It’s borderline miraculous that Cris “Cyborg” Justino and Holly Holm appear to be closing in on a women’s featherweight title fight for UFC 219.
Not so long ago, these two women were both down and out, with Justino facing a lengthy doping suspension and Holm reeling from three straight losses. The 145-pound division itself had been so problematic it seemed possible the UFC might scrap the whole thing while it was still in its infancy.
Yet somehow, here we are, with Justino vs. Holm suddenly looming as the biggest women’s MMA bout on the horizon.
If the money is right, both parties have already said they’re game, and Justino is very publicly campaigning for a spot on the company’s end-of-the-year pay-per-view Dec. 30 in Las Vegas.
Not only does this booking represent a complete reversal of fortunes for both Cyborg and Holm, but it’s also a commentary on the state of WMMA—which is slumping toward the end of 2017 right along with the rest of the UFC.
Back when Ronda Rousey reigned as women’s bantamweight champ from 2013-15, there was no more vibrant storyline than the arrival of women in the Octagon. Rousey was the promotion’s biggest star and her popularity put the UFC’s female fighters on equal footing with the men, a rarity in professional sports.
Following her absence after back-to-back losses, however, women’s MMA finds itself without a focal point and therefore on uncharacteristically shaky promotional ground.
New 135-pound champ Amanda Nunes has given her division a modicum of stability, but the bantamweight hasn’t yet connected with a large portion of UFC fans. Add in her last-minute withdrawal from UFC 213 and a questionable split decision win over Valentina Shevchenko at UFC 215 this month, and Nunes has ways to go before establishing herself as a reliable drawing card.
At strawweight, Joanna Jedrzejczyk continues to be unstoppable and a favorite of the hardcore MMA set. Her impending bout against Rose Namajunas will be a crackerjack, but it will take third-tier billing on a jam-packed UFC 217 card on Nov. 4.
Meanwhile, the women’s flyweight division is still a work in progress. The ongoing Season 26 of The Ultimate Fighter aims to crown the UFC’s first women’s 125-pound champion, but it remains unclear how viable that division will ultimately be—or whether Jedrzejczyk will merely add its title to her already impressive collection.
That unexpectedly leaves Justino and Holm—perhaps two of the only proven draws left in WMMA—to carry much of the load.
But turn back the clock a year or so and that was certainly not the way things were trending.
Holm’s loss of the women’s bantamweight title to Miesha Tate at UFC 196 touched off a lengthy and difficult stretch for her. She dropped her next fight to Shevchenko in July 2016, then a third straight to Germaine de Randamie at UFC 208 in June.
The losing streak effectively squandered the momentum Holm had established upon arriving in the UFC, when she notched a pair of wins and shocked the world by knocking out Rousey at UFC 193.
At the same time, her relationship with her UFC bosses appeared strained. In March 2016, White blasted Holm’s longtime manager, Lenny Fresquez, as “an old boxing guy who thinks he’s smart and he isn’t” (via MMA Fighting’s David St. Martin) for putting her into the fight with Tate in the first place.
Already 35 years old, it’s clear Holm needs to act fast to preserve her status as a top-level UFC star.
Justino’s on-again, off-again feuds with company brass have also been well-documented.
Long regarded as one of the best fighters in MMA, Justino was already the former Strikeforce and current Invicta FC featherweight champ when she landed an overdue UFC contract in March 2015.
Prior to that, she had publicly beefed both with White and Rousey. A bout between Rousey and Justino was a frequent topic of internet speculation but never seemed close to fruition.
Even after officially joining the UFC, things didn’t go all that smoothly for Cyborg.
For starters, since the UFC didn’t yet have a featherweight division—which would have been Justino’s natural landing spot—her first two bouts were contested at 140-pound catchweights. Then, when the organization finally did institute the 145-pound class, it couldn’t come to terms with her in time for its inaugural title fight.
Instead, the UFC put the championship on De Randamie after she edged Holm via decision.
To make matters even more circuitous, Cyborg failed a drug test in December 2016. The transgression threatened to sidetrack her for up to two years, until the UFC and U.S. Anti-Doping Agency retroactively granted her a therapeutic use exemption for a banned diuretic and wiped away the suspension.
After that, it was all systems go. The UFC stripped De Randamie in June due to her unwillingness to defend the title against Cyborg. Justino then defeated Tonya Evinger for the vacant belt at UFC 214 and now stands poised to take her place as one of the UFC’s more marketable champions.
Just as quickly, Holm revitalized her own career with a head-kick knockout of Bethe Correia three months ago. The victory abruptly made her the consensus No. 1 contender in both the bantamweight and featherweight divisions—and it’s Justino that makes the most sense as an opponent.
Justino has duly established herself as the most fearsome woman on the planet, but it has been a long time since she has faces truly elite competition. Holm will certainly fit the bill in that regard, as a former UFC champ and a decorated striker in her own right.
Cyborg is known as an aggressive knockout artist and Holm is at her best against opponents who bring the fight straight to her. Stylistically, it couldn’t be much better.
More importantly, both fighters possess notable fan followings and their bout should move the needle more than anything Nunes or Jedrzejczyk could come up with at this point.
In a year when the UFC has struggled to book big fights, the best option available at the moment is to book this all-star matchup for the 145-pound title.
That means giving fans Cyborg vs. Holm before the end of 2017.
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