There were a few smiles and joyous moments over the last seven years, 11 months and 12 days, but most common for Cristiane Cyborg Justino were tears, anger, hurt, disappointment, frustration and hopelessness.
On Aug. 15, 2009, not only did Justino – then known as Cris Santos – stop Gina Carano in the first round to win the Strikeforce women’s featherweight championship, but she also set a television ratings record.
Her bout against Carano, introduced to the crowd that night in San Jose, California, as the face of women’s MMA, peaked with 856,000 viewers on Showtime. It should have stood as proof once and for all that fans were interested in women’s fighting in general and in Justino’s fights in particular.
It didn’t work out that way, though. Women would not appear in a UFC fight for more than three full years after Justino laid waste to Carano that night nearly eight years ago. And whatever credit was given for the abnormally high television ratings went to Carano, who retired after the bout and became a full-time actress.
What should have been a moment of celebration for Justino turned out to be another in a series of disappointments.
Just learning to speak English, she found herself in an odd feud with UFC president Dana White. She was mocked by many in the fan base who cruelly attacked her size and accused her of using performance-enhancing drugs.
That was fueled in part by a 2011 failed test in which she admitted to using Stanozolol, an anabolic steroid, in a bid to cut weight. Rousey, in a 2014 interview with Yahoo Sports, referred to Justino not as she but as “it,” as a result of what Rousey said were PED concerns.
“This girl has been on steroids for so long and [has been] injecting herself for so long that she’s not even a woman anymore,” Rousey told Yahoo Sports for a story published on April 18, 2014. “She’s an ‘it.’ It’s not good for the women’s division. It’s not good at all.”
White joked that Justino looked like ex-UFC fighter Wanderlei Silva. He insisted she cut to 135 pounds to face Rousey, and Justino tried to the point of nearly physically harming herself. She was too big, and would never get the shot at the fight that would have defined her career.
She endured countless cheap shots and insults over her appearance and over her ill-fated choice to use steroids in 2011. She had to endure repeated disappointments given the fact that there are few women fighters her size and those who were didn’t seem eager to face her.
“I cried,” Justino told Yahoo Sports. “I cried a lot. There was a lot of bad things that happened, but I don’t like to think about it. I want to look forward, ahead. Now, it’s going to be good.”
Justino is a part of what may well be the most loaded card the UFC ever put together. She’ll fight Tonya Evinger on the main card of UFC 214 on Saturday at the Honda Center in Anaheim, California, for the vacant women’s featherweight title.
She’s cleared the air with White and said she’s accepted the apology he offered.
“You’re a real man when you admit mistakes and apologize,” she said of White, who told MMAjunkie in June that mistakes had been made in the UFC’s handling of Justino. “I want to work with him, and with the UFC, and I was happy he did that. I’m moving to the next chapter of my career and I want to work with them to make it the best.”
She’s a unique figure, easily the most feared and dominant woman in the sport’s history. Justino submitted to a kneebar from Erica Paes on May 17, 2005, in her MMA debut. She’s since followed by winning 17 in a row with a no-contest, and has won 15 of them by knockout. She hasn’t gone to a decision since an Oct. 4, 2008 bout with Yoko Takahashi that was contested at a catchweight of 150 pounds.
Her striking is devastating and though she has a brown belt in jiu-jitsu and is more than competent on the ground, it’s not where she’s going to earn her money.
People love knockouts and Justino may be the UFC’s best KO artist since Chuck Liddell was in his prime.
She sounds almost giddy talking about the turnaround in her life now. She’s fighting in her adopted hometown in the division best suited for her, one the UFC created to accommodate her.
She respects Evinger, but remains supremely confident in herself.
For all she’s endured, and all the tears that have been shed, she has a chance to make it right on Saturday.
“I’ll believe it when I finally have that belt around my waist,” she said. “I’m very excited, but I don’t want to get ahead of myself. It’s been a long time and there were a lot of hard times, tough times. But you know what? It’s all good. I think it’s going to be an emotional day for me, a special day.
“I don’t have the words to say how I feel, really, but I believe it will be a great night.”
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