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."
"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?”
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.