'I KO all the girls': The humanity and hubris of Cyborg Justino

Barbara Davidson For ESPN

Cristiane "Cyborg" Justino trains at a private gym in Costa Mesa, Calif., in June, ahead of her UFC 214 victory at the Honda Center in Anaheim.

A previous version of this story ran before UFC 214. This story appears in the Aug. 21 edition of ESPN The Magazine. Subscribe today!

Cristiane Cyborg Justino sits in a bath and prays.

She closes her eyes. The water is 105 degrees, and she's already dehydrated, the room a hellish trap of heat and humidity. There's no escape, not even a mental one. Her coach used to tell her to take her mind somewhere, anywhere, when she's cutting weight -- Go to the beach, Cris. Feel the ocean crash over your head, Cris. But when she tries to mentally leave this hotel bathroom in Brasília, she sees only Yang Jian Bing.

Yang was a mixed martial arts fighter too. He too pushed his body to the depths of severe dehydration and then, eventually, suffered suspected heatstroke and cardiopulmonary failure.

Yang passed away in December 2015. He died cutting weight, Justino thinks. People talked about him for one week.

Now, nine months later, as Justino sinks farther into a tub, she knows people have already forgotten his name. So is it worth it? This wringing her body of every last ounce of water? This almost-death? Simply to make weight for a fight?

Justino is the most fearsome women's MMA fighter on the planet -- she chose the moniker "Cyborg," a being whose abilities far exceed those of normal humans. But today, as she prepares to make the 140-pound catchweight for her Sept. 24, 2016, fight against Lina Lansberg, she's afraid that stepping into the Octagon is not worth this. That nothing is worth this. 

Barbara Davidson For ESPN

Justino works with boxing coach Jason Parillo.

Justino's body is a sculpted 5-foot-8, 170-pound weapon. It is her greatest asset. It is also her most formidable obstacle.

Her strength borders on savagery in the cage, where she shells opponents with five-minute flurries of strikes. Ask Tonya Evinger, Justino's most recent victim, who resisted admirably for more than two rounds but eventually fell to earth. Five of Justino's past eight fights have ended in the first round, three in under a minute and a half. And with 18 victories (16 by KO or TKO) and one no-contest, she hasn't lost since her professional debut in 2005. 

"Not a lot of girls can KO fighters," she says with a shrug. "I KO all the girls." 

But after struggling for years simply to line up willing opponents, the 12-year veteran has only now found a stage to match the talent that her team insists is unrivaled. In July, at UFC 214 in Anaheim, California, Justino competed for -- and won -- her first Ultimate Fighting Championship belt. She is 32 years old. 

"Cris is the baddest girl on the planet," says her boxing coach, Jason Parillo. "And no one knows who she is."

From 2013 until early last year, Justino fought exclusively in the 145-pound featherweight division of the all-female promotion Invicta FC -- rather than the splashier, higher-profile UFC -- because she had no home elsewhere. Even after the UFC added women to its cards in 2013, it started small, featuring only 135-pound bantamweight. Strawweight, at 115 pounds, would follow the next year, but as recently as last October, UFC president Dana White insisted "there aren't enough good women at 145 pounds to create an entire division."

Justino has long viewed White's unwillingness to develop her featherweight division as a personal affront. "They never respected me," she says. Justino and those in her orbit -- Parillo and coach Tito Ortiz, a Hall of Fame fighter -- contend that White's justification was a red herring to deflect from the real reason the UFC balked at adding 145-pound fighters. 

"Ronda Rousey was the holdup," Parillo says. "One hundred percent. Ronda Rousey."

In their view, the UFC was simply more devoted to its biggest star than to investing in the sport's best fighter; it didn't need a featherweight division -- or Cyborg -- since it already had the sport's megastar. "Cris would have smoked Rousey," Ortiz says. "It would have been done in one round."

White, for his part, has continued to publicly own his role in Justino's contentious history with the UFC. "I don't know how it happened," he says now. "But it did. And I needed to fix it." 

While Justino says she forgives White, in many ways she still carries that old slight, her defiance seeking constant release. Her demeanor demands recognition. She sports a shock of Jessica Rabbit, electric-red hair. When she peels off her sweatshirt to train with Parillo, a black tee reveals her likeness: a chiseled, glowing goddess, right leg up, arms poised for combat. "FIGHTER. FEARLESS. FEMALE," it declares.  

She is both combative and hypersensitive to criticism. Justino has routinely questioned the UFC's commitment to promoting her: "My team went back through the @UFC twitter feed history. Any guesses how many tweets they tagged me in ... ?" she posted in June. But she has also given the organization reason to not want to raise her profile. She tested positive for steroids five and a half years ago, a black eye that has yet to entirely fade. She punched a fellow fighter, Angela Magana, at a UFC retreat in May, frustrated over Magana's repeated cyber insults. The incident earned Justino a citation for misdemeanor battery. (She pleaded not guilty, and the Las Vegas City Attorney's Office will decide in August whether it will file a complaint.)

Ultimately, her humanity lies in her hubris. The outsized sense of pride that has undeniably led to trouble also led to her greatest triumph, a dozen years into her career: a UFC title.

Barbara Davidson for ESPN

Justino preps for her daily training run. From 2013 until early last year, Justino fought exclusively in the 145-pound featherweight division of the all-female promotion Invicta FC.

Tito Ortiz first met Justino nine years ago in his wooded compound in Big Bear, California. He'd converted a log cabin, Oscar De La Hoya's old home, into a training lair, bringing in sparring partners to help him prepare for bouts. In 2008, Evangelista "Cyborg" Santos arrived with his then-wife, Cris -- she later adopted her ex-husband's fighting nickname -- to help Ortiz prep for his UFC match against Lyoto Machida. Ortiz's four-car garage housed a cage, and husband and wife stepped in and began to spar.

"They're punching, kicking," Ortiz says. "He head-kicked her and kind of dazed her a bit. She took a second, then went at it again. I was ..." he pauses, "dumbfounded."

Justino's quest to prove her mettle was all-consuming. In 2014, she vowed that she would make 135 pounds in order to fight in the UFC; she would meet Ronda Rousey at bantamweight. Justino set out on a yearslong pursuit to remake herself. She ran 12 miles a day, doubling down on cardio to lose muscle mass. She became anemic, she says, because of what amounted to a three-year diet designed to hit her mark. She fell short, a failure that dismayed MMA enthusiasts pining for a Rousey-Cyborg megafight. It ate at her too. She could not reconcile why she was the best fighter in the world without the right platform. Ultimately, she chose not to resist the UFC's siren song, signing on to two fights in 2016 on UFC cards. She'd fight not for a belt but at 140 pounds, first against Leslie Smith and later against Swedish fighter Lina Lansberg. 

Which is how Justino found herself contemplating her mortality in a bathtub in Brazil.

She made her weight last September for the right to face off against, and eventually beat, Lansberg, then vowed never to put her body through that kind of weight cut again. On every final day before weigh-in, there's the Sweet Sweat she rubs onto her skin, a layer of grease to ratchet up circulation and perspiration. Over that, she wears a sauna suit -- plastic -- to trap heat. Over that, sweats and a hoodie. Then socks, gloves, a winter beanie. Then the treadmill or soccer or light work with hand pads -- anything to send those sweat glands into overdrive. As the scale looms, there's the sauna and then that bath, filled with Epsom salts because that allegedly draws fluid out of the body, and fluid is the enemy.

"You dream you drank water," Ortiz says. "And you wake up in a panic, going, 'Oh my god, I drank water. Did I drink water?'"

Justino flew down to Brazil from her home in Huntington Beach, California, the week before the fight. In an Outside the Lines piece on Justino's weight cutting last year, she said she was 26 pounds over the 140-pound catchweight. And though drained from the cut, she unleashed an onslaught against Lansberg, landing 84 significant strikes to Lansberg's 14. Justino wound up in the hospital before and after the pummeling. In the days leading up to the fight, she arrived with an elevated heart rate; two days after it, she'd return with post-weight-cut dehydration so severe that doctors were unable to draw her blood.

Cutting weight is not Justino's cross to bear alone. It's practically sacred in MMA, a vestige of its wrestling heritage, as much rite of passage as act of masochism, given its risks, which include heatstroke and potential brain injury; organ failure; death. Rousey once spent five hours in a sauna, dropping 17 pounds in 24 hours, just to prove she could. Fighters use diuretics to increase urination. They take emetics to force vomiting. They resort to drugs that cause diarrhea. They sweat through saunas and hot baths. They spit in cups. Anything to expel fluid. "I've done 34 pounds in two days," Ortiz says. "I thought I was going to die."

"This is the biggest issue facing the sport," says Andy Foster, executive officer of the California State Athletic Commission, MMA's regulating body in the state that hosts more fights than any other. He studied 136 MMA athletes in bouts since late 2015 and discovered that after weigh-in, 31 percent regained more than 10 percent of their body weight in 24 hours -- clear evidence, he says, that nearly 1 in 3 fighters achieved weight cut through some degree of dehydration. In response, the commission recently approved aggressive weight-cutting reforms. In California, fighters now must be licensed by weight class and obtain medical signoff to fight in their desired division. Fighters who miss weight more than once could be reassigned classes; fighters who fail to make weight will face financial penalty. 

The UFC too has worked to tackle weight cutting. As of UFC 200 last July, all fighters must check in for fight week within 8 percent of their target weight. Missing that mark means daily weight monitoring in the bout's lead-up and weight management counseling before their next fight.

"My biggest fight over the past few years hasn't been in the ring or cage," Justino wrote in a letter this past May lauding Foster's efforts, "but inside the bath, sauna and on the treadmill."

Of course, Justino's critics say she could have made 135 pounds -- could have fought Ronda Rousey at bantamweight for what Dana White once swore would be the biggest pay-per-view fight in UFC history -- if she hadn't been doping.

It's the accusation that shadows Justino's every strike. She tested positive for stanozolol, an anabolic steroid, in 2011. She took the drug, she says, at the suggestion of a friend to lose weight. Instead she lost one year in the prime of her career after the California State Athletic Commission suspended her from competition for 12 months.

Foster, who was not yet a member of CSAC when the commission handed down Justino's suspension in January 2012, says he would not regulate the Brazilian fighter at 135 pounds. Dr. Michael Schwartz, Connecticut's chief ringside physician, cautions that fighters losing more than 10 percent of their walking-around weight should not be greenlighted for a bout -- and Justino would have to lose roughly 20 percent to make bantamweight. The unlikelihood of Justino making weight at 135 seemed only to encourage her detractors. Rousey told Yahoo in 2014 that Justino had been using steroids for so long, "she's not even a woman anymore. She's an 'it.'" And White echoed the star's offensive sentiment, declaring the "jacked up on steroids" fighter looked like another Brazilian MMA great, Wanderlei Silva.

"I made one mistake," Justino says. "I did it one time. Yeah, I did. I paid."

She's remorseful but falls short of apologetic now, six years later. And she doesn't think she deserves to be the face of MMA doping. What about all the tests -- maybe 15, maybe 20 -- that have come back clean since? Of course, the problem is in her defense. 

"Stanozolol is not used for weight loss," Schwartz says. "Anabolic steroids, if anything, are used to build." To believe Justino is to believe, at best, she simply didn't know what she was putting in her body. At worst, she didn't care.

Then, last December, she tested positive for another banned substance. 

The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency flagged Justino for using spironolactone, a diuretic. It was doctor-prescribed, she insisted, for polycystic ovarian syndrome, a reproductive hormonal imbalance that, if left untreated, can lead to heart disease. She was provisionally suspended for two months, but after she underwent a host of tests -- blood, urine, even an ultrasound -- and provided medical documentation, USADA granted Justino a retroactive therapeutic use exemption in February. She was free to fight. 

Barbara Davidson For ESPN

Champion MMA fighter Orlando Sanchez pets Justino's kitten, Laila, after a workout.

Justino knew Germaine de Randamie would beat Holly Holm for the UFC's inaugural featherweight belt. She also knew de Randamie would never fight her. "One fight, eight opponents pulled out," says Parillo of a time earlier in Justino's career. "Every girl that I've seen Cris fight, I walk up to them and I say thank you for taking that fight." Which is why, as Justino walked into Brooklyn's Barclays Center in early February to take in UFC 208 cageside, she refused to call the headlining event a legitimate title bout.

She came to Brooklyn at White's invitation, a bittersweet conclusion to Justino's crusade to establish a 145-pound division. White finally conceded, but the fighter he created the division for would not step into the Octagon for its debut. White wanted the division to kick off in February. Justino, at her doctor's urging, insisted on more time to recover from her weight cut the previous September. The UFC carried on without her. "That was heartbreaking," Parillo says.

When de Randamie won by decision, with the gold belt still newly draped over her shoulder, she posed for an impromptu face-off photo with Justino backstage. Then she wavered on committing to a title defense because of a lingering hand issue and eventually outright refused to face Justino. "She will not fight Cyborg because Cyborg is a proven cheater," her manager told ESPN.com in May. The weight cutting, the division limbo, the cloud of performance enhancement -- all of it coalesced to leave Justino in a spot she knew well: with no one to fight.

She tweeted in late May: "Makes division for me. Doesn't give me belt. Can't wait for me. Makes champion who won't fight me. Does this sound well planned out?" White guaranteed a few days later that Justino would appear on the July 29 card, and in late June, the UFC made Cyborg-Megan Anderson official -- and officially a title bout -- after stripping de Randamie of the belt.

With that, Justino had one last verbal jab at White and the UFC: "Even @UFCFightPass is promoting me again!"

Barbara Davidson For ESPN

More work in Costa Mesa on July 18 as Justino's bout with Evinger draws near.

For about 10 seconds in the first round of Invicta FC 6, in July 2013, Marloes Coenen held Cris Justino against the fence, the two a tangle of limbs. Parillo wasn't scared for his fighter, but he was surprised.

"Is she strong, Cris?" he asked after the first-round bell. Justino, perched low on a stool, looked at her coach. "She was," Justino told him. "But she's not anymore." 

Parillo nodded, satisfied. Coenen is done, he thought to himself.

He laughs now, thinking back to the moments in that cage in Kansas City, before Justino went on to defeat Coenen in the fourth round with a hailstorm of punches and elbows. "I have not questioned one minute, one second, of any round of any fight that she's been in since," he says. "I haven't had to." 

On July 29, Parillo had no doubts before Justino stepped foot into the UFC 214 Octagon to face Invicta's bantamweight champ, Tonya Evinger -- not Anderson, who withdrew from the fight due to personal reasons -- or even after Evinger withstood a violent last-second knee to the face to survive the first round.

"Calm down," Parillo told Justino in the break, putting his right hand on her chest. "Your heart is slowing up right now. Do you feel it?" He didn't ask her this time whether Evinger was strong, because he knew Justino was stronger. Her first left hook, 10 seconds into the fight, nearly brought Evinger to the floor. That morning, when Parillo put on his hand pads to warm up with Justino, he knew right away she felt good. This weight cut, to 145, had been the most manageable one of her career. She started lighter, weighing in at 154 just after fight week began, and felt mentally lighter too. Two days before the fight, her training session morphed into a capoeira show. She danced. She brought out the berimbau, a Brazilian instrument, and clapped in time to the music. She laughed. "That would have never happened during the weight cut last time," Ortiz says.

Parillo still had no doubts, even after Evinger survived the next round. He told Justino to stay patient, to stay disciplined. Don't just throw haymakers, be strategic. She was close. And 1 minute and 52 seconds into the third round, Justino crumpled Evinger with a knee to her face. Justino finished her off with a few more strikes, lifted both hands up to the crowd, circled the Octagon, motioned for her belt and climbed the fence. Then she bent down, head to the floor. She was a UFC champion. 

Barbara Davidson For ESPN

"Cris is the baddest girl on the planet," Parillo says. "And no one knows who she is." But no one could deny her resounding victory in her UFC title debut.

Seven weeks earlier, Justino stood in a concrete alleyway of a sprawling gray industrial complex, sending a 25-pound ball hurtling toward the earth. She had come to Orange Coast CrossFit with her friend, fellow fighter and fellow Brazilian Gabi Garcia, a 6-foot-2, 200-plus-pound physical spectacle, and the two grinded through a series of unrelenting strength and conditioning workouts. Justino gritted her teeth for 45 seconds on a rowing machine. She muscled through 45 more seconds of burpees, clutching 20-pound dumbbells. She rocketed up, then down, for 45 seconds worth of situps. She settled in for 45 more seconds of "slam balls." Even Justino felt winded. She put her hands to her hips, and for just a breath, she looked beat.

"Who's the champ?" Garcia screamed.

In nearly two months, Dana White would slip a gold UFC belt around Justino's waist. He'd quickly name Holly Holm -- Rousey's original vanquisher -- as the fighter he'd like to see Justino take on next. He'd predict a near-future with Justino as UFC star, one more gesture pointing to a détente in their relationship.

But there, in a gym before the belt and the bold statements, Justino heaved the ball down once more, and a guttural groan escaped. She'd fought opponents. She'd fought the UFC. She'd fought those who insulted her name.

She glanced at her friend for just a heartbeat. Then smiled.

Related Content