Cris Cyborg vs. Amanda Nunes co-headlines UFC 232 this December 29, 2018 at the The Forum in Inglewood, California.
One sentence summary
David: Two of the best female fighters ever are set to make history in the co-main of a card that’s been moved in an event that has had bigger discussions about journalism and taxes than WMMA’s biggest fight.
Phil: The biggest fight(?) in WMMA that still feels like a bit of a foregone conclusion
Record: Cris Cyborg 20-1-1 NC | Amanda Nunes 16-4
Odds: Cris Cyborg -240 | Amanda Nunes +220
History / Introduction to both fighters
David: Seems like the toughest part of Cyborg’s career hasn’t been overcoming the encyclopedia of women trying to take her head off, but earning respect in the MMA community. She’s been called awful names in a culture that seems to think pronouns are inherently “biological” and because she’s a woman, testing positive for a steroid like stanozolol brings with it a ton of lazy, dumb, sexist bullshit stereotypes. This is particularly rich on a card headlined by a three-time offender. This won’t be the fight that earns Cyborg universal respect, but hopefully it’s a small step forward, win, lose, or draw.
Phil: Cyborg has been the boogeywoman for WMMA for some time, but has the slight problem of finding people to fight. Essentially we have a strange mechanism whereby those fighters who were unlikely to get a title shot down at 135 for one reason or another would choose to try their luck up against Justino, where they’d generally summarily be disposed of. As the compelling fights to be made have leaked away (Nunes-Pennington?), Cyborg has established herself as the primary draw, and the bigger fights have been forthcoming. It’s hard to think of where she goes after this, though.
David: Nunes is like the “blue collar” version of Cyborg. Cyborg was genetically engineered to destroy, whereas Nunes seems nurtured into destroying things. After encountering some tough losses early in her career, Nunes found her stride, shored up some of her weaknesses, and refined her strengths. For her troubles, she gets to move up a weight class against the baddest woman on the planet.
Phil: Amanda Nunes has had a fairly thankless run at 135 lbs. I don’t think there’s much doubt that she would have disposed of Rousey about as easily as she did if she’d met her before Holm. That wasn’t what happened, and so the narrative became about how Rousey had mentally given up. Nunes ended up getting little shine from either that or the Tate win. Her rivalry with Shevchenko was as fascinating from a technical and physical standpoint as their actual rematch was turgid and forgettable. Then she smashed poor Rocky Pennington, because that was where the whole W135 title situation was by that point. Credit to her for realizing that there was nowhere left to go but straight into the dragon’s lair. Brave.
What’s at stake?
David: For two champions, the stakes feel lower than they should be. That’s not a reflection of the women so much as it is a reflection of the divisions they compete in. Female MMA is still relatively young, so I’ll take what I can get: two dominant women from two different weight classes trying to bring harmony into the hierarchy.
Phil: Apparently the winner is the greatest WMMA fighter of all time or something. Egh. I find it very hard to justify anyone getting those kinds of plaudits from fighting at these arid weight classes. It’s a great fight though. Can’t it just be that?
Where do they want it?
David: Early on, Cyborg recognized her raw strength, and used it to bully fighters into submission. However, her outbursts happened in intervals. Nowadays there’s more of a strategic thread characterizing her performances. The outbursts are still there, but they happen naturally because her technique has improved. The Tonya Evinger fight was a great example. Casual fans and some media pundits were too quick to look at the results against the backdrop of expectations. But in the cage, it was a surgical performance revealing the many different ways she’s improved. At her best, Cyborg pressures with single strikes to draw out offense from her opponent, ensnaring them by having them engage in a broader arsenal Cyborg has access to. She’s big, strong, and ridiculously durable, which means it’s impossible to exploit one flaw and expect such a tactic to reach the finish line.
Phil: Cyborg has evolved far beyond her brawling roots to becoming an efficient, dangerous counterstriker. She’s still not a defensive marvel, but her ability to close distance with economy and land a crisp left hook, jab and straight and chain them together into combinations has made her a terrifying threat. She’s essentially a complete mixed martial artist at this point: clinch game, leg kicks, wrestling and top control are all in the upper echelon of technical ability in both the 145 and 135lb divisions. Perhaps her most impressive trait is her cardio: while Holly Holm is an absolute cardio machine, Cyborg debatably outlasted her, and put up her most impressive numbers in the fifth round of their bout.
David: Nunes began her career as the Lots of Potential type. We’ve seen plenty of these fighters before. Melvin Guillard, Daron Cruickshank, Houston Alexander — but their hyperathletic traits rarely turn into something sustainable. Nunes is the exception. She realized early that being a frontrunner was good against low level fighters, but bad against the elite. Along the way, she also managed her attacks better, crafting a nice double helix of strategy and talent into a punching, kicking, whole. Nunes is now something a range-pressure hybrid striker. She’s not so in love with her striking that she isn’t willing to go for takedowns, but she’s confident enough in her abilities to stay in the pocket when necessary knowing full well she can get the best of any exchange. That’s the beauty of this matchup: this is that rare fight where confidence isn’t something either woman can afford in the face of five knuckles.
Phil: Like Cyborg, Nunes has evolved significantly from an early career as a hyperathletic brawler. Prone to diving into the clinch and wrenching people to the mat, inflicting horrific damage and either finishing her opponent or draining herself so much that she was finished in turn, Nunes was someone who brimmed with potential yet never quite seemed to be realizing it. The solution was Overeem-esque: she started to fight from range, parcelling out her terrifying speed and power in long, rangy one-twos and a snapping front kick, and using her takedowns as opportunistic counters rather than energy-sapping opening salvos. A cracking leg kick had Pennington limping seconds into their bout, and Nunes remains a fighter where her speed and accuracy may be able to slide long, straight punches in past Cyborg’s high guard, particularly as Cyborg seems to be one of those fighters who is uncomfortable using her (excellent) jab in an open-stance engagement.
Insight from past fights
David: The biggest different here is just plain durability. Nunes wasn’t a frontrunner by accident. Early pressure helps mask some of her flaws, but in recent years she’s been able to conceal them rather than solve them. Cyborg has been beaten up for the duration of a fight (kickboxing), pressured for the duration of a fight, and countered for the duration of a fight. I don’t trust Nunes to keep Cyborg from concealing her few flaws for a full five rounds.
Phil: I guess the insight isn’t so much what we’ve seen but more what we haven’t. Nunes has fought five round fights against Shevchenko and (sort of) Pennington, but the Shevchenko fight was low-paced and largely involved Nunes lightly prodding at the Kyrgyzstani while Shevchenko scowled at her from the cage wall. In the Pennington fight, Nunes was firmly in control from the get-go. I guess I’m still not convinced that Nunes can fight five hard rounds against someone who is her physical equal or superior.
David: Nobody’s been training in Astoria have they?
Phil: Does Nunes have better cardio at 145? Like, a lot better? That’s about it for me.
David: The real key in this fight is whether or not Nunes can find enough pockets of offense to keep Cyborg from being as active as she’s capable of. Activity will be what decides this fight. I know that sounds idiotically broad, but I don’t expect Nunes to withstand a full five round attack, and the probability of finishing off Cyborg is low. Her Key to Victory is finding subtle and overt ways of making Cyborg question her own punch entries. Can she do that? I don’t think so. Cyborg is every more machine than (wo)man stereotype, and for good reason. She’s highly versatile, violent, and punch-resistant. Cris Cyborg by TKO, round 4.
Phil: I think Nunes may well have a good early round or two. Her punches are straighter and longer, and Cyborg is not unhittable. She is also by some measure the best athlete Cyborg has ever faced, and her pure speed may shock Justino somewhat. However, Cyborg simply puts out more volume and has a deeper striking arsenal. The weapons of superior technique and pace are typically those which belong to the lighter fighter when crossing weight classes, yet in this one they belong to the bigger woman. While Cyborg is famous for leaning on her physical gifts, I actually think Nunes may be more reliant on her frame and athleticism than the 145 champion. In the end, a wearing, physical fight will probably serve to pull the Nunes who fought Zingano back to the surface. Cris Cyborg by TKO, round 5
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