For years, whenever the prospect of a fight between them came into discussion, Ronda Rousey and Cristiane "Cyborg" Justino became monuments to stubbornness, and each had her reasons. Justino, the erstwhile Strikeforce mauler at 145 pounds who sent Gina Carano to the shadows, sniped at Rousey from her perch as Invicta FC's featherweight champion while waffling about whether a drop to 135 pounds—the upper limit for female fighters in the UFC—was possible or healthy with her single-digit-body-fat frame. Rousey, the face of women's MMA and the UFC champion at 135 pounds, refused to return to the weight where she began her career, because why should a champion chase a ballooned-up, once-caught steroid cheat of a challenger and show deference along the way? And yet the specter of Cyborg materialized every time we time we talked about Rousey's proclivity for finishing too many opponents too quickly, which seems like an eternity ago.
It was a fantasy match-up of Couture-Emelianenko proportions between two of the best 135-pound females, and conviction rendered it just as unlikely to happen until time and circumstance intervened. On the eve of Rousey's fight with Holly Holm at UFC 193, UFC president Dana White said Justino was "probably" next in line for a title shot if she could make 135 pounds. Meanwhile, Justino ostensibly worked to scrape 10 pounds from her competition form slowly, somehow, and while under a very specific contract with Zuffa. Her next Invicta bout was an incremental step down—at 140 pounds against Cindy Dandois at Invicta FC 15 on January 16—and she had the progress pics to prove it.
But the impossible begins to look inevitable right up until the moment that it isn't, and that moment arrived about the same time Holm put her foot to Rousey's jaw. And with an immediate rematch in the works, Justino's future at 135 pounds is the second casualty of Holm's reign: last weekend, Invicta president Shannon Knapp announced that Justino would defend her 145-pound title on January 16 against Daria Ibragimova, a 9-1 Russian fighter making her promotional debut, instead of weighing in five pounds lighter on the road to Rousey.
Justino shared her rationale and defense of the status quo in a blog post on her personal website. A major reason, she writes, is USADA's recently enacted ban on IV rehydration: "…as a Team we felt it was best to make 145lbs without the usual IV Rehydration methods I am use to. Another thing people have failed to mention; is that even though I will not be allowed rehydrate with the IV, my Russian opponent, will, if she wants, since she is not subject to ZUFFA’S USADA testing program."
Elsewhere, Justino gives mixed messages on a possible future at 135 pounds. "Moving forward I feel a healthy 135lbs Cris Cyborg is not a realistic goal," she writes (emphasis hers), before outlining her recent bantamweight-focused diet and exercise regimen and concluding "… we have not gotten me to a place where I feel confident in my ability to make 135lbs and at this time I feel even 140lbs would compromise some of the strength and power I am known for." But later, she offers up the possibility of a bout against Holm at an unspecified weight, adding: "I am still open to the idea of trying to fight at a lower weight however it would have to come with a plan by the promotion for a quality opponent with marketing to give it the Superfight feeling it deserves." A perceived lack of promotional muscle is key to Justino's dissatisfaction, and she takes her Zuffa promoters to task for relegating her own championship fights to the hinterlands of Fight Pass at the same time they formulate a reality show to find CM Punk's first opponent, for Joe Rogan's failure to acknowledge her as a UFC-contracted fighter until he apologized for a crass joke, and for booking Rousey in a rematch after her one-sided loss to Holm.
What goes unsaid is that stubbornness makes for compelling build-up at the same time that it threatens to sail right past the most opportune moment. It turned the gap between the fantasy and the reality of Rousey-Justino into a distance that couldn't be traveled in time. Once, Justino was Rousey's foil in a way that Holly Holm couldn’t be. Now, Holm is that foil. Those five added pounds Justino will carry on January 16? For now, that's the measure of resignation.
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