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Cyborg, one of the greatest of all time, looks to add to legacy vs. Holm


When UFC women’s featherweight champion Cris “Cyborg” Justino steps into the Octagon on Dec. 30 to defend her crown against Holly Holm in the main event of UFC 219 in Las Vegas, it will be the second time she fights in 2017.

That’s a light schedule for the Curitiba native, who used to fight every day back in her formative fighting years as a member of the legendary Chute Boxe Academy in Brazil. Not spar every day, but fight.

It’s how things were done in the school that produced fighters so beloved by fans and feared by opponents that they only needed single names to identify them: Shogun, Wanderlei, Ninja, Spider. And Cyborg.

First, it was Justino’s ex-husband, Evangelista Santos, who introduced the Cyborg name to the MMA world, only to be surpassed by Cris, who was a force of nature with a fighting ferocity not seen in women’s MMA up to that point. A look at her early fights, ended by punches, stomps and merciful corners, provide proof of why no one wanted to be locked into a cage with her for 15 or 25 minutes.

A look at her early fights, ended by punches, stomps and merciful corners, provide proof of why no one wanted to be locked into a cage with her for 15 or 25 minutes

Gina Carano agreed to. In August 2009, the woman who brought her sport to the mainstream stepped up for a SuperFight with Cyborg that captured the attention of the sports world on that summer night.

It didn’t last long, though. Four minutes and 59 seconds to be exact. That night, my wife, a Carano fan to the core, wondered what just happened. I told her that Carano was prepared for a sporting event; Cyborg was prepared for a fight.

A little over eight years later, it would appear that little has changed for the 32-year-old Cyborg, who is still on top of the MMA world. But really, everything has changed.

There are no sporadic spots in the public eye. These days, the spotlight is on her all the time as a UFC world champion. Now, a sport that once was looked at as niche at best is one in which the attention afforded to fighters like Cyborg, Ronda Rousey, Holly Holm, Joanna Jedrzejczyk and Rose Namajunas often surpasses that received by their male counterparts. Women’s MMA is big business in 2017, and you need to look no further than the marquee for next week’s event at T-Mobile Arena for proof.
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But Cyborg’s first defense of the title she won against Tonya Evinger in July isn’t about business, her new contract with the UFC, or extending her remarkable 19-fight unbeaten streak. Not to say those things aren’t important, but with a win over Holm, a member of the International Women’s Boxing Hall of Fame and a former UFC women’s bantamweight champion, she may be able to lay claim to the title of greatest female combat sports athlete ever.

It’s certainly a title Holm will have a case for should she become the first woman in UFC history to hold two divisional world titles. Add in that fact that she was a three-division world champ in boxing, and the case of “The Preacher’s Daughter” is a strong one.

Yet the numbers don’t lie in the case of Cyborg. Eighteen wins, one loss, one NC. Sixteen knockouts. Unbeaten since 2005. Wins over Carano, Marloes Coenen (twice), Shayna Baszler, Leslie Smith and Evinger. Finishes in her last 12 victories. Titles in the UFC, Strikeforce and Invicta FC. But most telling is the way she has dominated her opposition. There were no come from behind knockouts, no razor-thin decisions; only a ferocity that left her opponents wondering what tornado just blew through their town.

So 12 years after her pro debut, Cyborg is still looking for a fight. Yes, she has refined her attack and learned the value of patience in the Octagon, but the attitude remains unchanged. And unlike many of her peers, she doesn’t hide her desire to be considered the best of the best.

“It means everything,” said her longtime coach Jason Parillo. “I think she’s known in the back of her mind that she’s always been that. She believes that, and there’s a lot of people around her and a lot of people in the MMA community that believe that as well. Now it’s about everybody else acknowledging it. She’s been around and been the best for many years. There just haven’t been enough eyes on her to know that. That’s why this fight is so important because fortunately we’ve got someone like Holly Holm, who brings a lot of eyes; we’ve got the UFC, the strongest promotion in the game, and there’s going to be a tremendous amount of eyes on this fight, and Cris wants to let everybody know exactly who she is.”

We already know she’s a fighter. On Dec. 30, she could make her case as the best woman to do it.