For as long as she lives Cris Cyborg Justino will remember December 13, 2016. It will resonate forever as a day of emotional multitudes and contradictions that Walt Whitman himself could have sung of, a day of dreams realized and dreams deferred that Langston Hughes could have celebrated and elegized, a day of high poetry and low absurdity: a real and true human day, large and mad, filled with both hope and despair.
This remarkable day started early, at the Los Angeles Convention Center, where the greatest female fighter in the world took the oath of citizenship and became a bona fide American. The naturalization ceremony marked the end of a nearly 10-year journey for Justino, who had dreamed of becoming a U.S. citizen ever since she first came to the country in July 2008 to fight for the now-defunct Elite XC promotion.
“The first time I went to America, I had the opportunity to fight here and people really appreciate my work and appreciate my sport,” Justino told CBS Los Angeles as she waited in line during the ceremony. “It’s an opportunity for me [to] give back for the American community what they give to me. I can vote. I can participate more.”
Justino’s naturalization was only part of what was shaping up to be a banner month for the fighter, who, after years of hoping and praying and disappointment and slander from both online trolls and UFC executives and fighters who really ought to know better, was celebrating the news that the UFC had finally decided to start a 145-pound featherweight division, meaning the best female fighter in history would no longer have to destroy her body trying to cut weight to fight in a weight class she doesn’t belong in. The metaphor was almost too perfect: All of Cyborg’s long-desired, long-worked-for dreams were being fulfilled at the same moment she was becoming an American. Land of opportunity indeed!
But if the last month has taught us anything it’s that America can be a cruel and fickle mistress, and that not even citizenship guarantees opportunity, or even hope.
So, no great surprise then when Justino left the naturalization ceremony only to learn that the UFC had gone ahead and booked the women’s featherweight division’s inaugural title fight without her. Instead, the UFC announced that former bantamweight champion (and the Ronda Rousey slayer Cyborg always hoped she would be) would be taking on little-known Dutch kickboxer Germaine de Randamie for the belt. A travesty for the sport, a(nother) tragedy for Cyborg, but for the UFC just a simple matter of logistics and business. According to UFC President Dana White, the promotion offered Cyborg three fights at 145 and she turned them all down, forcing the promotion to book Holm vs. de Randamie for UFC 208 in February in order to move their new division along—with or without the woman without whom the division wouldn’t exist.
"This is a business of opportunity,” White told ESPN.com in response to allegations from Cyborg that the promotion was disrespecting her. “When opportunity arises, you jump up and take it. If you don't, the bus is gone and it passes you by. ... We brought [Cyborg] in because she said she could make 135 pounds. When she couldn't, the weight cut was too hard, we created the 145-pound division—and she still doesn't want to fight.”
Cyborg says she told the UFC that she does want to fight at 145—that she’s been dreaming of nothing else for years—but that February would simply be too soon for her to make weight without risking her health. She said she’d be willing to fight in March, though—just a one-month delay to make sure the greatest featherweight in women’s MMA was fighting for the first-ever UFC women’s featherweight championship. It seemed like a small concession for the promotion, especially considering how long Cyborg had been lobbying for the creation of the division and how many pay-per-view sales Cyborg’s presence can motivate. But apparently a month was too long for the UFC to wait.
That Cris Cyborg won’t be fighting for the featherweight belt is bizarre to even think about. But that the brand-new American citizen had to learn on the very day she became a citizen that the fight she had coveted for years in the division she had fought so hard to create would be going on without her and taking place in Brooklyn, that great geographical symbol of America’s immigrant tradition—the first time the UFC would ever be in Brooklyn, no less!—is nothing less than a calamity. Like any great American immigrant—like the immigrants even right-wing conservatives can point to as proof of our country’s exceptionalism and will therefore tolerate—Cyborg came to this country, worked hard, pulled herself up by her bootstraps, built a world from scratch, and then dominated it. She did everything right. And for her troubles she gets … nothing.
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