Cris Cyborg’s rapid return to the octagon to headline Saturday’s UFC 222 only two months after her Dec. 30 title defense is uncommon, considering that bout went five grueling rounds.
Cyborg confided her uncommon pain threshold is the reason. After a classic stand-up slugfest with former UFC and world boxing champion Holly Holm, in which Cyborg prevailed by decision, she revealed she awoke the next morning with no discomfort.
“I really don’t have anything, like, hurt,” Cyborg (19-1) said.
The Costa Mesa-based champion from Brazil certainly knows how to inflict pain, however, which she plans to do in her second title defense against Russia’s Yana Kunitskaya (10-3) at T-Mobile Arena.
In exchange for the quick turnaround, the UFC hype machine officially anointed Cyborg as the “baddest woman on the planet” instead of former champion and current WWE star Ronda Rousey
“You know fighters always say, ‘Anywhere, any time,’ but in reality we always know there’s going to be a long time between our fights,” Cyborg said. “This is old school. I was taught to always stay prepared and be ready, and when they called me and said they’d like me to fight [Kunitskaya], I checked my weight and said, ‘Let’s do that, it’s a great opportunity.’”
Cyborg told The Times early last month that she always carries a mouth guard in her purse.
“Really I do, because I like training,” Cyborg said. “I was training in Portugal when I agreed to the fight … I was never dizzy after Holly’s punches. I respect her, but I take punches from guys in the gym. I would’ve said if I needed a break, but I had no injury, and the doctor said, ‘You’re free to fight.’
“After the fight I said, ‘I can do 10 rounds … ’ I do hard sparring because I believe the fight is an extension of your training.”
It wasn’t long ago, with Rousey in the mix, that the UFC was in no rush to embrace Cyborg. Talent aside, Cyborg’s inability to cut to Rousey’s 135-pound bantamweight size and her positive steroid test in 2011 provided UFC leadership ample excuses for not bringing her aboard. Rousey’s massive fall from prominence changed that, and after winning the belt in July and impressively defending it against Holm, Cyborg and the UFC couldn’t be tighter.
“I haven’t spoke to [UFC President] Dana White, but I’m sure he’s happy. When I accepted this fight, I told them, ‘I’ll take this for the team,’” Cyborg said. “It proves how a fighter has to be ready because they can call you to be added like this. A champion has to remain ready and keep training, because they can call you at any time. I’m really happy to do this. I felt it in my heart I’m ready.”
Although this is the UFC debut for Kunitskaya, a 10-1 underdog at the MGM-Mirage Sports Book, the bantamweight champion from the Invicta organization is an indicator to Cyborg that her 145-pound division is deepening in talent. The St. Petersburg native is a stablemate of Holm’s at Jackson-Wink MMA in Albuquerque, and she has consulted with Holm.
“It’s very good that fight went five rounds. We saw a lot of things from Cyborg, good points and mistakes, and my fight will show that to everyone,” Kunitskaya said. “Holly came right back to camp and helped me. I so appreciated that.”
Cyborg expressed no concern.
“Holly probably talked to her, said how to beat me, but this doesn’t annoy me,” Cyborg said. “Anyway, when [Kunitskaya] steps in the octagon, nobody’s going to be with her. Her team’s not, Holly’s not going to hold her hand. It’s going to be me and her.”
UFC 222 FAST FACTS
Where: T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas
Television: Pay-per-view ($64.95) begins at 7 p.m. PST; preliminaries on FS1 at 5 p.m. PST
Main event: Cris Cyborg (19-1), Costa Mesa, vs. Yana Kunitskaya (10-3) of Russia, for Cyborg’s women’s featherweight belt
Undercard: No. 2 Frankie Edgar (21-5-1) vs. No. 3 Brian Ortega (13-0), featherweights; Sean O’Malley (9-0) vs. Andre Soukhamthath (12-5), bantamweights; No. 10 Stefan Struve (32-9) vs. No. 12 Andrei Arlovski (26-15), heavyweights; No. 6 Cat Zingano (9-2) vs. No. 5 Ketlen Vieira (9-0), women’s bantamweights