Being part of a breakthrough scene can be a double-edged sword when you’re not the figurehead of the movement. On one hand, you and many people around you are suddenly receiving more attention for your work. On the other, said work will be discussed almost entirely in terms of its relation to someone else’s, at least at first.
In the years after punk broke, Seattle bands couldn’t shake the looming specter of Nirvana and, to a lesser extent, Pearl Jam. The output of other Dogme 95 filmmakers is still mentioned in the same breath as Lars Von Trier by all but the most faithful. And mainstream women’s mixed martial arts coverage has been almost entirely about Ronda Rousey in one way or another. From the up-and-comers being hailed as “the next Ronda Rousey,” to established fighters working toward their shots at the UFC Women’s Bantamweight belt, every woman was presented in terms of her relationship to the crossover star.
This occasionally worked out in a fighter’s favor—you could argue that the extent to which both the world and Rousey bought into the hype allowed Holly Holm to size up her opponent and work out her winning strategy in plain sight, much like the apocryphal python measuring up its human prey—but it mostly reduced an entire generation of female fighters to supporting players in the Ronda Rousey story.
With Rousey’s unexpected loss and dethroning at UFC 193, though, these fighters have been given a rare opportunity to rewrite their own stories with themselves at the center. This is especially true for the former champ’s biggest antagonists. With her title shot against Holly Holm at UFC 197, Miesha Tate has a chance to prove to the world that she’s more than the Salieri to Rousey’s Mozart in WMMA’s answer to Amadeus. And, starting tonight at Invicta 15, reigning World Featherweight Title holder Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino can refocus her career and work toward a legacy that’s all her own.
For as long as Rousey has been famous, WMMA veteran Justino’s public persona has been inextricably linked to her. Cyborg’s been both hailed and derided the only woman who could stop Rousey, the woman that Rousey’s been ducking, the disgraced doper who doesn’t deserve a shot at Rousey, and the rehabilitated great hope against the Rousey machine... if only she could drop down to 135 pounds. Both Justino and Rousey embraced this story and exploited it for their own means, trading barbed tweets and shots at each other in interviews. But just because the publicity benefited Justino in some ways doesn’t necessarily mean she’s gotten all the recognition she deserves.
Cyborg was well on her way to becoming an MMA legend when Rousey bewitched the zeitgeist’s imagination and her (admittedly tarnished) legacy deserves to exist as its own entity. She may have lost out on her potentially biggest payday and biggest fight when Holm knocked Rousey out and took the possibility of her facing an undefeated Rowdy One off the table, but she’s gained the chance to forge her own course independent of whatever is going on in the UFC’s Bantamweight division right now.
The prospect of a match against Rousey or a future in the UFC hasn’t vanished entirely, but it only has to be a part of Cyborg’s own story now. Justino can approach the possibilities more philosophically, free from the massive hype and speculation that used to follow her every move, and that appears to be exactly what she’s doing in her interviews leading up to her headlining title defense against Daria Ibragimova tonight. While she’s perfectly willing to discuss Rousey’s loss and her opinion on the subsequent backlash, as well as Holm’s victory and skills, she’s less interested in playing the will-she-or-won’t-she game about dropping to 135 or even 140 lbs for a catchweight Invicta fight than she used to be. Now she’s more about facing challenges and opportunities in her own time and on her own terms.
“The UFC hasn’t yet opened the doors for my weight class,” Justino told MMA Junkie earlier this week. “If they had, I’d already be there. I prefer to think in the now. Now I have a fight coming up, and now I have to fulfill my contract.”
Cyborg has her own division to dominate, she’s got her own history to write. And whatever that story might end up being on whatever stage it plays out on, it’s sure to be more interesting and enduring than whether or not she coulda been a contender against the Ronda Rousey hype machine.
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