Because some will pretend it never happened, say this out loud so everybody can hear: Cristiane ‘Cyborg’ Justino is now a UFC world champion.
It happened on Saturday, at featherweight, in her weight-class, the division effectively designed just for her, and happened the way it was supposed to happen (which is to say Cyborg beat the brakes off an overmatched foe, in this case the plucky Tonya Evinger, and looked as aggressive, merciless and downright terrifying as she has looked in every one of her three prior UFC beat-downs).
It was, for a reluctantly patient Cyborg, the payoff moment. Her coronation night. It could also, however, end up being the night she transitioned from fighter-most-avoided to champion-most-pointless.
It’s a feeling the Brazilian has grown accustomed to over the years. Being avoided, being shunned. One she has had to work around. But if you think her fortunes are about to change now she has a gold strap around her waist, think again. In reality, she is a champion in a new weight class, one not yet populated by legitimate contenders, and is hardly the most enticing of dinner party hosts. Vicious, nasty and full of spite, hers is a house easy to swerve.
How, then, will Cyborg, the new featherweight champion, get fights? Who will volunteer themselves and step up to the plate? Has she already cleaned out a division on reputation alone?
“I accepted Cat (Zingano) and Holly (Holm) as an opponent for both #ufc198 and #ufcbrasilia and was told neither would fight me in Brazil,” Cyborg, 18-1, wrote on Twitter. “I asked for both to replace (Megan Anderson) when she pulled out (of UFC 214) after making such a (campaign) for the fight and was told they both declined.
“They should have fought me at 140 (pounds). I’m the best I’ve ever been in my career with my return to 145 and am ready for either next.”
Herein lies the issue for many prospective opponents: the feeling of regret; the realisation they once had the chance to fight a weight-drained, knocking-at-death’s-door Cyborg, but, for whatever reason, decided against doing so. Now, as a healthy featherweight with a UFC title as leverage, Cyborg ain’t shifting for nobody. Nor should she have to. She has, after all, done her bit. The hard bit. She ignored the fact Germaine de Randamie didn’t fancy fighting her, waited for the former champion to be stripped, and then filled the void and won a vacant strap against Evinger. Almost like it was meant to be.
De Randamie, you’d hope, would be kicking herself right about now. Only she won’t be. It was, lest we forget, her decision and no one else’s to look the other way when Cyborg raced alongside her and spat through her open window. She slowed down, stopped the car, got out and ran. Now she fights Marion Reneau on September 2 in her native Holland. That’s at bantamweight, by the way. Obviously.
Who knows, de Randamie might feel liberated to have escaped the Cyborg talk and the very real threat of a fight against her. Some will call it a lucky escape, a cause for celebration, yet de Randamie’s striking matched up well against a woman who loves nothing more than a fist-fight and, for that reason, it’s a shame the bout never materialised.
What’s more likely, I suppose, is a second attempt to make a fight between Cyborg and Holly Holm, the former UFC women’s bantamweight champion who, like de Randamie, carries her threat in punches and kicks. That, too, would be an intriguing match-up; one that represents a departure from Cyborg fights gone by; one that would, on paper, at least appear to be competitive. Indeed, UFC President Dana White said his original intention was to pair Cyborg with Holm for the inaugural women’s featherweight title at UFC 208, only Cyborg, at the time, didn’t seem quite so keen.
Perhaps now the time is right. Holm has snapped her three-fight winless run – doing so in impressive fashion against Bethe Correia in June – and also has form at featherweight, having faced de Randamie for the belt earlier this year. She, unlike Evinger, is able to fill out and call herself a featherweight without her tongue lodged firmly in her cheek. She is a danger at the weight. Best of all, she can actually test Cyborg. Bring out the best in her. Make her earn her championship.
Holm aside, Cyborg’s featherweight title reign could be short on willing victims and she could be left counting on bantamweights being brave enough to move up. If that doesn’t happen, the only hope is that the UFC draft in featherweights from elsewhere, be it Bellator or Invicta FC, and keep Cyborg well fed that way.
Megan Anderson, for example, the original opponent Cyborg was set to face at UFC 214, remains a viable and interesting option. The Australian held the Invicta FC featherweight title, having defeated Charmaine Tweet in January, and has all the confidence and momentum of a fighter who has finished each of her last four bouts via TKO.
There’s also Julia Budd, the inaugural Bellator women’s featherweight champion, who is unbeaten since losing to Ronda Rousey in 2011 and a reliable veteran of the women’s game. But if the UFC and Cyborg can’t make fights in her own back yard, she sure as hell won’t be getting help from the neighbours.
The big one, of course, is Amanda Nunes, the reigning UFC women’s bantamweight champion. That wouldn’t just be a fight; it would be one of those things they like to call a super-fight. Brazil versus Brazil, striker versus striker, champion versus champion, it would seem a natural match-up, especially given the fact Nunes has expressed a desire to become a two-weight UFC champion and occasionally struggled getting down to bantamweight. But nothing’s ever that simple.
“I’m interested in fighting the girl who has the belt now, de Randamie,” Nunes said back in May. “Because I’d rather beat her. If UFC wanted to give me the opportunity to go up now, I would have taken it. Later is another thing.
“I want to see Cyborg with this belt. I’m not interested in fighting her. I’m interested in fighting the girl who has the belt now. After my next fight, we’ll see what happens.”
Well, here’s what happened: de Randamie gave up the belt, citing a Cyborg-shaped allergy, a fighter she has long accused of being a drugs cheat, while Nunes wasn’t able to go through with her proposed title defence against Valentina Shevchenko, set for July 8, due to a crippling bout of sinusitis. Best laid plans and all that. So what happened instead was Nunes and Shevchenko rearranged their title fight for September 9 and Cyborg, the woman Nunes, like everyone else, would rather not fight, carried on regardless and snatched the belt de Randamie kicked to the kerb.
Now, strap in hand, Cyborg waits. As she does so, a crowd disperses, tumbleweed blows along the road and hands once high in the air now make their way back down. She looks over at the bantamweights and they all just as quickly pretend to be busy; busy doing something else; busy doing anything else. She then watches natural featherweights become bantamweights and champions voluntarily become former champions. Soon she’ll be all alone, she fears, and soon we’ll be asking ourselves, on her behalf, “Will anybody fight Cyborg?”