Will Rousey-Cyborg happen? It depends ...

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Will Rousey-Cyborg happen? It depends ...
Will Rousey-Cyborg happen? It depends ...

LAS VEGAS – The question hung over the post-fight news conference at Mandalay Bay and wouldn't go away: Who's the next challenger for Ronda Rousey's UFC bantamweight title?

Rousey has just successfully defended her 135-pound championship with a fast – some would say too fast – finish of fellow Olympic medalist Sara McMann in the main event of UFC 170 on Saturday night.

It marked her third title defense in 364 days and her ninth career finish in nine fights, leaving no obvious top challenger in the immediate future.

Oh, there were suggestions. Canada's Alexis Davis improved to 3-0 in the UFC earlier in the evening with a split-decision win over Jessica Eye, and she wouldn't mind taking the spot.

"I've been fighting for so long," said Davis, who was seated by Rousey. "And who else is 3-0 in the UFC, other than the girl sitting right down from me?"

And there were suggestions that undefeated Cat Zingano should get the spot. Zingano was scheduled to meet Rousey after defeating Miesha Tate in April. But she tore her knee in training, and suffered the death of her estranged husband in recent weeks, so there's no timetable set for her return.

"I think Cat Zingano really deserves to fight for the title at some point," Rousey said. "But she's still coming back from her injury, and I thought Alexis Davis did an amazing job tonight."

Finally, the elephant in the room – or maybe that's the Cyborg outside of the room – was addressed.

Cristiane "Cyborg" Justino (formerly Santos) has been on the periphery during Rousey's staggering ascension to stardom. The former Strikeforce and current Invicta featherweight champion bridged the gap between the first big star of women's MMA, Gina Carano, and Rousey. The San Diego-based Brazilian has crushed pretty much everyone in her path, racking up 10 knockouts en route to a 12-1 record (1 no-contest).

Part of this was self-inflicted, as Santos sat out a critical point in women's mixed martial arts history due to a steroid-related suspension. Part of it was because of a management gambit that backfired: Believing that a matchup between Rousey and Justino would be one of the biggest fights the UFC could put on, former manager Tito Ortiz tried to angle for a catchweight fight at 140 pounds between the two. The UFC wouldn't budge, as it had launched a 135-pound division to kick-off it's women's roster and wasn't going to get sidetracked with a non-title fight.

Ortiz compounded matters by laying on the hyperbole, claiming Justino would "die" if she attempted to cut to 135. And White, who isn't exactly fond of his former light heavyweight champion, wasn't about to let a chance to take a shot at him pass by.

"I think the genius [Ortiz] put her in a box, because saying that you will die if you make 135 pounds is a pretty bold statement," White said. "He really did some severe damage to her career."

But the door to the women's superfight has finally opened a crack. Justino recently parted ways with Ortiz and announced her intention to fight at bantamweight in Invicta over the summer, with an eye on fighting Rousey by the end of the year.

On AXS TV's Inside MMA on Friday, Justino laid out her plans for the year.

"I'm currently training to fight at 145 on March 28 and in early May," Justino said. "My team has hired a medical doctor to help me make 135. I plan to challenge and win the Invicta 135 championship in the summer and challenge [Rousey], champion to champion, for [her] 135 belt in December."

White, however, isn't about to hand over the keys of his kingdom to Justino. And it's not without reason – the well-muscled Justino has never even attempted to come down to 135 pounds – and the only opponent of note she's met in the past several years is a fading Marloes Coenen, whom she beat last summer to claim the Invicta crown. That all serves to give Justino an aura similar to that of the legendary Fedor Emelianenko, who maintained a world-beating reputation for years outside the UFC while feasting on lesser competition.

So White is taking a deliberate wait-and-see approach, laying out the conditions Justino needs to meet if she's to get a title shot.

"She's got to make weight a few times, and then we'll see what happens," White said. "There's a lot of things that would have to happen. First, we'd have to come to a deal; she'd have to fight a couple of times at 135 somewhere else; and if she's healthy, maybe we can do it."

Ortiz had one thing right: Rousey vs. Cyborg has the potential to be a massive draw. Cyborg's first-round TKO of Carano in 2009 has already proven the former can attract interest: The event drew a crowd of 13,976 to San Jose's HP Pavilion; and the bout's 856,000 viewers was at the time Showtime's most-watched MMA fight, numbers that would later only with topped by Emelianenko-headlined cards.

With years of intrigue, with the powers of the UFC's marketing machine, and with Rousey's innate ability to attracted attention? Rousey vs. Cyborg has the potential to be one the UFC's biggest fights of 2014 if done right, even if White doesn't want to come out and say so at the moment.

So maybe that's why Cyborg took aim directly at Rousey.

"I know critics will say 'I thought you said you would die if you made 135,' " Justino told AXS. "All I'm promising is that I will give 100 percent to try to get to 135 to make this plan happen. If I do, I will still listen to my doctor's advice and fight no more than three times at 135: first to win the Invicta belt, the second time to kick your ass and the third time to kick your ass again so that the world can see it wasn't luck.'"

Follow Dave Doyle on Twitter @DaveDoyleMMA

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