The matchup is perfect, almost to the point of being theoretical. It’s like one of those CGI-based competition shows you’d catch on the Discovery Channel. What happens when you take two apex predators from different habitats and lock them together in a cage?
The more the chaos of women's MMA deepens around them, the sharper Ronda Rousey and Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino stand in relief. With other big names in women’s MMA playing musical title belts, the rivalry between Rousey and Cyborg is a bastion.
It only looks like it’s moving because everything around it is. Sometimes that’s the way it goes. Sometimes you have to let people go and learn their own lessons. Now the people are coming back and realizing all over again that Ronda vs. Cyborg is the marquee rivalry in not just the women's game but all of MMA.
Could the planets finally be aligning? Rousey’s making noise about ending her hiatus. Justino recently issued a fresh challenge to her rival. For all their talent and likability, other prospective breakout stars—Holly Holm and Miesha Tate, to be harshly specific—haven’t made the most of their moments in the spotlight.
Ronda and Cyborg haven't cycled back to the top; everyone else cycled back to them. The tougher question to figure out isn't where they stand but whether fans will ever be lucky enough to actually witness this one-of-a-kind contest.
“It’s Batman vs. Superman,” said Julie Kedzie, a retired fighter who serves as matchmaker and color commentator for the all-female Invicta Fighting Championships. “We all want epic fights, and this is as epic as it gets. You don’t always see two absolutely charismatic fighters who bring that sort of presence. And it manifests itself in different ways. They’re both kind of terrifying, and both kind of beautiful.”
Styles—And People—Make Fights
Rousey, of course, is the judo genius, the 2008 Olympic bronze medalist who became the biggest star MMA has seen. Her stats are succinct and eminently recitable: All 12 of her pro wins came by stoppage, nine of them by her famous armbar, all but one in the opening round.
Then came her loss to Holm last fall at UFC 193. The head kick heard around the combat world placed an auspicious "1" behind the 12. In the ensuing storm of scorn and schadenfreude, Rousey slipped away. She's barely been seen in public since.
The air of the outcast has followed Justino her entire career. One reason for this is her natural home in the 145-pound featherweight division—10 pounds heavier than Rousey’s bantamweight class and nonexistent in the UFC. Because of this, Cyborg has had to carve out her name on MMA’s periphery.
She has done just that, and in so doing further separated herself with her own prowess. There’s a reason Cyborg is called Cyborg. She is an unadulterated wrecking machine, stalking and tearing down opponents like a hound to a treed raccoon.
Justino (16-1-1) is large even for a featherweight. Her muscles ripple and strain. Her muay-thai striking has a mind of its own, and it’s a mind bent on mechanical destruction.
Cyborg’s 14 career knockouts are testament to that, as is the speed with which she doles them out.
Rousey’s time to victory is remarkable, notching her last five wins in an average of 38 seconds. Cyborg isn’t that far behind, ending her last five in an average of five minutes and 37 seconds, or slightly more than one round per fight.
Between the two of them, only one pro contest—a decision win for Cyborg back in 2005—has gone the distance.
“They both destroy their opponents,” said Brian Stann, a retired fighter and a UFC analyst for Fox Sports. “Before Holm, no opponent for either woman was ever even in the fight. …They don’t like each other and they’ve said some mean things to each other. I know I want to see those two titans clash.”
In Invicta, where Justino is featherweight champion, fighters are so reluctant to face her that she has trouble staying busy. Ditto the UFC; she needed 81 seconds to knock out Leslie Smith in her debut there in May, which occurred at a catchweight of 140 pounds. So far, despite her wide and growing popularity, she's had no luck finding opponent No. 2.
Striker vs. grappler is a trope as old as MMA. It has no better embodiment than Ronda vs. Cyborg.
“Ronda Rousey was so dominant as a champion,” said George Lockhart, a nutrition coach and owner of FitnessVT, a firm that works with dozens of fighters including Justino. “She’s a finisher; same reason everyone wanted to watch Mike Tyson. Ronda Rousey would do it by armbar, Cris does it by knockout or technical knockout.”
There’s more than a contrast of styles at play, though. The contrast of personalities might be even more defined.
Outside the cage, the supremely confident Rousey is celebrated for her poise and blonde California looks. Broadcasters gorge themselves on her candid sound bites.
Along with Conor McGregor, she is the face of modern MMA, and despite her loss, she stands alone as the standard-bearer on the women’s side. In short, Rousey is a pioneer of women’s athletics, and she is not afraid of the title or the obligations that confers.
In the same public setting, Cyborg is nowhere to be found.
It’s only Justino, with the shy grin and low voice. Although she is outspoken with her feelings on opponents, self-awareness comes off the Brazilian in waves as she works to assemble answers during English-language interviews.
“She’s a very sweet and quiet woman, but there is a presence,” Kedzie said. “You know when she’s in the room.”
Public people have openly derided Justino for her appearance or what they view as an undesirably masculine carriage. UFC broadcaster Joe Rogan joked about Justino having a penis. UFC President Dana White once said Justino resembled “Wanderlei Silva in a dress and heels.” Rousey herself once referred to Justino as “it” in an interview with Yahoo (h/t Fox Sports).
The enmity has been boiling for five years now. In 2011, Rousey entered pro MMA and, coincidentally, Justino failed a drug test that saw her suspended for a year. Before the failure, Cyborg had been the queen bee.
Despite only two years of age difference between them (Rousey is now 29, Justino 31), Justino had a significant experience edge. But with Cyborg on the sidelines, Rousey made up ground, winning and defending the Strikeforce bantamweight title (Justino was the first and only featherweight champ in the same promotion).
There’s not a lot of upside to rehashing their trash talk, but the key themes are Rousey’s repeated accusation that Cyborg is doping (Cyborg hasn’t been flagged since her 2011 failure) and Justino claiming Rousey is ducking her. Every dig spreads across social media like wildfire, each word cataloged and tucked away until the volley can be returned in the next interview.
“They’re both very tough and competitive, but they’re both sensitive in a way,” Kedzie said. “That’s part of what makes a great rivalry. They both remember all the stuff they’ve said about each other, and they really don’t like each other.”
One of the historical roadblocks to the fight has been the weight class at which the fight would take place.
Team Ronda has consistently said she would take the fight, but that Justino must come down to 135 pounds. That was a few years ago, though, when Rousey was able to make such demands under the aegis of a UFC title. Her leverage is still formidable, but the belt no longer anchors her stance like it once did.
Cyborg’s camp has said cutting to 135 is a threat to her health, at one point claiming it could affect her fertility. Rousey, who spent her judo career competing at 70 kilograms or about 154 pounds, hasn't budged.
According to Lockhart, Justino usually walks around at 170 pounds. For that simple reason, a superfight could, for Cyborg, involve not one but two opponents. Lockhart, who also works with fighters like Jon Jones and Rory MacDonald, has guided the cuts for Justino’s last three fights. Those contests, however, were at 145 and 140 pounds.
Is a cut to 135 feasible? Lockhart’s answer is yes—with a but.
“I can get anyone down to any weight, but the question is can she perform and perform confidently,” Lockhart said. “Sometimes athletes in this position start to worry about the cut, not the fight. Cutting down from 175 to 140, that’s a huge cut for a woman, especially if she doesn’t have much body fat. Five more pounds doesn’t sound like much, but it really does put it on to the extreme end.”
Stann, who called Cyborg’s UFC debut and spent time with her and her team in the run-up to the bout, said she appeared to reach the catchweight threshold with relative ease.
“She was running six miles a night,” Stann said. “She was only over by 2.5 pounds on the morning of the fight to make 140. She was surprised by that.”
Another signal in Justino’s favor—and, it seems, that of every fighter—is the commitment by the UFC and other organizations to earlier weigh-ins. Stepping on the scales on the morning before fight day, instead of the evening, gives athletes more time to rehydrate and refuel before stepping into the cage.
“[Justino] really doesn’t enjoy cutting weight,” Stann said. “But the new protocols are far better for her.”
So Will It Happen?
A new television commercial recently surfaced. It features Rousey, and it obliquely teases an impending comeback.
Dana White recently asserted, seemingly without a ton of prompting, that Rousey would get a title shot if she were to return, further stoking speculation that Rousey isn’t done.
The women’s bantamweight belt is now with its fourth owner in the past eight months. Only Rousey has ever defended it.
On Friday, Justino penned a lengthy Facebook post criticizing Rousey and renewing her calls for the superfight. She expressed a preference for November’s UFC 205 blockbuster at Madison Square Garden—the UFC’s first event in New York.
Despite all this, though, Ronda-Cyborg is still very much a theoretical discussion.
The first reason for that is Rousey, who has kept mum on her MMA future since losing to Holm. She’s earned a steamer trunk full of money from fights and sponsorships and purportedly has suitors in Hollywood at the ready whenever her fight career is over.
It’s an open question as to when and who Rousey would fight should a return occur (White is not exactly known as a bastion of truth), but it stands to reason Cyborg would be on the short list, particularly if Rousey's second MMA act is limited.
An urgency to make Ronda-Cyborg could be increased now that the UFC has new owners, thanks to its recent $4 billion sale. It would be entirely understandable if the new brain trust wanted to make a splash.
Lockhart, for one, doesn’t think Rousey will budge from her weight demands, and he thinks he knows why.
“After working with Cris for all this time, I can say I wouldn’t even be too excited to see the outcome,” Lockhart said. “I’d be surprised if Ronda made it out of the first round.”
There is also the matter of the payday, which would certainly be huge in this case. Last year White estimated Ronda-Cyborg could bring in 2.5 million pay-per-view buys, far more than the current UFC record.
“I do think it will happen,” Stann said. “Once an executive sits them down and looks them in the eye and says ‘here’s a number,’ then you might see it move forward. Talk about motivation; how much weight would you lose for seven figures?”
It’s not uncommon to hear folks agree with Lockhart’s viewpoint: that the fight would go the way of the larger, more tested, perhaps more well-rounded Cyborg—assuming her cut goes well, that is.
If Rousey doesn’t want to roll the dice, Cyborg is not the opponent for her, particularly not soon after returning.
But fans have another ace up their sleeves.
It’s no secret Rousey is a hyper-competitive person. That's why many people, in their heart of hearts, don't believe she'd walk away from the sport she built without first facing down her greatest athletic foil. Never facing Cyborg could even put her status as the GOAT of women’s MMA at risk, especially now that she is no longer undefeated. Fairly or not, she could be subject to the same claims of ducking as boxing’s Floyd Mayweather Jr. or MMA legend Fedor Emelianenko, among others.
Put another way, defeating Cyborg would silence more doubters than 10 wins over Amanda Nunes.
“I don’t think [Rousey] is a weak-minded person,” Kedzie said. “I think she’ll come back. She wouldn’t just let this go.”
Even so, Kedzie said she doesn’t see the fight materializing.
“No, I don’t think it’s going to happen,” Kedzie said. “Not because they’re too weak to do it, but because sometimes the circumstances just go by. The window is closed or closing. It may not be over, but it’s getting close. That happens sometimes, and we don’t have any choice but to think ‘what if.’”
Are prospects really that dim? It’s entirely possible. At least fans can hang their hats on the fighters’ past comments, which have expressed openness to what would be a true touchstone event for every fan.
And here in the present, maybe, just maybe, the worm is turning. With Cyborg’s star on the rise following her UFC debut, Rousey perhaps pondering a return, friendlier weight-cutting rules in effect, the UFC’s recent sale and UFC 205 starting to break the horizon, will MMA’s greatest rivalry finally become more than a distant monolith?
"Of course I would want to fight her at a lighter division where she’d be weaker, because I feel like that would be more of an advantage to me," Rousey told MMA Junkie in 2011. "But also a fight between me and her does eventually need to happen. I’m going to make it happen one way or another."
Scott Harris writes about MMA for Bleacher Report. For more, follow Scott on Twitter. All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.