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It’s time for the UFC to stop treating 'Cyborg' like a sorority pledge

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Well, she made it. Cris Cyborg Justino wrung her body out and hit the 141 maximum so that she can fight Lina Lansberg at UFC Fight Night 95 on Saturday night in Brasilia, Brazil. All week long it was in question, from Monday when she said she weighed in the neighborhood of 165, to Thursday morning when she said she was tipping the scales at 150. Those documenting Cyborg’s voyage captured her arguing with her nutritionist George Lockhart about birth control pills affecting the already arduous cut. The last time she cut down to 140, against Leslie Smith back in May, there was footage of her crying during the process.

Subtle reminders of her humanity.

Still, she went out and ravaged Smith like a flaming roaring banshee just loosed from some dark sector of hell. Nobody makes hell so transferable as Cyborg, who (seemingly) punishes her opponents for forcing her to such extremes. One gets the sense that the same thing lies in store for Sweden’s Lansberg, too, who is also partaking in a fight at an arbitrary weight so that…so that…I guess to make it more fair? Just feeding Cyborg somebody at 145 pounds, a weight class she has traditionally fought at and won titles in, must be like sliding the proverbial steak under the door.

It’s all kind of dumb, of course, because all we’re doing is chasing some original idea that vaporized a long time ago.

Back in the day, when Ronda Rousey was romping through the UFC’s bantamweight division and basking in all the plaudits, there was nobody out there who could challenge her. Except, that is, for Cyborg, the featherweight champion who existed on a different plane. For years the abstract idea, more a theory — a gut feeling, really, some wild hunch! — was that Cyborg would cut down to 135 pounds and make a superfight. Dana White was on record saying he needed to see Cyborg get down to that weight a couple of times before he’d book a Rousey-Cyborg megatilt, and he said she looked like Wanderlei Silva in a dress. Tito Ortiz, her manager at the time, had maternity concerns for Cyborg, which became a topic of sport. Rousey said she wasn’t budging, and called Cyborg an "it." Cyborg doused any expectations of her making 135 with regularity, though she did try and dupe herself for a bit there that she could make it, maybe to appease fans. And the fans remembered the time she popped hot for PEDs against Hiroko Yamanaka, and had a hard time dredging up any sympathy for her plight.

Well that was then.

These days Rousey has become the great recluse of the sport, a vincible recluse at that, and there’s only one consistent dominant fighter left in the women’s ranks north of strawweight — Cyborg Justino. She is the same person, only five pounds lighter on the scale. She’s the same machine, only she’s reminded that her kidneys are knocking around in there every time she drastically cuts. Rousey was the reason that women busted through to the UFC, and a division was created around her. Cyborg is still just an outsider that the UFC is trying to shoehorn into that picture — she’s being treated as a sorority pledge. She’s main-eventing a card in Brazil as a specimen that the UFC stills seems very unsure of. She’s fighting at 140 pounds to stay in orbit of the existing class, even though she’s the very catalyst to expand. By having her cut down to 140 for no good reason is to say, with a megaphone and extraordinary pomp, that she’s no Ronda Rousey.

She’s not, it’s true. And she will never blend in on a red carpet. She looks like a fighter, not a girl next door who happens to be a fighter. Cosmetic details are sometimes the whole story.

But man. It’s gotten uncomfortable watching Cyborg cut down to an arbitrary weight that stands in as a metaphor for belonging. No, there’s no gun to her head to do what she’s doing, but on this scale — as a headliner for a UFC event — it’s like something of lore. It’s like Kafka’s A Hunger Artist, where the protagonist starves for public entertainment, a dusty old mode of human suffering, and the butchers keep a close eye to make sure nobody’s cheating. Cyborg’s drama is twofold. We watch her nearly kill herself so that she can fight, then we watch her wallop somebody in ways that feel unfair. One extreme to the other.

It’s the latter that a promotion should rally behind. Though it's true she hasn't faced the kind of competition that Rousey has, Cyborg, in 2016, has no equal. Fighters who want to take the Cyborg Challenge should be made to meet her where she naturally fights, as a featherweight. Who would challenge her there? Holly Holm? Is it Cat Zingano? Miesha Tate? Rousey? Forget about titles, all of those become compelling with Cyborg the target. It should be, who belongs in the cage with Cyborg? It shouldn’t be, where does Cyborg belong in the current scheme of things...

Because, hey, there’s only one force in women’s MMA fight now who is a league above them all, and her name isn’t Ronda Rousey.