Ronda Rousey, Miesha Tate and Holly Holm are the most recognizable names in women's MMA. But Cristiane "Cyborg" Justino might be the most dominant, and she plans to prove it yet again on Saturday at UFC 198.
Simply put: Justino is an utter destroyer. Unbeaten over her past 16 contests, she hasn't lost since her professional debut in May 2005, and of her 15 career wins, Justino has put away 13 opponents by knockout, eight in the first round and five in less than one minute.
Yet the platform of UFC 198, which airs on pay-per-view from Curitiba, Parana, Brazil (10 p.m. ET), is greater than anything Justino (15-1 MMA, 0-0 UFC) has experienced in her career. But it probably won't surprise you to learn she's not shrinking from the spotlight, or her opponent, Leslie Smith (8-6-1, 2-2). Simply put, this is "Cyborg's" time to shine.
"A lot of people say, 'Oh, she's the best in women's MMA,'" Justino says. "But we have a lot of new fans, and I think with this fight, I have the opportunity to show them who 'Cyborg' is. I just have to go there and do my job. It's the same work I've done at other events. I will do the same in UFC. I just have to be me, the same 'Cyborg' as all the fights."
With such an extensive resume, why has it taken Justino so long to step inside the Octagon? Physical limitations and stubbornness from UFC's key decision-makers have to be considered the primary reasons.
Justino, 30, has been contracted to Zuffa, the UFC's parent company, for several years. But because her natural fighting weight is Featherweight (145 pounds) – while UFC only runs Bantamweight and Straweight divisions for female fighters – she's been relegated to competing for Invicta FC, a lesser-known all-female organization where the Brazilian has reigned as Featherweight champ for more than 1,000 days.
UFC President Dana White has long encouraged Justino to drop a weight class – both publicly and privately – for a grudge match with Rousey, who she's built a much-discussed feud with over the years. The request of cutting an additional 10 pounds off her already shredded physique was too great, though, and that for that reason UFC's been reluctant to bring her in.
For the longest time the UFC was unwilling to budge on booking fights outside of its strict weight-class guidelines. It was either make Bantamweight or bust, but after Rousey was knocked out by Holm to lose the title, then Holm was choked out by current champ Tate to force the belt to change hands again, it became obvious titles and weight classes shouldn't stop the company from showcasing perhaps the best female fighter ever.
So they met in the middle. Much to her surprise, Justino was offered the fight with Smith at a 140-pound Catchweight. She says dropping five additional pounds is a much more reasonable ask than double that amount.
"I think it will take the same sacrifice it does to make 145," she says. "I'm walking around a bit lighter than before, because of the number of fights I had this year. I think it was four fights. Thirteen months, four fights. That helped me get my weight down to be closer to 140."
Justino's road to the Octagon has been long and trying. Despite an unprecedented string of dominance, albeit against some wildly overmatched foes, it's been some time since she was given anything slightly comparable to a stage like UFC 198.
The most notable victory of her career to date is likely still a brutal first-round TKO of MMA-fighter-turned-actress Gina Carano under the now-defunct Strikeforce banner in 2009. Frighteningly, Justino is stronger, faster and even more vicious than she was back then.
Although Justino's UFC future will hinge on the result of Saturday's fight, she says she's extremely focused. Victory could bring the recognition and big-fight opportunities she's been searching for, and so long as she fights to her potential, she doesn't see Smith – or anyone else – standing in the way of her goals.
"It's going to happen: there's no turning back now," she says. "After Saturday, it's going to depend on the result, it's going to depend on what happens there."
The matchup with Smith, who is durable as they come but will likely be greatly outmatched from a physical and skill perspective, is essentially Justino's big chance to show a mass audience what she's all about. UFC 198 is a card filled with some of the most accomplished legends in the sport, and Justino is fighting right alongside them.
If she wins, there's no doubt conversation will be hot for Justino to share the Octagon with a name on the level of Rousey, Tate or Holm. A fight against "Rowdy" would be the greatest attraction of all, but at this point there seems to be uncertainty around when, or even if, Rousey will resume her career as a pro fighter.
It would be a shame if the bout were never to happen, though. Not just because both fighters would present great stylistic challenges to each other, but also due to the fact there's been plenty of harsh comments traded between the two sides over the years. Justino says she currently holds no hostility toward Rousey, and much of the tension came from the former UFC champ trying to elevate herself early in her career by using Justino's name. Justino says she's fine with that, but now that Rousey no longer carries the title, there's no reason the fight shouldn't happen.
"I never said anything bad about Ronda – she started this," she says. "When she started I was already a fighter, I was already world champ. She used that to get people to know her. I never said anything bad about Ronda.
"I think she would be a great opponent for me and maybe she can do something because she always saying, 'I want to fight 'Cyborg,'' but said I had to come to her when she was the champ," she continues. "She's not the champ so we can meet halfway. It's not for ego or nothing. It's for the fans. It'll be a nice fight."