mma / Columns

After Eight Years on Top, Cris Cyborg is Reaching Her Peak

January 4, 2018 | Posted by Dan Plunkett
Cris Cyborg Justino UFC

Saturday marked the biggest test of Cris “Cyborg” Justino’s career. Over the past several years, the UFC women’s featherweight champion’s opponents have typically been outsized and greatly out-skilled. Holly Holm, Cyborg’s opponent at Saturday night’s UFC 219, fit neither of those characteristics.

Although Holm is more comfortable at 135 pounds, she appeared to be just as big as Cyborg in the cage. She was strong too—at multiple points in the first few rounds, Holm pressed Cyborg’s back against the fence. Holm’s skill on her feet far eclipsed that of any previous challenge Cyborg had faced in MMA. And yet despite the steep challenge and Holm’s gameness, Cyborg passed the test by a wide margin.

Cyborg beat the former boxing world champion to the punch. Predictably, her blows landed with much more force than her opponents, but more notably, they also landed far more regularly. When Holm pressed Cyborg to a position no fighter before her had been able to achieve, the champion remained the picture of comfort with her back against the fence. Cyborg remained in firm control of the fight even as Holm found her best success.

The judges’ scorecards—49-46, 48-47, and 48-47 for Cyborg—painted a portrait of a much closer fight than reality reflected. On the scorecards, Holm only needed to edge out the fifth round to take the fight. In practice, it was a fight with spirited competition on both sides, but it was not close.

Holm has now lost four of her past five bouts, including two prior bouts in which she was out-dueled on her feet. However, Holm’s lack of recent success in no way cheapens Cyborg’s achievement on Saturday. Cris Cyborg has thoroughly—many times viciously—beaten all challengers in the past twelve years, and now proven her skill against a current highly regarded fighter. Although she reigns over an extraordinarily weak weight class, she is without question the best female fighter in MMA history. And to this point, she has only gotten better.

Cyborg was a raw physical specimen when she debuted on a big stage for EliteXC in 2008. She fought with a Wanderlei Silva-like ferocity that overwhelmed her early opponents. She debuted for EliteXC on CBS opposite veteran Shayna Baszler. Oddsmakers pegged Baszler as the favorite, and EliteXC began to position her as their number two female star, behind Gina Carano. In one night, the Cyborg hurricane reversed that. Cyborg would never again be an underdog in the cage, and she immediately become the most discussed woman in the sport next to Carano.

After more than a year of anticipation, Cyborg crushed Carano in one of MMA’s seminal bouts. Even by this early point in her career, when she had just turned 24-years-old, Cyborg was beating most opponents like a talented professional matched with an unathletic amateur. She fired 100 mile-an-hour fastballs at opponents equipped only with a Wiffle bat.

The obvious physical disparity between Cyborg and her opponents provoked steroid allegations from the beginning. In December of 2011, following a sixteen second knockout victory, Cyborg failed a drug test for the anabolic steroid stanozolol. She denied knowingly taking the steroid, and believed a dietary supplement she took during her weight cut caused the failure.

The California State Athletic Commission suspended Justino one year for the failure, but rightly or wrongly, the reputation she gained as a steroid has endured for much longer. Cyborg is one of many fighters that has failed a test for performance-enhancing drugs. Beyond that sizeable group, there is a far larger group of fighters that used performance-enhancing drugs and never failed a test, whether because testing was nonexistent, testing was extremely weak, or the fighter was ahead of the curse on strict testing.

The use of banned substances is unfair to clean fighters, but at the same time it is impossible to separate clean fighters from those who have beaten the tests (or were never tested). For that reason, when reviewing fighters from a historical perspective, you cannot disregard fighters like Cyborg because they failed a drug test. Rather, you view them with the assumption that everyone fought on the same playing field, for you cannot reliably parse the rule-breakers from the rule-followers.

Cyborg returned to fighting in April of 2013 as no less than the fighter she had been. Soon, she began to seek greater challenges. She competed in Muay Thai, which brought increased risk coupled with less rewards than her home sport. With little experience, she challenged Jorina Baars, one of the most accomplished female strikers in the world with a 35-0-3 Muay Thai record. Baars won easily on the scorecards, but Cyborg demonstrated a true martial arts mentality by taking such a dangerous fight in another sport. At a time when she could have made a comfortable living smoking the bum of the month, Cyborg showed her commitment to growing as a far.

Since that fight in 2014, we have seen a sharper and more disciplined Cris Cyborg. To be sure, we’ve seen quick knockouts and furious blitzes, but they are smarter and more measured. This is the Cyborg that went to the third round against a tough but undersized Tonya Evinger. Most likely, she could have sprinted through the fight and won in the first round. Instead, she opted for a careful yet dominant performance. It was a similar story against Holm, only the caliber of opponent made Cyborg that much more impressive.

The current version of Cyborg is the scariest yet. She is more skilled and more patient with the same ferocity as always. There are potential challengers, but they are few in number. Megan Anderson will likely get the next shot. Germaine de Randamie would make for an interesting fight, if only she had interest in the fight. The UFC could poach additional challengers from their bantamweight division (including champion Amanda Nunes), but that division is thin on title contenders as is.

For the time being, Cris Cyborg stands alone, just as she has for the past eight years.

Dan Plunkett has covered MMA for 411Mania since 2008. You can reach him by email at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @Dan_Plunkett.

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Cris Cyborg, UFC, Dan Plunkett