There was always a reason floating around for those who wanted to deny that Cris Cyborg, who for all intents and purposes has been lineal world women’s featherweight champion for eight years, was the greatest women’s fighter of all-time.
There was the big one, of course: Cyborg’s steroid suspension following a 16-second TKO of Hiroko Yanamaka in a Strikeforce fight in 2011. That was a self-inflicted wound that came during the time of athletic commission testing, which were far easier to get around than the current USADA regime.
There were those who bought Ronda Rousey’s hype and believed not just that she was a competitor who had a memorable run at bantamweight, but that she’d win a fight against Floyd Mayweather.
There were Rousey’s enablers who ran interference for her and turned public opinion against her. Dana White made Cyborg run a gauntlet others didn’t have to go through, and both he and color commentator Joe Rogan made low-class comments that disparaged a tremendous fighter who they should have been building into a big draw, neither the first nor last time they’d let their mouths get in the way of business.
Then there was the thing which gained traction in recent years: There were those who used the lack of depth at featherweight as a reason to discount Cyborg’s accomplishments.
It’s not Cyborg’s fault she’s naturally bigger than most female competitors. Nonetheless, as she worked her through the likes of Fiona Muxlow, Charmaine Tweet, and Faith Van Duin, the question of whether Cyborg was still as good as she was cracked up to be was bound to become a bigger concern in this “what have you done for me lately” sport.
But such questions were definitively answered on Saturday night at UFC 219. Cyborg faced her biggest name opponent and toughest challenge in Holly Holm. As anyone following this sport longer than a day knows, Holm is a former world boxing champion who crossed over and won the UFC bantamweight title from Rousey.
Holm, groomed by the vaunted JacksonWink MMA, brought the smartest game plan you could bring to a fight with Cyborg, and she still didn’t come close to winning (a pair of 48-47 scores notwithstanding: The judge who had it 49-46 had it right). Cyborg’s not just the Mike Tyson-esque monster she’d been proclaimed to be. She’s evolved her game over the years, and put it on display Saturday as she figured out Holm’s game and then counterstruck Holm into oblivion.
There’s an ongoing debate about the mythical Greatest of All-Time on the men’s side of the sport. Let’s say this: Matt Hughes didn’t vacate his welterweight title rather than fight Georges St-Pierre. Nor did Rich Franklin do the same with Anderson Silva.
On the women’s side? Germaine de Randamie gave up her featherweight title rather than face Cyborg. And while yes, featherweight is a dreadfully shallow division, Cyborg now has the one signature victory she needed, the one that reminded us that yes, she was every bit as good as the hype.
“I never think like that,” Cyborg said at the post-fight press conference. “I let my fans think about that. I just have to keep training and keep learning, because the girls are going to beat me, and I have to be ready.”
Cyborg showed humility in victory. But we’ll say it for her: After Saturday night, only the most intransigent trolls are still denying she’s the greatest women’s fighter we’ve ever seen.
UFC 219 quotes
“Maybe, if UFC approve, I can fight with these guys same night,” Nurmagomedov said during the post-fight press conference at Las Vegas’ T-Mobile Arena. “I swear, I don’t joke. If UFC makes this, I can fight same night. I can fight with this guy same night.” -- Kahbib Nurmagomedov offers to fight Conor McGregor and Tony Ferguson in the same night.
“I don't like to fight somebody from Brazil, but if [Amanda Nunes] wants to fight me, I'll fight anyone Dana White puts in front of me,” Cyborg said Saturday night at UFC 219’s post-fight press conference. “But I say Megan Anderson, because she's 145 pounds and I'd like my division to grow. They need to invest, you need to put the girls at 145.” --Cyborg on whom she’d like to fight next.
“Don't Care If The @ufc Approves, I'll Cut @TheNotoriousMMA ... Drop @TeamKhabib & Move Up To Welterweight Either B4 Or After I'm Done w/ This Division & Rid It Of The Trash At The Top. Pollution Has Accumilated Over The Years, Time To Clean House #DefendOrVacate” -- Ferguson responding to Nurmagomedov’s performance as only he can.
Up: Khabib Nurmagomedov I’m not sure what to add to the superlatives that have already been correctly placed on Nurmagomedov’s 30-25, 30-25, 30-24 win over a tough Edson Barboza, a thorough performance which raised his record to 25-0. So let me add this: Conor McGregor was suspiciously silent on social media last night. The more parrot-like of Conor’s Twitter fans were also far more quiet than usual. And Tony Ferguson, who yapped about Khabib in the runup to the fight, suddenly started tweeting about McGregor afterwards (although he at least eventually addressed Khabib). Need I say more?
Up: Carla Esparza I can’t lie, here: I had long since mentally written Esparza off. Every time she stepped into the cage over the past couple years, the images of her horrible night against Joanna Jedrzejczyk flashed into my brain. But the former UFC and Invicta strawweight champion has bounced back admirably with three wins in four fights since that time, with the only loss a questionable split decision to Maryna Moroz. At UFC 219, Esparza put on exactly the sort of performance you want to see feisty and still motivated who is being thrown into a matchup with a fighter being annointed the division’s next big thing. Esparza rallied from a slow first round against Cynthia Calvillo and then took the upstart to school over the final two rounds. It was a statement win, one which announced she’s still among the elite at 115 pounds.
Hold: Holly Holm. Maybe this should read “down,” considering that one way to read her recent stretch is the cold fact that she’s lost four of her past five fights. But I’m not going to get too down on a fighter who has embraced every challenge the sport has thrown her way and done so without fear. Let’s not forget that at UFC 208, Holm was ill-served by an incompetent referee who let Germaine de Randamie keep walloping her after the bell. And that GDR then actually vacated the featherweight championship rather than fight Cyborg. Holm didn’t say no when it was thought she was fighting Ronda Rousey too soon; didn’t sit back and wait for a Rousey rematch and instead accepted Miesha Tate’s challenge; went up to 145 and fought GDR; and came back last night and gave Cyborg the best challenger we’ve ever seen Cyborg take. She came up short, but make no mistake about it: Holly Holm is one of the greatest competitors in the history of women’s combat sports.
Up: Tim Elliott. It’s been a roller-coaster of a month for the TUF 24 winner. First he had a fight at UFC Fresno fall out when Pietro Menga badly missed weight. Then, in a far more serious matter, he lost coach Robert Follis. On Saturday night, Elliott put in a splendid effort in memory of his late coach, outgrappling jiu-jitsu black belt Mark De La Rosa for a second-round submission. That’s good for two wins in his past three fights and a Performance of the Night bonus, but more importantly, serves as an admirable example of how to press on in the face of adversity and grief.
Down: Carlos Condit. What Georges St-Pierre pulled off at UFC 217 against Michael Bisping after four years away from the sport was the exception, not the rule. Condit’s lackluster performance against Neil Magny after being away for 18 months was a reminder that this sport never stops moving and it’s rare that anyone gets to turn back the clock. Maybe this was down to ring rust, and Condit’s certainly earned the right to find out. But after 41 professional fights using a hard-charing, violent style, it’s hard to dispel that quiet, nagging feeling that maybe what we saw last night is what we’ll continue to see going forward.
There was a bit of a kerfluffle online when the judges’ scorecards in the Cyborg-Holm fight were posted, and it was revealed that two judges gave Holm the first two rounds. But it’s simply not an outrageous conclusion. I had round one for Cyborg and round two for Holm, but both rounds were close.
That some were so thirsty for outrage is an indication of how smooth a night it was from an officiating standpoint. There were no robberies in a night with many fights that went the distance and the referees were as invisible as they should be. This has mostly been the case over the past few months, so let’s hope things stay that way.
Fight I’d like to see next: Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Tony Ferguson
The path Conor McGregor has chosen has undeniably made him wealthier than any MMA fighter has ever dreamt. It’s also led to a situation in the lightweight division in which a fight between the interim champion and an undefeated contender is more interesting than either of them fighting McGregor.
Yes, I know: McGregor has more money than both of them combined and can make a bigger payday fighting Oscar De La Hoya or a saber-toothed tiger or whatever else he can dream up. Good for him. He’s also 1-0 in the UFC lightweight division and hasn’t fought there in 14 months and counting. The winner of Ferguson, with his 10 straight wins in the division and 13-1 UFC record, vs. the 25-0 Nurmagomedov is the true champion.
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