At UFC 240, Cris Cyborg got back to her winning ways, taking a surprisingly competitive, though ultimately dominant decision win over Felicia Spencer. But though Spencer was the woman standing opposite her on Saturday night, Cyborg’s true opponent was the same person it’s always been, UFC President Dana White.
White and Cyborg have had an acrimonious relationship since long before Cyborg ever signed with the UFC. Even once she did sign with them, the relationship was no less strained, with the UFC forcing an unnecessary cut to 140 pounds on her, and then crowning an inaugural 145-pound champion without her for reasons that still beleaguers the mind. That uneasy relationship reared its head again this week as, before her fight with Spencer – a presumptive No. 1 contender’s bout – Dana White insisted on throwing his former champion under the bus instead of building up the fight.
If you’re following along at home, it’s pretty easy to see why all of this has happened. Unlike most in the UFC’s employ, Cris Cyborg is a bonafide star. She was one of the biggest names in women’s MMA before signing with the UFC and even after doing so, she always negotiated in her own best interest. That’s why the UFC made a 145-pound title fight that didn’t include her: Cyborg wanted time to recover from the difficult weight cut the UFC made her make to 140 pounds, and Dana wanted a shiny title to headline a PPV with, timelines and health be damned. That same self-interest is what’s caused Dana to bad-mouth Cyborg this week: her fight with Spencer was the last fight on her deal and the there’s a serious question about whether Cyborg will want to re-sign with the UFC.
Perhaps she shouldn’t. There’s ample evidence to suggest that both parties may be better served by going their separate ways at this point. After all, Cyborg previously had an excellent relationship with Scott Coker in Strikeforce and now Coker runs Bellator, an organization that Cyborg has said owns the best women’s featherweight division right now. If Cyborg signs with Bellator, Coker would almost certainly make her one of the centerpieces of his organization and a title fight with Julia Budd is a legitimately great fight.
But that would be a mistake.
As contemptuous as the Cyborg-UFC marriage has been, the fact of the matter remains that Cris Cyborg is one of the very best fighters on the planet and the UFC houses most of the best fighters. And both parties may not realize it, but they need each other. For the UFC, Cyborg has already proven to be a legitimate PPV draw, capable of pulling in 300,000 buys and propping up a waning Brazilian market. She is also a star-maker – boosting Amanda Nunes’ profile and establishing “The Lioness” as the Greatest of All Time, a promotional crutch for the UFC that’s overused, but is actually applicable in this instance – and the best option for the UFC to keep building a featherweight division. For Cyborg, the UFC and their new deal with ESPN affords her the biggest possible platform to grow her brand. Then of course, there is the Amanda Nunes rematch.
The latest tiff between White and Cyborg centered around a “he-said-she-said” over Cyborg ducking a Nunes rematch. Cyborg, for her part, has consistently said she wants a rematch whereas Dana White was initially against it. But after Cyborg beat Felicia Spencer, she donned a “Cyborg vs. Nunes rematch 2020” shirt backstage, Dana White fist-pumped when he heard about it, and Nunes took to Twitter to state her interest in the fight. All parties now seem on the same page with making it happen, and why wouldn’t they be? It’s the best, most lucrative fight in women’s MMA at this point with the greatest stakes possible, and for Cyborg, the greatest opportunity. If Cyborg wins, she reclaims the title and reasserts her dominance over WMMA. She also sets up an enormous trilogy fight that could headline any event, in any arena in the world. Yes, she’d have to continue suffering through working for a boss who at times seems to have an open contempt for her, but it also provides her by far the most career upside.
Cyborg has said that “fans will guide” where she signs next. Let’s hope the fans guide her to another fight with Amanda Nunes.
– Max Holloway on the new UFC belt.
– Frankie Edgar on losing his third featherweight title shot.
Up: Felicia Spencer. Spencer proved she’s the real deal on Saturday, even in defeat, going 15 minutes with Cyborg and eating some heavy leather without looking all that worse for wear. Her game still needs to develop but she’s got the toughness in spades.
Down: Frankie Edgar. It’s hard to knock Frankie considering he won two rounds on a judge’s scorecard (WOW) but this was a big fight for him. Win and he’s a top-5 guy all time. Now, he’ll never get another title shot and have to be happy with being a top-20 fighter ever.
Hold: Max Holloway. Holloway kept his title and turned in a solid performance, but most fans expected a little more from a -335 favorite. You can’t downgrade Max off a clear win but the Alexander Volkanovski fight just got a lot more interesting.
Up: Geoff Neal. He didn’t make it easy on himself but in the end he picked up the win and did it in a tremendously exciting fashion. Plus, when’s the last time you saw someone get a TKO win from full guard?
Up: Deiveson Figueiredo. Figueiredo and Alexandre Pantoja did their best to embarrass everyone who thought shuttering the flyweight division was a good idea and Figueiredo announced himself as a future title challenger.
We need to talk about Joe Rogan.
I don’t want to bag on Rogan too hard because live commentary is significantly more difficult than anyone gives it credit for, but last night was the worst he’s ever been on the mic. Rogan has always had a bit of a tendency to latch onto the first narrative he sees in a fight and keep hammering it over and over, even after it’s no longer true, but last night he did that to a degree heretofore unheard of.
After Cyborg came out like a house on fire against Felicia Spencer, Rogan immediately began questioning her gas tank, despite the fact that Cyborg has fought championship rounds before. No, admittedly, Cyborg was throwing high heat early but Rogan kept hammering the “she’s exhausted!” line despite the fact that Cyborg was beating Spencer up by a wide margin. This is part and parcel of another problem of his as well, his tendency to overvalue the efforts of underdogs, while dismissing the good work of favorites.
On top of his poor narrative showing, he also just seemed to have only a passing interest in what was going on. He blatantly forgot that Cyborg-Spencer was only three rounds and then argued that the third round of Holloway-Edgar was the only round Edgar could have won, completely forgetting the first round existed. Perhaps the most egregious thing to me though – unless we’re counting Joe’s longest running bit of proclaiming Max the greatest featherweight of all time, as if saying something over and over again makes it true – was his insistence that Sarah Frota’s jiu-jitsu accolades made her the better grappler, despite Gillian Robertson elbowing Frota’s face off on the floor.
All in all, a night to forget for MMA’s premier color commentator.
Max Holloway vs. Alexander Volkanovski: It’s the fight that was planned for and easily makes the most sense from every conceivable angle. Let’s hope they don’t end up overthinking this somehow.
Frankie Edgar vs. Dominick Cruz: To be frank, there aren’t any featherweight fights left for Edgar that are all that appealing. Fans have wanted to see him drop to bantamweight for awhile so let’s go ahead and do that or do a catchweight superfight if he doesn’t want to cut down.
Cris Cyborg vs. Amanda Nunes: As discussed above, Cyborg’s relationship with the UFC has always been acrimonious but this fight is undeniable. There’s no one else either woman should fight.
Felicia Spencer vs. Cat Zingano: Spencer opened some eyes with her gritty performance on Saturday in a losing effort. Zingano is also coming off a loss, though it’s one of the weirdest ones in UFC history. Let them battle it out for the next featherweight contender spot.
Geoff Neal vs. Santiago Ponzinibbio: Neal deserves a crack at a ranked guy and Ponzi-scheme doesn’t have a dance partner. Plus that fight is pretty much guaranteed to be action-packed.