Words

Invicta, Underdogs, and the Trouble With Selling Cyborg

Fightland Blog

By Josh Rosenblatt

Photos via Invicta FC

This weekend’s fight between Conor McGregor and Chad Mendes is a promoter’s dream. Even the Jose Aldo catastrophe that should have derailed fans’ hopes two weeks before the fight has turned itself into a promotional windfall. Chad Mendes was ready when the UFC called and he hates Conor McGregor and Conor McGregor hates him and the two happily picked up their trash-talking thread where they’d left it and Mendes and Aldo have started joining forces to scorn McGregor and McGregor is a once-in-a-generation self-promotion whirlwind with charisma coming out of his ears and more than enough disdain to go around and so all is right with the world once more.

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The main event at tonight’s Invicta FC event in Las Vegas is a far more complicated promotional puzzle. Featherweight champion Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino is set to fight Faith van Duin, and Justino is considered by many to be the most terrifying woman on the planet, while no one has ever heard of van Duin, a 37-year-old mother of two who’s only been a professional fighter for two years. So what is a promoter supposed to do, when it feels like one fighter is simply being fed to the other? Invicta’s job isn’t to convince potential viewers that van Duin has a chance to beat Justino tonight; it’s to convince them that it isn’t immoral to watch her try.

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I’ve probably seen 1000 MMA fights over the last five or six years and the only one that made me feel like I was doing something wrong was Justino’s fight with Jan Finney in Strikeforce in 2010. Well, that fight and the one three years later when Justino fought Fiona Muxlow. Both were hard to stomach.

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So how do you sell a MMA fight when most fans see it as little more than a ritual sacrifice? What are a promoter’s narrative options?

1. Cris Cyborg is like Mike Tyson in the 80s: indestructible, unbeatable, a phenomenon you don’t want to miss. People paid hundreds, thousands of dollars to watch Tyson beat guys within one round, and Cyborg is cut from the same cloth. Who cares that there’s no drama to the outcome of her fights? The lack of drama is the thrill. The inevitability of bruising defeat is the lesson, the metaphor, a confirmation of the cruelty and beauty of existence, a connection to some deeper, cataclysmic, tragic understanding of life.

2. There’s always hope. There’s always possibility. There’s always belief and the defiance of the inevitability. There’s always the puncher’s chance. There’s always Rocky. There’s always Buster Douglas. There’s always Faith van Duin.

In the midst of death we are in life, etcetera.

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Invicta chose path number one, inviting viewers on Twitter to “witness the return of the baddest woman on the planet” and erecting billboards in downtown Las Vegas featuring a shot of Justino holding her belt. Eerie, fatalistic synthesizers and ominous drums have been common. Faith van Duin is nowhere to be seen.

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Even if Invicta had decided to go down path two, the problem may have had less to do with Justino’s dominance than van Duin’s reticence. “I don’t like being on camera, but it’s part of it, I suppose,” the New Zealander said at an Invicta press event Tuesday. “I’m normally a shy person, so yeah, I don’t know if I’ll get to liking it.” In America, hope means nothing if your sacrificial-lamb-cum-potential-hero is scared of selling herself.

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Justino came into her fight against Jan Finney a -2500 betting favorite, which meant a gambler would have had to put down $2500 just to win $100. Against Muxlow, a $3000 investment would have gotten you $100. Those numbers were unprecedented in modern MMA. They would have been comical if they didn’t correspond to bloody, one-sided maulings of one human being by another.

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Heavyweight mixed martial artist Alistair Overeem was a -1800 favorite when he beat James Thompson in 2009. Mike Brown when he beat Anthony Morrison: -1500. Mikro Cro Cop against Eddie Sanchez: -1400. Muhammad Lawal came into the cage -1400 over Mark Kerr. Anderson Silva was a -1350 favorite against Stephan Bonnar and embarrassed him.

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For tonight’s fight one gambling house has Justino the -3500 favorite over van Duin. If you have $3500 in your pocket right now but really, really need $3600, it’s probably a smart bet.

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Don’t blame Invicta. They’re in the unenviable position of having a one-of-a-kind wrecking machine on their roster and no one to pair her with. There just aren’t enough 145-pound fighters out there to make reasonable matchups for a woman whose only reasonable comparisons as a fighter are Ronda Rousey, who fights at 135 pounds, and Joanna Jedrzejczyk, who fights at 115. After Justino beat Marloes Coenen in 2013, a door simply closed.

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Looked at as a kind of cross-league, multi-level marketing effort, the promotional lead-up to tonight’s fight has actually been something of a masterpiece. Going with the Mike Tyson/Don King approach to promotion, Invicta has presented Justino as the best and most feared female fighter in the world: unstoppable and unmerciful. The UFC, which has a distribution deal with Invicta, has its own best female fighter in the world in Rousey, and as long as Justino keeps destroying people in Invicta and Rousey keeps dispatching her opponents with ease, the UFC will be the one reaping the rewards when the fates finally come together and Justino makes her inevitable move to the UFC.

Faith van Duin is merely a small piece in a great design.

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Jimmy Vaccaro, longtime Las Vegas race and sports book director at the Mirage Hotel and Casino: “I was the only one who posted odds on [the Tyson/Douglas] fight. It opened at 27-to-1 and people jumped on Tyson. The first bet I took was for $81,000 to win $3,000. I moved it to 32-to-1 and the next guy bet something like $93,000 to win $3,000."

Just imagine being one of the guys who’d had hope enough to bet on Douglas, himself a small piece in a great design.

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Emily Dickinson once wrote that hope—the “thing with feathers”—never stops singing its tune, which is sweetest in the gale and the storm, in the “chilliest land” and the “strangest Sea.”

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Do not forget hope!—greatest of all human delusions. Have faith, Faith! Odds go both ways, after all. Betters may have to put down $3500 on Justino to get $100, but if they put that money on you, they get $1150 back. And sometimes the universe rewards people for their daring.

Remember, Georges St-Pierre was a -1300 favorite over Matt Serra, Rameau Sokoudjou knocked out Rogerio Nogueira, who was -2500. And Fedor Emelianenko walked into the cage to face Fabricio Werdum a -600 favorite and walked out three minutes later with the first black mark on his record and my broken heart in his hands.

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No one knows anything. 

 

Check out these related stories:

Cyborg Picks Ronda Rousey Apart in Lengthy Post

Cyborg Teams Up With Olympic Judoka with Ties to Ronda

Bantamweight Cyborg: Chasing Ronda's Crown

 

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