Germaine de Randamie no longer fighting 'never-ending' fear narrative

Germaine de Randamie will be fighting on Saturday for just the second time since her short, turbulent reign as UFC featherweight champion in 2017. Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

She has been called the worst UFC champion of all time, the least likable fighter in MMA. She has been labeled worthless. A coward. Germaine de "Ran-away."

It has been more than two years since the UFC stripped Germaine de Randamie of her featherweight championship for refusing to face Cris "Cyborg" Justino, and she has made peace with the possibility that, in the eyes of some, she will never live that decision down.

The criticism de Randamie receives online is no longer quite as prevalent as it was two years ago, but the narrative itself -- that she avoided a fight against Justino because she was afraid of her -- is still there. But de Randamie has been fighting professionally since 2000 and was a 37-0 multiple-time world kickboxing champion before pursuing MMA. She has earned the right to be secure in her own skin as a fighter.

De Randamie hears the chiding so much, though, that she even has a name for it.

"Every interview, every conversation, people want to talk about it," de Randamie (8-3) told ESPN. "That's why I call it the 'never-ending story.' I think there will always be people who don't agree with the decision I made. And that is their right."

The past two years have been difficult for de Randamie. They have also been quiet. The 35-year-old Dutchwoman, who faces Aspen Ladd in the bantamweight main event of UFC Fight Night on Saturday in Sacramento, California, has fought only once since she defeated Holly Holm in the UFC's inaugural 145-pound title bout in February 2017.

In the past two years, de Randamie has posted exactly two tweets. One of them was refuting a report that she had pulled out of a fight, which she labeled with "#fakenews" and "#stopthehate." She spoke to the media before and after her last fight, a decision win over Raquel Pennington in November, but her public appearances beyond that have been sporadic.

De Randamie's manager, Brian Butler, told ESPN in 2017 that she had refused to fight Justino "because Cyborg is a proven cheater." In 2011, Justino tested positive for the steroid stanozolol following a Strikeforce fight and was suspended for one year. She also tested positive for a banned substance in 2016 but was cleared of any wrongdoing by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and issued a retroactive therapeutic-use exemption for the diuretic spironolactone, which had been prescribed by her doctor.

Many fans have brushed aside de Randamie's accusation. The most vocal on social media say she was ducking Justino.

De Randamie acknowledges that she was bothered by the hateful comments for a long time, but going into her first main event since the featherweight fiasco, she says she has built an immunity to them. De Randamie doesn't care what anyone says about her anymore, she insists, because fighting was almost taken away from her last year.

In January 2018, de Randamie suffered an injury to her eye when she was struck in the face by the ball while playing soccer. She was taken to the emergency room, where she was instructed to avoid any physical activity due to a dangerously high pressure in her eye.

"There was nerve damage in the eye," de Randamie said. "The doctor, at one point, told me, 'You can never fight again.' I said, 'People have told me many times in my life I can't do things. I'll decide when I'm done fighting, not you.'"

It took several months before de Randamie was permitted to resume physical activity, and several more before physicians cleared her for full contact. Eventually, she was cleared by the Colorado Combative Sports Commission to return for the Pennington fight.

"I went back to that original doctor on the day I signed my bout agreement to fight Raquel [Pennington] and said, 'I told you I would fight again.'" Germaine de Randamie

"[Doctors] said there will always be a scar on the nerve in my eye. It stays there forever," de Randamie said. "There's nothing they can do about the scar, so they cleared me. I went back to that original doctor on the day I signed my bout agreement to fight Raquel and said, 'I told you I would fight again.'"

De Randamie had kept the injury private -- because she didn't know when she would be allowed to fight again -- so the fear narrative continued unabated. Now that the reason for her extended absence is out there, de Randamie still doesn't expect to win over her critics.

She does recognize, though, that she is not alone in being targeted. "It's this way with all fighters," de Randamie said. "One day, you're champion and extremely popular. The next, you get so much hate. The media talked s---, but there was no point in trying to defend myself because I didn't want to expose what was going on. I didn't want to show a weak side of myself."

The injury in 2018 had one terrific impact on de Randamie personally, though. It helped her move past that "never-ending story." It hardened her and reminded her of whom she fights for in the first place.

"If people want to keep talking about it, I don't mind, because I think for a lot [of] fighters, that would have broken their career," de Randamie said. "For me, now, it doesn't. I'm at peace with myself. I'm a very happy person. I'm looking forward to getting in there with a competitor like Aspen Ladd.

"And no matter what happens, I know I've accomplished so much more in my career than declining one fight."