Despite win, Cyborg still at risk in Invicta

How long before Cristiane Santos grows bored -- or, even worse, loses -- while with Invicta FC? Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com

Cristiane "Cyborg" Santos needed to accomplish two things on Friday at Invicta FC: defeat Fiona Muxlow and look like a reasonable facsimile of her old self while doing it.

Not necessarily in that order. At least not in terms of degree of difficulty.

The victory was vital, I suppose, but it was also never really in doubt. In practice, the fight turned out to be as lopsided as it looked on paper, which is to say the win was so one-sided that it was almost completely hollow for the former Strikeforce women’s featherweight champion.

Santos dropped Muxlow with her first punch, a straight right that put the replacement fighter, who took the bout on 17 days’ notice, skittering into the frenzied survival mode we so commonly see in Santos' opponents. The rest was essentially cleanup. It took referee John McCarthy 3 minutes, 46 seconds to decide he’d seen enough, but each tick of the clock after that initial salvo felt more gratuitous than the previous. By the time the end came for Muxlow, she was backed up against the cage accepting a series of increasingly inevitable knees and punches and the overriding feeling that swept over us all when Big John stepped in was one of relief for her.

For Santos, we felt only a vague sense of confirmation. Yep, she’s still Cyborg.

Proving that Santos is still the most bloodcurdling figure in women’s MMA was the really essential thing here, because, after nearly 16 months of inactivity owed to a yearlong suspension for a positive steroid test, there were questions about whether she would show up in Kansas City looking as ripped, as relentless and altogether frightening as before. More to the point, because Cyborg still being leaps and bounds ahead of the competition is an integral part of manager Tito Ortiz’s plan to run the longest of long bombs on the UFC.

When Santos and Ortiz very publicly balked at the chance to cut to 135 pounds for an immediate shot at Ronda Rousey’s bantamweight title back in February, instead opting for a much slower burn in Invicta, it prompted copious industry-wide head-scratching. One of those heads belonged to UFC President Dana White, who alternated between describing the Santos-Ortiz negotiating style as “wacky” and “goofy” and then proclaimed Cyborg “pretty much irrelevant” when talks finally appeared to fall apart for good.

Ortiz claims Santos needs a multifight run in Invicta to gradually shed the pounds necessary to safely make the cut to 135. Maybe that’s true, but the perils of this route are obvious. What if something goes wrong, we all asked when the deal was announced. What if she emerges in the Invicta cage looking like something less than the terrifying knockout artist who cut a swath through women’s MMA during seven fights from 2008-11? What if she -- choke, sputter, gasp -- loses?

"She ain't gonna lose …," an ever-confident Ortiz told MMAJunkie.com's Ben Fowlkes when he put voice to these concerns at the time. "You ever sparred with Cris? You ever tried to wrestle with her? Ever watched her wrestle, watched her spar? Have you ever watched her fight?"

Yeah, well, point taken. Never did Ortiz’s long-term plan for Santos’ career feel like less of a gamble than while we were watching her brutalize Muxlow. Granted, the 35-year-old Australian’s prospects were doomed from the moment she agreed to sub in for the injured Ediane Gomes last month, but it must have been reassuring for Ortiz & Co. to get proof that Cyborg can still deal with an overmatched opponent with the kind of extreme prejudice we saw from her against the likes of Jan Finney and Hiroko Yamanaka near the end of her Strikeforce run.

While not a particularly instructive affair, we’re now told the victory sets Santos up for an Invicta 145-pound title bout with Marloes Coenen later this year. Coenen will no doubt be a far more dangerous opponent, albeit one Santos already defeated back in January 2010 and one who had been competing at bantamweight prior to debuting in Invicta. If Cyborg wins that, she’ll have a shiny new belt to match Rousey’s, and it’ll start to feel more and more like Ortiz’s gamble might just pay off after all, giving Santos time to drop the weight while only stoking the fires of interest in a Rousey bout.

Still, let’s not kid ourselves here. Santos and Ortiz are taking tremendous risks each time Santos steps into the Invicta cage. They are still involved in the kind of clunky, long-range scheme that very seldom pays off in a sport this unpredictable.

If you strip away the veneer of dominance and the fearsome power, Cyborg has exactly one thing going for her right now: There are only two real stars in the landscape of female MMA, and, as of this weekend, she’s still one of them. Rousey and the UFC need her (and by extension, Ortiz) as much as the fighter and manager need the fight promotion and its golden girl. Rousey versus Santos is the one truly marketable superfight in women’s fighting at the moment, and no matter how big the honchos at the UFC talk, they’ll still be interested in it if and when Santos decides she’s ready.

But that delicate balance of power evaporates immediately should Cyborg make a misstep in Invicta. All it takes is one lucky punch or a momentary mental lapse on the ground and, suddenly, she’s not the perfect foil for Rousey’s good looks and slick submission game anymore. Suddenly, she’s just a former champion with a positive steroid test and a reputation for difficult negotiations.

If we’ve learned anything from MMA, it’s that the thing that “ain’t gonna” happen, often does, and, afterward, the people who wind up on the short end wish they’d grabbed the brass ring when they had the chance -- instead of putting it off for another day.