When Cris Cyborg steps inside the Octagon, she’s a destructive force with ill intentions. Cyborg (real name Cristiane Justino) wants to dismantle her opposition as quickly and violently as possible, and with the exception of losing her first pro fight in May 2005, has done that every single time.
When Cyborg (17-1 MMA, 2-0 UFC) is not fighting, though, it’s hard to argue her priorities aren’t in order. She wants the best for the sport, and intends to carry that attitude as a flag-bearer for the company if she successfully claims the Women’s Featherweight title in her UFC 214 fight with Tonya Evinger (19-5, 0-0), which takes place Saturday at Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif. (10 p.m. ET, pay-per-view).
When the UFC first introduced women’s fighting to its roster in February 2013, it was all about Ronda Rousey. She was the centerpiece of everything, but when a two-fight losing skid essentially forced her into retirement a noticeable void was left that still hasn’t been filled. The UFC has done a much better job embracing women fighting as a whole of late, and Cyborg wants that to continue whether she wins the title or not.
“I believe women’s MMA can’t be about a single face,” Cyborg tells Rolling Stone. “There are many athletes in the UFC. What happened was, they made Ronda [Rousey] the face of MMA, and when she lost, which she did twice, she didn’t want to come back. It’s about all the women who are in there, not just a face. When you make it about one face and the person leaves, you miss that. When I carry my belt, I’ll be representing all women. The same way women in the UFC are representing all women in MMA.
“I want to make a difference,” she continues. “I want to improve this sport. I want to be remembered by the other athletes not only as the world champion, but as someone who made a difference.”
Although Cyborg, 32, has had some problematic moments outside of the cage in her career, specifically related to drug testing she has always maintained a positive mentality and expressed the desire to do right by the sport. She’s been the most consistently dominant female fighter to ever step in a cage, going more than 12 years and 18 consecutive bouts without a loss.
The Brazilian has competed in some high-profile fights and won titles in other organizations such as Invicta FC and Strikeforce. UFC 214 marks her (long overdue) opportunity to finally put UFC gold around her waist, but she already views herself as a champion.
“I’ve been 12 years undefeated – I feel I’m the champion,” she says. “Getting the belt in the UFC is just going to be one more belt in my career. For me, the fight Saturday will be like a defense of my belt. I feel very blessed to be part of this show. I feel very good. I want to show all of my fans, and my new fans, why I’m 12 years undefeated.”
Cyborg has an absolutely menacing presence when she puts her gloves on. She’s extremely down to earth and humble outside of a competitive setting, which makes her one of the more intriguing characters in the sport. She should have been pushed and promoted by the UFC long ago, but when it was all about Rousey, the company was reluctant to give her a well deserved piece of the spotlight.
Rousey’s rise to global stardom ultimately opened the door for the UFC to evolve from one women’s weight class to four over the past four-plus years. Cyborg is prepared to do her part to push that expansion even wider by winning at UFC 214. Standing in her way, though, is Evinger, who is one of the more durable and gritty opponents Cyborg has encountered during her unprecedented run of dominance.
Evinger, who was also a champion under the Invicta FC banner, but in a different weight class, has also been waiting a very long time for her UFC shine. She’s undoubtedly a pioneer, but unfortunately due to a tension-filled relationship with some key UFC executives, has never been given an opportunity to fight on the sport’s biggest stage until now.
Her chance to fight at UFC 214 only came about when Cyborg’s originally scheduled opponent, Megan Anderson, was forced to withdraw from the event one month out due to personal issues. The lack of preparation time puts her at an even greater disadvantage than she would be anyway, but Cyborg is grateful at Evinger’s silliness to step up, because throughout her entire career, getting opponents has been no easy task.
“Tonya accepted it a month before the fight, saving the event and my chance to fight,” she says. “She’s from a lower division, but she’s a top-10 at 135 pounds. She just never had a chance to fight in the UFC. And she’s brave. I respect her for accepting the fight on short-notice. Like it or not, it’s a great opportunity for her to showcase her work in the UFC and, who knows, open doors for her to fight at 135.”
If Cyborg wins at UFC 214, there are a bevy of options and opportunities going forward. Opponents will be more willing to fight her if a UFC belt is on the line, and already she has her eye on what could potentially be one of the biggest fights in women’s MMA history. Former UFC Women’s Bantamweight champion Holly Holm would be a hugely significant fight, as would a matchup with current 135-pound champ Amanda Nunes.
Ultimately Cyborg wants to take on all comers, and plans to do so while being a champion people can respect and embrace.
“Since Holly Holm fought for the 145-pound belt, I believe it would be a good fight,” she says. “The fans would like it. She’s a striker; she likes standup, I like standup. Why not? It could be my next fight. I know she’s up there for the 135-pound belt. Maybe if she fights for it, or wins the belt — though I believe it stays with Amanda [Nunes]. If that opportunity comes up, it’s a fight that I think all fans would like to watch.”