Almost none of it is Cris Cyborg's fault. But that doesn't matter. If it's ever going to change, if she's ever going to set foot on the promised land, the onus falls on her shoulders and hers alone.
All careers give rise to inflection points. For Cyborg, Saturday's bout with Amanda Nunes at UFC 232 in Los Angeles is more like the inflection point. It summons every ghost of her fighting life and lines them up for the world to contemplate. And only Cyborg can blast them away.
Nunes is the champion at 135 pounds, but Cyborg's 145-pound featherweight belt is the one on the line. Even so, Cyborg stands to win more. Maybe she can't pick up any literal hardware, but the figurative prize is a crown they only give to GOATs.
Cyborg's ghosts and gadflies are remarkable for the observable way they've hindered and hectored her throughout her career. Understanding them—and, thus, the importance of this fight—is a multi-layered endeavor. Let's commence to peeling.
That the 33-year-old Cyborg (20-1-1) is a titan of MMA was never at issue. She is as mesmerizing to watch as anyone in the UFC today, combining power and aggression with refined technique, efficiency, intelligence, an overlooked ground game, sustained output, top-notch cardio and preternatural instincts, like the one that causes her pupils to dilate and turn blood red upon sensing any nanoparticle of vulnerability.
All but three of those 20 wins, including four of her five UFC bouts, were knockouts. She hasn't lost in 13 years, and that was her pro debut.
Even with that resume, Cyborg's UFC entry was never certain until she reached the top of the Octagon steps. There were always headwinds involved.
First came the disapproval of UFC president Dana White and others, such as celebrated broadcaster Joe Rogan. Both publicly ridiculed her appearance, with White calling her "Wanderlei Silva in a dress and heels" and Rogan "joking" that she had male genitalia. A certain Ronda Rousey piled on by calling her "it." Cyborg eventually compelled the UFC and others to accept her, but it took a few more ass-whoopings than it might have had these and other UFC glitterati not held and spread these opinions.
Second comes Cyborg's weight class. UFC brass have failed to populate a women's 145-pound division, much less flush out a legitimate challenger. It's not Cyborg's fault (or the UFC's, in fairness) that she has had to contend with a motley crew of ragtag Sakaarans, from Faith Van Duin to Yana Kunitskaya. Hey, at least they made the walk, isn't that right, Germaine de Randamie. Either way, the strength of schedule simply isn't there.
That brings us to the third issue. The detour around this roadblock involves bringing bantamweights up to face her. Leslie Smith did just that for Cyborg's UFC debut. Tonya Evinger shuttles back and forth between the two divisions and went to 145 to face Cyborg. Former bantamweight champ Holly Holm followed suit.
The bantamweights are a better class, but with the possible exception of Holm, who became only the third fighter to take Cyborg the distance but dropped a convincing decision, none of these competitors were a true foil. Add in that Smith only reached a 140-pound catchweight, and it's clear these options were only moderately better than the aforementioned rummage sale at featherweight proper.
So, it follows, why can't Cyborg just drop to 135 pounds? Here's issue number four. For years, she and doctors have maintained that the cut is too dangerous without shedding the muscle mass that helps make her an effective competitor in the first place. Her cut to 145 is steep as it is. Critics love to scoff at the notion that this might be an actual barrier—why can't she just power through it like everybody else?—but that talk cooled down after video surfaced of a weeping Cyborg undergoing what looked to be the agonizing final stages of her cut to 140.
In this conspiracy-obsessed world of ours, the charge persists that it's all cover for something else. What about PEDs? If she stopped taking the PEDs she is oh-so surely doing, she could shed extra muscle and safely make the cut.
No one can know what happens behind closed doors, so the only hard evidence one can go on is the, what's the proper term here, hard evidence. We can point to the one drug test she failed in 2011 (a 2016 failure was later reversed) and the 33 she passed in the three years since USADA took over UFC fighter-testing duties. Interesting ratio. Plenty of other fighters, perhaps of the male persuasion, have endured far less criticism in the face of more evidence.
But wait, cry the undaunted theorists. Maybe this is how she wants it because she is afraid. I swear that that is a real argument that real people really use. Surely all her opponents were handpicked to showcase and protect a devastating fighter against...who, exactly? And have you seen Cyborg compete? If anything, this theory is the other way around. Let me put a finer point on that: It's definitely the other way around.
Putting it all together, Cyborg has no credible opponents at featherweight but can't cut down to bantamweight. Bantamweights can move up to face her but are undersized and outgunned. These moving parts grind together in the full view of a public that might, depending on their mood and the positioning of Mercury in the nighttime sky, prefer to huck tomatoes at her than watch her compete.
It's a tough needle to thread. That's why the Nunes fight is so important: the planets finally aligned. The needle hath been threaded.
The bantamweight champ is three years Cyborg's junior and known for a well-rounded game predicated on aggressive striking. Nunes is 16-4 with 11 knockouts, including a 9-1 UFC run containing five knockouts. She and her coaches told MMA Fighting about their methodical, scientific approach to her weight gain and the increased stamina they believe she'll gain as a result. Nunes wants to become a two-division champion and write her own name into the GOAT conversation.
The linchpin here is that Nunes called Cyborg out. Nunes isn't backing into this or looking for a novelty fight to line her pockets. Nunes is running toward this, all of it. That's pretty unusual.
In accepting Nunes' challenge, Cyborg noted that "when you call Cyborg out, you have to handle it."
That goes for Cyborg too. How many times has she actually had to handle a callout? Not many. This could be a first. She isn't going to bully her way out of this one. She, not Nunes, has to handle it.
If Cyborg wins, the GOAT conversation is effectively over. Nunes checks every box that Cyborg has always needed an opponent to check: proven, dangerous, willing, fearless, a reasonably close physical match. If Cyborg loses, the damage will be done. Even if the planets align again, be it through a Nunes rematch or the winner between Megan Anderson and Cat Zingano, who fight farther down the card, the gadflies will have all the flesh they need. There is no way to get this moment back. Nunes' credentials are nigh impossible to replicate.
Plenty of athletes try to draw motivation from doubters. They point to whatever contest sits before them and call it the biggest of their career. These are staples of the fighter's diet, right alongside egg whites and kale smoothies.
But with Cyborg and UFC 232, it's very real. Despite her great career, criticism and doubt have disproportionately dogged her. On Saturday, all her ghosts will be lined up in front of her. This is her best chance—her only chance—to take them down.
Scott Harris writes about MMA and other things for CNN/Bleacher Report and other places.