After watching Cris 'Cyborg' Justino dominate every fight since she burst onto the U.S. scene nearly six years ago, it started off shocking, when quickly in the first round of Friday night's Muay Thai battle with Jordina Baars, that this was clearly altogether different.
Justino was not going to be a human tornado leaving destruction everywhere in her wake. For the first time, she was in a real fight and her mental toughness was going to be tested. Then, after the second and third rounds of the Lion Fight 14 battle at the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas, not only was it clear this a real fight, but that Justino was the one in over her head.
As the fifth round started, it appeared she was going to need a knockout to win. That didn't happen, and she lost a clear and somewhat lopsided decision.
In the end, the story was simple and obvious. A world champion with somewhere between 35 and 38 fights under this set of rules, and who had never lost, is going to have the advantage over a relative novice with two prior fights. It doesn't matter that the novice was an exceptional fighter under a completely different set of rules.
It was quickly clear you had the kickboxing equivalent of an experienced matador against a raging bull. What made the fight so exciting is that Justino clearly possessed the power that had to be respected. The story of the fight is she was getting beaten, but at no point until the closing seconds did it ever feel like there was finality in the sense she had no chance of landing a hard enough punch to end it.
But in losing, Justino proved she was not like a lot of front-runners and fighting bullies, the types who are tough and unbeatable until faced with the reality of adversity.
To an experienced fight fan, the conclusion of the fight shouldn't have been viewed negatively in the least for Justino.
But to the public at large, at least those who saw the fight, or read about it, it was a fighter who had a certain untouchable aura, and now there is a chink.
What happened is a reality of the fighting world. The greatest fighter in the world is determined not by who is the physically toughest, but who is the best under the rules of that specific fight. While that is elementary knowledge, fighting at the very top level is a unique business built as much around fantasy as reality.
There is a reason that boxing promoters and managers would never allow the big money fighters anywhere near an Octagon. And there is a reason why UFC has it written into every contract that their fighters cannot participate in sports like boxing or Muay Thai. UFC even once renegotiated an inherited contract of Nick Diaz over that very subject, the fear that he would take a boxing match, lose, and it would hurt his future main event marketability in UFC.
In reality, Justino's loss should mean only a little more in MMA than Michael Jordan being humbled on the baseball field meant to basketball fans when he returned. It's a different sport. She faced a world champion in their own sport under their own rules. Period. End of discussion.
But right now, with UFC in a rebuilding phase, with no "magic" fights on the horizon, one of the biggest potential fights in the sport is Justino vs. Ronda Rousey. For a number of reasons, it is one of those rare fights that can capture the imagination of people who don't follow the sport closely.
Those are the same people who promoters specifically target when avoiding allowing their top fighters anywhere near playing under somebody else's rules on somebody else's turf. And there was a time, when the fighting knowledge of the fan base was pretty limited where these fears were significant.
The question becomes, does the fact Justino lost hurt the business of a future fight with Rousey? The answer is, if handled correctly, it shouldn't matter at all.
The key to maximize business is for Justino to fight a couple of times in the UFC in a featured position. As long as she wins in impressive fashion, the interest will be there for her and Rousey, provided Rousey also continues to win. Wins on the outside are nice, but they aren't going to be seen by enough people to make a difference. Plus, the two women seemingly don't like each other. Neither are shy about talking about the other and making that clear in very personal terms. If there's anything that the last few years have shown, it's that a grudge, whether real or exaggerated, is the biggest key in blowing up main event business.
The one thing the fight did do is create the opportunity for Invicta to have a rematch, under MMA rules. The odds are huge that the same story will be in effect there, the great fighter, playing but her rules, will win, and if anything, far more decisively in MMA. For those who aren't fight fans enough to understand the difference, the end result of the rematch would erase any damage to the mystique of Justino, provided she wins. But if she were to lose in MMA, at that point a match with Rousey would lose a lot of its luster.
Even though wrestling throws aren't supposed to be part of a Muay Thai fight, Justino was throwing Baars all over the place, several times slamming her down hard. In MMA, there would be no break and stand-up from the position, and Justino has great ground-and-pound. Baars, who is 1-3 in MMA, as compared to either 33-0-3 or 36-0-3, depending upon what source you believe, in kickboxing, is the living proof of just how different these two sports are.