Six weeks ago, Cris “Cyborg” Justino talked with Sporting News ahead of her co-main event bout at UFC 240 against Felicia Spencer. The tone in her voice before defeating Spencer by unanimous decision and during another recent conversation with SN was night and day.
Why would that be the case?
Last week, the former UFC women’s featherweight champion left the company and signed the largest contract in women’s MMA history with Bellator.
“I’m really happy,” Cyborg told Sporting News. “I cannot explain it. But sometimes I wake up, and I’m like, ‘Ahh, I’m not a UFC [fighter] anymore.’ I wake up in the morning, and I cannot believe it. I had a great time there, but I was not happy. I was not happy fighting.
“I love what I do. I love my job. I love going to the cage and fighting. I love to do it for my fans. The shine in my eyes has been out when I was there. Now, I’m thankful. I wake up every morning, and I’m thankful every day for everything.”
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The news didn’t shock MMA fans. Cyborg’s long-standing feud with UFC president Dana White always seemed to overshadow her immense talent, including when she finally joined the UFC in 2016.
When Cyborg became a free agent after the UFC waived its 90-day exclusive negotiating period — White decided he no longer wanted to be involved with the Brazilian due to a doctored video shared by Cyborg on her social media accounts — promoters from every major organization came calling to Cyborg’s manager, Audie Attar. Cyborg decided to sign with Bellator because of one huge factor.
“Respect is the most important thing,” Cyborg said. “I worked with [Bellator President] Scott Coker back when we were in Strikeforce. We had and always have had a great relationship. I think that is an amazing thing. We chose Bellator, and we are going to be working together to continue to build my legacy.”
Coker brought Cyborg into Strikeforce in 2009 and promoted her for five fights. During their time together, Coker helped Cyborg grow her name in the United States, which led to her becoming one of the most dominant fighters of the last decade.
“With Scott Coker there, it helps a lot because I know him,” Cyborg said. “I know he’s really professional. I think him being there helped me, too, because I know Scott and I know he gives his word. I know he’s behind his athletes. He works for us. I think you can see it in the interviews about Scott. You never see any interviews where he makes bad remarks about his athletes in Bellator. I’ve never seen or heard him say anything. He’s really professional. He doesn’t pick sides. He promotes the fighters. That’s the most important thing …
“He can make a lot for the company, and we can make a lot of money for ourselves. He likes to do the right things and do things the right way.”
When asked if she felt White ever respected her during her three-year, seven-fight tenure in the UFC, Cyborg refused to elaborate or say White’s name. The 34-year-old focused on the good of her time in the company but is now ready to start the next phase of her career.
“Everything I did in the UFC, I did for the fans,” Cyborg said. “They wanted to see me in the UFC. They really campaigned for me to be there. I did a couple of catchweight fights. Then we made the 145 division even though it should have been done years ago so it could open the doors for other girls to come. I was the champion there. I fought some tough girls.
“I just feel in my heart that I did my job. Now is the next chapter in my life.”
There’s no timeline for Cyborg’s Bellator debut. The logical fight would be Cyborg taking on women’s featherweight champion Julia Budd. The two were together in Strikeforce and Invicta FC, but they never locked horns. Cyborg respects what Budd has done in her three title defenses since she captured the inaugural 145-pound belt at Bellator 174 in March 2017.
Cyborg told Coker that she’s ready to fight, whether it’s against Budd or someone else in the division.
“I think [Budd is] doing great,” Cyborg said. “She’s fighting a lot of girls. When I fought for Invicta, she was there but not sure if it was on the same card. Maybe we will fight each other next. I told [Coker] that I’m training. I’m ready regardless of who it is. Whoever he wants me to fight, I’ll fight. What I do know is that it will be a great fight for the fans and it will be a real 145-pound fight.
“I’m just excited to get in the cage and do my first fight in Bellator.”
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