UFC president Dana White recently suggested that should returning former bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey win her next fight against current title-holder Amanda Nunes, she could finally be matched against featherweight champ Cris “Cyborg” Justino. In this case, savvy fans are probably also weary and wary.
After all, the UFC long-ago signed Justino and she’s done nothing but win and earn big ratings, all while dropping down in weight to make super fights with top bantamweights like Rousey possible. Yet, the promotion has yet to deliver her Rousey or any other high-profile opponent.
Now, we can count Justino herself among those who don’t believe Dana White will ever make the fight with Rousey happen. “I don’t believe it,” Justino told us earlier this week, while in Phuket, Thailand on a training vacation.
“Everyone wants the biggest women’s fight in the Octagon, ever, to happen but Dana cannot do this because, not because he doesn’t want, but probably because he cannot force Ronda Rousey to fight, the same way he cannot force McGregor to fight Jose Aldo, again. He cannot force Ronda to fight Holly Holm, again. I don’t believe it, anymore.
“I don’t think he can force Ronda Rousey to fight. I don’t think the fight can happen. I already did five fights under contract with the UFC, and I did two fights at 140 to open the door for this, for the opportunity for [this fight with Rousey] to happen. But, it won’t happen. I don’t believe it, anymore. You want the guy who never wanted women to fight in the cage to promote the biggest event, ever, between two women?”
Justino seems to believe that she’s too big of a threat to beat White’s friend and UFC favorite Rousey for the promotion to be eager to pair her with the Judo Olympian. “I’ll leave this question for the fans – do you think the UFC wants this girl who they’ve said is the best in the world to lose to me,” she asked?
If Justino doesn’t believe that the UFC is truly interested in making a mega-fight between her and the Rowdy one happen, one has to wonder what she imagines the promotion’s motivation was to sign her to begin with. To this end, “Cyborg” believes that the UFC signed the Invicta titleholder to keep her from going to other promotions with broadcast distribution deals outside of their network.
Justino has now fought twice for the UFC, but was under contract to them during several fights prior in Invicta, the all-female organization whose events are broadcast on UFC Fight Pass.
“In the beginning, I was fighting for Invicta and then, I think, it was a year that Invicta didn’t have an event. So, I talked to my manager and said, ‘man, I want to leave. Maybe go to Bellator, maybe go to another event,” because I had gone a long time without fighting and I needed work,” Justino remembered.
“I think the UFC saw this that I wanted to leave Invicta and go to another organization and then talked to my manager and said to sign with them. I think they did that to keep me in Invicta. Because, if I went to another [promotion] because if I went to another event that had a television deal, [it wouldn’t have been good for them].”
If the UFC decided to sign Justino defensively, the fighter also believes that they have been unenthusiastic in promoting her commensurate with her peerless position as the most dominant reigning champion in MMA. In her 11 and a half year career, Justino has lost just once – in her first bout, back on May 17, 2005.
Since then, the Brazilian has yet to lose in 17 subsequent contests, winning 15 of those by knockout. Justino’s first UFC main event, which took place last month, earned some of the best UFC television ratings of 2016, both in the U.S. and in Brazil.
In fact, the international star is a longtime television juggernaut, ever since pulling in good ratings on televised contests in the EliteXC and Strikeforce promotions. Her main event victory over Gina Carano in 2009 was historic in its featuring female athletes on network television, and also for its excellent ratings.
All that is to say that Justino entered the UFC already a star with drawing power. She doesn’t believe that her new promoter has done much of anything to help her increase it.
“They said they wanted to do the biggest fight ever with me and Ronda but after looking at what has happened – I’ve had five fights for them and the UFC has not promoted me, they have not done one interview for me – all interviews I’ve done by myself. I emailed them, asked for the opportunity and then they laughed at me,” she said.
In a recent interview, Justino wondered if the UFC had yet refused to add her featherweight division to its ranks as they did the bantamweight class when Rousey was champion “because I don't have blonde hair and blue eyes.” We asked the champion if she believes that the UFC has trouble or a lack of interest in promoting certain types of athletes, like ones of color, or women, generally.
“I don’t think it’s about color but some people have special treatment,” she opined.
“Just like Jose Aldo was the champion for a long time, and now he can’t have the opportunity to fight Conor McGregor, again. The same with Ronda Rousey – Dana White can’t force her to fight me. But not only can’t he force her, it isn’t interesting for them.”
Justino believes that she isn’t among those favored fighters, in large part because she isn’t American-born. Beyond that, she bristles at the hate speech she’s had to endure from Dana White and Rousey, over the years.
“People ask me, ‘What did Dana White do for Ronda that he didn’t do for ‘Cyborg’?’ Well, he’s lied. He also never said Ronda looks like Wanderlei [Silva] with a dress. He never said that about her even though he said that about me. For almost six years I’ve had to see him control the media. Hear Ronda say I have a dick and that I have to cut my dick off to make 135. I’ve had to deal with this,” Justino sighs.
“Before, I didn’t even speak English. I couldn’t defend myself. I didn’t have any opportunity to defend myself. I was in one place [far away], I didn’t even speak English, I’m working. I do MMA just for sport. I’ve been doing this 10 years. I haven’t lost in 10 years and they don’t respect me.
“Tell me, if there was an American girl who went 10 years, undefeated, you don’t think they’d make something special?”
Justino says that the UFC is confusing matters in public by both choosing her opponents and throwing shade on her featherweight division at the same time. “Every time when I’m going to fight they say, ‘oh we don’t have opponents for her. All the girls in her division are s***. She wins because they are s***,’” she contends.
“Man, the last five fights have not been [women in the] top 10 because they didn’t give them to me. I already did five fights for the UFC. I asked for Holly Holm, Miesha Tate, Sarah Kaufman, Sara McMann. Everyone in the top-10 I want to fight, are you kidding me?
“I don’t choose my opponents. Those five girls they picked for me. I don’t pick my opponents. They gave them to me and then they say my opponents are no good?”
Lately, Dana White has made a point to suggest that there are not enough quality female featherweight fighters in the world for the UFC to include the division in its own events. Fans with memories will recall how similar this all sounds to what Dana White used to incorrectly say about all female fighters in order to justify his long-held prohibition against women athletes in the UFC.
Justino sees comments like those from White as insults to female fighters and manipulation of a largely uninquisitive media covering MMA. After all, there were long-running and deep women’s divisions a few years ago when White claimed there were not, and the featherweight division is no less deep than any other class in the sport, for women.
“I don’t think he’s ignorant – He knows he can control the media. Anything he says – that I don’t have opponents, that I don’t have a division, that they can’t make a division- people will believe what he says,” she explains.
“He knows he can manipulate everybody. The same with how they are treating Georges St-Pierre. Georges St-Pierre is the biggest fighter, ever, in the UFC. And now they are saying they don’t want him because they don’t want to have to spend money promoting him? Man, he’s the biggest fighter, ever.
“I think everything Dana says, he is trying to manipulate everybody.”
Popular professional fighters like Justino grow accustomed to harsh comments from internet trolls, fans, and even rivals. The type of horrible things the UFC’s head, White, has himself said about Justino and allowed others to say without punishment, really shocked Justino, however.
“ Man, it’s something really different when haters say things about you but they’re fans. But now you hear bad things from your boss? Man, you cannot believe it, when it happens,” Justino admits.
“You cannot believe that your boss, someone who pays you, says something bad about you. You’re an employee of theirs. It makes you upset, you know, when something like this happens. But, I always try not to think about that too much.”
Justino believes that the UFC and White are sometimes more interested in promoting him as a “warrior king” (as a current magazine cover laughably titled the promoter, as he grimaced, and held a wrapped fist for cameras) than they are in promoting its athletes.
“My last fight I didn’t get any interviews set up by the UFC, no magazines. You see, now, Dana White on the cover of magazines and he’s never fought before. Who makes the event? Fighters,” she maintains.
“It makes me upset because MMA has changed. MMA is not the same thing it used to be. You can’t go out there and beat someone and take their position. It’s different, now.
“You can make other things to be a star, not just beating people. It’s upsetting because I helped start this. A lot of girls in Brazil helped start MMA for women a long time, ago. Now, someone else comes to the UFC and they get this big promotion and push in the media.”
Even without as much of a promotional push from her bosses as she would have wanted, Justino’s last fight – a main event – was a huge success both in her native Brazil and in the United States. Justino credits her loyal and large following.
“My last fight I did in Brazil, they didn’t do any promotion for me. I think they did promotion for me one week before the fight. Ok, man, no problem, I don’t need promotion for my fights. In Brazil, people love me and people follow me,” Justino continued.
“And, they know about my struggle to get down in weight and a lot of people worried about my weight so a lot of people paid attention for this fight.
“A lot of people paid attention – 1.3 million people watched in the USA. In Brazil, 30 million people. I mean, show the numbers. It doesn’t matter who I fight. I can fight someone in the street and everybody going to watch because everybody wants to watch ‘Cyborg.’”
With that type of success against relatively unknown opponents, Justino wonders how big her fights could be if she were matched against the likes of Rousey or other stars like Miesha Tate or Holly Holm.
“I respect all my opponents but, man, these girls, nobody knows the girls I fight. Nobody follows Muay Thai or kickboxing. My last opponent had a lot of Muay Thai fights but nobody follows it. Everybody follows MMA,” she argued.
“It doesn’t matter who I fight. This shows that everybody wants to see ‘Cyborg.’ Ok, so, if the fight with Ronda happens – and I don’t believe it is going to, anymore – but if it happens, people want to see ‘Cyborg’ and Ronda. They want to see me and her. She cannot make the biggest fight if I’m not also on the card. They need me to fight this fight for it to be the biggest fight in MMA history. If Dana White can’t make the fight happen, it’s not my problem.”
Though Justino can’t control what the UFC does, she concedes that she’s very disappointed at what she perceives as a profound of lack of respect for her from the promotion. Justino, in fact, believes that the UFC is trying to “kill” her featherweight division and whitewash her current title reign from history.
“I think these two fights in Brazil I made $6 million for the UFC. You’d think someone would send a message saying, ‘really nice job.’ No, they speak bad about you saying they can’t find opponents for you,” she explained.
“I said I know that if they had a featherweight division they would have so many girls and when I said this, Dana said the situation when they created the 135lbs division was different because Ronda was holding a belt. Man, I’m holding a world title belt, too. But, they want to kill my division.
“I’m the world champ at 145 pounds and they wanted me to fight at 140. They don’t want to show everybody that I’m world champ. When I had to do some videos for them, I couldn’t use my belt. This is ridiculous. Man, I’m world champion, they cannot delete this. They cannot delete this in my career. I’m still world champion. Nobody has beaten me in my division. I can make 140 pounds for super fights but you cannot take off all that I’ve done for myself.
“This makes me upset. Man, they don’t respect me. I’m still world champ and they don’t respect me. It doesn’t matter if you have a UFC belt because they could give one to me the same way they gave one to Ronda. But, I don’t need another belt. I have two belts in my house. I really don’t need another. They cannot lie – I’m still world champ. They cannot change this. If they want to change this, put someone against me in my division and have them beat me. But, don’t try and kill me because you control the media.”
Justino and her camp are of the belief that it is the promoter’s job to promote and make the fights fans want to see, happen. As far as she’s concerned, she’s doing her job.
“I’m doing my job, training, and keeping focused,” she said.
“I’ve already fought five times for the UFC. I did two fights at 140. I almost killed myself to make this fight happen. You can see my documentary on Youtube and watch. I’m doing my part. If this fight doesn’t happen by the time I finish my career, I’ll say, ‘man, I did everything I could.’ But for sure, it would feel bad to not be able to make the biggest fight, ever, in MMA.”
Justino says her camp has yet to discuss the future with the UFC since her September victory. If she has her way, “Cyborg” will defend her world title, next.
After that, who knows? She seems to believe the Ronda Rousey mega-fight will never happen, and she is disillusioned with the UFC so far attempting to bury her division.
Still, Justino wants to make sure the world doesn’t forget who she is and her place. As always, she’s willing to fight for it.
“You know, I had the hardest cut, ever, for 140, last time. I’m not going to make 140, again, for bullshit fights,” she promises.
“Really, I want to be in my division, at 145. I have to talk with them. We haven’t talked, yet, but my lawyer will go talk with them. I already did two fights at 140. It was supposed to be a super fight, but there was no super fight. I need a break to fight at 145, and let’s see what happens. I still have to defend my belt – I’m still the world champ.”
About the author:
Elias Cepeda has served as a writer and editor covering mixed martial arts and combat sports, as well as public and cultural affairs, since 2005. He began as a staff writer for InsideFighting, and not long thereafter became publisher and editor of the page. Cepeda then went to write for Yahoo! Sports’ boxing and MMA pages, and edited their Cagewriter blog. He was hired away by FOX Sports, but after several years departed over philosophical differences with the executive leadership around important issues of journalism ethics. A student of and sometime competitor in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and MMA since 1999, Elias brings a unique and vibrant presence to reporting and enjoys trying to highlight shared humanity and connect common experiences from seemingly different worlds.