INGLEWOOD, Calif. (AP) — Cris “Cyborg” Justino has done just about everything in a mixed martial arts career that began in 2005 and stretched across several continents while she scooped up titles in three major promotions.
But the 34-year-old Justino is still hungry, and still eager to accomplish another first on Saturday night when she makes her Bellator debut with yet another title fight.
Nearly five months after her acrimonious departure from the UFC, Justino (21-2) faces Julia Budd (13-2) in Bellator 238 at the Forum with her new promotion's featherweight belt on the line.
“All my life, I’ve been the challenger in my mind,” Justino said after a recent workout at her gym in Huntington Beach. “Even when I was the champion, I put that in my mind that I was the challenger. Now that I really am (the challenger), I just go over there and do what I love to do. (Budd) has been the champion for a long time, but to be the champion in a fourth organization is a big motivation for me.”
With a victory over the Canadian champion, Justino would be the first fighter to claim title belts in four major MMA organizations. The Brazilian brawler was a champion in Strikeforce and Invicta before she moved to the UFC and won the inaugural women's featherweight title in 2017.
“I feel blessed to have the opportunity to fight straight for a title,” Justino said. “I have to do my best, but I’m happy.”
That's a change from her time in the UFC, where her reign was rarely harmonious.
Justino has clashed repeatedly with UFC President Dana White for several years over matters big and small. White and Ronda Rousey lobbed childish insults at Justino before and after she failed a doping test in 2011, and Cyborg pointedly criticized many aspects of the UFC.
Justino lost much of her footing in the disagreements when she lost her 145-pound belt in a 51-second thrashing from Amanda Nunes at the Forum in December 2018. The loss snapped her 21-fight, 13-year unbeaten streak in MMA and abruptly ended the perception of her as an unstoppable fighting machine — a Cyborg, if you will.
After just one more UFC fight last July, Justino's contract was up. She was out of the UFC, and thrilled to be so.
Bellator's Scott Coker, the former Strikeforce boss who aided Justino's early rise, eagerly added her to his roster of famous fighters who have separated from the UFC for various reasons. Bellator is hoping for a long run of lucrative fights from Cyborg, who immediately became one of the most famous fighters and biggest draws on its roster.
“I had a lot of changes” in 2019, Justino said. “Sometimes bad things happen for good (reasons). The good thing is I signed with Bellator. I’ve had struggles, but it's good now.”
Justino's hunger to sweep up every championship belt and accolade in combat sports didn't dissipate even after her loss to Nunes. While she has promoted her Bellator debut extensively, she also spends untold hours discussing her interest in fighting women's boxing star Claressa Shields, whether in a boxing ring or an MMA cage.
She is also intrigued by the possibility of a throwback Bellator grand prix, perhaps with a show in which she would fight more than one time in a night, as mixed martial artists used to do in the sport's early days.
But first, she will take on Budd for the chance to add another gaudy championship belt to the already overflowing collection at her gym.
“I always have space for more belts," Justino said with a grin. "I’ll make a space."
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