Cris "Cyborg" Justino has for years expressed a burning desire to venture beyond mixed martial arts and test herself in professional boxing. But the fact that she will be facing a two-time boxing world champion on Thursday night is not what she's most excited about for Bellator 249.
"No, it's a different situation, because we're going to be fighting MMA," Cyborg told ESPN this week, referring to her main event matchup with Arlene Blencowe, who once reigned as both the World Boxing Federation female welterweight champ and Women's International Boxing Association super lightweight titlist. "In the cage, we can use everything against each other, not just boxing."
That said, when the cage door closes at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut, for the first defense of her Bellator women's featherweight championship, it's no secret that Cyborg (22-2, 1 NC) will come out swinging. "Everybody knows I like to strike," she said. "The fight is going to be very exciting."
What makes it especially exciting for Cyborg is not that her opponent is a former boxing champ -- she has already faced one of those in 2017, when she took on multiple-time boxing titlist Holly Holm in the UFC. What's most thrilling for her is that standing across the cage will be a natural featherweight. Cyborg spent many years competing against bulked-up bantamweights while at the same time having to answer to critics who thought she should trim down to 135 pounds rather than compete in a division with practically no other elite women.
"I feel very happy because I fought for a long time to make 145 a real division, a solid division," she said. "I've always believed that our division could be the best division in women's MMA, because there are a lot of girls; they don't walk around at 135, they don't walk at 125 -- they walk around heavier than that. And it's very important that you fight healthy instead of cutting a lot of weight."
It was one of those 135-pounders, of course, who in 2018 put a sudden halt to Cyborg's decadelong run of supremacy. In a superfight between the UFC's featherweight and bantamweight queens, Amanda Nunes added a second belt to her trophy case with a stunning 51-second knockout. It was Cyborg's first defeat in 21 fights going all the way back to her professional debut in 2005.
There would be no opportunity for redemption in the UFC. Cyborg and promotion president Dana White had long had a rocky relationship, stemming in part from White making an offensive comment that she "looked like Wanderlei Silva in a dress and heels," a reference to the timeworn male fighter. So even though Cyborg texted White after her loss to Nunes asking for a rematch, and even though she wore a T-shirt in a TV interview with "Cyborg vs Nunes Coming Jan 2020" emblazoned across the front, White insisted that Cyborg was trying to dodge the fight. The UFC boss stuck to that story until her contract ran out, at which point White said, "We're out of the Cyborg business."
Enter Scott Coker, the Bellator president who had been in the Cyborg business back when he was running the Strikeforce promotion. For Coker, signing Cyborg was a no-brainer. "She was definitely a needle-mover for us in Strikeforce," he told ESPN earlier this year. "And I know she was a needle-mover in the UFC, and she'll be a needle-mover for us in Bellator."
Coker immediately booked Cyborg against Bellator's longtime 145-pound champion, Julia Budd, and in January he had a new champ, after Cyborg dethroned Budd with a fourth-round TKO. That elevated the Brazilian legend to a status she has termed "mixed martial arts' only grand slam champion" -- she has reigned in Strikeforce, Invicta FC, the UFC and now Bellator.
The new belt in a new workplace also has rejuvenated Cyborg. After hinting at retirement during her UFC tenure, she now says there is no end in sight for her career. "It's a new time," said the 35-year-old, who lives and trains in Southern California. "I feel very, very motivated here in Bellator to continue. One day the end will come, but I like to live in the moment."
Thursday night will be the biggest career moment for Blencowe (13-7), who is 37 and from Australia. She began competing in MMA in 2013, but during her first couple of years in the game, Blencowe split her time between MMA and boxing. Her results showed -- she lost four of her first six MMA fights. But Blencowe has been on a roll ever since, with her only losses coming against champions. She competed for the Bellator belt once before, dropping a split decision to Budd in 2017. Since then, she has won three in a row.
As one might expect from an ex-boxer, Blencowe likes to throw hands. More than half of her MMA wins have come by knockout. Her nickname is "Angerfist."
Cyborg maintains her focus on this being not a boxing match but an MMA fight. However, she still does believe the sweet science is in her future. "I always want to find new ways to test myself," Cyborg said.
Her MMA stardom aside, Cyborg has competed at the highest level in grappling -- in both 2011 and 2012, she won gold medals in the World Jiu-Jitsu Championship. She won gold in freestyle wrestling at the 2007 Brazil Cup. In 2014, with just two pro kickboxing bouts under her belt, she challenged then-undefeated Lion Fights Muay Thai women's world welterweight champion Jorina Baars.
For Cyborg, it is all part of the journey -- and the learning. "When you separate skills like this, and train to compete in only jiu-jitsu, only wrestling, only Muay Thai, you learn more," she said.
Boxing is next. Well, not next, but inevitably down the road. Cyborg has trained in the ring with Vergil Ortiz Sr., whose protege son, Vergil Ortiz Jr., was recently called "the future of boxing" by Golden Boy head Oscar De La Hoya. She has sparred with women's pound-for-pound No. 1 Claressa Shields, the undisputed women's middleweight champ, who afterward said, "She has legit skills."
Cyborg relishes the praise, at the same time taking care to store it away for her future.
"I'm really focused right now on Arlene Blencowe," she said. "But boxing is a dream I have. Before I retire -- and I don't know when that will be -- I would like to go in the ring. It's going to be a big challenge, but I'm ready. I'm always ready for a challenge."