It's not really fair to say MMA standout Cris "Cyborg" Justino lost big at Lion Fight 14 Friday night in Las Vegas. After all, in just her third professional kickboxing match, Cyborg gave Jorina Baars, an undefeated Dutch standout, all she could handle in a thrilling all-action fight on AXS TV.
But life isn't fair. Anyone who says otherwise, to borrow from a great man, is selling something.
For five rounds Cyborg did what she always does—she charged forward with a startling recklessness, looking to end the fight quickly. When Cyborg managed to close the distance and get into the pocket, Baars found herself thrown to the mat or fending off haymakers, hanging on for dear life.
Cyborg was a vicious, snarling animal.
Business as usual.
That wasn't, however, the story of the fight. Though Cyborg controlled the bulk of the action, the unanimous decision win for Baars was written in the few moments the inexperienced MMA champion gambled and lost. When Baars circled away or timed Cyborg's inbound trajectory properly, she made rangy knees and rangier push kicks to the face count, putting Cyborg on the mat or wobbling her several times with brilliant shots to the head.
Baars talked to MMA Fighting's Shaun Al-Shatti after the fight:
I'm a Muay Thai fighter. She's an MMA fighter...I will beat her. That's every opponent, I will beat them. It's my sport. It's my style...The gameplan was to put Cris in my range and stick with the knees, and when she comes in, put a knee up or a kick push attempt in her face. It worked.
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In a perfect world, we'd be celebrating Cyborg's accomplishment. Although just 25 years old, Baars was an undefeated fighter entering her 38th professional fight. If there's such a thing as a moral victory, this was certainly one. Baars is so feared on the kickboxing circuit, in fact, that no one has been willing to fight her for three years.
Most fans will soon forget Cyborg's valiant showing. They'll forget that after the first couple of rounds Cyborg took control of the fight. They'll forget it wasn't an MMA fight at all. All that will remain from this bout is a single letter—the "L."
And, for a fighter looking to get into the UFC Octagon for a big-money showdown with bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey, that might have been a costly "L" indeed.
Like Cyborg, Rousey is a strong, aggressive athlete who likes to charge her opponent and impose her will. A match between the two is the rare fight that delivers both sport and spectacle. It's strength against strength, grappling against striking and, yes, beauty against the beast.
Cyborg versus Rousey was potentially the biggest blockbuster in the history of women's combat sports. Unfortunately for Cyborg, that all just went up in smoke. To most American fans, Baars is a non-entity, a glorified tomato can brought in to give the more famous Cyborg some light work.
Ridiculous? Yes. But perception, as Fox Sports' Marc Raimondi reminds us, matters more than mere fact:
Like it or not, Cyborg's loss will have a huge effect on her potential future with the UFC. Before now, Cyborg had a ton of leverage. The kind of leverage held by someone who hasn't lost a combat sports bout in nine years. She doesn't have that anymore.
Nothing, in the real world at least, has changed. Cyborg is the same threat to Rousey she was before stepping into the ring with Baars.
On Bizarro Earth, however, the one run by Twitter, message-board partisans and MMA media in the spin zone, everything has changed.
The UFC, clearly, wasn't very interested in Cyborg in the first place. Only her fearsome reputation and pure perfection kept her name in the mix for a Rousey bout. Now, even that is gone.
Cyborg has less leverage and less ground to stand on than ever. If she comes into the Zuffa fold now, it will be on their terms, not on hers. She will need to rehabilitate herself with several UFC bouts before facing off with Rousey. The chance of jumping right into the main event is gone along with the chink in her armor.
The pain inflicted by Baars will fade with time. The damage to her invincible reputation is permanent.
Cris Cyborg, for the time being, is damaged goods.