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Fortunes changed for five at UFC 240

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

With the exception of one minute this past December, Cris Cyborg has dominated every fight she’s been in for more than a decade as one of the best known female fighters in the sport’s history.

While there will always be questions, related to physique, with the 2011 drug test failure for the steroid Stanazolol opening up obvious questions and debates, she’s also been heavily tested for years since, and continued to run through the competition.

After Saturday’s win over Felicia Spencer, Cyborg (21-2, 1 no-contest) could face the top female fighter in the world, double weight class champion Amanda Nunes (18-4) in what would be the biggest fight that could be made today, regardless of division, in women’s MMA.

But for the past several days, both from the UFC side and the Cyborg side, we’ve heard nothing but obstacles in the way. The key is that Cyborg’s UFC contract ended on Saturday and is now a free agent. The UFC offered her a six-fight deal, but with Bellator and ONE both likely to want her, it makes sense for her to see who makes the best offer. She said she’s willing to face Nunes, but only on a one-fight deal, and has gone so far as to say she won’t sign a longer deal unless Dana White makes a public apology to her.

While some may back her, this would be yet the latest example of a career filled with missed opportunities by Cyborg, who continually overplayed her hand in negotiations and missed out on untold money and fame because of it.

White, after her win, tried to downplay it. He was clearly a promoter who believed the fight people wanted to see wasn’t going to happen. So his role was to tell you why you really don’t want to see it. White acted like Cyborg didn’t look good in her win. He hinted that she was old (Cyborg is 34) and struggled in the fight, neither of which was evident. Cyborg easily won every round. If not for Felicia Spencer’s great ability to take a punch, the match would have ended on several different occasions. White gave the impression that she’d have little chance with Nunes, that she didn’t want to fight Nunes, and that she wanted easier competition and at this stage of her career, and he doesn’t blame her.

From a business standpoint, the UFC would be crazy to give her a fight with Nunes on a one-fight deal with no champions clause. If she was to beat Nunes, she would be considered the greatest female fighter in the sport and the bidding for her would get high. The reality is, the UFC generates umpteen times more money than any other promotion, but the UFC’s business structure as part of the Endeavor family needs gigantic profits annually. ONE is looking at building a brand, including a U.S. expansion, through deficit spending. Bellator has spent big money on names from the past, and Cyborg would be a real coup even without avenging the Nunes loss, even more so if she did.

Cyborg has years of complaints with the UFC, but things also go both ways. The reality is that if Cyborg had signed with UFC in 2012, as she was the opponent for Ronda Rousey that UFC wanted to debut the women’s division with, the landscape could have been very different.

She didn’t take the fight, claiming Rousey was getting preferential treatment from the company, and a better deal. The UFC was about building a division, and for better or worse, Rousey was the more marketable of the two. With the benefit of hindsight, the UFC and the women’s side of the sport may have been far better off that fight didn’t happen. Had Cyborg beaten Rousey on that first show, the growth in popularity of women’s MMA wouldn’t have been so pronounced. And there would likely not be the opportunities for so many women fighters in so many divisions, not just in the UFC, but around the world.

Still, the UFC eventually signed Cyborg and wanted to make the fight with Rousey. But Cyborg had gotten too big to make 135, even if that was the reason the UFC wanted her so badly in the first place and a deal she agreed to do. But without dropping a lot of muscle, there was no way she could make 135 healthy. Rousey wouldn’t fight her giving up what would have been 20 pounds of size in the cage the division up.

Once Rousey lost and retired, what would have almost surely been the biggest pay-per-view show headlined by women in history was now out the window for good. Being the other half of that fight would have done more for Cyborg’s brand, which she claimed UFC never helped her build, than anything else that could have been done for her.

Really, both sides are at a crossroads. White’s statements lead one to believe that the UFC isn’t going to give Cyborg the deal she wants and expects her to move on. That hurts all three sides, the UFC, Nunes and Cyborg, because there is no other women’s fight that can be made that would garner even close to that level of interest. Cyborg may sign a contract elsewhere, and get herself a good deal. But as far as building her name and brand, it will be a step down. It’ll be back to the Invicta days and the post-Gina Carano Strikeforce days where her matches wouldn’t have great interest because her opponents won’t be seen as being real competition.

Demanding a public apology by White to sign is overplaying her hand. The idea of wanting a short-term deal and still fight Nunes is also overplaying her hand. She spent a career overplaying it, thinking she could get Rousey to move to 145 to face her, and in hindsight, that led to her greatest missed career opportunity that nothing will ever equal. A rematch with Nunes at this time would be a distant second as far as a career opportunity went. But it would be second. And the way things stand now, she’ll be missing that one as well.

Let’s look at how Fortunes Changed for Five Stars of UFC 240.

MAX HOLLOWAY - The featherweight champion (20-4) had too much reach and speed for a game Frankie Edgar, keeping his title in a five-round decision win. There is only one fight to make for Holloway, which is Alexander Volkanovski (20-1).

From a business perspective, it makes the most sense to put it on Oct. 5 in Melbourne, Australia. The UFC is running Marvel Stadium, which could be set up for as many as 70,000 fans. They drew an announced 56,214 fans in that stadium nearly four years ago for Rousey’s title loss to Holly Holm. The show has Robert Whittaker, Australia’s biggest MMA star, defending his middleweight title against Israel Adesanya. But running such a big stadium could greatly use a second title fight, and with Volkanovski from Australia, that date and location makes all the sense in the world.

The problem is the timing, as to whether Holloway would be ready with a 10-week turnaround. But if he isn’t, the fight still should happen, whether it be Nov. 2 in Madison Square Garden, or any other show later this year.

FRANKIE EDGAR - At 37, with a loss to Holloway in a fight that he never found the answer in, Edgar (23-7-1) is at a crossroads. He’s taken great punishment over the years in numerous wars, such as the two Gray Maynard fights. He’s had a Hall of Fame career. But he’s got no real path to a championship at featherweight. And while he once ruled lightweight, that division has evolved and he would be too small for the current top tier talent.

A move to 135 would give him a fresh coat of paint, but that’s even more of a speed division than featherweight and not a good place for an older fighter. But with his name, a few wins and he could get a title shot there.

At 145, his best bet would be to try and get a rematch with Brian Ortega (14-1), but even with a win there, a title shot would be difficult, particularly if Holloway is champion. If not Ortega, he could face Josh Emmett (15-2) next.

GEOFF NEAL - Neal (12-2) had a win over Niko Price (13-3, 1 no contest) in an outstanding welterweight bout. A good next fight for him, just based on a fight that sounds great on paper, would be with Kevin Lee (17-5).

VIVIANE ARAUJO - Araujo (8-1) established her name at flyweight by knocking off No. 7 ranked Alexis Davis (19-10). Since it’s still a very thin division, Araujo right now could face Katlyn Chookagian (12-2) in a bout where the winner could face the winner of the Valentina Shevchenko vs. Liz Carmouche title fight on Aug. 10.

DEVEISON FIGUEIREDO - Figueiredo (16-1) came back from his loss to Jussier Formiga to beat Alexandre Pantoja (21-4) in a battle of No. 4 vs. No. 3 at flyweight.

With the UFC’s decision not to kill the division, now it’s time to give it some credibility. Saturday’s show was, as far as depth went, very weak for a pay-per-view main card. It was really nothing more than the Holloway vs. Edgar title fight and Cyborg fighting against an unbeaten but untested opponent.

A battle of fighters ranked this highly should have been third from the top on the pay-per-view card, let alone the opening match of the prelims if you want the public to take the division seriously. The reality is the winner of Saturday’s fight would be one more win away from a title shot.

Figueiredo should face Dustin Ortiz (19-8) next, and with a win there, would put himself in line for the winner of a Henry Cejudo vs. Joseph Benavidez title match, which by all rights should be the next major fight in the division.