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You get the feeling this Cris Cyborg-Dana White relationship ain’t gonna work out

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

When Cris Cyborg finally signed a contract to fight in the UFC a full decade into her professional fighting career, the development came with excitement but also a hint of caution, well justified by the long-running, antagonistic comments made by the organization’s president. Without provocation, Dana White had once publicly ridiculed her, infamously describing her as “Wanderlei Silva in a dress and heels” while flaring his arms out and lumbering around the stage. With that backdrop, it was understandable why Cyborg entered the relationship with her guard up.

Three years and six fights later, you would think there would be some more common ground between them, the result of a mutually beneficial relationship. Cyborg has certainly generated a few dollars for the UFC, and by extension, for herself. She’s headlined three events for the promotion, helped prop up a sagging Brazilian market, and held the organization’s featherweight championship for over a year. She has basically been a model employee, err, independent contractor, during her time with the promotion.

Yet as she prepares for her UFC 240 matchup with Felicia Spencer on Saturday, the acrimony between Cyborg and White has reemerged, ignited by White’s recent remarks calling the fighter’s courage into question. He recently told TMZ that Cyborg is “afraid to lose again,” and a few days later, told a media scrum that she “does not want to fight Amanda Nunes, that is a fact.”

Aside from the fact that as a promoter, White should be, you know, promoting her fight with Spencer rather than casting her in a negative light, we have to take his “fact” with a grain of salt. Cyborg obviously disputes it. Although she has not detailed her contract situation, it is widely known that she is on the last fight of her deal, and that the two sides have spoken about extending it, though no agreement has been reached.

White undercut his own point when he told media that while he’d like to reach a full extension, he would be willing to make a one-fight deal with Cyborg if she agreed to rematch Nunes. Of course, that’s not really true, because as he acknowledged, Cyborg would be subject to a “champion’s clause” that would automatically extend the deal if she defeated Nunes to recapture the featherweight belt. To keep it as a one-fight deal, all she has to do is lose!

By White’s logic, he is “afraid” to offer Nunes a true one-fight deal. In reality, neither of them is exactly afraid; it’s more like they are negotiating from places of strength. The difference is that Cyborg is doing so in good faith, while White is doing it through public pressure.

Of course White wants more fights from Cyborg; no one on the women’s roster can create a more marketable event than she can. But at some point, this relationship is no longer worth it, and you have to wonder if that moment has already passed. Cyborg has worked for plenty of other orgs before, from Elite XC to Strikeforce to Invicta, and has never before had to deal with such nonsense. White, after all, is supposed to be on her side, at least publicly. He’s a promoter; the job description is right there in the title.

All this has served to put undue pressure on Cyborg as she prepares for a key fight in her career. With free agency in the offing, whether she wins or loses will become a huge factor in her final price tag. With a convincing win, she will be able to argue that the Nunes loss was a blip; however, with a second straight defeat, she will face increased speculation that she’s on the way down.

Cyborg should be focusing on the opponent who is focused on her, not having to waste attention and energy on what her boss is saying. We tend to view her as a wrecking machine, forgetting that she is a real person with feelings and thoughts and anxieties, some of which can be distracting at the most inopportune of times. When White reduces her to his own summation, he places her in the situation of having to defend herself despite not doing a thing wrong. Cyborg doesn’t owe the UFC anything past her fight on Saturday. If a Nunes’ rematch was so important, why didn’t White make it when Cyborg still had a fight left on her deal? Nobody was pining for the Nunes-Holly Holm matchup that he made instead. He did what he wanted, and now it’s her turn to do the same.

It’s no surprise then to hear that Cyborg’s word of the week is “free.” Losing a fight was painful for Cyborg, but losing the belt was not. Her fate and future are in her hands now, no matter what White has to say about them or about her. After three strained years, Cris Cyborg gets the last word in this constantly strained relationship, and maybe that word is a simple “goodbye.”