Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino: UFC Testing Waters on Another Women's Division

Last weekend MMA fans worldwide witnessed the long awaited arrival of Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino to the octagon. Competing in a catchweight bout at 140 pounds, Cyborg looked as destructive as ever, making very quick work of a tough opponent in Leslie “the Peacemaker” Smith in her promotional debut. Usually a competitor in the featherweight division, Justino came in under the limit at 139 pounds, stemming concerns that she would be unable to make the bantamweight division’s 135-pound restriction.

In a little over a month’s time, Joanne Calderwood will meet Valerie Letourneau in a flyweight bout at UFC Fight Night 89 in Ottawa, Canada. Calderwood and Letourneau will make history on the night of June 18th, as they will become the very first women to compete at 125 pounds in the UFC. Both women usually compete in the 115-pound strawweight division, with Calderwood being a cast member of The Ultimate Fighter and Letourneau recently facing Joanna Jedrzejczyk for the division’s title. This begs the question: is the UFC testing the waters for adding new divisions in women’s MMA?

Given Justino’s past reluctance to attempt a weight cut to the bantamweight limit, citing a physical inability to do so, many were surprised to see her weigh in below the catchweight mark of 140 pounds. The money fight, of course, would be Justino versus her potential nemesis Ronda Rousey. Rousey, credited by Dana White as the woman solely responsible for women’s mixed martial arts becoming a part of the UFC, swept through the bantamweight division with the exception of Holly Holm. The level of dominance Rousey displayed during her reign as champion was so magnificent that many thought only someone equally as dominant would stand a chance to defeat her. Enter Cris “Cyborg” Justino.

If Saturday night was the first time you’ve seen Justino fight, you’ve now seen a summary of her entire career’s work. The woman is a destroyer; 16 career wins, 14 of them via knockout. Her sole loss came in her very first fight via kneebar, but Cyborg has never looked back. Justino has been on a path of destruction for as long as anyone can remember, and despite the sometimes visible wear-and-tear on her body, is still only 30 years old. At this moment, despite competing last weekend, she remains the featherweight champion for Invicta FC.

The problem with Justino, as has been in the past, is that she has difficulty cutting weight. She’s missed weight before, and usually had to compete at catchweight bouts earlier on in her career. For a long time, this seemed to be the hurdle preventing a superfight with Rousey from happening. What if, instead, the UFC created a featherweight division for women, and let Justino rule freely?

Sure, this throws the idea of a Rousey-Cyborg pay-per-view out the window, at least momentarily, but consider the fact that Rousey’s return date is still in question almost six months after her defeat to Holly Holm. Notice the manner in which the UFC handled Justino’s debut as well: she was nothing short of a centerpiece during the entire build up to UFC 198. Of course, on a card that was scheduled to feature possibly the greatest of all time, Anderson Silva, legends “Shogun” Rua, Vitor Belfort and a heavyweight title fight, it would have been easy for a women’s bout to fly under the radar. Instead, Justino and her gutsy dance partner, Smith, were often heavily involved in promotion and hype showcases for UFC 198. Cyborg in particular was treated like a star, and rightfully so; the UFC knows how many diehard fans were chomping at the bit to see Justino in action under their banner. Cyborg could theoretically fill the void left by Rousey’s absence as a major draw for pay-per-view events.

As for the smaller Calderwood and Letourneau, a foray into flyweight division bouts might also be a prudent move for the largest and most popular mixed martial arts promotion on the planet. Besides the added benefit of having a new division and with it, a new champion, a flyweight class could potentially allow athletes another avenue to compete in. Say for example, some of the division’s smaller competitors; not all could be natural bantamweights, but a 20-pound cut to strawweight would just be too much of a health risk. Competing at 125 pounds would negate the large cut for a competitor looking to move down (or up if a featherweight division is introduced), thereby making the sport just a measure safer.

Comparing the success of other promotions and their models for WMMA might be a judicious maneuver by the UFC. Invicta FC features divisions ranging from the 105-pound atomweights all the way to 145-pound featherweights. Based on fan feedback, the Invicta model is successful, and is often likened to an avenue used for grooming talent for the UFC. Asia-based ONE FC recently crowned a new strawweight champion in 19-year-old Angela Lee, in a fight many are calling an early contender for Fight of the Year.

The case of Lee and ONE FC being in contention for FOTY honors is interesting; particularly so that it proves that there is a wealth of talent out beyond the sometimes limited scope of the UFC. The argument against the introduction of additional weight classes then, is also related to talent. To be fair, before Holly Holm’s dethroning of Rousey, and her subsequent loss to current champion Meisha Tate, there was concern that the talent pool for women’s MMA was simply too shallow. A new weight class, either above or below bantamweight would allow fighters to move up or down as they so desire, but could potentially dilute the level of competition in each division.

For the sake of a hypothetical example, let’s look at the top ten bantamweights. What if the fighters ranked 4 to 6 move down to flyweight, and ranks 7 to 9 move up to featherweight? The rankings could get murky and a potentially tenth ranked fighter could end up as high as fourth. Thus the level of competition is forcibly elevated, but may not allow the promoted fighter time to adjust and improve accordingly.

There is such a wealth of talent and undiscovered gems in the world that surely filling two more divisions could be possible in the UFC. The question remains if now is the time for rapid expansion. Justino claimed post-fight that she will defend her Invicta 145-pound title, and compete in catchweight fights in the UFC. Ideally, seeing her compete consistently in the UFC in a featherweight division would be beneficial to everyone: fans, promotion brass, media and fighter alike.

If Calderwood vs Letourneau isn’t a clear indication that the UFC is considering the addition of new weight divisions, perhaps it should be. Given the sheer number of fighters coming into the sport from other backgrounds, and the success the promotion has had with similar instances (such as Rousey from Judo and Jedrzejczyk from Muay Thai) there’s no doubt that two more divisions could be filled with talented, exciting combatants. More weight classes means more opportunities for athletes to compete, which in turn generates revenue and interest for the company, and more action for the fans.

If the time for the addition of more women’s weight divisions isn’t now, it will be soon.

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