Cris Cyborg weighed in for her title challenge with champion Julia Budd for the Bellator’s women’s featherweight crown here Friday and, on the early morning scales, hit a little under the 145lbs limit. Job done. The Brazilian with quite the reputation in fight sports took a moment and looked skywards as if in prayer. A prayer to the fighting Gods.
The 34-year-old who has been a wrecking ball fighter since the age of 19, now sits on the brink of the last phase of her career.
History can be made against the accomplished reigning Bellator champion Julia Budd, but for once, Cyborg is having to perhaps battle the mental demons after defeat to Amanda Nunes in the UFC, beaten in the manner with which Cyborg herself has been aggressively ploughing through opponents for the last decade and a half.
There are no outward signs of a dented fighting warrior spirit, but those who have been there before believe there will be some demons to overcome.
This is certainly an intriguing women’s fight, a super fight in some ways, given Budd’s long unbeaten record, huge improvements, yet need for the test of steel against a foe exactly like Cyborg.
Both have immense physical strength and athleticism, the Brazilian more of a brawler than Budd, yet the Canadian hard as nails. It’s a test they are both relishing, with both protagonists looking in superb shape this week around the event’s set pieces, which included a press conference inside Paramount Studios, which, perhaps for the location, went down with less drama than the place has actually been accustomed to for over a century since Adolph Zukor began its directorial Hollywood lineage.
Marloes Coenen, a former world champion herself who fought Cyborg twice and Julia Budd three years ago, favours Budd in the fight, counting in her view that the British Colombian has the marginal strength, physically, and a better all-round game at this point in her career.
Cyborg, reckons Coenen, will have a different mental battle to face at this point. Rarely has Cyborg been seen as the outsider, the underdog, but in this fight, there is the feeling that Budd has shown a strength in winning the inaugural belt at 145 pounds, and defending it three times (one of those, in 2017, against Coenen).
The British Columbian has gone 7-0 in Bellator, and is unbeaten in eight years. The only two women Budd has lost to in her career are current UFC champ-champ Amanda Nunes and Ronda Rousey. Cyborg knows she is in for a very tough fight at The Forum, one of the greatest fight, sport and music venues anywhere in the world. It is also where Cyborg lost to Nunes thirteen months ago.
Cris Cyborg Justino – to give this fascinating figure her full name – has been in training camp in South Africa, shown in snippets on her compelling video journey put out on her own social media. It’s worth a view just to see her setting off on a run through the savannah, thrilled at the thought of seeing the wildlife.
“This is the second time I’ve gone to Africa. This is a new time in my career and life and I’m very excited to be with Bellator. I feel very pleased to have the opportunity to fight for the belt. I’m really happy,” the Brazilian told The Daily Telegraph this week.
It has been a few years with plenty of changes for the Brazilian, who is also enmeshed in good causes, water projects and missionary work. There was a very high profile spat with UFC Dana White as Cyborg left the fight organisation headquartered in Las Vegas, before crossing to Bellator.
Fight league president and fighter certainly made their feelings known, there were mistakes on both sides, but it is ever thus in the fight sport industry,
So, instead, with the opportunity to claim a title belt she has never won, Cyborg joined Bellator and has the history-making potential to become the first woman to secure world titles in four major organisations. Cyborg has already been a champion in Strikeforce, the UFC, and Invicta, the all-female fight league.
“Scott gave me the opportunity in Strikeforce. We worked really well together and to be with him again is great. He’s a nice promoter and he respects fighters. We have to understand fighters make the fight happen, we do.” It was Coker, of course, as president of Strikeforce matched Cyborg with Gina Carano in the 2009 women’s superfight.
“I’m thankful to have the opportunity to fight for Bellator. I want to get that belt and be the only girl to hold the four different titles. I can go down in history and I’ll do my best, for my fans and my family.”
The sport has come a long way itself, but so too for the women’s sport, which is advancing rapidly in both depth, and in interest from fans.
“At the beginning I couldn’t find any opponents, it was very difficult. I can look back and be thankful, like many other girls. It’s so cool. I can continue fighting and I know what’s happened. I’m thankful. Girls can fight just as good as guys, we can be technical and we can be violent. It’s great to have Scott who believes in us too.”
Invicta played its part in that, too. “Invicta opens a lot of doors for a lot of girls, it did for me. It’s nice.” There is the ongoing debate over who is the greatest female fighter of all time, after Cyborg’s dramatic brawl against fellow Brazilian Amanda Nunes, who stopped her compatriot in a berserker 51 seconds in that battle of Los Angeles in December 2018.
Debate about whether Amanda is the GOAT, or Cris is the GOAT are neither here, nor there, she explained to The Telegraph. “I never said I was the GOAT or the greatest. Never. I just love my job and I’m doing it. This is my main focus. It’s been blessings and hard work. I asked for a rematch with Amanda and they didn’t want to give it to me. I had a lot of trouble with them. I paid my own flights for my last fights. If you want to be a fighter, you can’t fight like this. It would have been a big rematch with Amanda but they didn’t want to do it. I grew tired of it. I really just wanted to be focused on fighting. I didn’t want problems with the boss. There were problems with Dana White the whole time. I wanted to continue loving my job while I did it and not have all those outside problems. If they really want to make the fight, we can make it.”
As for her opponent Budd, there exists a deep respect. “Julia is a champion. I respect all my opponents. It’s not easy stepping in each time. I train hard every fight and I can only go in there and do my best. She is the champion for a reason.”
How it goes will be fascinating, with Cyborg having shown a tendency to bury herself in throwing hooks.
Budd has a tighter control of her striker, straighter, more direct, and one suspects that the first round will be crucial in determining the pattern of the fight.
If Cyborg is patient. If Budd can weather the onslaught and counter. “It’s an MMA fight. Like all fights, there’s many things I can do. I never feel I should say what I’m going to do. We have more than one plan,” laughed Cyborg, with an important reminder.
“I never had any dream to be a fighter. Before I played handball I was in university and I was very happy. I was happy in handball. I never watched any MMA fights before. I’d maybe watched a boxing fight, Mike Tyson maybe, with my dad. This guy watched me play handball and he said I could be a great fighter. I thought he was crazy. Within six months I did my first fight. I lost my first fight. My elbow was hurt.” That was in 2005. Her first fight. A loss.
Continuing, Cyborg wanted to explain more. “I lost, but the feeling I had afterwards was I wanted the rematch. I loved fighting, that was the feeling. I loved it. I knew I was going to be a fighter then. I didn’t know anything about fighting. I trained for six months and fought. I was 19 years old and at that age you fear nothing. I’m more scared now getting old. When you’re young, you don’t care. You just want to try and see what happens. I didn’t know where it was going. I just felt afterwards I was born for it. I failed and dislocated my elbow, but it was great. It was really violent and there are no red cards in MMA.”
But the growth of women’s MMA has delighted her. “I think the sport advances all the time. A lot of girls come up to talk to me. Maybe there are a lot of girls who have done MMA because of me. It’s a pleasure, if so. I love giving back. Knowledge and fighting is easy now, but before it wasn’t. You couldn’t find any opponents. Guys thought you only came to the gym to find a boyfriend. There was a lot of things going on there.”
“But there are opportunities now. Doors are opening. Gina [Carano] did MMA and then she went into movies. She opened the door for a lot of girls and MMA does that too. You can fight, have money and have a family. It’s not easy, no, but if you work hard and are disciplined God will bless you and open the door to good things.”
Cyborg will be looking to close the door on Budd tonight, and further extend an already powerful legacy.