Just as she has her entire MMA career, Cris "Cyborg" Justino will cast an imposing shadow during Saturday's UFC 208.
The obvious difference being, Justino won't compete this weekend at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York. Instead, Holly Holm and Germaine de Randamie fight for the inaugural women's featherweight title UFC matchmakers created in hopes of putting on Justino.
Those intentions fizzled when Cyborg and the fight company couldn't come to terms on a championship bout. Ten days following the announcement of this makeshift title matchup, they were dashed beyond all recognition after Justino was flagged for a potential violation of the organization's anti-doping policy.
As a result, the future of the world's actual top female 145-pound fighter remains uncertain, leaving Holm and de Randamie to battle for the championship of a theoretical division.
So, yeah, that's awkward.
"We did it for her," Dana White recently told the UFC's Unfiltered podcast about the decision to create a new women's weight class specifically for Justino. "Now she's in this position with USADA [U.S. Anti-Doping Agency]. I don't know how this is going to play out, so we've got to see what happens here. Hopefully this will all get smoked out soon, and I can figure out what to do with 145."
This is just the latest hiccup in a stormy marriage between the UFC and Justino.
Even before she crossed the aisle from Invicta FC in early 2016, she engaged in contentious public spats with both White and Ronda Rousey. Since the UFC previously offered only two women's divisions—at 115 and 135 pounds—weight has always been a sticking point. After inking her UFC deal, Cyborg's first two appearances inside the Octagon were contested at 140-pound catchweights.
Both of those fights resulted in impressive stoppage wins for Justino as well as conclusive proof that she moved the needle with MMA fans. The UFC seemed to relent its previous positions by creating a featherweight class to showcase her skills, but now with Justino potentially facing a lengthy ban, going through with this fight at UFC 208 seems questionable at best.
But marketable events are few and far between for the UFC to begin 2017, and it desperately needed to put some title—any title—on the line during its first pay-per-view event of the year.
Unfortunately, it also likely means neither Holm nor de Randamie will be greeted as a particularly inspiring first champion. That's a raw deal for two fine competitors, but it's reality.
Holm enters this bout trying to become the first woman to win titles in two different UFC weight classes. The longtime favorite of hardcore MMA fans burst into the national consciousness by knocking out the previously undefeated Rousey in the second round of their fight at UFC 193.
But Holm followed that earth-shattering knockout by dropping consecutive bouts to Miesha Tate and Valentina Shevchenko.
She badly needs to win this one to maintain a high-profile standing in the UFC and to safeguard a potential future matchup with a returning Justino or even a champion vs. champion bout against 135-pound titlist Amanda Nunes.
Even Holm seems to note the precariousness of her position.
"I know Cris 'Cyborg' is the big name in the 145-pound division, but right now with her situation, I'll just let that pan out," Holm said during this event's official media call last week. "There has to be a lot to happen before our fight. She has to deal with whatever's going on with USADA—who knows what's going on with that—and I've got to get through this fight."
One of the complicating factors for Holm is that, five fights into her UFC career, we're still never sure exactly which version of her will show up.
While amassing seven straight wins on the independent circuit from 2011 through 2014, the former women's boxing champion established a reputation as one of the sport's most fearsome strikers. She notched six TKOs over that stretch, including this head kick against Allanna Jones that made highlight reels everywhere in summer 2013:
Upon arriving in the Octagon, however, Holm squeaked by in tepid decision wins against Raquel Pennington and Marion Reneau before marshaling her forces for the performance of a lifetime against Rousey. Immediately after, however, she retreated to earlier form.
The vision we have of her now is a big, athletic fighter who can be devastating when opponents bring the action straight to her but who sometimes slips into a shell when things don't go her way.
If Holm looks uninspired or overmatched against de Randamie, it could spell the end of her time as an elite fighter.
Perhaps unfortunately for her, Bleacher Report's Patrick Wyman forecasts a tough night against de Randamie:
"This is a brutal matchup for Holm. She's facing another high-level striker with a preference for outside fighting but one with better fundamentals, more power and an edge in the clinch if it goes there.
De Randamie has two options here and can beat Holm with either. If she wants to stick at long range and fight Holm at distance, she has the tools—jabs and kicks—to keep pace there while doing more damage than the American. If she prefers to pressure and work into the pocket, she can rely on her power and clinch game to get the job done."
De Randamie comes into this fight as the slight favorite, according to OddsShark. The Dutchwoman is also likely far more of an unknown to UFC fans, having made just one main card appearance while putting up a 3-1 record in the Octagon.
That one loss was a first-round TKO at the hands of Nunes in November 2013, though she's notched a pair of TKO stoppages her last two times out.
At 5'9", de Randamie was always a tall, lanky bantamweight, and she'll enjoy slight height and reach advantages over the 5'8" Holm. On the other hand, pure athleticism should be squarely in Holm's favor, and if de Randamie handles this bout as aggressively as some previous UFC fights, it might play right into Holm's strengths.
No matter who wins, however, the future is speculative at best.
The most likely scenario for either a Holm or de Randamie championship is that the 145-pound division continues to adopt top challengers on a case-by-case basis, mixing and matching contenders moving up from bantamweight and perhaps the occasional crossover from Invicta.
At worst, women's featherweight fails to gain any traction, and the UFC ends up scrapping the whole division.
With Cyborg continuing to loom over everything at this weight, we can't say much for sure until her future is decided.