LA MIRADA, Calif. — Most mixed martial artists put only a token effort into their public workouts during the week before a big fight. Their actual training is long completed, and they simply throw a few flashy punches before signing a few autographs.
When Cris Justino showed up to one of the UFC’s suburban Los Angeles gyms on Thursday, she was ready to perform.
The fighter known to all as “Cyborg” stepped into the cage and put on a capoeira-inspired routine for hundreds of adoring fans, showing off the graceful, dance-like Brazilian martial art with a training partner.
“I like the energy, and I have friends who do capoeira,” she said with a smile. “I still have a lot of fans in Brazil, so I try to take a little bit from Brazil — the capoeira, the samba — to show it to the fans in America.”
After years of giving these extra efforts and hurdling innumerable obstacles, Justino’s winding journey to UFC stardom seems to be almost complete.
With a victory over Tonya Evinger at UFC 214 in Anaheim on Saturday night, the featherweight widely considered to be the most dangerous pound-for-pound fighter in women’s MMA finally would wear a UFC championship belt from a weight class essentially created by the promotion to showcase her talent.
“I’ll think about everything on Saturday after the fight,” said Justino, a native Brazilian who lives in Orange County. “I’m going to keep my mind on that fight, and when I finally have the belt, I’ll feel very happy. But not before that.”
Cyborg is already a champion, reigning over the Strikeforce and Invicta promotions since 2009. She also acquired an irresistible outlaw image from her setbacks in drug testing and her combative relationships with both UFC President Dana White and Ronda Rousey.
But the biggest reason for Justino’s stardom is the fact that she hasn’t lost a fight since her MMA debut in May 2005, dominating nearly all of her opponents with superior skill in almost every aspect of the sport. Cyborg also earned one of the biggest victories in women’s MMA history in August 2009 when she clobbered star Gina Carano to win the Strikeforce title in a widely seen bout.
Yet Justino acquired a stigma after failing a doping test in 2011, and the UFC didn’t add a 145-pound division in 2013 when it finally agreed to promote women’s MMA due to the 135-pound Rousey’s talent and charisma.
Justino said she couldn’t safely drop 10 pounds to challenge Rousey, who ruthlessly mocked Cyborg for her PED transgressions and even her appearance. Justino kept mowing down overmatched competitors while Rousey became one of the world’s most popular female athletes.
Justino and White have also had several public verbal scuffles. Last month, White expressed regret for the UFC’s botched promotion of the star and lamented the fractured nature of their relationship.
Justino and White both appear eager to move past it all — and as for Rousey, her career appears to be over.
“A lot of people have said bad things about me that I don’t even remember now,” Justino said. “Some of them, I will never forget. … I don’t have anything against Ronda. I think she did a lot of things for women’s MMA. We could talk. I’ve never met her before. She had a lot of things to say about me, but she did it because she (treated) it like a business. I don’t have anything personal against her.”
Everything changed last year when the UFC finally decided Cyborg’s star power was irresistible, signing her and putting her in two 140-pound catchweight bouts. She struggled to make that weight cut and campaigned for better treatment until White finally agreed to create a featherweight belt.
But when Cyborg decided she couldn’t be ready for the inaugural featherweight title bout early last year, Germaine de Randamie upset Holly Holm to win it — and then was stripped of the title when she refused to fight Justino, claiming she wouldn’t compete with a drug cheat.
The belt is now vacant, and either Justino or Evinger will leave Honda Center with it on Saturday night. While Evinger is a talented veteran, Justino is the overwhelming favourite for a coronation.
“I think it will be a great moment for all my fans and for Cyborg Nation,” she said. “It will be the end of one chapter in my life and the beginning of a new one. It will be a new belt in the house. I already have two, and this will be one more.”