As women’s martial arts reached unprecedented heights in 2013 on the back of Ronda Rousey, Cristiane Justino was biding her time.
Undoubtedly the sport’s finest featherweight, and perhaps its greatest ever competitor, the woman called Cyborg answered Rousey’s reinvention of the female combative arts with patient, blue collar destruction. As media attention focused on the charismatic and marketable woman who brought the first female weight division to the UFC, there remained a sizable portion of fans who believed, without doubt, that the 145 lb juggernaut was the greatest athlete the women’s side of the sport had ever seen.
Cyborg’s homecoming, her first true moment of recognition, came during an August 2009 Strikeforce featherweight title bout against MMA’s original breakout female star, Gina Carano. The first card in a major MMA organization to be headlined by two women, the bout was, in itself, a landmark. Though she would not achieve the publicity of Rousey, Carano was notable enough to transition successfully into acting, and appeared destined to be a superstar. A woman like Cyborg seems a perfect foil for destiny.
In what would be many fans’ first exposure to Cyborg, she brutalized Carano, stopping her with strikes in the final seconds of the first round. She showed all the traits of the fighter she would become, despite her relative inexperience and lack of technical refinement. The most notable of these traits, and the one which would quickly become the now-champion’s hallmark, was the sheer viscerality of her performances.
There’s something unusually primal about a Cris Cyborg fight. Though, by all accounts, a kind-hearted and generous person outside of the cage, within steel walls, she appears to embody decimation in a way unmatched by any competitor in mixed martial arts, regardless of gender. She is a whirling dervish; an irresistible force, seemingly incapable of being matched in terms of either skill or physicality. Opponents are beaten, bloodied and swiftly overwhelmed, inevitably succumbing to her onslaught as they helplessly cease to struggle.
To her fans, and even to her detractors, each new opponent is nothing more than a lamb to the slaughter. No foe since Carano has been given any sort of real chance against the Brazilian wrecking machine, and not one of those women has been capable of making Cyborg look human. The lone exception came in the form of a decision loss to undefeated kickboxer, Jorina Baars in a 2014 Muay Thai rules bout. In MMA, she remains unblemished since a loss in her professional debut. No one has so much as made it to the final bell since 2008.
The spectacle of a Cyborg fight is as thrilling as it is unsettling; the desire to witness her remarkable performances is fundamentally interwoven with a sense of foreboding for the inevitable and unique brutality which will surely follow. Opponents, fans, and individuals from all areas of the MMA stratosphere understand that Cyborg is to be feared, and the subversiveness of that fear hangs heavily over the women’s divisions.
In 2016, this fear has only festered with time. A long string of knockout victories have bolstered her legacy as arguably the greatest female competitor in mixed martial arts’ short history. Many factors have lead Cyborg, perhaps the UFC’s most unstoppable force, to this point.
One such factor is the quality of her competition. As weight classes move further from the median weight for a given gender, the pool of human beings who fit comfortably into that weight class diminishes. For an athletic woman subjecting herself to the weight cutting process prevalent in North American MMA, 145 lbs is an extreme. The average woman is likely to fall closer to 115 lbs under these conditions, and thus Justino’s pool of possible rivals is already limited in a manner similar to the male heavyweight division.
From that pool, finding a woman who can even compete athletically with such an incredibly gifted fighter is a difficult proposition. In addition, the UFC does not currently possess a female featherweight class, and her most esteemed potential foes reside in the bantamweight division, the elite fighters of which are seemingly unwilling to face Cyborg at 145 lbs. Financial viability is largely absent for divisions which do not exist in the UFC, further limiting the development of such a weight class.
To dismiss the Brazilian’s reputation as one founded on divisional weakness, however, is to miss the very real craft which enables her wave of mutilation.
Early in her development, Cyborg’s game was wild but overwhelming. While her instincts for counter punching and finding openings for strikes in the pocket were superb, her striking lacked detail. Her immense strength, size and hand speed prevented opponents from capitalizing on the technical deficiencies in her game, but her approach is nothing, if not workmanlike.
Though not a household name, Jason Parillo, Cyborg’s striking coach, is quietly one of the finest teachers of boxing fundamentals in the sport. The man behind the reinvention of newly crowned middleweight champion Michael Bisping, Parillo is a coach whose fighters seem to illustrate quite clearly that he himself is a perfectionist. With an outrageously gifted but still-developing talent like Justino, Parillo’s sense for MMA-applicable boxing transformed an already terrifying striker into a fighter who dispatches foes as much through ringcraft and savvy as through sheer athleticism.
The greatest changes to Cyborg’s approach in recent years have come in two key areas, inextricably connected: clinch offense and the command of distance.
The biggest singular alteration to her repertoire has been the exponential growth in her footwork. Under Parillo, Cyborg’s technical game has come to be defined by a keen understanding of ringcraft. Capable as she may be of bulldozing women through physicality alone, the Brazilian has come to value efficiency and economy of movement, forcing opponents into desired ranges with tight pivots, angular positioning and precise cage-cutting. In the early stages of her career, her still-potent brand of violence often felt purposeless, but with the tools necessary to herd opposition into any range she desires, there is a real sense of a thoughtful fighter behind the 2016 iteration of Cyborg.
With the skills to dictate where the fight takes place, Justino’s domineering clinch game has proven readily available to her. Her reservoir of techniques in the clinch runs incredibly deep, and may constitute the most dangerous element of her skillset. Alternating between various combinations of underhooks, bicep control and single or double collar ties, her control is masterful. She grants very little space to women unfortunate enough to find themselves pinned against the fence, and once there, feeds them a steady stream of powerful knees to the legs and body. Opponents find themselves completely unable to create the separation necessary to circle out.
In addition to great instincts for clinch fighting, her awareness of opponents’ escape routes and the tools she uses to shut them down may be the finest in women’s martial arts. In her recent bout against Lina Lansberg, she repeatedly applied a single underhook while placing her weight firmly on the same side, and with the other arm, alternated between bicep control and the single collar tie. When Cyborg underhooked on the left side, Lansberg would attempt to circle out to the right, leading her directly into punishing knee strikes. When the underhook was on the right side, the Brazilian alternated the same bicep control to single collar tie sequence with her left arm to open knees from the same side.
Cyborg prefers to leave calculated space on one side of her clinch structures, encouraging movement directly into her knee strikes and overhand punches. By creating the illusion of opportunity, she hands less technical clinch fighters just enough rope to hang themselves with. Mixing in double collar ties for good measure, she constantly adjusted her methods of control as Lansberg jockeyed to position herself for escape.
Wrist control and head pressure stifled any attempts to avoid the battle for underhooks, and her preternatural clinch sense made way for several moments of remarkable savvy. Towards the middle of the first round, Lansberg had seemingly found space to circle out to her left. As she attempted to do so, Cyborg latched onto the Swede’s right bicep with her own left hand before launching a pair of powerful overhand rights into the space her target was attempting to circle into. Deterred, Lansberg quickly conceded any ground she had gained, and found herself right back where she started. From here, Cyborg was more readily able to allow space for her own offense, having stifled Lansberg’s willingness to traverse through that space.
Once she senses opportunity, Cyborg suddenly disengages from the clinch before delivering long and dizzying combinations of hooks, straight punches and kicks to the legs and body. Her ability to re-establish the clinch at any moment allows her to ensure that foes will not flee, and attempts to escape the fence in either direction are met with an abundance of same-side strikes.
Purposeful application of skills and in-cage decision making are often the difference between good fighters and elite fighters, and a Cristiane Justino who knows what she is doing and why is an immense threat. As impressive as it is, the full breadth of Cyborg’s skillset is unknown, as none have been able to trouble her or deter her from any sort of gameplan she chooses to employ. A credentialed jiu-jitsu player under all-time grappling great André Galvão, her skills on the mat are sparsely shown, manifesting generally in the form of control positions from which to unload on foes with violent punches and elbows.
As many avoid a showdown with Cyborg, it may be to their detriment should they wish to face her in the future. The defensive deficiencies which could potentially have created opportunities for skilled opponents in the past are gradually disappearing and, in turn, highlighting the depth of her offensive abilities.
Though not the UFC’s most recognizable woman, she is undoubtedly its most intimidating, and very likely its greatest. Prospective bouts against elite bantamweights such as Ronda Rousey and Miesha Tate would grant Cyborg the opportunity to add much-needed credence to her résumé, but as she continues to refine her craft and lay waste to every woman placed in front of her, even the UFC’s finest seem likely to offer little competition for the Brazilian powerhouse.
Although her greatest challenges are yet to materialize, the grim reality that they would likely fare little better than previous Cyborg opponents seems to become more apparent with each broken, battered body left in her wake. While the biggest roadblock of her career continues to be a lack of willing competition, the UFC’s most visceral woman is content to remind spectators, each and every time, why she has come to be so feared.
As the magnetic attraction of that fear continues to draw eyes to her incredible career, demand for true tests of her skill will increase. In turn, we may soon learn that the fighter with the ability to make Cris Cyborg look human, to end her reign of terror, simply does not exist.