There is something apocalyptic about watching Cristiane Justino battle an opponent. Ronda Rousey might break arms, but the woman they call “Cyborg” has put an end to careers with her ruthless combination of power, aggression and physicality. It’s why she’s the most feared fighter in women’s MMA.
Justino is known for being kindhearted outside the cage, but in the setting of a fistfight, is nothing short of menacing. In more than 11 years as a professional she’s faced few moments of adversity, with the most prominent being a first-round submission loss in her May 2005 debut. Since then Justino has reeled off a 17-fight unbeaten streak, winning 14 of those contests by knockout, with nine finishes in the opening round.
The Brazilian is Featherweight champion (145 pounds) of an all-female organization called Invicta FC but her name value and destructive skillset finally forced the UFC to bring her in as a special attraction earlier this year. She’s too physically oversized to compete in the UFC Bantamweight division (135 pounds), though, which is home to the likes of Ronda Rousey, Miesha Tate and Holly Holm, so instead the UFC asked her compete in 140-pound catchweight fights.
When not preparing for competition Justino (17-1 MMA, 1-0 UFC) walks around upwards of 170 pounds. Getting down to the required weight is nothing short of an agonizing task, as was evident in a video blog detailing the process ahead of her UFC debut against Leslie Smith at UFC 198 in May, a fight she won by TKO in 81 seconds. It’s been equally difficult for her sophomore UFC appearance, which goes down Saturday against Lina Lansberg (6-1, 0-0) in the UFC Fight Night 95 main event from Brasilia, Brazil (10 p.m. ET, FS1).
“It’s a hard time,” Justino says of her weight cut. “It’s nothing easy for me. It’s really hard because I’m really professional and I like everything perfect. Once something’s not perfect I get really annoyed and can cry.”
Weight cutting has and almost certainly always will be one of the darker aspects of combat sports. However, the decision to make Justino compete at an arbitrary weight such as 140 pounds is downright nonsensical, and the cut is seemingly more dangerous than any fight she’s experienced. The UFC has never promoted a 140-pound fight outside of the two involving Justino. No rankings for the division exist, and there’s no champion. Instead of simply adding a Featherweight class and building it around Justino, the UFC would rather her suffer through the daunting weight cut.
The reward for Justino’s hardship is that maybe one day a big name such as Rousey, Tate and Holm will be willing to pack on some pounds and step in the cage to make a long-awaited “super fight” come to fruition. Booking those fights at 140 pounds would seemingly make things more fair, and Justino says she’s fine with that. But to put herself through the physical struggle to compete against a unheralded fighter like Lansberg is not something she intends on doing again.
“I had this opportunity to fight at 140 again in Brazil and I accepted the fight because I don’t see when I can fight again at 145,” she says. “We will talk about it after this fight, but I want the super fight. After this fight I don’t want to do it anymore, just for super fights. I want to make super fun fights for all my fans so people will remember me. If it happens I will be really happy.”
In a perfect world the UFC would add a Featherweight division where Justino, 31, could reign as champion and take on any challenger brave enough to step in her crosshairs. The UFC runs just two weight classes for females opposed to eight for the men, and while there’s been hope across the board for more women’s divisions in the future, UFC President Dana White recently snuffed that idea and stated all would remain as is for the foreseeable future.
“I fight for the women. I try to do my best inside the Octagon to fight like a man, then people will respect girls in the Octagon.” –Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino
“As far as a heavier division, no I don’t see that happening,” White says. “Unless there’s anything that just explodes in the next couple of years.”
It wasn’t long ago when White infamously claimed women would never fight in the UFC altogether, though, so Justino hopes the boss will eventually change his mind again. The value in having an athlete with Justino’s drawing power and talent is difficult to quantify, but she would like to perform in an ideal state at her natural weight. That’s why she hopes openness about her grueling weight cuts paired with stellar showings inside the Octagon will cause the company to see the upside in providing more options to the female fighters on the UFC roster.
“I’m just trying to show the reality because people think it’s really easy, but it’s not easy,” she says. “Sometimes people fight with injuries and nobody knows, so it’s important for the fans to see what we do to for everything. They need to open more divisions for the women because there are many different women and they have to cut a lot of weight, same as me, and I think more options for the divisions will help the girls cut weight because they have a hard time.”
The rigors of Justino’s weight cut forced her to hire a full-time nutritionist in George Lockhart. For her upcoming fight Lockhart advised his client to begin taking birth control pills to help with fluid retention as she gradually moves down to 140 pounds. Justino was 165 pounds just four days before weigh-in and still needed to lose roughly 18 pounds when she spoke to Rolling Stone less than three days from weigh-in. She’s confident she will be on point, but at what cost? Instead of focusing on strategy and execution on fight night, she’s required to place all her energy and focus on weight.
Justino of course agreed to all this by signing her bout agreement contract, and she says it’s a sacrifice she’s willing to make if it can spark change within the company.
“They need to open more divisions to give more options and make it more healthy for everybody,” she says. “I fight for the women. I try to do my best inside the Octagon to fight like a man, then people will respect girls in the Octagon. My mind is strong for the fights. My career, I have a lot of stories about cutting weight and then getting better. People think now [it’s] worse, but now [it’s] getting better because I have a professional that’s supposed to be the best and helps make it better. I think it will be OK, but I don’t know.”
What’s perhaps most shocking of all is that Justino’s dramatic weight loss doesn’t appear to impact her performances. She enters the Octagon and runs through the opposition like a hot knife through butter – and now she plans to showcase another slice of her skills against Lansberg, a largely unknown Swedish fighter that comes from a striking background. Lansberg has tools at her disposal that could possible make her slightly more competitive than most would expect, but there’s a reason why Justino is positioned as a more than 10-1 betting favorite.
Justino welcomes a fight where she’s tested by her opponent, but thinks dominant performances are not only going to lead to the “super fights” she desires, but also open the UFC’s eyes to creating more weight classes so she can fight at 145 pounds where she belongs.
“I train so hard every day to improve my game, but I don’t have the opportunity to show my game,” she says. “I train everything. I train wrestling, I train jiu-jitsu, I like to suplex people, I like ground-and-pound, but in my fight I never have the opportunity. Of course I want to finish the fight as soon as possible, but my fans always say, ‘Move a little bit more so you can show your game. I want your fight to go to second round so you can show more in your game.’ I said, ‘No, I want to finish it as soon as possible.’ It would be nice to have a challenge. But the first fight for me is to make weight.”