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Tonya Evinger believes she’ll be Cris Cyborg’s ‘toughest challenge’

Tonya Evinger gets a shot at the UFC women’s featherweight title next month.
Esther Lin, Invicta FC

One of the biggest knocks on Cris Cyborg over the last few years is that she’s short on quality opponents, that there’s no viable elite fighters available to fight her, especially at 145 pounds. That idea might about to be turned on its head.

On Tuesday, the UFC announced that Cyborg would be fighting for the promotion’s vacant women’s featherweight title against Tonya Evinger at UFC 214 on July 29 in Anaheim, Calif. Cyborg’s previous opponent, Megan Anderson, withdrew due to personal issues.

Evinger has never fought in the UFC, but her résumé is impressive. She has held the Invicta FC women’s bantamweight title for two years, has not lost a fight since 2011 and has been dominant in most of her title defenses. Perhaps most importantly, Evinger is an elite wrestler with a grinding, exhausting style that Cyborg has not seen before.

“I think I’m her biggest challenge to date,” Evinger told MMA Fighting. “I’m not taking anything away from any of them other girls. All of them are good in their own right. It’s just my style, anyway. I think I’m gonna be the toughest challenge for her.”

Evinger, 36, will certainly be giving up some size to Cyborg, who is a very big featherweight. But Evinger cuts quite a bit of weight to make 135 and believes she’ll be comfortable in the 145-pound weight class. It isn’t like the Houston resident would turn down this opportunity to face Cyborg and fight for a UFC title.

“You know what? I’m not a puss,” Evinger said. “I know it’s a struggle to get to 145 for her. I know what it is. It doesn’t matter, man. I’ll go home and I’ll regret this for the rest of my life. ‘I could have beat her, maybe. I don’t know. Maybe I should have took the fight. Why was I such a puss?’ I was scared to fight at 145? That’s not me, man. I’m not saying I’m gonna go out there and fight at 170 pounds tomorrow or the next fight or anything like that, but [145] is realistic. This ain’t too far off.

“I do think I’m really dominant at 135. I think I can definitely dominate at [145] and i think I can dominate at [125].”

While some fighters want time to fight Cyborg and some will not fight her at all (like stripped UFC champion Germaine de Randamie), Evinger said she never hesitated. “Triple Threat” said she was contacted last Thursday by the UFC and said yes immediately. It just a matter of getting released from her Invicta contract and coming to financial terms with the UFC. Evinger said she officially signed her UFC deal Tuesday, hours before the fight was initially announced.

“It just doesn’t matter to me,” Evinger said of the short turnaround. “I think the longer I wait, the more pressure I put on myself. I feel like me and my camp, we've been talking about this fight. I knew we would get this fight. Not at this moment, but I knew it would be my first fight in the UFC.”

Evinger (19-5, 1 NC) had a feeling that the UFC wouldn’t just sign her as anything but a replacement opponent. And she knew it would be no walk in the park for her first fight. Evinger and the UFC have had a bit of a combative history, with her saying at one point that she wasn’t even interested in going over to the major promotion.

“I knew they weren’t gonna give me any kind of easy run,” Evinger said. “I knew I was going to get something as tough as they possibly could. But whatever, I’m here to fight.”

With her mindset, Evinger has a hard time understanding why de Randamie was willing to get stripped of her UFC women’s featherweight title just to not face Cyborg. De Randamie has said that she wouldn't give Cyborg an opportunity at the belt, because of her past positive drug tests. Evinger, who held the Invicta 135-pound belt since 2015, cannot relate to that attitude.

“I’m the champion,” Evinger said. “There’s no way that being a champion you should be able to pick and choose your opponents. I’m there to fight. If I get beat, so be it. I’m not gonna not fight somebody to protect my championship belt. That’s ridiculous.”

Next month, Evinger will have a chance to win another championship belt. It would be an incredible sequence of events, someone spurned by the UFC knocking off the most dominant female fighter ever in Cyborg and taking home the UFC title.

Evinger is not gonna get ahead of herself, though. She was already in training camp for a 145-pound fight at Invicta 24 on July 15, so she has already been in the gym. Obviously this is a significantly higher profile fight against a far tougher opponent.

But again, pumping the brakes was never an option. That’s just not what she does, nor who she is.

“I’m not gonna not take a fight because I’m scared and intimidated,” Evinger said. “I’m scared and intimidated every single fight. i just go out there and do it. … A lot of these girls want to come in here to be famous, but they don’t have the balls enough to climb these certain walls and do these things to make you famous.”

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