fight Pass and the UFC. Marketing the fight as an Invicta championship could get confusing for some, but the promotion made a similar move when Quinton “Rampage” Jackson and Dan Henderson unified the UFC and Pride 205-pound titles at UFC 75. This idea will likely meet resistance, but it’s just another option moving forward after UFC 198.
In the end, I’m on the side of the UFC stepping outside of the box when the situation calls for it. Ultimately, MMA should be about the putting on the best fights possible, and sometimes that means making fights regardless of weight, rankings, the title picture or any other potential circumstances.