When the news broke in March that Cristiane "Cyborg" Justino had inked a multi-fight deal with the UFC's parent company Zuffa, fans across the MMA world worked themselves up into a frenzy. Finally, it seemed like the biggest fight in the history of the sport could become a reality.
Ronda Rousey vs Cris Cyborg would be huge business for the UFC if it were to happen. Rousey, the UFC women's bantamweight champion, is far and away the sport's biggest star and Justino is her most natural rival. Fans want this and have done ever since Rousey emerged as the next big thing in MMA, by winning the Strikeforce bantamweight title from Miesha Tate in 2012.
On Zuffa's part, a clearly defined golden path was laid out as publicly as possible by UFC President Dana White in an interview with Ariel Helwani on UFC Tonight back in March: "We want to let the world know that we want to make this fight. Ronda wants this fight, everyone wants this fight to happen. But she needs to make 135 outside the UFC."
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Justino would continue to fight in Invicta Fighting Championships, and if she could make the 135lb weight limit there, the fight with Rousey would happen under the promotional banner of the UFC.
At the time it seemed like a plan of obvious design, but were we all misled on the motive? Could Zuffa have conned us with a charade that masked their true intention? It is entirely possible, not least because Cyborg herself still believes she is being ducked.
While Cyborg is doing what she can to drop her fighting weight, she had time to take a swing at UFC President Dana White, and Rousey on Instagram this week. After White posted a video of Cyborg's Chute Boxe stablemate Thomas Almeida knocking out Anthony Birchak at UFC Fight Night 77, Cyborg shared it with an attached comment of her own.
"A fight against anyone from #chuteboxe is violent danawhiteufc this is why your champ is using her weightcut as an excuse not to get Ko'd"
This is not the first time Justino has taken a pop at the treatment she feels she has received from both White and Rousey. It was only last month that Justino posted a lengthy tirade on her Facebook page regarding the pair. Justino felt that she had been bullied by both,
"I find it Hypocritical of @rondarousey to complain about people in Hollywood being critical of her body image, talking about her arms or the extra weight she carries between fights.
For the past 5 years this same Ronda Rousey and Dana White have used the media to Bully me, opening the door for other opponents to try the same tactics."
The relationship has never been warm and cosy, but If Justino can't make the weight, what exactly have Zuffa gained from signing her in the first place? Perhaps more than you think.
The UFC's closest rival, Bellator MMA, announced in 2014 that they would be creating a women's featherweight division. Cris Cyborg is the clear number one at that weight class and would have been an appealing addition for the Viacom-owned promotion. Is it any coincidence that Zuffa made a move to secure Justino's signature on a watertight, exclusive contract before Bellator could bring her in?
If that was part of their decision making process, then there were other benefits to keeping Justino fighting in Invicta FC as well. While that company are the number one all-female MMA promotion in the United States, their level of exposure remains small. Their events are hosted in comparatively small arenas and only air online via Fight Pass, the UFC's online subscription service. As a result, Cyborg is not fighting in front of millions of fans around the world as she would be in another organisation, and that makes it even more difficult for her level of stardom to grow.
That offers Ronda Rousey a greater level of protection from criticism, and that is key. Rousey is the UFC's golden goose, laying big fat golden pay-per-view eggs. Her recent fight with Bethe Correia, widely considered to be her weakest opponent to date, drew the company's biggest buy rate since UFC 168 in 2013. Incidentally, UFC 168 also featured Ronda Rousey in the co-main event.
If this fight doesn't happen, and that remains the most likely scenario at this point given how much weight Cyborg is already cutting to make the 145lb limit let alone 135, the media will push the narrative that the UFC hoped for. It will be Cyborg's fault for not making the weight, all the blame will be heaped on her broad shoulders.
Should Cyborg find a way to drop the significant muscle mass required to make 135 pounds, then fans are given a fight that fails to answer the real question they wanted answered in the first place. Who is the better fighter? When one competitor has drained their body to within an inch of their life, can a bout really provide a conclusive end to that debate?
For Zuffa, this may never have been about answering that question in the first place. If it was an exercise in absolving Rousey, and themselves, from blame then it appears to be working.
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