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Cris Cyborg on quick return to UFC 222 main event: ‘I’m going to have to start putting a mouth guard in my purse’

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Cris Cyborg, left, hits Holly Holm during a featherweight championship bout at UFC 219 on Dec. 30 in Las Vegas.
(John Locher / Associated Press)

Cris Cyborg endured five draining rounds to defeat former UFC bantamweight champion Holly Holm by unanimous decision on New Year’s Eve weekend, but when a desperate need arose for her to return to the octagon March 3, there was no hesitation.

“This was a great opportunity to keep the momentum from the win against Holly and get me back into the octagon quickly so ‘Cyborg Nation’ can keep growing,” Cyborg wrote in an e-mail to the Los Angeles Times delivered by her manager, George Prajin.

Then, she cracked, “I’m going to have to start putting a mouth guard in my purse if this fight pace continues the rest of 2018, though.”

The Costa Mesa-trained Cyborg (19-1) will make her second defense of the women’s featherweight belt when she meets Russia’s Yana Kunitskaya (10-3) in the UFC 222 main event in Las Vegas.

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Kunitskaya, a substantial underdog, is the active Invicta bantamweight champion, a fighter whom the power-punching Cyborg said she and her team have studied thoroughly.

Cyborg said she learned Kunitskaya weighed 156 pounds on her first-day weigh-in before her most recent 135-pound bout – “making her a legit featherweight,” Cyborg said – and the champion added she has respect for those, such as Holm, who train at Jackson-Wink MMA in Albuquerque.

“I want to make this my fight and give the fans the violent performance they have come to expect from me,” Cyborg said.

“Fans have seen me wrestle. Fans have seen me strike. Maybe the fans will see my Brazilian jiujitsu. After winning my first bonus [in the UFC 219 main event], I am hoping to make this the fight of the night.”

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The UFC announced the fight on Wednesday following a leg injury to men’s featherweight champion Max Holloway. Los Angeles’ No. 3-rated featherweight Brian Ortega (13-0) will replace Holloway and fight No. 2-rated Frankie Edgar in the co-main event.

“When [the UFC] called saying they needed a new main event, we saw this as an opportunity to prove to everyone that Cris Cyborg can be a company girl and that I’m willing to step up when the promotion needs it,” Cyborg wrote. “I am hoping this will continue to build my relationship within the promotion and lead to the type of marketing and exposure I have been asking for.”

After vanquishing Holm by unanimous decision and with twice-beaten former bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey moving on to the staged fighting action in WWE, the argument over who ranks as the greatest women’s fighter in MMA history is trending toward her.

“Ronda was great for the sport of MMA and I hope fans of WWE get behind her. … She’s a talented athlete and I’m excited to see the performances she is going to be able to give the fans. Who knows? Maybe one day, we can give them the Rousey vs. Cyborg match to settle the rivalry once and for all. Ha, ha, ha.

“I always let the fans decide who they think is the best, or the most distinguished, but I think this is a great challenge for myself. There are not many UFC champions willing to defend their belt on three weeks’ notice. We always train for anybody, anytime.”

The bout further delays a speculated super-fight between Cyborg and her Brazilian countrywoman, bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes. Nunes is apparently in talks to defend her belt next against Raquel Pennington.

“I have told my manager I am willing to fight Nunes and am leaving it to him to negotiate when and where that happens,” Cyborg said. “If she wins in Brazil and I win March 3, I think the [date] that makes the most sense [is] on the huge [July 7 Stipe] Miocic-[Daniel Cormier] fight card in Vegas.

“In order for that to happen, we both have to win.”

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lance.pugmire@latimes.com

Twitter: @latimespugmire


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