It wouldn’t be right to say the UFC waited too long to bring Cris ‘Cyborg’ Justino into the promotion proper. Justino is still a few months away from her 31st birthday and has yet to hit her 20th pro MMA bout (and aside from a kickboxing bout in 2014, she’s taken very little damage in her career). With both bantamweight and featherweight lacking in top-end elite talent, it’s not unreasonable to think that Justino has at least three more years as a dominant fighter.
If Dana White’s to be believed, Justino was next in line to fight Ronda Rousey had the latter beaten Holly Holm at UFC 193 (and Justino had proven she could make 135 pounds). Of course, White claimed Anderson Silva was the next fight for Georges St-Pierre numerous times as well, and it’s become difficult to count the number of title fights White has decreed that never came to fruition. In any event, it appears Justino was set to enter the UFC regardless, and it’s only Rousey’s loss to Holm that’s left her with her current matchup against Leslie Smith at UFC 198.
But why wasn’t Justino in the UFC to begin with? According to White (and again, that comes with a grain of salt), she turned down a contract Zuffa offered her following the Strikeforce purchase. White described that contract as being the “exact same” deal offered to Ronda Rousey. So, let’s given White and company the benefit of the doubt, and chalk things up to a breakdown in negotiations.
In March of last year, UFC Tonight reported that Zuffa had signed Justino to a promotional deal two months earlier. Instead of fighting in the UFC, however, she would continue to compete under the Invicta banner (which would air on Zuffa-owned UFC Fight Pass). Since January of last year, Justino has fought three times, finishing Charmaine Tweet, Faith Van Duin, and Daria Ibragimova all in the first round.
Those are three fights that, if not wasted, certainly weren’t promoted optimally. Yes, Justino headlined all three of those cards, and yes, the UFC did market those fights, but even a wildly successful Fight Pass card likely draws fewer eyeballs than the low-selling PPV. And she could use those eyeballs: she’s been largely out of the public eye since her last Strikeforce fight in December of 2011 (holy crap, that’s almost five years ago).
Many will point out the UFC doesn’t have a women’s featherweight division, and if she wasn’t able and/or willing to cut down to bantamweight, the UFC didn’t have any fights for her. Even if we disregard the fact that the UFC found a solution with the Smith fight at a catchweight, what was stopping them from promoting her Invicta title fights on UFC cards, a rigidity to the weight class structure?
Because, when it comes down to it, the UFC is in the business of promoting fights. And it’s not as if the Zuffa isn’t aware of it. One needs only look at their history: Matt Hughes vs. Royce Gracie, Randy Couture vs. James Toney, the (successful) Brock Lesnar experiment, the Kimbo Slice run, signing CM Punk.
It’s not as if Justino would have been a PPV headliner, but she would have been a valuable piece as a Scott Coker-esque “featured attraction” piece on a PPV or a Fox show (which, hey, is what the UFC has her lined up for at UFC 198). In addition, Justino fighting on UFC shows would have built real intrigue for the fight, assuming White and Zuffa were seriously building toward it.
Instead, she enters the UFC as a still-valuable piece, but one far less interesting than a year ago. The Rousey fight isn’t dead (no fight is ever really dead until one of the participants actually is), but Rousey likely needs to win the title back and/or beat Holm in a rematch to push it back toward the numbers White was throwing around. And without Rousey, there isn’t really a big money fight. Fights against Tate or Holm are interesting, but likely relegated to PPV co-main or (and perhaps better suited for) a Fox main event.
In retrospect, Zuffa’s handling of Justino looks strange. They’ve had her under contract for more than a year and stashed her away in a regional promotion for…what exactly? She isn’t a prospect in need of development. She was in need of exposure, and she wasn’t getting that on Fight Pass. And now, six months after Rousey’s loss to Holm, she’ll make her UFC debut. It’s not too late, but it wasn’t on time.