LAS VEGAS – Throughout the Hard Rock Hotel, there is a buzz of activity with plenty of faces familiar in the mixed martial arts world coming and going.
At a table at one end of Lucky's 24/7 Café, former UFC competitor Rousimar Palhares is having lunch with members of his team. Several times he's recognized by fans, who point and whisper in his direction.
"That's the guy who won't release the holds," one man, entering the café with a woman, says of Palhares, who fights Steve Carl for the WSOF welterweight title on Saturday.
On the opposite side of the restaurant, the most famous MMA fighter in the building is battling her emotions. She's desperate to get the career-defining fight that MMA fans are so eager to see, but she's also looking for a bit of peace.
Cris "Cyborg" Justino will fight Jorina Baars in a Lion Fights Muay Thai bout on Friday. Justino loves to compete, and it's been too long since she last fought in MMA, so she agreed to take a Muay Thai match in order to remain active. Her last MMA fight was on July 13, 2013, when she stopped Marloes Coenen to win the Invicta featherweight belt.
Talking about fighting momentarily brings a smile to her face.
She fought in a jiu-jitsu tournament last week and hopes to have another MMA match soon.
"I love to stay busy and to be involved [with the fighting arts]," she says.
Justino is a physically imposing woman who said she weighs 170 pounds with just four percent body fat between fights. She suffers when she has to cut weight and admitted it's a sacrifice for her to get down to 145 pounds.
"I have to cut muscle," she says, a forlorn look creasing her face. "It's hard, really hard."
She would love to fight UFC bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey, but that would mean dropping to 135 pounds, where Rousey fights. That would mean a cut of another 10 pounds of muscle.
Justino said she has no animosity toward Rousey and heaped praise upon her. Rousey fought some of her early bouts in Strikeforce at featherweight when Justino, then known as Cris "Cyborg" Santos, held the title.
Rousey called her out at the time, Justino said.
"She's a great athlete and a very good fighter, no doubt about it," Justino said. "And she wanted to fight me because she is a [competitor] and she wants to fight the best. But she is the first one who said something about fighting me. I didn't talk about her. She brought it up."
After Rousey defeated Miesha Tate to win the Strikeforce women's title in 2012, the first thing she did following the fight was to call out Justino.
It's been two years, and the fight hasn't ever come close to being made. It's further now than ever given that the UFC does not have a featherweight division and Rousey comfortably makes 135.
Justino has watched Rousey's ascent and offers nothing but support and praise.
"Of course I am [impressed with her]," Justino said. "Of course. She has the great judo and some people said she is just an arm-bar person and that's it. But you watch her and you see, she's getting better and better as an MMA fighter all the time. She is throwing good knees and using her elbows. She has all of the techniques. It's impressive to see how she has improved."
Justino grins coyly and says, "We'll see," when she's asked whether she thinks Rousey's hands are good enough to compete with her.
"That's not a question that can be answered right now," she said.
Her weight is a major obstacle toward making the fight with Rousey. She understands that, though she said she is working hard to try to be able to do it with the goal of signing with the UFC and meeting Rousey.
Why, she asked plaintively, wouldn't UFC president Dana White agree to a super fight at 140 pounds? Rousey has the UFC 135-pound belt and Justino is now the Invicta 145-pound champion.
Rousey, though, is a vastly bigger star with the more notable belt, and the biggest star generally calls the shots. White has repeatedly mocked Justino because of statements her ex-manager, Tito Ortiz, made when the topic of a Rousey-Justino fight picked up steam.
Ortiz held a news conference last year in which he said Justino would die if she tried to make 135 pounds. White pounced on that and has never relented, saying it would be impossible for him to go to an athletic commission and ask it to sanction Justino in a 135-pound fight.
"How am I going to go before an athletic commission and say I want to make a fight between Ronda Rousey and Cyborg at 135 pounds when she's on record saying she'll die," White said last month at a news conference at UFC headquarters.
That news conference was one of the most amazing of White's career, as he ranted against reporters asking questions about performance enhancing drug use among MMA fighters.
He targeted Justino specifically in his rant and repeatedly brought up her drug test failure of 2011.
White mocked the size of her head – a side effect of using anabolic steroids is growth of the skull – and asked reporters to raise their hands if they believed Justino was not using steroids.
Not one hand went up and White said, "I thought so."
As physically tough as Justino is, however, those words had an impact. She tested positive for the anabolic steroid stanozolol following her Dec. 17, 2011, fight with Hiroko Yamanaka
She was suspended for a year by the California State Athletic Commission.
With tears welling in her eyes, she told Yahoo Sports that she was given the steroid in an effort to help her lose weight. She lamented White's harsh words toward her and said it upset her mother, who read about White's attack against her on the Internet.
"My mother just got on the Internet recently, and I helped her with it," Justino said. "And then she read what Dana White said about me."
She lowered her eyes toward the floor, bowed her head and bit her lip momentarily. She took a deep breath before looking up and speaking in a shaky voice.
"I am big and I am strong, but I am not a machine," she said. "I am a person, not a [robot]. This hurts. It hurts very bad. It's bad for me, but it's worse for my family. I don't understand it. I have feelings, too, and this wasn't good.
"I don't need [steroids] for muscles. I always had muscles for as long as I remember. It's how I was born. I did it for the weight. It was a mistake, but it wasn't to cheat and get muscles. It was weight [loss]."
She said not long after Zuffa, the company that owns the UFC, purchased Strikeforce, Zuffa officials approached her and offered her a new contract.
The contract, she said, was for eight fights at 135 pounds. Asked to confirm the offer, UFC spokesman Dave Sholler said the company declined comment on all previous contract talks with Justino.
"They asked me to take eight fights at 135," she said. Then, as if to emphasize the point, she held up eight fingers and said, "Eight. Maybe a couple [I could make] 135, but eight?"
Justino said she hoped for the fight against Rousey because it would prove who is the best. She has been a competitive athlete since an early age, starring in handball and heptathlon.
She said she used to enjoy throwing the shot put and doing the high jump as part of heptathlon competitions.
But fighting is what motivates her now, though she sometimes questions whether it's worth it when she hears taunts about her physique and sharp words from people such as White.
"I'm not a bad person and I'm not a cheater," she said. "The doping thing, that was one time and I don't want to say much, but someone told me I would lose weight and it was hard [to lose it]. It was wrong, and I'm not doing anything like that.
"I don't like to hear all those bad things Dana White is saying about me. I met him once and we took a picture and smiled and that was it. But there is no need to say those things."
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