Women’s MMA has seen a succession of stars rise and fall over its five years in the UFC.
Ronda Rousey was first, and may have burnt the brightest of all. Her rapid-fire string of submission and knockout victories, each tailor-made for viral stardom, made her a cultural phenomenon almost overnight. Her delirious rise was matched, on the back end, by the speed of her descent, a crush of schadenfreude that could only have been possible in an obsessive, casually cruel, deeply thirsty media culture. The same can be said of how quickly the vacuum she left at the top came to be filled.
After Rousey there was Joanna Jedrzejczyk, the brash, trash-talking Polish strawweight champion who machine-gunned her overmatched opponents with impossibly crisp kickboxing skills. Though less viral than Rousey, Jedrzejczyk’s sparkling, intimidating personality made her the darling among the hardcore fan set. When she fell to Rose Namajunas by knockout, it was hard not to see some karma in the result; she had called Namajunas “mentally unstable” and “broken already” before the fight.
There have been others after her. The UFC tried to make Paige VanZant a thing with a stint on Dancing With the Stars; there was a brief flirtation with WME-IMG client “The Karate Hottie” Michelle Waterson. Now, perhaps, Cynthia Calvillo is being groomed as the promotion’s next leading lady. But, for all those fresh names and faces now gone by, one fighter has stuck around the center of women’s MMA: Cris Cyborg.
Back in 2009, before UFC carnival barker Dana White had publicly changed his mind on the viability of women’s MMA and before Rousey had ever competed in an MMA fight, Cyborg was headlining a Strikeforce card on Showtime and beating the crap out of Gina Carano. Carano was one of the first stars of women’s MMA, and is now an actor with credits in Haywire and Deadpool to her credit. Cyborg is still here. Since a loss in her pro debut back in 2005, Cyborg has run off 18 wins and a no-contest, the latter due to a failed drug test in 2011. All but one of those wins has come inside the distance.
Women’s MMA has generally been ruled by slick, dangerous submission artists like Rousey and smooth, technical strikers like Jedrzejczyk. Cyborg is not like that. She is a brick-fisted knockout artist with crushing, terrifying power in every shot she throws. She physically dominates her opponents, tossing them around and separating them from consciousness with a vengeful swiftness.
Where the other faces of women’s MMA have been fit and muscular but not too much so, Cyborg’s size and strength stand out. She’s not Rousey or Carano or VanZant, the kinds of conventionally attractive women that he UFC and its predecessors in women’s MMA have felt comfortable pushing. That failed drug test back in 2011 was for the anabolic steroid stanozolol, not what usually gets termed a “drug of abuse.”
Vitriol has flown at Cyborg for years. Back in 2014, Rousey said, “...she’s not even a woman anymore. She’s an ‘it.’” On a podcast with Dana White in 2015, the UFC color commentator Joe Rogan joked that Cyborg had a penis, comments for which he later apologized. White himself said in 2014 that she looked like Wanderlei Silva in a dress, material that he delivered while stomping around the stage in a grotesque pantomime.
Despite all this, and because she has simply refused to go away, the UFC has slowly but surely come around to Cyborg. Back when Rousey was the most compelling thing in MMA, Cyborg was her constantly-out-of-reach foil. Rousey teased a fight with her numerous times, though in hindsight it seems obvious that the transcendent megastar was never particularly thrilled about the idea of fighting such a dangerous and imposing striker.
Even before Rousey fell from grace, the UFC had started to test the Cyborg waters. It paid a portion of Cyborg’s purse for several fights in 2015 and 2016 in the smaller Invicta FC organization, which appears on UFC’s Fight Pass platform. The UFC dipped its toes in with an undercard fight on a UFC card in Brazil in 2016, then dove in by giving Cyborg a headlining spot on a Fox Sports 1 Fight Night. A brutal dispatching of late replacement Tonya Evinger gave Cyborg the featherweight title last July in the co-main event on the year’s biggest pay-per-view card.
At every stage, both fan interest and Cyborg’s performance has justified the next step up. Now 32, she will enter the UFC’s Octagon for the fourth time on December 30 at UFC 219, to defend her featherweight title against former bantamweight champion and Rousey-slayer Holly Holm. This will be Cyborg’s inaugural turn as a pay-per-view headliner, and her first shot at not just headliner money, but also the kind of recognition that she has chased her entire career.
Women’s featherweight is one of the weakest divisions in MMA. That has been the case for its entire existence. During that time, the talent pool has ranged somewhere between breathtakingly shallow and frankly nonexistent. Cyborg has beaten everybody worth beating who fights at that weight over the past decade. Finding opponents willing to step into the cage with her has been a challenge in itself, and others—Rousey, most notably—have simply left featherweight rather than face her. Those facts speak loudly on their own, but the question of whether Cyborg is a big fish in a small pond or an objectively elite talent who happens to fight in the MMA equivalent of a mud puddle has yet to be answered.
Holm, for her part, is a known quantity: a champion in both boxing and MMA, with reams of experience against world-class competition. One way or the other, we’ll know a great deal more about how good Cyborg actually is after this fight.
The degree to which we don’t know this, after all these years of watching Cyborg fight, is striking. It’s easy to watch Cyborg and get lost in her physicality. She’s big, strong, fast, and powerful, and such exceptional athletes are still a rarity in women’s MMA. What’s less obvious, if equally impressive, is her deep well of technical skill. She’s no longer the wild, overpowering brawler she was early in her career; while still aggressive, she doesn’t throw herself face-first into exchanges and trust in her speed and power to carry her through. Over the years, Cyborg has evolved into a rare type of fighter: the aggressive counterpuncher.
Pressure fighters constantly move forward, pressing the action and forcing their opponent back toward the fence or ropes. Limiting the opponent’s ability to escape is essential, and pressure fighters tend to bury the opponent by dictating the pace, range, and type of action. There are more and less technical ways of doing this, ranging from wild, combination-punching swarmers to smooth snipers with tight footwork and a crisp command of angles. In general, though, pressure fighters are defined by their aggression and risk-taking.
Like pressure fighters, aggressive counterpunchers prefer to move forward. This is a sharp contrast with traditional counterpunchers, who tend to hang back and let the fight come to them. Many aggressive counterpunchers in fact begin their careers as in-your-face maniacs before realizing that their constant forward motion puts mental, as well as physical, pressure on their opponents.
By moving forward, by dictating the pace and the range, pressure scares opponents into doing silly, counterproductive things. They might throw a telegraphed punch from too far away, which leaves the counter open for business; this, for example, is Conor McGregor’s bread and butter. They might shoot for an ill-advised takedown, inviting a knee or uppercut counter and giving the takedown itself little chance of success. They might simply back into the fence and start windmilling punches in a knee-jerk attempt to buy some respect, as Anthony Pettis has made a habit of doing when pressured.
The aggressive counterpuncher plays with this dynamic like a particularly vindictive predator toying with its prey. He or she knows what that pressure does to an opponent’s mind, waits and draws out the foolish response, and then counters it mercilessly. Where a pressure fighter leads, the aggressive counterpuncher merely sets the table. After that, it’s just a question of letting the opponent’s fear open him or her up.
This combination of patience and intimidation is Cyborg’s bread and butter. She’s terrifying and she knows it, and she fights to maximize that fear.
Moving forward behind a heavy jab and tight, technical footwork, she chops away at her opponent’s legs and body with kicks. When the fear starts to build, the opponent feels compelled to respond, at which point Cyborg responds with a vicious head-body punching combination. If the opponent tries to tie up in the clinch, Cyborg’s physicality and slick skills at close range come into play. It’s a lethal and intelligent approach built by years of training under world-class coaches, from the legendary Rafael Cordeiro to the underrated Jason Parillo.
It’s also terrible news for Holm. The former bantamweight champion is a pure outside striker, which means that her game requires space to operate. Holm likes to be in the middle of the cage and to set a long distance, either countering when her opponent rushes in to cover that range (as she did to Rousey), or picking and choosing her spots to blitz forward with a combination of her own.
When Holm’s opponent takes away her space intelligently, without running in like a maddened bull and giving her ample opportunities to counter—again, see also: Rousey, Ronda—Holm struggles. She tends to telegraph her combinations, which opens her up to counters. Germaine de Randamie, Valentina Shevchenko, and even the less-than-slick Miesha Tate had success when they let Holm lead and countered her forward rushes.
Cyborg is better at creating and exploiting that dynamic than any of Holm’s previous opponents. While Holm could exploit a tentative or overaggressive Cyborg, that seems less likely than the Brazilian punishing Holm’s left-hand leads and beating her up against the fence when the opportunity presents itself. If that’s how the fight plays out—and the oddsmakers evidently believe it will, given that Cyborg is a nearly 4:1 favorite—then Cyborg will finally have the scalp to match her talent and notoriety.
She may not be what the UFC feels comfortable promoting in a women’s MMA champion. Her past with PEDs and the outright hostility she faces from powerful figures and fans alike haven’t and won’t go away. But with a belt and a win over Holm, however, there won’t be any denying Cyborg.