Meet the World's Toughest Woman: Cris Cyborg Will Take on Anyone—Even the UFCJuly 27, 2017
LOS ANGELES — Don't let the bright red toenails or the larger-than-life smile fool you. Cris "Cyborg" Justino, 145 pounds of roiling muscles and bad intentions, is not a woman you want to have angry at you, even in jest.
Boyfriend, training partner and nonstop chatterbox Ray Elbe is learning that the hard way on the mats of the Cobrinha Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Academy.
Though nestled in the bottom floor of an H&R Block office complex, the transactions happening here are physical, the only currency is pain. Elbe is on the receiving end as a kick to the ribs thuds through the small studio.
"This is for my phone," a laughing Cyborg says in her heavily accented English. The best featherweight fighter in the world appears to be joking—but the force of the kick leaves some doubt.
The day before—to wind down after a stressful, cathartic meeting with UFC brass—the two had been out on the water, enjoying a rare day of leisure. A jolt put both of their phones in jeopardy. Cris pantomimes the elaborate lengths Ray went to in order to save his own iPhone. Hers was lost to the depths.
Today he pays.
"Chute Boxe jiu-jitsu," she says with a laugh after a kick to the nethers, referencing the famously brutal training grounds where she first learned to fight. She follows up with a demure "sorry, Baby." But, perhaps, next time her phone will be the first one he thinks of when a hard choice is required.
Enjoying the show is "Cobrinha," real name the decidedly less cool Rubens Charles.
"This is no help for a relationship," he says with a grin. A former world champion competitor, he's settled nicely into the role of coach for many of Los Angeles' top mixed martial artists, some of whom brave up to 90 minutes in brutal traffic to seek his wisdom.
His is the infectious, intoxicating energy possessed only by Brazilian jiu-jitsu wizards and acoustic guitar players, and all of his not-inconsiderable charm is focused on Cris for one hour on a Friday morning. They are working on how to get up if the fight hits the mat, a theoretical possibility, though she hasn't been taken down in nine years despite a series of desperate attempts.
If a fight does reach the floor, she'll be ready. UFC 214 opponent Tonya Evinger, a wrestler, will certainly try to ground her. For most opponents, it's the only conceivable escape from a whirlwind of violence.
But the ground won't be the oasis of tranquility those who dare to face her might expect it to be. Now a black belt, Cyborg moves smoothly from concept to concept, quickly soaking in Cobrinha's guidance and executing it on poor Elbe.
"They just don't know," she says of potential foes and fans alike. "They don't know. Because never in my fights have I had the opportunity to show my grappling. I've just done stand-up. I haven't gotten to show my game. But I just keep getting better, getting better."
It turns out there are a lot people who don't know about the toughest woman in the world—and she believes that's just the way the UFC, a much more intimidating nemesis than any of her opponents, wanted it.
You can be forgiven if you believe the history of women's MMA begins and ends with Ronda Rousey. That's what the UFC, which plucked Rousey when it purchased rival Strikeforce and helped build a superstar the likes of which MMA had never known, would like you to believe.
Ronda didn't make women's MMA. Who brought women's MMA to the main event on TV? I did. — Cris Cyborg
"They have so much power that they try to change the history," Cyborg says. "Ronda didn't make women's MMA. Who brought women's MMA to the main event on TV? I did. And Gina Carano.
"Ronda, she was from the Olympics. She had blond hair. She could be an idol; an American idol. They thought, 'We can make money with this girl.' I was there a long time already. If I was American, they would have opened a division years ago.
"The way they treat the American women and the Brazilian women is very different. But one thing they can't take away from us—we are fighters. It's hard to invest in someone just because they are pretty, or they are blond or they are an American. Inside the cage, none of that can protect you.
"You can take your favorite girl, do all the promotion for her, but when she faces a true fighter, the true fighter is going to win. There's more to fighting than publicity."
Sitting in Parlour e.lev.en—an upscale hair salon in Huntington Beach that exudes an edgy cool—Cyborg frowns for the first time in hours when Rousey's name comes up. And hours is no exaggeration. That's how long it takes to turn her brown hair a dazzling red and her friend and fellow fighter Gabi Garcia's long locks an incredible shade of purple.
"You know what they say? 'Red hair, don't care,'" she says with a laugh. "Before this, I had extensions. Now it's my real hair, a little shorter. It's different. It's fun. People look at you different with the hair and the makeup."
For Cyborg, it's a feminine respite in a life engulfed in MMA's masculine energy—sipping complimentary coffee and gabbing with friends and family in Brazil courtesy of Facetime.
"I come in with Gabi. She's my close friend. We train together all the time," Cris says. "I'd never been friends with a woman in MMA before. But we have a lot of things in common. She's a big girl, too, and people bully her. We had the same situation. We have been through some hard things and learn a lot from each other."
Bullying brings us back to Rousey, a frequent topic of conversation throughout the weekend and Cyborg's white whale.
"When she started training, I was already the champion," Cyborg says, her agitation breaking through the surface. "She used my name so people would know who she is. She talked about doping, said I looked like a man and called me an it. She used this to promote herself. She wanted to talk about Cyborg, because people know who I am.
"It made me upset. But there's no changing it. It's been happening for a long time. It's been six years like this. You have to be strong."
The trash talk was the setup. It was the punchline that provided the gut punch, one that still stings to this day.
"Ronda used this," Cyborg says, shaking her head. "Then she jumped down to 135 pounds to not fight me. She's not a real fighter. She got a lot of money, she stopped fighting. After UFC spent so much money promoting her and her fights. I never fought for money. I started fighting because I enjoyed it. Now I've made a lot of money—but I still do it."
A day later, the issue lingers as we talk. Perhaps, without the cathartic release of a fight, it always will. In 2017, removed from the worst of it as Rousey has moved on to other things and UFC President Dana White has found new fighters to bully, Cyborg can hold her head up and address these issues head-on.
It wasn't always so easy.
"Before, I go to my room and I cry," she reveals. "I didn't feel I could fight back. How can I go against this machine by myself?"
White took Rousey's side in the war of worlds, going so far as to say Cyborg looked like "Wanderlei Silva in a dress."
"It's no secret Ronda and Dana have a relationship," Ray says. "If you don't know, listen for the whispers. People don't just get given brand-new Range Rovers from their boss. That doesn't happen in real life.
"It became personal, and she had the power over Dana. She could make her ex-boyfriend, who was ranked like No. 15, fight her new boyfriend, who is No. 3 in the world at the time. Just by calling up and saying, 'I want my new boyfriend to wreck my ex.'"
Even after the UFC signed Cyborg in 2015, White continued his full-frontal assault, unwinding on The Joe Rogan Experience with the UFC announcer and comedian Tony Hinchcliffe and laughing uproariously as the two went in on Cyborg.
"It's like the boys' club," Ray says, voice rising. "It's the good old boys, and you're either in the circle or you're not. When Ronda got knocked out and they were flying back on that airplane, Cris was already signed to the UFC. And they sit there making a joke about how Cris was the first UFC fighter to cut her dick off to make weight? She's a UFC fighter, but it's appropriate to make jokes about her?
"When we brought it up with them they were like, 'Well, Joe Rogan's an independent contractor.' It's the UFC commentator with the UFC president on the UFC plane after a UFC event—I don't give a f--k how you categorize him. Do you think that's acceptable?"
As he talks, you can see Cyborg reliving the trauma, everything suddenly fresh again years later.
"The guy says I have a dick, and I talked to my dad and he read this on the internet," Cyborg says of the aftermath. "And, when I talked to him, he is crying. My brother and my dad call me 'Baby,' and he says 'how can they say this about my baby?'
"And I had to try to be strong to show him I was OK. You show your power. So it doesn't hurt him so much to see his daughter in pain. They don't have to cry if they see She can handle it. She is strong. So I try to handle it better. I pray a lot. Ronda says a lot of things about me. Dana does. I pray for them. And for me, to take the anger from my heart. Because it is going to be bad for me, not for them.
"How many other families does he make cry with his jokes and his play? He tries to delete me from history. Maybe I can forgive him—but he's going to pay for it. I don't know what's going to happen, but he's going to pay for it. I believe that. He thinks you can do whatever you want and there will be no consequence. I don't have to do nothing with my hands. I just have to pray and wait. Karma."
Cris Cyborg's introduction to American fight fans was equal parts embarrassing and terrifying. After knocking veteran Shayna Baszler around for two rounds, she finally dropped her with a combination of punches. An ecstatic Cyborg sprinted across the cage, leaping to the top to celebrate like a mad woman.
The only problem? Referee Steve Mazzagatti hadn't officially stopped the fight, and a dazed Baszler awaited further punishment down below.
"Everyone was screaming, my coaches were waving their arms, but I thought it was to celebrate," she says. "I looked at the referee, and I really didn't know any English. He said 'No, fight.' I said 'What? Are you crazy?' And we started again the fight."
This time, a battered Baszler stayed down, dropping face first to the mat after an onslaught of punches. The legend of Cyborg was born, an epic tale that reached its climax in a main event showdown against Gina Carano—the first fight between two women to headline a major MMA card in North America.
"This opened the door," Cris says. "To everything. I came to America planning to stay for six months. That was eight years ago.
"When I came from Brazil, I wasn't speaking any English. People really wanted Gina to win. She was the beauty, and they said I was the beast. It wasn't offensive at the time, because I didn't know English. When I came to the cage to fight her everybody said 'boooo.' But I knew, even though she was a good athlete, I was going to beat her."
In the cage, if not in a dress, as we'd see later in an elegant photo shoot, Cyborg really did remind many of the great Wanderlei Silva. The resemblance is not coincidence. Both were trained by Rudimar Fedrigo and Rafael Cordeiro at the famed Chute Boxe Academy in Cyborg's hometown of Curitiba, Brazil, whirling, aggressive fighters who never take a step backward, relentlessly breaking opponents with their determination and a fury that seems innate, born rather than learned.
People would say, "She's fighting like a man." That didn't make me mad. That's what opened the doors for us. — Cris Cyborg
"People would say, 'She's fighting like a man.' That didn't make me mad," she says. "That's what opened the doors for us. I had a lot of guys I train with and admire. I was looking to fight like them. It's a man's sport—so when women get their opportunity, they need to show their best to do the kind of fight the fans like to watch."
Always the biggest girl in school, a tomboy who played handball at the highest level, Cris was discovered by a Chute Boxe fighter impressed by her aggressive attitude and well-developed physique.
"He came to talk to me and said, 'You like fighting?' I said, 'No! I don't like fighting.' I'd never been in a fight before," she remembers. "But he said, 'I think you could be a great fighter.' And he gave me a Chute Boxe card. But for a long time I didn't go. I wasn't interested in fighting."
Eventually curiosity got the better of her. The first time she stepped into the gym, it was to watch. A few days later, she participated in some drills. Within months, she had her first professional fight. Handball, college, all the carefully laid out plans for her life were forgotten. Despite losing that initial contest, she had found her path. She married a fighter, Evangelista "Cyborg" Santos, taking both his name and his nickname, and started the hard work of becoming the greatest women's fighter the world has ever known.
"My mom didn't like it. She did not agree with it," Cyborg says. "She thought of it as street fighting. My dad too. He said, 'I didn't work so hard to give my kid the best things so she could be a fighter.' My mom always wanted me to be a dentist. I told her I would still be taking out teeth.
"In the beginning, it was hard because the guys thought women only came to the gym because they wanted to date you. They think you want to find a boyfriend there. Earning your space there, proving you want to be a fighter, is hard. Because you compete with the guys there.
"In Brazil, there is a saying—I don't know if you have it here, too. Like, if you have a bunch of kids that are 12 years old and one kid who is eight years old. We say, 'Coffee with milk.' You play, but you don't really play. The little kid thinks they are playing with the big kids, but they are really not. I was the little kid.
"I was the only woman and I was learning everything new. But every day I was training and getting better. And, when guys punched me, I punched them back. I don't just go away and be quiet. Rafael Cordeiro, Rujimar, they looked at me and said, 'She's got heart. She isn't very good and doesn't know too much. But she has heart.'"
On Saturday, Cris will fight Tonya Evinger for the UFC's featherweight title. How this came to be is a twisted tale, one that, to hear her tell it, involves no small amount of intrigue.
Simply put, she signed with the UFC, despite all of the bad blood with White and his matchmaker/henchman Sean Shelby, for one reason and one reason only—to finally get a chance to shut Rousey up and make her pay for the endless hours of pain and psychological torture that followed after every time the popular star went on the attack.
Dana was protecting Ronda. But they can only protect her so much. I didn't get to beat her, but Holly beat her. Amanda beat her. Imagine if that had been me? — Cris Cyborg
"I wanted to punch her," Cyborg says. "They used this. Dangled it."
Instead of signing with Bellator, which was quickly becoming the UFC's archrival, she agreed to enter the Octagon and make an attempt to meet Rousey at 135 pounds. The UFC hired a nutritionist, George Lockhart, to supervise the weight cut. Already drained by the cut to featherweight, Cris was willing to attempt to trim 10 more grueling pounds to get an opportunity at Rousey.
Three of her fights with the UFC have been defenses of her featherweight championship in Invicta. The last two, inside the UFC's Octagon, have been at a catchweight of 140 pounds, a bridge, she hoped, to making bantamweight and earning a shot at Rousey, who refused to meet her in the middle.
"It's hard. For three years I tried to drop weight to 135. You don't have a life anymore. You cannot eat like this," she says, pointing to the healthy but robust Greek food we were sharing. "You can't eat out or have any cheat days. You just have to diet, diet, diet, always. You don't have a life besides dieting, and you're in a bad mood all the time. Back in my division, it's still hard, but not as hard as 140."
As chronicled by a self-produced documentary, the attempt to eventually make 135 ended disastrously with a dangerous weight cut that eventually led to a hospital stay. And then, after all the dieting and work, it was all made moot by Rousey's disastrous fall and ultimate departure from the sport.
"Dana was protecting Ronda. But they can only protect her so much," she says. "I didn't get to beat her, but Holly [Holm] beat her. Amanda [Nunes] beat her. Imagine if that had been me? She was going to lose either way, but imagine how much money they would have made with me after I beat her."
With Rousey vs. Cyborg up in flames, the UFC finally agreed to promote a featherweight championship bout for the first time. But even this olive branch, meant to finally appease Cyborg, ended with yet another bitter confrontation with White and the uncrowned champion.
"I offered Cris Cyborg a title fight at 145 pounds a month ago," White told the UFC Unfiltered podcast in November. "She had eight weeks to get ready for it. She said she couldn't make the weight, said she couldn't make 145 pounds.
"So then I offered her another 145-pound title fight for Brooklyn. She turned it down. She turned down two 145-pound title fights. One because she said she couldn't make 145 pounds in eight weeks, and [former UFC matchmaker] Joe Silva's like, 'If she can't make 145 pounds in eight weeks, 145 isn't the right weight class for her either.'"
The spin infuriated Cris and those closest to her, who say White and the UFC knew how badly her fight last September had drained her.
"He's trying to spin it like she's lazy or scared," Ray says. "The truth is, she's probably a 155-pounder trying to make 135. Let's keep it real. She almost died making that weight cut. They try to force her into that January fight here in Anaheim.
"She was pissed. I said, 'Let them say what they f--king want to say.'"
"You were more pissed than me," Cris responds with a smile. "Nobody believes that. My real fans know I'm not ducking fights. Maybe the new fans think it, but the fans who really know my career know I'm never going to duck anyone."
"We've agreed to fight Holly twice," Ray says. "She refused."
"Both times," Cris confirms. "We accepted the opponent. We turned down the date. It was not about money. It was because I had to lose weight again. My doctor told me it was too soon. I did three fights in eight months, and two of them I had to cut to 140. So, I said, 'No, I'm not going to fight.'
"I just couldn't cut weight again. I was treated in the hospital for 10 days after the fight in Brazil. My health was no good. I couldn't do it again. Three years of dieting! You training hard, then eat a little bit. It's not good for your body."
Weeks later, the USADA, contracted to conduct the UFC's anti-doping program, announced a potential violation stemming from Cyborg's December 5 test. Though later clearing Cyborg after determining the drug in question was prescribed under a doctor's care for treatment of the fallout from previous weight cuts, the damage to her already shaky reputation was done. Worse still, at least to Team Cyborg, was the way White handled the news, almost gleefully throwing his fighter under the bus yet again.
"Dana called TMZ and said, 'I want you to meet me outside of my hotel.' By that time, it was two days after we had been notified, and he had already been in touch with Cris," Ray says. "They had already heard her side of the story. But rather than share that and make it look as nice as possible, he goes out there and said, 'I guess we know why she was turning down fights now. It looks really suspicious.' Within 48 hours of that TMZ story, we lost $30,000 in sponsorships. And it was deliberate and malicious."
All these grievances were aired in a June meeting with Shelby and UFC lawyers. With Rousey's departure, Miesha Tate's retirement and Germaine de Randamie's refusal to defend the featherweight title, Cyborg has suddenly become an important cog in the UFC's plan to continue promoting women's fighting. The relationship, fractured and ignored for so long, had to be repaired.
Conspicuous by his absence, however, was White, who refused to attend the sitdown.
"Dana's the boss," Ray says. "We wanted him in the room. But he wouldn't come."
"He texted an apology," she says, making it clear that wasn't nearly enough. "Wouldn't come into the room. He no-showed. Be a man."
"That was his boss, though," Ray says of the apology. "Someone got on the phone and said, 'Hey motherf--ker, we're going to get sued.' ... At the end of the day, you don't have to like your boss. It's the get money game. And UFC is the get money organization. It would be really unfortunate if they couldn't put all this together and put the machine behind Cris."
"If they did something nice for me, I'd say, 'Really?' I'd be surprised," Cris says. "Because all the time it's bad things. If they do nice stuff, I'll be surprised. Something bad? That's all the time. I'm not surprised anymore. My manager will call and say, 'UFC do this or do that. I can't believe them.' I just say 'OK.'"
"We worry," Ray agrees. "How are we going to tell her this or that? Then you tell her and she's, 'OK. F--k them.' Other days? She'll be yelling, 'I can't believe them!'"
Right now, I want to leave [the UFC]. I'd fight somewhere for less if they respected me and my job. ... They don't respect what I did for the sport. — Cris Cyborg
"I want to finish my contract. Right now, I want to leave," Cris reveals, though Ray wears a look on his face that says he wishes she'd let the negotiations play out first. "I'd fight somewhere for less if they respected me and my job. I want to go inside the cage and fight happy. I don't want to hate my boss because he never says 'good job.'
"It's not just about money. I could stay. But it's not just about money. It's about respect," she continues, pronouncing the word with a soft "h" sound. "They don't respect me or treat me like a real fighter. They don't respect what I did for the sport."
"It feels like it's us versus them," Ray says. "Even at the events. It's Team Cyborg versus Team UFC. You can't really put your finger on it, but you feel it. They hate me."
"It's true," Cris says, her laugh breaking up the tension in the room. "They hate him. Because they are against me. And before nobody defends me. They..."
The fighter, so powerful in the ring, trails off, looking down at the table. Dealing with the UFC is exhausting, emotionally and spiritually, for her. Even just talking about it can bring the mood down. She wasn't on the poster in an event in her own hometown, has never been offered a paid appearance and receives only $2,500 in sponsorship money from the company's Reebok deal.
These little indignities pile up until they feel like they can't be ignored.
Two fights remain on her UFC deal. If things go right, she will walk away as the undisputed world champion at 145 pounds and explore options around the globe.
"It's an open market," Ray says. "If Rizin's offering a million bucks to go do a Grand Prix, we'll have to see what UFC is offering. If Rory MacDonald is worth $400,000 to Bellator, what are we going to get? We want to see what's out there. And I don't think we can get the best deal until our contract is done."
"Yeah," Cris chimes in, listening carefully. "They have to play nice because they don't want me to leave. ... We've had a lot of meetings. They say they are going to change, they're going to help. I don't believe them. Not really. We will see."
Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report.