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UFC 222 breakdowns: Cris Cyborg vs. Yana Kunitskaya, Frankie Edgar vs. Brian Ortega

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

For fun, take a look at Cris “Cyborg” Justino’s historical fight odds page sometime. The numbers are absurd, unlike anything we see in major mixed martial arts. In 11 fights in a row, she closed as a favorite of -1000 or better, a streak that was finally broken when she faced Holly Holm last December. That challenge now under her belt, Cyborg may have smooth road ahead of her, starting with UFC 222’s main event fight on Saturday.

Facing Russian Yana Kunitskaya in Las Vegas’ T-Mobile Arena, Cyborg is back to her normal role as a massive favorite, around -1600 at last check, as she attempts to further tighten her lock on the UFC women’s featherweight championship. The reasoning is fairly straightforward: while Cyborg hasn’t lost an MMA fight in nearly 13 years, Kunitskaya lost as recently as last March, and is only 2-2 with 1 no contest in her last five cage appearances. On top of that, she is making her UFC debut under the limelight, and has been a bantamweight for her last four fights.

The challenger has taken a strange road to the Octagon. In 2013 she retired from fighting after giving birth to a son. Three years later, she came back and immediately lost her return fight. In November 2016, she thought she captured the Invicta FC bantamweight title with an arm bar win over Tonya Evinger, only to have it later overturned to a no contest after it was determined the referee incorrectly forced Evinger to give up a defensive position that ultimately led to a finish. Then in the rematch, Kunitskaya lost. Five months later, she finally captured the belt after Evinger vacated it to chase Cyborg into the UFC, much as Kunitskaya is doing now.

At 5-foot-8 and with a 68-inch reach, Kunitskaya (10-3, 1 no contest) is Cyborg’s equal in both measurements. Blessed with a wiry build, Kunitskaya tends to fight tall. The 28-year-old liberally employs the use of front kicks with both legs, using them to set distance and keep her opponents from advancing aggression. It is one of her favorite techniques, and one that she will need to use effectively to keep Cyborg’s barrages at bay. Despite seven knockouts in her 10 pro wins, Kunitskaya is not a classic power striker. Instead, she is much more likely to pile up strikes until an opponent wilts, or win with ground-and-pound.

While she has a reputation as a striker—her background is in taekwondo—she has shown excellent ground skills, particularly from the bottom where she is quite active and dangerous with submission tries. One caveat there is that she appears to be so comfortable from the position that she rarely tries to return to her feet, a tactic that will lose rounds at the highest level...or worse.

One potentially troubling tendency regards her frequent clinches; Kunitskaya has a tight, solid step-in jab that she occasionally uses and comes in behind, but often it seems there is no real plan behind it, and she gets stuck in a battle for positioning. While she’s survived those situations against most opponents, Cyborg loves a good clinch. She’s stronger than everyone in the division, and she’s one of few featherweights than can end a fight there. Kunitskaya will find danger there, and even on her back. Her best position will be fighting at distance, with the aid of many, many front kicks.

A few years ago, such an approach may have troubled Cyborg, who fought with the Chute Boxe ethos of chasing down and wrecking whatever was in front of her. In time though, she’s refined her game greatly. No longer a bomb-throwing headhunter, Cyborg now combines finesse with her natural power to great effect. She cuts angles, she feints and bobs her head, she fires and slips. The trouble that many foresaw for her against Holm last December never really came. Cyborg doubled up Holm in strikes landed in every round, and ultimately out-struck her by a total of 131-48, according to FightMetric. (As an interesting sidenote, Holm is Kunitskaya’s teammate at Team Jackson Winkeljohn.)

In continuing her recent trend, Cyborg (19-1, 1 no contest) went heavy to the body and legs, landing 48 significant strikes to those target areas over the course of the fight, and giving Holm few openings in the process.

On the ground, Cyborg is punishing, often overwhelming opponents with both volume and power, and while she never goes for submissions—she has none in her pro career—she’s a brown belt, and uses her skills to pass to dominant positions in looking for the finish.

All of these words lead us to what seems like the inevitable conclusion: Kunitskaya is not in Cyborg’s league. While she does have the benefit of a camp that is well versed in Cyborg’s tendencies, she probably lacks the firepower to capitalize on it.

Cyborg is stronger, faster, more explosive and better all-around. The pick is Cyborg via second-round TKO.

Co-main event: Frankie Edgar vs. Brian Ortega

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Somehow, Brian Ortega keeps finding ways to win. In all six of his UFC fights, he has been out-landed—sometimes by as much as a 2-to-1 margin. Yet Ortega seems to have an innate ability to find and exploit the last and best available opening to finish the fight. Last time came against Cub Swanson, a grizzled and explosive veteran who won the first round only to fall into an inescapable standing guillotine in the second.

Opportunism is the name of Ortega’s game. It’s also how he found himself here, against Frankie Edgar in the UFC 222 co-main event. Edgar was supposed to be fighting UFC featherweight champion Max Holloway, but an injury scuttled those plans, and instead of waiting for a coveted shot at the belt, Edgar told the UFC to bring on the next best man, and Ortega agreed to the short-notice pairing.

Since Edgar is a proven commodity, let’s start with Ortega, who just turned 27 years old and boasts an unbeaten record of 13-0 with 1 no contest. His striking has definitely improved over his UFC tenure. He keys off the jab but has a fairly thorough attack with uppercuts, straights and kicks. He moves his trunk well, stays in a protective shell and sometimes switches stances from his natural orthodox to southpaw, though he is far more effective from the former.

That’s the good side. The bad is that he still occasionally walks forward too casually, stepping into the landing area without any offensive plans of his own. He also does not always respond well to combinations, and his striking accuracy is far too low. For comparison, he lands only 32 percent of his strikes while his opponents land 45 percent of theirs, according to FightMetric. As a result, he gets hit far more than he hits opponents, and current success notwithstanding, that portends long-term problems.

To be sure, Ortega has the time and ability to turn that shortcoming around and take his striking, and by extension, his career, to the next level, but Edgar has been known to stop prospects in their tracks.

The fight between them is almost certainly going to come down to whether Ortega can tap Edgar. In his career, Edgar, who is now 36 years old, has never been submitted. He has faced multiple Brazilian jiu jitsu black belts including B.J. Penn, Cub Swanson, Mark Bocek and Charles Oliveira, and no one’s ever come close to submitting him. Worse for Ortega, no one’s ever stopped him, period, and given Ortega’s propensity to fall behind on the scorecards (and Edgar’s nonstop motor), it seems that’s his only route to victory.

Edgar’s offense is pretty well known at this point. It’s all about speed and movement. He uses circling, head movement and feints to get in, land and get out.

When that fails—or simply to change the pace—Edgar has one of the best striking-to-takedown transitions in the sport’s history. He’s brilliant at stepping under an overhand and getting deep on the legs. For Edgar, it’s not always necessary to put his opponent on his back; it’s about making him expend the energy to defend, and to give him another element of the game to consider.

Will Edgar try the takedowns here? Maybe not early, but it would be a huge surprise to see him abandon his wrestling, particularly because he has great confidence in his submission defense. Expect Edgar to sprinkle in some takedowns, but not to spend too much time in Ortega’s guard afterward.

By virtue of his nasty sub skills, Ortega may be the single most hazardous fighter in the division, but Edgar has been so far up until now un-finishable. That streak may come to an end at some point, but Edgar has won seven of his last eight fights; he shows not a single sign of slowing. And so in this case, we must go with the sticking-and-moving, the feints, the jabs, the volume and the experience. It’s Edgar in a unanimous decision.