While Cyborg vs. Holm is a great matchup, it doesn't solve UFC's long-term women's woes
On its face, Cris Cyborg vs. Holly Holm is a great fight: Ronda Rousey's original vanquisher and wholesome girl-next-door pitted against UFC supervillain and Rousey hater. The story lines are excellent. Not to mention, it's a huge deal for the last pay-per-view event of the year to be headlined by two women.
Even UFC president Dana White called it "not just the biggest fight of the year, it's one of the biggest fights ever in the UFC women's division."
But therein lays the problem.
White is right that Cyborg vs. Holm is the biggest female fight. But it exposes a reality that continues to dog the UFC: a lack of female stars. With this fight on Saturday at UFC 219 in Las Vegas, the UFC is prioritizing short-term gains over solving the long-term problem of creating and sustaining powerhouses within its women's divisions. Since Rousey has all but exited the sport, the UFC has struggled to identify and amplify stars in its women's divisions, and Cyborg vs. Holm does not solve that issue.
Had Holm not lost to Miesha Tate at UFC 196 on March 5, 2016, this upcoming matchup against Cyborg would be a different story. But Holm did lose the bantamweight belt. She then lost a UFC Fight Night bout to Valentina Shevchenko in July 2016 and also failed to win the inaugural featherweight title fight in February. Holm finally ended her losing streak with a victory over Bethe Correia in a June bantamweight bout. As talented and decorated as Holm is, her recent record doesn't do her any favors.
There certainly is upside for the UFC here, if only for the short term. No matter who wins, it will be an intriguing outcome. Will Cyborg silence her critics who say she hasn't faced anyone tough yet? Can Holm capture lightning in a bottle twice and defeat another fighter who is supposed to be unbeatable?
But this fight doesn't bring the UFC any closer to finding the next star to anchor the women's divisions, even two years after Holm landed the head kick heard round the world to defeat Rousey. Stars have to win; being a superstar athlete necessitates superstar ability. This isn't unique to MMA. LeBron James and Maya Moore couldn't be who they are as role players. Hyped matchups are exciting because of the elite skill level of the participants. That's as true in the Super Bowl as it is for a UFC title fight.
At some point, White and the UFC will need to figure out how to solve some of its problems. Featherweight, for example, needs to be more than just the one-off title fights that have been anchoring it thus far. The bantamweight division needs to get fights on the calendar, which White says will happen in 2018. With the exception of a top contender bout between Julianna Pena and Shevchenko in January 2017, and Amanda Nunes' ensuing title defense against the latter at UFC 215 in September, the division has been relatively stagnant. Some of that is admittedly beyond the UFC's control, with Pena getting pregnant and Raquel Pennington, another top contender, getting injured; but there are other prospects in that division.
It feels shortsighted to bet on magic coming out of a Holm-Cyborg matchup. It's like putting a million dollars down on black on the off chance you might double your money. Sure, it might pay out, but that doesn't make the move any less reckless.
A Holm victory against Cyborg would be outstanding for UFC: Holm would become the woman who beat Ronda Rousey and Cyborg. She would be the first woman in UFC history to have won belts in multiple weight divisions. She would suddenly become a bright star -- even brighter than the first time -- behind whom the UFC could place considerable energy; a problem that has faced the promotion since Rousey's (presumed) exit.
It might take a little bit of magic, but Holm might actually be able to beat Cyborg. Hey, stranger things have happened. Of Cyborg's 18 wins, 16 have come by knockout. But Holm is a formidable striker in her own right. While most of Cyborg's opponents have incentive to shirk standing up against her, Holm is most comfortable and most lethal on her feet. Holm is a former boxing champion who started her combat sports career in kickboxing. Holm doesn't exactly look to go to the ground and would much prefer to duke it out the old-fashioned way ... well, perhaps with a head kick or two included.
"I know I'm capable," Holm said in a phone interview. "Quite frankly, if I didn't feel like I could win, I probably shouldn't take the fight."
However, even with Holm's skill (and confidence), beating (and perhaps even competing with) Cyborg is a formidable challenge. Cyborg has not lost since her first MMA bout in 2005, and frankly, it hasn't been close. Her stamina, though, is a question, as only two of her 18 wins have come by decision, both in three-round fights; it's unknown how she would fare in the fourth or fifth round, if for no other reason than she's hardly ever gotten there. Holm also is arguably the most dangerous opponent Cyborg has faced in her undefeated decade.
"One of the big criticisms about [Cyborg] is that she hasn't faced anybody tough yet," White said. "It'd be hard to criticize her anymore if she goes in and destroys Holly Holm."
Holm will fight anyone, anywhere, anytime, and it's one of the reasons White likes her as a fighter. Holm was choked out by Tate and let herself be put to sleep rather than submit via a tap out. She's tough. She doesn't have the personality of someone like Rousey, but many MMA fans like her. If Holm wins on Saturday, it would undoubtedly be good for the UFC. If she loses, however, that leaves the UFC with a big, bad villain in Cyborg, who has multiple positive drug tests, in a division with no one else on the roster as its most recognizable female champion.
And either way, it's fair to say that both of these women are fighting in what are likely the final stages of their careers: Holm is 36, and Cyborg is 32. Any star power gained Saturday will only last so long.
The short-term gain from this fight might prove to be worth it for the UFC, but it might do nothing to solve the long-term issues plaguing the female divisions. And regardless of how this fight goes, that day of reckoning is coming.