Whether it’s hosting marquee events in foreign countries, increasing its presence on social media or adding new divisions, expansion has been the UFC’s focus during the past decade, and elite mixed martial artists have often been the driving force behind that expansion.
While she’s only entered the Octagon twice since joining the promotion, Cristiane ”Cyborg” Justino has been one of those elite mixed martial artists for quite some time now. But due to difficulties with cutting down to the women’s bantamweight maximum of 135 pounds, the UFC has yet to truly capitalize on Justino’s presence by placing her in big-money bouts. Fortunately, it looks like that’s about to change.
During a recent interview on the UFC Unfiltered podcast, company president Dana White contradicted his previous comments concerning the creation of a women’s 145-pound division when he revealed that the promotion had offered Justino a pair of featherweight title fights—fights that would obviously lead to the beginning of a women’s 145-pound weight class.
”What’s crazy about that is, I offered Cris Cyborg a title fight at 145 pounds a month ago,” said White. ”She had eight weeks to get ready for it, she said she couldn’t make the weight, said she couldn’t make 145 pounds. So then I offered her another 145-pound title fight for Brooklyn [UFC 208] and she turned it down. She turned down two 145-pound title fights. One because she said she couldn’t make 145 pounds in eight weeks, and Joe Silva was like, ‘If she can’t make 145 pounds in eight weeks, 145 [pounds] isn’t the right weight class for her either.”’
Both of Justino’s fights in the UFC have been contested at a catchweight of 140 pounds, and the Brazilian has looked unstoppable in her consecutive knockout victories over Leslie Smith and Lina Lansberg. But until White revealed that the UFC had already offered her a chance to become its first women’s featherweight champion on two separate occasions, consistently making 135 pounds—something she’s never been able to do, appeared to be the only way that she’d have a future in the UFC.
In September, White said that he didn’t think that the UFC would be creating a women’s featherweight division anytime soon while discussing the never-ending rumours regarding a ”superfight” between Justino and former women’s 135-pound champion Ronda Rousey during an interview with Globo.
”The women have done very well, but as far as expansion I think it’s inevitable as the sport continues to grow. But no plans in the near future, no. As far as a heavier division, no I don’t see that happening. I think in a perfect world, what everybody would love to see [is] Ronda vs Cyborg, so everybody is waiting—I’m sure Cyborg is too, for the return of Ronda Rousey.”
White has changed his tune on many occasions. Prior to Rousey’s arrival, he famously claimed that the UFC wasn’t going to create any women’s weight classes, and White recently spent months denying rumours that the UFC was being sold. But this particular change of heart may come with its own set of far-reaching consequences.
With a new ownership group led by WME-IMG looking for a sizeable return on its multi-billion dollar investment in the UFC, Justino’s value to the company has never been higher–especially after her first two Octagon performances. More importantly, now that Rousey has started to slide out of the spotlight during her extended absence and she’s made it clear that her upcoming title fight against Amanda Nunes will be one of her last regardless of the results, the UFC needs a new, seemingly immortal female superstar—and Cyborg is a perfect fit.
Of course, Rowdy Ronda could re-energize her fan-base with a victory over Nunes, but Justino’s time to reign over the sport’s top promotion has finally arrived, and blessing the Brazilian with a division of her own is the best way for her employers to reap the rewards of that reign.
Along with the obvious benefits to both Justino and the UFC, creating a women’s featherweight division would also give some of the women a chance to occasionally compete in two weight classes in the same way that their male counterparts have done for years, offering the promotion’s new owners even more opportunities to cash-in on their earth-shattering investment with the first female ”superfights” in UFC history.
But if the UFC creates a women’s featherweight division to showcase Justino, would giving Conor McGregor the equity stake in the UFC that he’s requested be so surprising considering the amount of money he’s made for the company? Will longstanding champions and proven pay-per-view stars soon be paid separately for both their performances and their personalities? Even ”Mystic Mac” can’t answer those questions. But as 2016 has taught us, anything is possible in today’s UFC.