Money Brawl

Money Brawl

On the cusp of the biggest fight in the history of women's MMA, Cris "Cyborg" Justino must stare down the question that haunts her career: Is her excellence enough to make you care?

"I DON'T LIKE to remember these things," Cris Justino says, slumped over a rustic table in the corner of her kitchen in Huntington Beach, California.

It's six weeks before UFC 232, and Justino -- Cyborg, when she's in the cage -- is worn out. There was the UFC 232 Countdown training footage she had to shoot all morning at her gym. The hand pads. The strength and conditioning. Then the grappling. There was the 45 minutes she spent confined in the CVAC, a pod that looks like a hybrid space shuttle-hyperbaric chamber and promises heady wellness boons, like boosting oxygen-rich blood cells. Mostly it leaves her feeling depleted.

There was the more than nine months of waiting. She hasn't set foot in an actual Octagon since the first week of March, when she wasted Yana Kunitskaya with hammer fists at UFC 222. Justino has been waiting and training for Amanda Nunes ever since.

And then there are these things, which, really, is just one big thing: Justino's long, knotty past with the UFC. Four years ago, UFC president Dana White mocked her at a media scrum for being "jacked up on steroids" and looking like "Wanderlei Silva in a dress and heels." Then he put off adding Justino's 145-pound featherweight division for years, blaming a dearth of suitable fighters. Then he went ahead and introduced a featherweight title fight in 2017 but didn't wait for Justino, who wanted time to recover from a drastic weight cut. Then, at last, she did capture the belt and defended it twice, but without, she insists, the full-bodied blitzkrieg from the UFC publicity machine.

And then and then and then ... a litany of transgressions, an ever-growing pile of perceived slights.

"I'm surprised if they do something good. 'Oh, they really did this?'" she says, feigning shock at a hypothetical helping hand from the UFC. "But something bad, then I'm not surprised. Crazy, no?"

Practically on cue, Justino's fiancé, Ray Elbe, bursts into the kitchen, proffering his phone like it's a smoking gun. A mixed martial artist himself, Elbe moves with the coiled energy of a fighter. "Look at this," he says urgently, then scrolls through screenshots he's taken of UFC ads on Facebook urging fans to tune in to UFC 232 on Dec. 29. "They don't even mention Cris' name. Don't mention Amanda's name."

And then and then and then.

"I feel it's personal," Justino says.

"Explain that," Elbe says, still stewing as he scours more screenshots. "I mean, it's gotta be personal, right?"

Justino is not on an island of her own consternation. Since the 2016 night when Amanda Nunes took 48 seconds to blitz Ronda Rousey, Nunes has insisted on two fundamental truths. First, she is the deserving UFC bantamweight champ. And second, she believes she isn't the star the UFC craves.

"They want to get someone to beat me badly. Someone that they can really promote and make money with," Nunes said last year, although she's practically Zen about it now.

Justino knows the contours of this battleground because it's hers too. She saw the way the promotion of UFC 207 -- Nunes vs. Rousey -- practically abandoned Nunes altogether, made her look like nothing more than a plucky upstart challenger. Justino pulled for Nunes that night in 2016 because she saw an aggrieved kindred spirit.

Two years later, Justino and Nunes are set to face off in a bout White deems "literally the most important female fight since the first Ronda Rousey fight." But the women in the UFC are in crisis. Not for talent, at least not at the top, but for true take-it-to-the-bank star power. Which raises the question at the heart of Justino vs. Nunes: Does the UFC lack a Rousey-caliber female star, or does it lack the wherewithal to build a female star who can scale Rousey's heights?

Even when Amanda Nunes, left, defeated Ronda Rousey in 2016, she didn't become a UFC megastar. John Locher/AP Photo

IT'S JUST BEFORE 8 p.m. on a Friday in November when Justino arrives at the OC Fairgrounds. She's wearing a fluorescent pink blazer and, truly, the color burns so bright it feels as if it could inflict retinal damage.

With strobing lights slicing through the dark and thumping music pumping in from overhead, the cavernous ballroom feels like a nightclub. The crowd attending this fight card from Legacy Fighting Alliance, a crush of Orange County's 20s and 30s set, is outfitted accordingly: the men mostly sporting dark shirts that scream MMA names, the women wearing their glossiest night-out attire. They spot Justino immediately, and she spends much of the night in a perpetual loop of photos and selfies and raised fists in mock fight poses with fans.

The MMA faithful know her. Many love her. It's the ever-elusive mainstream, the casual fans who propelled Rousey to superstardom, that she hasn't yet captivated.

As a fighter, Rousey doesn't plague Justino anymore, not like she used to. Justino believes she tried everything she could to nudge that fight into being -- a three-year crash diet to make bantamweight and a 12-mile-per-day cardio boot camp to shed muscle mass, for instance -- just as she feels sure Rousey did everything she could to quash it. But mostly, Justino is at peace now because she and her team harbor no doubts about how that fight would have ended. "Cris would've killed her five years ago," says Justino's boxing coach, Jason Parillo. "And she'll kill her five years from now."

But as a headliner, Rousey still casts a long shadow. For Justino and her camp, Rousey was always more spectacle than spectacular. But spectacle matters. You cared. You wanted to see Rousey wreak havoc via armbar or get wrecked herself, but you damn sure took notice. UFC enthusiast or not, sports fan or not, she reached you at some point during her breathless rise and blistering fall.

The metrics only undergird this fact. In the delirious days of 2015-16, Rousey headlined PPV events that broke or approached 1 million buys. Last year's Cyborg-Holly Holm bout, by contrast, netted 380,000. But those aggregate numbers don't tell the whole story about drawing power, according to Pepperdine professor Paul Gift. He's built a model to isolate the individual contribution each UFC fighter provides to PPV cards. His glaring conclusion when comparing Nunes and Justino to Rousey? "Their numbers are not even in the same ballpark," he says.

Cris Justino says she wants to be marketed and promoted as a UFC star -- she's willing to play the game.

There are commonsense reasons this chasm exists. Rousey had a backstory that resonated in ways that made her both human (a family tragedy at a young age) and superhuman (that Olympic bronze medal). Of course, Justino and Nunes have their own humanity to offer. Justino is a still-new American citizen and brought her niece up from Brazil this year to formally adopt her. Nunes is the UFC's first openly gay champion. The fault line, then, likely lies in the packaging. Rousey was a native English speaker, a critical on-ramp to connect with American audiences. More, she boasted movie-star good looks, and those looks mattered -- not to Rousey the fighter but to Rousey the brand.

It's both obvious and problematic enough to bear repeating: For female athletes, physical appearance is simply a part of the equation. Justino bristles at this. She's willing to play the game. She wants to be marketed, promoted, public facing, all of it. But she can't make peace with the rules. "You think I'm not interesting?" she says, spitting the word out -- interesting -- like it's a curse. "I'm ugly? I'm fat? I'm not from America? I don't have blond hair?"

Critics replay a greatest-hits collection of Justino's and Nunes' perceived failings. Cyborg? She took steroids, and people can't get behind steroid users. And it's true Justino tested positive for stanozolol in 2011 and served a 12-month suspension. Nunes? She proved graceless in victory, trash-talking Rousey when Rousey was already so broken. There's truth there too; Nunes did gloat. She also consoled Rousey in the Octagon, so she doesn't quite understand why the UFC still trots out footage of her crowing.

But we've seen those mistakes and missteps before. Brock Lesnar failed a few drug tests himself, and his bankability suffers no backlash. And trash-talk? Conor McGregor has turned that into an art form and remains the UFC's premier megastar. Perhaps the sin wasn't in the actions, then, but the actors.

White's rejoinder to all this is a simple one: McGregor and Rousey set the bar impossibly high. "If you ask every fighter under contract with us, they would all say the same thing," White says. "'If they'd put the promotional muscle behind us that they put behind Conor and Ronda, we'd be that big too.' And we all know that's not necessarily the truth."

His logic is both sound and vexing. Sound in its truth -- there might be no replicating those two fighters or their breathtaking stardom. Vexing in its complacency -- if not Nunes and Justino, at the top of their sport and the apex of their dominance, then who?

But where White sees the absence of a way, Justino sees an absence of will. (Sports marketing experts largely side with White, arguing that there's a limit to how much a promoter can boost a fighter.) White swears he handles Justino and Nunes and every other fighter the same way he does McGregor and Rousey. He wants you to know that he's built an infrastructure 300 people strong to market his fighters to the public. But he's not a magician, he'd remind you.

"Believe me, if I could have Cyborg and Nunes on Ellen tomorrow and then on Good Morning America and this show and that show and everything else, why would I not do that?" White is screaming now. Ellen. Loud. Good Morning America. Louder. This show and that show. True, guttural screams, like a man who can't quite fathom why his common sense still seems to makes no sense at all to anyone but him. "Why would I not do that? I'd do it in a heartbeat."

Cris Justino defeated Holly Holm by decision after a five-round fight at UFC 219 in December 2017. Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

"SHE'S TOO F---ING good," Parillo says. "That's her problem.

Justino has opened her own gym for this training camp, a squat, 1,500-or-so-square-foot one-room cell (the practice cage eats up 90 percent of the space), and it feels closer to a rehabbed storage space than a gleaming state-of-the-art facility. Hers is the second-to-last unit in a tan, drab strip mall that's mostly vacant. She's outfitted the place with an odd mix of flourishes: an exposed garage door in the back, with a huge, Día de los Muertos -- inspired "Cyborg Nation" skull logo spray-painted on its surface; across the way, two glossy pink bins with inscriptions -- "The Future is Female," "Haute Mess." Hanging over the cage is the gym's crown jewels -- three title belts from Justino's three major promotional stops: Strikeforce, Invicta, UFC.

Save for a loss in her professional debut 13 years ago, she's steamrollered her competition no matter whose cage she's in. In her three UFC title fights, she's been a -1,500, -350 and -2,000 favorite. "Her toughest fight was Holly Holm, and Cris didn't have a mark on her face," Parillo points out.

And even though her odds against Nunes are her lowest since 2009 (-270), she'd be lying if she said she and her crew felt especially unnerved by them. Nunes has never tangled with a fighter like her, Justino says, and she'll feel the difference as soon as Justino lands her first punch.

“You think I'm not interesting? I'm ugly? I'm fat? I'm not from America? I don't have blond hair?”

Cris Justino

Here's the two-part catch with Parillo's bravado. One, for all that it sounds like bluster, it truly is problematic that Justino has been too good for too long. The weight class White created for her? It's the lone UFC division with no rankings whatsoever, just Justino listed as featherweight champ with no contenders waiting in the wings. That's bad for business -- for White and for Justino. Where's her Frazier? Every great needs a foil; that's just Good Storytelling 101.

Two, even if the UFC is still grappling with when, where and how to market Justino, where would she go? Sure, she's floated the possibility of moving on to another promotion yet again, but the UFC is king, and she and her team know that. "It's insanity," Parillo says. "Every time I hear it, I start cringing. No. We're where we wanna be. We fought to get here."

Justino can (and does) point to what she sees as a lack of investment in 145-pound fighters on the UFC's part. White can (and does) insist that there are no 145-pound fighters out there to invest in. "If it could be done, I'm the guy to do it, and I would have done it," he says.

Justino is approaching a cliff. Nunes too. On Dec. 29, they fight. What comes after? There are a few worthy contenders for Nunes back at bantamweight -- Ketlen Vieira comes to mind -- but no can't-misses like Justino. Over at featherweight? It's not even clear if that division has a future without its current champion.

And against that uncertain backdrop, their superfight still takes second billing to Jon Jones' return to the UFC for his rematch with Alexander Gustafsson.

Justino doesn't see it that way. Jones is a huge draw. Why not capitalize on all those eyeballs?

Nunes, for her part, wishes it could be different. Wouldn't it be something, she thinks, if we lived in a world where the best women's MMA bout in history was enough? "I feel like that was supposed to be our moment, you know?"

It makes sense, of course, the UFC's decision to elevate Jones-Gustafsson 2, a box-office surety. Jones is one of the sport's all-time best fighters who can't stay out of his own way, seeking redemption once again. That's a great story. It's the kind of tale the UFC knows how to tell.

It's a story the UFC is so eager to tell that when Jones tested positive again for trace particles of a long-term metabolite of turinabol (the substance that earned him a failed drug test in July 2017 and a 15-month suspension) the UFC was willing to uproot the card, just six days before 232, from Las Vegas to Los Angeles when the Nevada State Athletic Commission balked at sanctioning the fight.

Back at Justino's gym, there's a painting on the wall, directly across from the cage. It's a replica of a mural that once stood in Curitiba, Brazil, her hometown, and shows Justino, arms lifted, poised for combat. Over her image, there's a message written in Portuguese: Luto minhas batalhas. Dou meus pulos. Sou boa praça. "I fight my battles. I find my ways. I'm a good person."

A different kind of story, still waiting to be told.

Hallie Grossman is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine. Follow her on Twitter @TheHallieG.