Cris Cyborg Embraces New Challenge Ahead of Bellator Debut

Kelsey McCarsonFeatured ColumnistJanuary 23, 2020

Cris Cyborg Embraces New Challenge Ahead of Bellator Debut

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    Can Cyborg capture the Bellator title?
    Can Cyborg capture the Bellator title?Jeff Bottari/Getty Images

    Cris "Cyborg" Justino had already etched her name into the annals of MMA history long before old promoter Scott Coker came calling to offer her what he called the richest contract in women's MMA history.

    Justino won featherweight titles across three different promotions: Invicta FC, Strikeforce and the UFC. She also went unbeaten for 13 years, recording 20 victories with 17 by knockout. 

    But Justino said she was excited about the new challenge signing with Bellator had afforded her. Despite all of the amazing feats she has already accomplished, one of the most terrifying fighting machines of the last decade said there was at least one more mountain for her to climb. 

    "Four belts," Justino said in quotes emailed to Bleacher Report. "Every world championship in the female featherweight division."

    It's what the fighter and her team refer to as winning the "WMMA Grand Slam," which no other fighter in history has ever done before.

    "If that doesn't motivate you, then you shouldn't be fighting," Justino said. 

Formidable Champion Julia Budd Stands in Cyborg's Way

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    Budd (right) lost to Ronda Rousey (left) and Amanda Nunes in 2011.
    Budd (right) lost to Ronda Rousey (left) and Amanda Nunes in 2011.Kari Hubert/Forza LLC/Getty Images

    Justino, 35, from Brazil, is set to make her Bellator debut this weekend against women's featherweight champion Julia Budd. 

    Budd, 36, from Canada, enters Saturday night's title defense against Justino at The Forum in Inglewood, California, riding her own impressive 11-fight win streak. Moreover, Budd is the only women's featherweight champion in Bellator history, and she doesn't plan on that changing this weekend.

    In fact, from her perspective, the storyline for this title fight isn't about Cyborg at all. Rather, Saturday night is about Budd's long-desired wish to face a fighter of Cyborg's stature finally coming true.

    The resilient Canadian lost fights early in her career to Amanda Nunes and Ronda Rousey in devastating fashion. But those fights happened nine years ago, and Budd said she's become a far more complete fighter since then.

    Budd believes she's plenty capable of defeating Justino. She's heading into the fight expecting to win. 

    "I've prepared for this moment for a lot of years," Budd said. "I've had an amazing training camp, and I'm ready to shine."

    Cyborg said about the champion: "Julia Budd is a real 145-pound fighter who has been facing contenders who actually fight in the featherweight division."

Is Cyborg's Resiliency Underappreciated?

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    Cyborg rebounded from losing to Amanda Nunes by defeating Felicia Spencer last time out.
    Cyborg rebounded from losing to Amanda Nunes by defeating Felicia Spencer last time out.Jeff Bottari/Getty Images

    Lost in the shuffle after Justino's first-round knockout loss to Amanda Nunes at UFC 232 in December 2018 is perhaps just how resilient she has been throughout her fighting career.

    After all, Justino lost her professional MMA debut via first-round submission back in 2005 and picked up two losses in muay thai and submission wrestling competitions.

    So the idea that Justino might not be able to handle her loss to Nunes doesn't have much merit beyond the situational paradigm fans and media often seem to fall in love with in the world of prizefighting storylines. 

    "I think a lot of people expected me to be devastated by the loss, but I have a great support system around me and know what is really important in life," Justino said. 

    Besides, Justino likened losing to Nunes as being just like any other kind of loss she'd taken over the years. 

    "I have always played sports, even as a kid," Justino said. "You win or you lose, and this is how the game is played."

    Even the end of Justino's UFC run hasn't seemed to faze the former champion. 

    While some people in the sport weren't too keen about the way UFC President Dana White handled his relationship with Justino before, during or even after her time in the organization, Justino expressed gratitude for her UFC experience and excitement about what she's doing now. 

    "I think everything happens for a reason," Justino said. "I am happy I was able to get a featherweight division made in the UFC and happy to have been a champion in that organization. I'm excited to turn the page and start my chapter with Bellator MMA and Scott Coker."

    And the biggest reason for her smile? Justino said it was the quality of opposition she sees in Bellator's 145-pound ranks. 

    "Bellator has the best female featherweight division in the world, with more top-10-ranked fighters than any other organization," she said.

Trailblazing Cyborg Helped Women's MMA Grow

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    Cyborg's success has helped other fighters, too.
    Cyborg's success has helped other fighters, too.Josh Hedges/Getty Images

    Perhaps most startling about Justino is her calm acceptance of her place in women's MMA history. After all, she was one of the early trailblazers in the sport who helped opportunities for other female MMA fighters grow to new heights over the last 10 years. 

    Rousey. Cyborg. Nunes. None of the other women in the sport would have the chances they have today without these three stalwarts. 

    Justino said she was happy to have been a part of that because it helped other fighters in the sport have the opportunity to carve out their own legacies, too. 

    "I think as women we all need to support one another," she said.

    However, Justino didn't always feel supported by other fighters on her way up the ranks to becoming the star she eventually developed into. 

    "I remember when I was struggling without a female featherweight division to compete in," she said. "It was hard getting other female fighters to support opening up the new division." 

    But others eventually did come around. The UFC never would have created the women's featherweight division had Justino's star power not demanded it. So, Nunes becoming only the fourth "champ champ" in UFC history? That never would have happened without Cyborg.

    "I think it's important to be competitive, but as women, to never stop supporting one another," Justino said. 

What Comes Next for Cyborg?

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    Cyborg still has big plans for her future.
    Cyborg still has big plans for her future.Josh Hedges/Getty Images

    No matter what comes next, Justino's legacy is already secure. Still, she said she isn't finished.

    In fact, she knows that for even more of her MMA dreams to come true, she'll need to end any idea that Budd might have about using her entrance into the company as a springboard for her own dreams.

    Ever the competitor, Justino wouldn't have things any other way.

    "I am ready to do what I need to do to prove to the world I am the best female featherweight," Justino said.