Cris “Cyborg” Justino is 35 now, a lot closer to the end of her career than to the beginning. She is the Bellator women’s featherweight champion and likes to refer to herself as the grand slam champ.
She’s held world titles with the UFC, Strikeforce and Invicta in addition to Bellator, and the pride she has for that accomplishment is evident in nearly everything she says.
“Who else can say that?” she asks, knowing that the list begins and ends with her name.
On Thursday at Bellator 249, she’ll make the first defense of the belt she won in January from Julia Budd at the Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, Connecticut, on the CBS Sports Network against veteran Arlene Blencowe.
In a way, it’s like going back to the future. Her original MMA coach, Rafael Cordeiro, trained her for this fight. She had been training in South Africa for her last several camps, but could not do that for Blencowe because of the coronavirus pandemic.
So she turned to Cordeiro and King’s MMA and said the experience has been better than she even thought it would be.
She was a large but gangly handball player and ran cross country back in the day when she first met Cordeiro.
“I was 19 years old and I didn’t know anything about MMA or what it was,” she said. “I didn’t know how to throw a punch or throw a kick. I was clueless. Everything I knew, everything I became, he taught me.”
It didn’t come natural, at least not at first. She said she was competitive, but had little understanding of what was required to be a fighter. She’d always been a hard worker and she had a lot of athleticism, but there were times she wasn’t sure she’d made the right choice.
“We were out there working hard, every day, day after day, for three months,” she said. “After three months, I asked him, ‘How am I doing?’ He told me to keep working.”
She laughs at the memory. She’s now one of the greatest female fighters of all-time, but back then, she was like a newborn filly trying to steady its legs and not always succeeding.
“I put the time in and I tried very hard and he would just keep saying, ‘Work. Work. Keeping working,’” Justino said. “After six months, he came to me and said, ‘I have a fight for you.’ I wanted to compete but I wasn’t really sure [how I’d do].”
She lost that fight on May 17, 2005, in her hometown of Curitiba, Brazil, to Erica Paes, submitting to a kneebar in just 106 seconds.
More than 13 years and 20 victories would come before she lost again.
“I lost that fight, but I knew this is what I wanted to do,” she said. “I loved it. I think I was born to do it.”
She’s kind of on the victory lap portion of her career. Since only the second loss of her career, to UFC featherweight champion Amanda Nunes at UFC 232 on Dec. 28, 2018, in Inglewood, California, she’s won bouts over Felicia Spencer and Budd.
She’s not sure when the end will come, but she knows one thing: After a rough stint in the UFC where she frequently butted heads with Dana White, she’s going to make sure she enjoys every minute of the time she has left.
“What happens is in God’s hands, but I still love this and I still love to train and I love to compete,” she said. “I just want to go out and be the best I can be and enjoy what I have been able to do in this career. I never would have believed it, but here I am.”
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