Why Cris Cyborg sees a win over Julia Budd as legacy defining

Kevin Iole
Combat columnist
Cris Cyborg is looking to add a fourth world title to her prolific MMA résumé. (Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

Cris “Cyborg” Justino stands on the precipice of an unprecedented achievement: With a win over featherweight champion Julia Budd on Saturday in the main event of Bellator 238 (10 p.m. ET, DAZN) at The Forum in Inglewood, California, Cyborg will become the first woman to hold a world title in four major organizations.

More than a decade ago in the first truly significant women’s fight, she stopped Gina Carano to become the Strikeforce champion. In 2013, after Strikeforce was folded into the UFC, she defeated Marloes Coenen to become the Invicta FC champ.

She eventually made it to the UFC and after a pair of catchweight bouts, she defeated Tonya Evinger at UFC 214 in 2017 to win the featherweight title.

In all three cases, she won the inaugural belt for the organization.

On Saturday, her fight with Budd will be the first time she’s challenged a defending champion. Gaining that belt would be a unique feat that may never be duplicated.

She believes it will send a message, but it’s not the one you might think.

“That’s going to be my legacy, to be the only woman to do that,” she said. “The first thing that shows is how important it is to believe in yourself and believe in your dream. Don’t quit. I had a lot of times in my career when it was difficult and when it would have been easy for me to give up and quit and walk away.

“Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose, but what is important is that you never quit.”

For all the success she’s had in the cage — the three world championships, the 13-year, 21-fight unbeaten streak — it hasn’t been without its problems. There was a time when she had to sleep in her car, as she didn’t have a place to live. She failed a post-fight drug test in 2011 and has never lived it down, and has been accused of doping despite the high number of tests she’s passed since. She also got into a dispute with UFC president Dana White, which put enormous pressure on her.

She left the UFC after a row with White following her win over Felicia Spencer at UFC 240 last summer. She quickly signed with Bellator, where she reunited with Bellator president Scott Coker, who had signed her to Strikeforce in 2009. And she’s tried to present a different side of herself than simply this heavily muscled, highly successful fighting machine.

“At the beginning of my career, people didn’t know me and I didn’t speak English and I had the nickname like ‘Cyborg,’ and all they knew of me was what they saw in the cage and what they may have heard,” she said. “I wanted to show the fans who I am as a person, a human being. It’s been hard.

“I didn’t give up and let someone else [define] me. Now, I feel I’m at a very good place. I have the respect of the people I work for and they recognize my talents and they’re doing things the right way.”

Win or lose against Budd, she’ll go down as one of the greatest fighters of her generation. But she really wants that fourth title and is eager to challenge Budd, a legitimate featherweight who has reeled off 11 consecutive victories over more than eight years.

Both women are 5-8, but Budd has a 70-68 edge in reach. Both are strikers, though Cyborg is more about power and Budd is more about technique.

Still, Cyborg isn’t going to be fooled into expecting any particular type of fight.

“We know the kind of fighter Julia is and she likes to stand up,” Cyborg said. “But this is MMA. The thing is, in MMA if you just focus on one aspect, you are going to be in trouble. I’ve just made sure to be ready for everything, so nothing will surprise me when we’re in there.

“I want to put on a good fight, one that the people will like. But we’re not boxing or kickboxing. This is MMA and the people want to see a good MMA fight.”

If that good MMA fight results in a world championship, she’s not going to complain.

“That is a very difficult thing to accomplish,” she said. “I would love to be able to do it now that I have the chance. It would mean a lot to me.”

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