The Curious Case of Cris Cyborg
by Jed Meshew
Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino is one of the rarest things in MMA, a bona fide star who gained notoriety outside of the UFC. But despite being the top pound-for-pound female fighter on the planet, currently under UFC employ, and an established MMA commodity, the UFC refuses to treat her with the respect she deserves. UFC president Dana White recently said that they’ve given Cyborg the same treatment as Ronda Rousey but that’s blatantly untrue. When the UFC brought Rousey over, they declared UFC champion, without having her fight for the belt. Cyborg hasn’t been given that same luxury. Instead of building her a weight class the UFC has preferred to use her in “showcase” fights against overwhelmed opposition and forcing her to drop to a catchweight of 140 lbs. that serves no purpose and often seems downright cruel.
Which begs the question, why doesn’t the UFC give Cyborg a belt and a division to lord over? They already did it for Rousey (yes, bantamweight was a more fully formed division but it wasn’t deep and the rest of the division matters very little, only the belt) and if someone like Conor McGregor were in a similar situation, they’d have built him a division even if there were only three other people on the planet competing at that weight. Time and again the UFC has shown a propensity to cater to the wishes of their biggest stars, especially when it’s promotionally beneficial to them so why isn’t Cyborg – who desperately wants a UFC belt – afforded the same consideration?
The cynical (but probably actual reason) is that the UFC is headed by a dude with a spotty history with regards to women. White once swore that the UFC would never have female fights but had his mind changed when Rousey (and the dollars she brought with her) came along; and if you think Rousey’s telegenic appeal had nothing to do with that, well, you’re naïve. This is the same dude who once called Cyborg “Wanderlei Silva in a dress” and defended Rousey for calling Cyborg “it” instead of her. It’s not a big leap to conclude, as Cyborg has, that if she was “pretty” in the traditional sense she would already be UFC champion.
But leaving that aside, there are two primary arguments against building a women’s 145 division and they go hand-in-hand: lack of depth and absence of need. General consensus among the UFC brass is that they need 20+ fighters to create a new weight division and the reality is that women’s featherweight is nowhere near that number. Aside from Carano (who technically fought at 140 lbs.) there are no real notable female featherweights in the history of the sport other than Cyborg and the bulk of Cyborg’s wins have come over fighters who were primarily bantamweights. What purpose does it serve to create a division for her, when it will just be filled with 135 lbers going up to fight her and they can make that happen without a belt?
But that type of thinking is a perversion of the fundamental purpose of fightsport. The raison d’etre of fighting is to put on fights that people want to see and belts and weight classes arose as a way to gin up interest in a wider array of fights. That’s why Conor McGregor, who is the least needing-a-belt-to-make-people-care motherfucker in the history of MMA, is being allowed to compete for a second title despite being MAYBE the fifth most deserving person to fight for that belt; because McGregor with two titles is fundamentally more interesting than McGregor with one title, which in turn is better than McGregor with no titles. By that same line, yeah, Cyborg doesn’t NEED a UFC belt to make people care. But giving her one would absolutely give her a promotional boost.
Furthermore, belts don’t exist only to raise interest level in fights but also to facilitate making fights people are already interested in. Brass tacks, Cyborg’s current level of UFC opposition has been dreadful. Leslie Smith was a blown up flyweight and Lina Lansberg doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page. Nobody wanted to see these fights; they want to see Cyborg versus legitimately great opposition and will take what they can get. But why would Holly Holm fight Cyborg for high risk and low reward when she can just as easily get back on the title track in the bantamweight division without the threat of serious injury? There just isn’t a lot to gain for top shelf 135ers to set themselves up for an asswhooping. But if you give Cyborg a belt, then Holly Holm and Miesha Tate and a whole host of top bantamweights are suddenly interested in making that jump, despite the high probability of getting pistol-whipped.
There are also a number of ancillary benefits to giving Cyborg a belt. For one, weight classes in MMA have always been on some Field of Dreams, if-you-build-it-they-will-come-shit. If the UFC gives female 145 lbers a place to compete, the talent will fill out, especially considering the dearth of other viable options for female athletes still seeking competitive outlets. For instance, Kayla Harrison is a two-time Olympic gold medalist in Judo who is soon to make her transition into MMA because there aren’t a lot of opportunities for her to continue competing and earn a living in her field. If you give athletic women a legitimate opportunity to make money and satisfy competitive sporting interest, you’re going to get a crop of new fighters. Hell, Harrison herself is also a benefit, as she competed at 170 lbs. in Judo and will, in all likelihood, compete at featherweight in MMA. Building the division now gives Harrison a better outlet when the UFC inevitably picks her up in a few years.
Moreover, the underlying premise of all the UFC belts is that they mean something; that they’re given to the best in the world. There is no one better in the world than Cris Cyborg and she deserves to have it recognized by her employer, the premier fighting organization in the world. She deserves to have ten pounds of gold wrapped around her waist and the title of UFC champion. I hope they give it to her.