For years, Brazilian Cristiane Santos, better known in mixed martial arts circles as "Cyborg," was nicknamed "The toughest woman south of the equator."
But since her string of dominant performances after debuting in the United States on an event on CBS in 2008, that "toughest woman" tag no longer needs any kind of geographical limitation.
Ever since being quickly submitted in her debut as a teenager, no opponent has been able to do much more than survive one-sided beatings.
On Saturday night, in her first match in her new hometown of San Diego, the Strikeforce women's featherweight champion's biggest challenge on paper could be whether a 17-month layoff brings with it any level of ring rust.
Returning after a prolonged contract dispute, Santos defends her title against Japan’s Hiroko Yamanaka. The two battle in a five-round co-main event at the Valley View Casino Center as the co-main event on a Showtime broadcast.
"Cyborg" insists the problems of the last year and a half are behind her.
"I’m not even frustrated," said Santos, through translator Flavio Scorsato. "What I think is I’m always training anyway. When I had the layoff for a year, I never stopped training. I train like I’m going to fight all the time. I’m more of an athlete than a fighter and am always training. So I’m not frustrated at all. I hoped there could be more fights, especially because I’m fighting not just for myself, but for all women’s MMA fighters."
At 26, Santos’ high-energy explosive style based on relentless attacking makes her the female version of a prime Wanderlei Silva. Coming from the fighting factory of Curitiba, Brazil, the city Silva put on the map in the MMA game, she’s lived in San Diego the past two years. She and her husband, pro fighter Evangelista "Cyborg" Santos, help run a gym there called "The Arena," where she trains and teaches.
Santos is best known for her 2009 clash with Gina Carano, which was the high-water mark of the popularity of women’s MMA. Santos dominated the fight, winning with ground and pound just as the first round ended. The fight at the time set Showtime's MMA ratings record, and also drew one of the largest crowds to witness a non-UFC MMA fight ever in the United States.
Despite the high-profile win over Carano, Santos’ subsequent fights with Marloes Coenen and Jan Finney didn’t garner anywhere close to the same level of interest, which is part of the reason she’s been on the sidelines.
As an athlete, she overwhelmed Carano, and thought thus, as world champion, she should be paid at the level of her more well-known rival.
But from a marketing standpoint, even in winning, her fights didn’t garner the kind of interest from the public as Carano’s fights, which is why Strikeforce and later Zuffa were hesitant to pay her Carano-level money. But in September, things finally worked out and a new deal was signed, leading to this fight, and likely many others.
Yamanaka (12-1) is 5-foot-11 and has fought most of her career at 165 pounds, but has cut successfully to make 143 pounds on several occasions, and is generally considered right now No. 2 in the world at that weight.
"She has a good record but I don’t know much about her," said Santos.
Known in Japan as simply Hiroko, the former open weight champion of Smackgirl, the country’s largest women’s promotion, Saturday’s bout is Yamanaka’s first fight outside her home country.
"I just want to make fans take note that I’m so determined to win this fight and I’m going to walk off the stage with my championship belt," said the 33-year-old Yamanaka through translator Isamu Horiuchi.
But looking at common opponents, on paper it doesn’t look like Santos’ streak of destroying everyone in her path will end unless ring rust has set in.
Yamanaka has fought an undersized Hitomi Akano twice. Akano, who usually fights at 125 pounds, handed Yamanaka her only career loss via armbar submission in 2008. Yamanaka won the rematch via split decision two years later. The same Akano was massacred by Santos in 2009 in a beating so severe many felt uncomfortable watching it.
Each woman also faced Yoko Takahashi. Yamanaka won over Takahashi via unanimous decision in 2007. Takahashi lost a one-sided beatdown to Santos in 2008, but was the only victim of Santos (10-1) who was able to last the distance, which in those days consisted of three, three-minute rounds.
"I had a contract issue for a little while, so I was without fights for a long time," said Santos. "I’m anxious and waiting for the fight. There were some rough waters but that was in the past."
While she was on the sidelines, Strikeforce was sold to Zuffa, and until October, it seemed very possible that Strikeforce would cease to exist, leaving her without a proper venue to continue what could end up being a legendary career as a pioneer in the sport.
But she wasn’t that worried when it was going down.
"Strikeforce gave me my first big opportunity, but there was always the chance that some doors may close, but I always felt if that happened, a door would open up," she said.
The biggest potential door would appear to be a match with Ronda Rousey, the 2008 Olympic bronze medalist in judo who is the first woman to come along in years who has outright said she could beat Santos and claims to be the superior athlete. That fight could take place at 135 pounds, even though Santos would prefer it at 145.
Rousey, who competed in judo at the Olympics at 154 pounds and has been fighting in MMA at 145 pounds, made the remark that she believes Santos would make 135 if she cut out the things that make her weigh 145, a remark many have taken to question how Santos got her female bodybuilder-like muscularity.
"You know, she talks too much," said Santos. "She wastes a lot of time talking and talking. While she’s doing all the talking, I’m doing all the training. I’m ready any time she wants it."
"Nothing is impossible," she continued. "Maybe I can make 135, but the way things are, I don’t need to as champion at 145. I could eventually go to 135, but they should get more girls and keep me in my weight division instead of so much talk of moving down to 135."
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- Cristiane Santos