Only Cris Cyborg Can Bring Out Greatness in UFC Champion Ronda Rousey
Marloes Coenen is one of the best fighters in the history of women's MMA. A former Strikeforce champion at 135 pounds, she's put the hurt on opponents all over the globe for more than 12 years.
On the ground, she has 15 submission wins. On her feet, she has years of experience with Golden Glory, one of the best kickboxing teams in the world.
None of that mattered to Cris "Cyborg" Justino. She wrecked her over the course of four rounds to win the Invicta Fighting Championship featherweight title and erase any doubts that a drug suspension would prevent her from coming back at the top of her game.
There's never been a more appropriately named fighter. Like a machine, she comes forward. Coaches adjust her setting to the on position, and what happens next isn't fit for civilized eyes. Whether it's Fiona Muxlow—who she took on in a tune-up fight earlier this year—or a great like Coenen, anything in her path is going to be battered, bruised and suplexed to oblivion.
Cyborg is the best woman in the sport. Based on what we saw against Coenen, it isn't even close. She's the total package.
While many people credit her success to pure physical dominance, and that's certainly a big part of it, her technique and skill shouldn't be discounted. Her striking looked more refined than Coenen's, and on the ground, she passed guard and controlled position like a master.
Cyborg has a killer instinct, but she showed a savvy we haven't seen from her before.
Rather than gas herself out with an all-out, out-of-control assault, her predator instinct was kept carefully in check. The great ones fight without anger. Aggression is calculated, to be unleashed only when and how they chose.
It's a lesson Cyborg seems to have internalized. That's not a good thing for anyone foolish enough to step in the cage with her. It seems like such a small thing, but at this level of athletics, it's those little things that matter most.
Mastery of your own emotions and fears can be the difference between winning and losing.
The Queen of MMA
Rousey is the new poster girl for women's MMA. She's got the looks to be a star, both in the cage and on the silver screen. But lots of girls do.
What separates Rousey from the pack is equal parts the consistent charm offensive and media savvy that keeps her in the press and the arm fetish that has taken her to the top of the sport. She's not just a pretty face. She's a pretty face who has tried, and succeeded, to destroy opponents' arm ligaments.
Over and over again.
It's a singular focus, unlike anything we've ever seen in MMA. Seven women have signed on the dotted line against her. All seven have lost by armbar. So did three previous opponents in the amateur ranks. None escaped the very first round.
Each of them have known it was coming. A former Olympic bronze medalist, Rousey was an armbar proponent even then, in a sport that has slowly focused almost entirely on throws. That they knew about it mattered little.
Opponents generally knew exactly what Michael Jordan intended to do. There was nothing ambiguous about Walter Payton. They brought their best games to the table, and so does Rousey. Foes know exactly what she intends—she's just better at executing it than they are defending it.
That's the "what." The "why" is less clear.
Most judo and jiu-jitsu proponents concentrate of chokeholds, a less risky and far more effective method of ending a bout. There's no ambiguity with a choke. Ultimately, they either work or they don't.
More importantly, for an MMA fighter, chokes are generally the product of a dominant position. Their success or failure doesn't make you any more or less vulnerable. If they don't work out, you tend to be right back where you started.
An armbar is different.
It's typically an all-or-nothing, all-out dive for success. Failure leaves you vulnerable, with an angry and suddenly energized opponent excitedly waiting to rain down doom. So far, Ronda hasn't dived and missed.
But one day, that moment is coming. How Rousey responds will be the true test of her mettle.
True greatness in athletics is defined by adversity. So far, Rousey and Cyborg have shown themselves to be fantastic athletes. Skilled warriors. Engaging characters.
But neither has shown greatness. Neither has had to reach down deep inside to pull out that little bit extra they know is necessary to beat another woman—one who can and will defeat them if they don't.
Through no fault of their own, they've never had the opportunity. They've faced opponents so physically or technically overmatched that the concept of losing never really existed.
Cyborg or Rousey
Simply put, they need each other. Rousey doesn't need to fight retreads like Miesha Tate. Cyborg can't continue to hide in Invicta, a wonderful regional-level promotion, but a regional-level promotion nonetheless. Rousey may not be here long for this sport. Hollywood is already knocking down her door. The time to make this fight is right now.
There may not be another chance.
Can Cyborg be the first to stymie Rousey's armbar? Can Rousey survive Cyborg's swarming stand-up in order to get her to the ground?
No one can say for sure. And it's those kind of open questions that make this fight so compelling. Against anyone else, the answers are "no" and "no." No one else will stop Rousey. No one else will stop Cyborg.
They will find a true challenge only in each other.
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