Cris Cyborg’s development as a fighter can be difficult to appreciate. The UFC featherweight champion has been so dominant that every conceivable challenger seems hopelessly outmatched. To the point where the discussion becomes less about her individual displays of skill, and more about the ease and ferocity with which she dispatches opponents.
This is a shame, because the narrative behind her in-cage development is, in stark contrast, one of subtlety. With an overwhelming gap in talent separating her from her contemporaries, it would be easy for Justino to coast, but there is no complacency in her game. With each fight, she shows the gradual growth of a veteran craftswoman. It can be difficult to track this progression on a fight to fight basis, but becomes much more apparent when considering what her identity was, as a technician, during various stages of her career. As such, here are three pivotal bouts, representing the Cyborg who broke onto the scene, the champion who established her dominance, and the more refined force we’ve come to know today.
Cristiane Justino vs. Gina Carano, August 15th, 2009
The fight that introduced Cyborg to the mainstream showcased three of her most recognizable traits: aggression, brutality, and overwhelming physicality.
Storming forward, she was intent on imposing offense above all else. Trading jabs, she flurried on a defensive Carano; as the American covered up, Cyborg clinched, and immediately attempted an ill-fated lateral drop. Carano, close to attaining mount, found herself threatened with a heel hook, from which Justino was able to secure a ride. Constant strikes followed as Carano returned to her feet, only to be met with another ferocious flurry of hooks. Another attempted throw found Cyborg on bottom, but this time, she was mounted.
One of the key differences in approach between a then-inexperienced Justino and her modern day counterpart was a sense of recklessness. This recklessness was highly exploitable and – while this fight is often remembered as a blowout – it serves as a great example of the weaknesses previously present in her style.
Carano returned to her feet soon after and, for a fleeting moment, she found respite from the continuous onslaught of offense. Justino seemed somewhat discouraged. This did not last long.
Frantically pushing forward, Cyborg struck, and struck, and struck. Her inexperience was obvious, but her aggression was magnetic. At range, Carano was met with hooks and low kicks. If she stopped circling or found herself pinned to the fence, she was handily controlled and thrown to the ground from the clinch. She wilted. Quickly.
With a minute left, Cyborg muscled her to the mat and – after giving up on an Americana – stood over Carano, landing vicious power punches with her foe’s head pinned against the fence. Carano covered up and, a split second before the bell sounded, Cristiane Justino was the inaugural Strikeforce Women’s Featherweight champion.
Cristiane Justino vs. Marloes Coenen, July 13th, 2013
Cyborg’s clinch game has always been devastating, but it was in this fight – a rematch of their 2010 bout that ended in a third-round TKO for the Brazilian – that she established it as arguably her strongest skill set.
In stark contrast to the Carano fight, Coenen was the one to initiate the in-fight early, attacking with slashing elbows. The Dutch native, a ground specialist, was quickly taken down from the clinch. But, these takedowns were unlike the domineering ones executed by the former Strikeforce featherweight champion four years earlier. Rather than overwhelm, Cyborg was content to displace; the throw came as much from manipulation of balance as from physical strength. On the outside, Coenen never really had trouble landing strikes, but ate sharp return fire – much of it in the form of counters – and exchanges never favored her.
There has been (and continues to be) a narrative of trade-off regarding Cyborg. The sustainability of her explosive offense is often questioned, and the path of attrition is often prescribed as the most viable (or only) route to victory for her opponents. Survive long enough, and fatigue is inevitable. This bout serves as, to date, her longest, but it is far from providing proof of any presumed stamina issues.
Methodical scrambles littered the first three rounds. Coenen’s repeated clinches resulted only in high-amplitude throws from the Brazilian, easy control from top position, posturing power strikes, and disengagement when the submission specialist came close to anything even resembling a submission attempt.
Coenen was surviving and, on some level, she may have even felt as if things were going according to plan. Cyborg was being forced to work. Each throw, each scramble, each battle for posture was another presumed mark against the Brazilian’s gas tank. But in the beginning of the third round, any illusion of success was shattered.
Another clinch, another easy takedown. Coenen reached for a leg and Justino swiftly stood, backing off. As referee John McCarthy called for Coenen to stand, the narrative was inverted. Visibly winded, she struggled to stay on her feet as Cyborg walked her down. A knee to the body, and she was flung to the mat like a sandbag. Cyborg didn’t even take top position. Again, she stood. Again, her foe struggled to stand.
It was almost as if she had a point to prove. Sustained top position is a more energy-efficient alternative to the takedown, strike in transition, stand, repeat formula of fighters such as Cain Velasquez. Certainly, it seemed an odd choice for a fighter who could easily maintain control – or just as easily never hit the mat and instead leverage a substantial ranged striking advantage. Far from taxing, it seemed like easy work for the woman who would come to be regarded as arguably the greatest woman ever to step into a cage.
Process was interwoven with bursts of ferocity; flurries came, but they were timed more deliberately than those of the woman who bludgeoned Gina Carano years prior.
Cyborg managed to catch a front kick in the fourth round, and an overhand right seemed to stop Coenen in her tracks, before another landed solidly to the temple, leaving her off balanced and stumbling to the floor. Side control, knee on belly, mount, and the Dutchwoman had neither the energy nor the technique to defend herself for much longer.
Punches rained down with the same power and precision as they had almost 20 minutes prior. And the woman whose fights seemed to produce more questions than answers closed out her featherweight championship bout with the sense that there was nothing left to ask.
In 19 minutes and 10 seconds, she never once seemed threatened. She barely even seemed human.
Cristiane Justino vs. Tonya Evinger, July 29th, 2017
A fighter’s identity as a technician tends to spend a lot of time in flux during their formative years. Her most recent bout – over twelve years into her professional career – saw Cyborg at her most realized.
The activity of her footwork was unmistakable. The minute adjustments with which she maneuvered around a circling Evinger in the early goings were a far cry from what had been relatively stationary performances against both Carano and Coenen. Cris Cyborg, in her current iteration, dominates angles with a control that, though subtle, bears a ferocity befitting the raw talent who broke onto the scene eight years ago.
As she retreated out of range of a low kick and evaded a left hook, the fighter who absorbed several head strikes from Marloes Coenen seemed a distant memory.
Evinger, a career opportunist, managed to lock her hands around her larger opponent’s hips in the first round, briefly bringing her to the mat on two occasions. But, Justino effortlessly returned to her feet, and offered Evinger an authoritative knee to the gut for her troubles.
While defensive adjustments are more subtle, the differences in Cyborg’s present-day offense are obvious. The fighter who was more talent than skill is long since gone, but so too is the fighter who alternated between the two in bursts. As she walked Evinger down – throwing punches, kicks, and knees to the body at a hellacious clip – the synergy between physicality and technique was remarkable. Never before had technical proficiency served as such a fluid avatar for her violence. And as the divide between mastery and savagery crumbled, both properties were highlighted to the fullest.
When Evinger worked behind a jab, Cyborg countered with precise overhand strikes. When her arms came down to dig for underhooks in the clinch, Cyborg disengaged, and kicked high. Jabs were slipped with Cyborg’s tightest head movement to date, and Evinger’s commitment of her weight was punished with kicks to the lead leg.
Towards the end of the second round, Cyborg keyed in on the fact that Evinger was leaning out far too wide in response to her lead power punches. Throwing an overhand right, she baited the reaction and started following up with round kicks, which crossed through the path of Evinger’s head.
The third round saw more low kicks – both inside and outside – and some hand-fighting, before an overhand right sailed towards Evinger’s chin. She did not dip her head, and visibly wobbled as the blow crashed into the side of her skull. In the very next moment, she chose to slip her head, but she again chose wrong and was met with a glancing high kick. Another overhand right dropped her, but grit brought her back to her feet.
Closing the distance between them with a superman punch, Cyborg dug for an underhook, controlled the head with her free hand, and teed off with knees as Evinger was left defenseless. With those final blows the fight was mercifully halted in the third round.
Cris Cyborg was playing the game at far too high of a level for the less polished woman to keep up. Far higher of a level than was even necessary. And in a world where none seem prepared for even the Justino of old, it stands to wonder exactly how large the gulf between the Brazilian master and her contemporaries has become.