Back in the fall of 2012, Mike Dolce flew out to Southern California to meet with Cris Cyborg. At the time, the former Strikeforce featherweight champion was preparing to return from a one-year suspension for a positive steroids test, and looking forward to turning the page. Her future, though, was cloudy. While her longtime promotion was about to fold into the UFC, and UFC president Dana White announced a women's division would be included, the competition would be limited to 135-pounders. That was a weight that Cyborg had never approached in her career.
For two hours over dinner, Cyborg and Dolce discussed the possibility of her making that magic number. At the time, Cyborg was not training much, and weighed 168 pounds. While Dolce queried her about her dieting and workout habits, she laid out her reservations about the major downward shift.
After years of helping athletes achieve their fitness goals, Dolce didn't require much time to assess things. From what he heard and saw, he was confident in telling her she could easily make the weight, which would set up a superfight with bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey. By the time Dolce and Cyborg shook hands and parted, Dolce believed they were on the same page. Cyborg told him she would just have to speak to her management. But as time passed, a follow-up call from Cyborg or her Primetime 360 advisors never came, according to Dolce.
Instead, the next time he heard his name in connection with Cyborg, it was in the media, with Primetime 360's Tito Ortiz saying it was impossible for Cyborg to make 135 pounds. At that announcement, Dolce could only scratch his head.
"As a professional, I stand on my resume," Dolce told MMA Fighting. "If she had done the things necessary in November, December and January, it would have been easy for her to make 135 in February."
While that number was at the center of most conversations in the media regarding the inability to make the Cyborg-Rousey fight, it was not the deal-breaker it's been reported to be.
During the ongoing negotiations, which lingered for about two months, the promotion agreed to pay for the services of a dieting and nutrition consultant like Dolce. But there were other points that the two sides could not agree on.
The biggest issue, according to Cyborg's management firm Primetime 360, was Zuffa treating Cyborg as a bit player rather than an event co-star.
"Every pay-per-view megafight requires two participants, and they weren't giving Cris her just credit," Primetime 360 partner George Prajin told MMA Fighting. "They were compensating Ronda like she was the only attraction of the fight."
Despite several public statements by Cyborg and Ortiz that Cyborg could not make 135, as well as a failed practice cut led by Ortiz, Prajin told MMA Fighting that Cyborg would have attempted the drop to 135 if the sides struck a deal, but a contract fell apart for two reasons. First, the money was not right. And second, she was only interested in a short-term agreement.
The two sides could never get past the fact that Zuffa insisted on an eight-fight contract. Prajin said three fights would have been a fair compromise, that way, the UFC could have set up a Rousey-Cyborg fight, a potential rematch, and then one other bout. In exchange, Cyborg would agree to make 135, but only three times and then be free to return to a weight she believes to be her true home.
"Basically, her fighting at 135 is handicapping her," said Prajin. "We were willing to do that, and cut down and go work with Mike and get to 135 to do the fight because Cris wanted to fight Ronda. However, when they said we had to do it for eight fights? She doesn't want to do the cut eight times when all she wants to do is fight Ronda and beat Ronda. After Ronda, there is really nothing left for her."
Prajin said their negotiating leverage was taken away by Cyborg's inactivity and positive steroid result, and that he and Ortiz discussed producing an independent MMA event just to get her fights and disprove White's statement that she was "irrelevant." Instead, they asked for and received a release from Zuffa, and quickly came to a three-fight deal with Invicta Fighting Championships, where she recently defeated Fiona Muxlow by first-round TKO
According to Prajin, the Invicta deal was preferable because it is paying Cyborg more than the UFC offer, and contains an out clause after the second fight if the UFC -- and presumably Rousey -- comes calling.
"We may make it seem like it's more about money, but it's more about respect," Prajin said. "Cris is a humble person. She doesn't drive a fancy car. She beat Gina Carano and proved she was the best at that time, and she got nothing out of it. She got a gold belt around her waist. She told us, 'Hey, I don't care about the UFC.' She knows in her heart people know she's the best. She'll go to Invicta, Japan. She doesn't have anything to prove to anyone. Ronda may hear she's the best in the world, but she has to go to bed at night knowing that's not true until she fights Cris."
While specific terms of Cyborg's Invicta deal are not public, in the last fight of Santos' Strikeforce deal, she made a $33,000 base salary and earned a $33,000 win bonus. By comparison, Rousey had a $45,000 purse and earned a $45,000 win bonus for beating Liz Carmouche at UFC 157, but she also received a bonus based upon pay-per-view sales that likely bumped her total compensation into the mid six-figures.
The financial issues are not the only remaining obstacle in the way of a Cyborg-Rousey fight. Cyborg has a July featherweight championship date with Marloes Coenen at Invicta FC 6, while Rousey will coach the next season of The Ultimate Fighter before attempting to defend her belt against Cat Zingano around December.
Even if Cyborg and Rousey keep winning and the collision course becomes inevitable, the issue of weight will no doubt re-emerge. While Dolce said he was disappointed with how things were handled after his first meeting with Cyborg, he said he likes her and would still be willing to work with her in a more professional relationship.
He also continues to maintain that Cyborg could easily make 135, citing as evidence a photo Cyborg tweeted the night before the Invicta FC 5 weigh-ins, when she weighed 145.7 pounds.
"She's 10 pounds above the [135-pound] class the day before weigh-ins, which is exactly what she's supposed to be," he said. "That's a 135-pound athlete right there. That issue is all smoke and mirrors. She's a 135-pounder."
Prajin said he and Ortiz respect the work Dolce has done with clients ranging from Chael Sonnen to Vitor Belfort to Johny Hendricks, and that the camp's previous assertions that Cyborg couldn't make 135 was no reflection on him. In fact, if a superfight does come together, they would consider bringing him in to help.
Primetime's ultimate hope is that Rousey will want to fight Cyborg, or that public demand becomes so overwhelming that Zuffa has no choice but to put them together. And while Cyborg's side still contends the fight would be better suited at a 140-pound catchweight, Prajin wouldn't completely shut the door on the superfight's controversial magic number.
"I don't think we would try it," he said, "unless the UFC really, really made it worth Cris' while."