Bellator 259: Cris Cyborg putting boxing on hold as MMA title defense keeps her busy

Cris Cyborg's foray into boxing seems to be on hold. The women's MMA legend planned on making her pro boxing debut last year, but that idea was dashed by the pandemic. Now Cyborg is back to focusing on her primary combat sport with an eye toward a pugilistic venture in 2022, she told ESPN this week.

"I believe this year is very busy for MMA fights," Cyborg said.

That begins Friday night, when Cyborg defends her women's featherweight title against Leslie Smith in the main event of Bellator 259 at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut.

Cyborg and Smith have fought before. They met in Cyborg's UFC debut in May 2016, and Cyborg won via TKO in just 1 minute, 21 seconds after catching Smith with a barrage of punches. However, Smith has said it was an early stoppage and the bout should have continued.

"I'm not the referee," Cyborg said. "I would have continued punching until the referee stopped the fight. And if she thinks it was stopped early, she's going to have the opportunity this Friday when we do the fight again."

If Cyborg (23-2, 1 NC) can get by Smith -- and she's a massive favorite -- there are two other intriguing fights for her this year. Julia Budd, the woman Cyborg beat in a competitive bout last year to win the belt, has won two straight, and a rematch is a possibility. Then there's Cat Zingano, the popular former UFC bantamweight title challenger, who is 2-0 with Bellator.

Just the idea of having 145-pound challengers queued up is a positive for Cyborg, who left the UFC in 2019 after a rocky tenure. She and the promotion didn't get along from the start, and Cyborg was unhappy that the UFC did not build a stronger women's featherweight division. Bellator is making a concerted effort to do that.

"This is the first thing I think about -- OK, I want to be in an organization that has my real division," Cyborg said. "I cannot wait, fight one time a year, two times a year [and] fight against girls that are [coming up] from 135 [pounds]. This is nice. I'm very happy. [Bellator president] Scott Coker has always promoted women's MMA. He always invests."

Cyborg, 35, is on the short list of greatest women's MMA fighters of all time. She is the only fighter to win titles in four major promotions: the UFC, Bellator, Strikeforce and Invicta FC. The Brazil native, who is based in Southern California, lost her pro debut in 2005 but has just one loss in 25 fights since then -- to current UFC double champion Amanda Nunes in 2018. Cyborg has 19 finishes in 23 career victories.

With all that excellence inside the cage, there's no wonder Cyborg wants to challenge herself in boxing. She has already crossed over to Muay Thai, losing a 2014 bout to current world champion Jorina Baars. Now Cyborg could set her sights on a top boxer such as unified lightweight champion Katie Taylor. Cyborg has proposed a series -- one boxing match and one MMA fight.

Cyborg said she has tasked her manager, Audie Attar of Paradigm Sports Management, with putting together a deal for a boxing match next year. She does not like to pick her opponents, she said, and will take whatever fight makes sense. Cyborg even joked about joining the current YouTube fighting fad.

"Do you know if Jake Paul has a sister?" she said with a laugh.

In addition to Cyborg vs. Smith, here are two other storylines to follow at Bellator 259:

How will Darrion Caldwell fare back at bantamweight?

Caldwell was the Bellator bantamweight champion in 2017 and 2018 before dropping the title to Kyoji Horiguchi. Caldwell then went up in weight to compete in the Featherweight World Grand Prix. He made the semifinals, falling to A.J. McKee last September. On Saturday night, Caldwell, once regarded as one of the top bantamweights in the world, will be back at 135 pounds, facing the very tough Leandro Higo, a training partner of the "Pitbull" brothers, Patricio and Patricky Freire.

It's a major fight for Caldwell, a 2009 NCAA Division I national wrestling champion. He has moved his training to Sanford MMA, a gym in South Florida that has turned out an incredible amount of talent recently. At 33 years old, Caldwell still has time to fulfill his top-tier potential, and Sanford has as good a track record as any gym in the world at this moment. It will be very interesting to see how he looks against Higo and beyond. Caldwell's wrestling has never been in doubt, but touching up his striking and submission defense should be top priorities.

What will Brett Johns show in his Bellator debut?

Johns' signing with Bellator last October came as a huge surprise. He was on a two-fight winning streak in the UFC, and few people knew his contract had expired. Johns has only two losses in his career -- to current UFC bantamweight champion Aljamain Sterling and ranked contender Pedro Munhoz. The Wales native went 5-2 in the UFC and is an absolutely huge addition to Bellator's greatly improved bantamweight division. Another UFC veteran who had a lot of success in that promotion, Sergio Pettis, is now the Bellator bantamweight champion.

Johns could take a step toward contention Friday night against Danny Sabatello, a prospect out of American Top Team who, like Johns, is a former Titan FC bantamweight champion. Sabatello has a strong wrestling base, while Johns is an excellent grappler with opportunistic submissions. The clash of styles should be interesting. It's a big spot for Johns in his Bellator debut.

Friday night's fight card

Showtime, 9 p.m. ET
Cris Cyborg (c) vs. Leslie Smith | Women's featherweight
Darrion Caldwell vs. Leandro Higo | Bantamweight
Austin Vanderford vs. Fabian Edwards | Middleweight
Jaleel Willis vs. Maycon Mendonca | Welterweight
Valerie Loureda vs. Hannah Guy | Flyweight
Bellator and Showtime channels on YouTube, 5:30 p.m. ET
Saad Awad vs. Nate Andrews | Lightweight
Grant Neal vs. Tyree Fortune | Light heavyweight
Sumiko Inaba vs. Kristina Katsikis | Flyweight
Aviv Gozali vs. Sean Felton | Lightweight
Davion Franklin vs. Tyler King | Heavyweight
Leah McCourt vs. Janay Harding | Women's featherweight
Brett Johns vs. Danny Sabatello | Lightweight
Alfie Davis vs. Alexander Shabliy | Lightweight
(c) = defending champion