INGLEWOOD, Calif. — The most difficult feat in MMA is getting to the top. The vast majority of the money goes to those who fight for, and win, world championships.
And no one has ever won more championships than Cris “Cyborg” Justino, who added her fourth major belt on Saturday when she finished Julia Budd in the fourth round of their bout in the main event of Bellator 238 at The Forum.
The Bellator title follows a Strikeforce championship in 2009, an Invicta title in 2013 and a UFC belt in 2017.
Staying at the top, though, is nearly as difficult as getting there. There are so many ways to lose, and the training it takes to be elite, let alone the fights themselves, takes a toll on so many fighters.
Cyborg’s legacy as one of the most accomplished athletes, male or female, ever to step into the cage won’t be able to be fully written, or appreciated, without acknowledging her amazing longevity.
She knocked out Gina Carano on Aug. 15, 2009, in San Jose to claim the vacant Strikeforce featherweight title. On Saturday, 10 years, five months and 11 days later, she overwhelmed Budd to remain at the top of the heap.
“It’s rare that you see that explosiveness that you saw tonight 10 years later from an athlete,” Bellator president Scott Coker said.
The win over Budd wasn’t your typical performance from Cyborg. She didn’t roar out of her corner at the start of the bout like an out-of-control locomotive rolling downhill, firing big punches. She pressured Budd, but she stuck to the game plan her coaches developed for her in South Africa. They didn’t want her to lose her cool, to fire randomly, once she got her. And she did just that, fighting an in-control, smart and measured bout.
Budd attributed the loss to mistakes, and said her plan was to keep her back off the cage at all costs. That’s where Cyborg is lethal, when she’s able to unleash a tornado of punches, elbows, knees and kicks. But seconds after the fight began, Budd’s back was against the cage.
“Her forward pressure,” Budd said, grimacing, in explaining what caused the mistakes she blamed for the defeat.
Cyborg nearly finished it at the end of the third when she dropped Budd late in the round, then hit her with a flurry of punches and elbows in the final 10 or 15 seconds.
She made no mistake in the fourth, and fell to the canvas with her arms spread out in exultation after referee Mike Beltran jumped in to stop it.
It gave her the Bellator belt in the same building where, just over a year earlier, she’d been knocked out by Amanda Nunes at UFC 232 and lost her belt. She didn’t walk away from the sport, though, and completed the unique quad when she beat Budd to take her belt. When she began so many years ago, it wasn’t even a dream she harbored.
“I was never thinking this would happen,” she said. “When I started, I had a dream to do my best and a dream to show that girls can fight like the guys.”
She long since proved that. She has been so good and so dominant that she’s one of the few professional athletes widely known simply by her nickname. Though she’s had very few defeats, her career hasn’t been all Champagne and caviar. She’s been harassed by many on social media for her appearance and famously battled with UFC president Dana White.
She managed to persevere, reinventing herself several times along the way. Saturday’s theme was sticking to the plan.
“Patience,” she said repeatedly in answer to questions about what was different about her on Saturday.
She also fought with a purpose greater than glorifying herself. While she was training in South Africa, she met a young boy named Ryan who is fighting cancer. She plans to give him the belt she’d won on Saturday.
She won’t be defined by a belt even though she has more of them than anyone. She was the best in 2009 and 2010 and in 2014 and 2015. And if she’s not the best now, she’s not far behind Nunes.
And while the contenders in Bellator’s burgeoning featherweight division are blowing up Coker’s phone angling for their shot at the gold, they’ll likely find out what Budd did on Saturday: Fifteen years after she began, more than 10 years after her first title, there are few, if any, better than Cyborg.
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