All the while Ronda Rousey was dominating the Ultimate Fighting Championship and being heralded as one of the world’s best athletes, a handful of naysayers maintained that someone else was the best female mixed martial arts fighter in the world.
On Saturday, that woman, Cristiane Justino, known as Cyborg, will finally make her UFC debut.
Justino, a 30-year-old Brazilian, has dominated opponent after opponent, winning titles in the Strikeforce and Invicta promotions. Like Rousey, she has won many of her fights destructively in a matter of seconds. Unlike Rousey, whose specialty is the armbar, Justino tends to send opponents to the canvas with a devastating knockout punch.
But she has never fought in the UFC, largely because of weight class issues. Justino fights at 145 pounds, while the UFC’s heaviest female weight class for women, in which Rousey fights, is a maximum of 135 pounds. Justino, who is 5 feet 8 inches, has been reluctant to cut weight to get to that level.
Fighting in different promotions did not stop Rousey and Justino from engaging in a long-running war of words. Justino called Rousey and UFC officials bullies, while Rousey ripped Justino for testing positive for steroids after a fight in 2011.
Cyborg’s arrival in the UFC comes as the women’s division is in some disarray. First, the unbeatable Rousey lost to Holly Holm in November. Then Holm turned around and lost in March to Miesha Tate, who has lost to Rousey twice.
None of the big names are set to fight each other soon. In July, Tate will defend her title against Amanda Nunes, and Holm will fight Valentina Shevchenko.
Regardless of who the champion is, Rousey remains the biggest name in women’s mixed martial arts. Her return has been delayed by the filming of a movie, “Road House,” but there is talk she will return in November at the first UFC card in New York, where the sport has been legalized.
Justino’s debut Saturday, in Curitiba, Brazil, will be contested at a special weight, 140 pounds. She will be a huge favorite over Leslie Smith, who is only 2-2 in the UFC and 8-6-1 over all.
“I know that Cyborg has overwhelmed most of her opponents,” Smith said in a UFC video. “I know that she has a lot of power and I know that she gets wild.
“I think that I have the intelligence and the skills to work outside of her plan.”
Assuming Justino routs Smith, what’s next for her? Will the UFC start a new, heavier division for her to fight in? Or will she have no choice but to cut weight to fight Rousey or the other big names at 135?
“The long-term plans for Cyborg have not been determined yet,” Lenee Breckenridge, a UFC spokeswoman, said.
For her part, Justino seems ready to take the UFC by storm.
“I’m really happy, it’s a great opportunity,” she said. “I can fight any girl, Holly Holm, Miesha, Ronda, anyone.”
Should she eventually get in the Octagon against Rousey, it would very likely be the most anticipated women’s fight in history.
The huge interest in Cyborg’s debut is such that the fight is getting almost as much attention as the main event Saturday, a men’s heavyweight title fight. Champion Fabricio Werdum, a submission specialist whose best career form has come at the advanced age of 38, will face hard-hitting Stipe Miocic, who comes off an impressive knockout of Andrei Arlovski that came in less than a minute.