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No end in sight to UFC’s Cyborg problem

Kristian Ibarra

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Mar 3, 2018; Las Vegas, NV, USA; Cris Cyborg reacts following her TKO victorya against Yana Kunitskaya during UFC 222 at T-Mobile Arena. Mandatory Credit: Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports
Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

From the moment the UFC finally decided to sign the most vicious female fighter on the planet to a promotional contract, it welcomed one of the biggest problems it would face during the duration of her stay. Cris Cyborg, undoubtedly the greatest female featherweight fighter in MMA history, and very likely the most dominant female champion the sport has ever seen, is in a land all her own in the UFC.

She reminded us of her undying circumstances Saturday night at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas at UFC 222. Headlining the event on short notice against Yana Kunitskaya — whose title shot also doubled as her Octagon debut — Cyborg put on the sort of performance that has made her a household name in the mixed martial arts community. Kunitskaya, talking as confident a game as anybody who has ever been scheduled to face Cyborg, floundered once the cage doors were closed.

It took only one punch for the Brazilian juggernaut to prove how much knockout power she had to offer, forcing Kunitskaya to retreat for safer waters by attempting a takedown. The challenger enjoyed a brief moment of success before Cyborg broke free to eagerly connect fist to face once more. Kunitskaya lasted almost exactly one minute for every week she had to prepare (three) before referee Herb Dean saved her from any further punishment.

Cyborg moved to a perfect 5-0 record in the UFC, less than three months removed from the night she went 4-0.

In truth, virtually nobody — quite possibly even Kunitskaya’s coaches — genuinely expected the challenger to pull this one off. Whether it was having three weeks to prepare, dealing with the nerves often associated with a UFC debut, surpassing the pressure of competing for a UFC championship, competing outside of her natural weight class, or just the simple fact that she was fighting Cyborg, there was a reason Kunitskaya was characterized as more of a sacrificial lamb than a viable title challenger.

Plenty of others have faced far more ideal circumstances and still failed… miserably.

Holly Holm, the former UFC bantamweight champion who shocked the world just 2.5 years ago, had ample time to prepare for Cyborg in December. She was also well past her promotional debut and had competed on grander stages before. That didn’t offer her much help in the end, falling on the wrong end of a five-round decision that prompted Bruce Buffer to blast the T-Mobile Arena with a powerful “and still.” 

Holm did, however, face a similar obstacle as Kunitskaya: She wasn’t a true 145-pound fighter, all while facing the most dominant champion the division had ever known. The same went for Tonya Evinger, Lina Lansberg and Leslie Smith — all failed to do the impossible against Cyborg in the UFC.

In her time competing inside the Octagon, Cyborg has yet to face a member of her natural division, forced to face those who must deal with a size disadvantage.

That is no fault of the champion, though. It’s up to the promotion to find worthwhile challengers for her to face.

Therein lies the problem: There really aren’t any.

Cyborg established her dominance over the featherweight division long before she ever debuted in the UFC, ridding the weight class of most viable title challengers with a one-sided run from 2009-2016. Those who remain are either unwilling (Germaine de Randamie), unable (Julia Budd), or simply not ready (Megan Anderson).

But the UFC largely understood what it was getting itself into when it finally gave into the pressure of bringing Cyborg into the Octagon. She was, in many ways, a one-woman show.

Nothing has changed in the time that has passed since it announced the adoption of Cyborg’s 145-pound division into the Octagon. Hosting its first-ever women’s featherweight title fight in February of last year, the UFC has yet to sign enough fighters (if any) to fill a set of top-15 rankings. “No rankings available for this section” is the same message we’ve been reading for 13 months, with no changes expected to be made anytime soon.

Cyborg, fresh off her fifth straight victory over a true bantamweight contender, is now expected to meet the bantamweight champion, Amanda Nunes. The two were briefly tied to a potential superfight for UFC 226 this summer before Cyborg’s services were needed for UFC 222. That prompted the promotion to seek Nunes out for UFC 224, likely pushing this potential superfight back until the fall if Nunes can defend her title.

That’s one of two intriguing fights that remain for Cyborg, with Invicta FC featherweight champion Megan Anderson representing the other. However, a fight with Anderson is only interesting because of her status as former Invicta featherweight champion, and not due to her potential threat to her UFC counterpart.

Beyond that, there will be nothing more than transparent showcases for the Brazilian champion to shine.

Kristian Ibarra was the lead MMA writer for the FanRag Sports Network. He also served as the evening news desk editor. He graduated from San Diego State University with a degree in journalism and a minor in rhetoric and writing studies. His work has been featured on Bleacher Report, FOX Sports San Diego and the San Diego Union-Tribune.

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