Why Cris Cyborg can't be blamed if she decides to leave the UFC

Yahoo Sports Contributor
Yahoo Sports

Newer fans of MMA could be forgiven for not immediately getting Cris “Cyborg” Justino’s references to being bullied by the UFC’s president and hierarchy Saturday night after her dominant victory. The fact that promotion president Dana White doesn’t get along with the former women’s featherweight champion is often mentioned in a generic, whitewashed manner, but the actual ugly, misogynistic words he and other faces of the promotion have used to mock Cyborg are rarely still quoted.

“I don’t have the best relationship with Dana White,” Cyborg said this weekend to media assembled backstage after her UFC 240 victory over Felicia Spencer.

“He’s bullying me around, bullying me on the internet, and I suffer bullying everywhere because of this. I have a daughter, I have a father, and [I don’t think this is nice]. He’s never said, ‘I’m sorry [to me].’”

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Cris Cyborg's contract with the UFC has come to an end and she has plenty of reasons to not re-sign with the company. (Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC)
Cris Cyborg's contract with the UFC has come to an end and she has plenty of reasons to not re-sign with the company. (Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC)

Back in 2014, after then-UFC star Ronda Rousey called Justino an “it,” White piled on, trashing Cyborg in a media scrum (video below). White said that “everyone” should “grow the [expletive] up,” and not be offended by Rousey’s dehumanizing words about Cyborg, before adding his own sexist remarks.

“When I saw her at the MMA awards she looked like Wanderlei Silva in a dress and heels,” White said.

“And, she did. Did she not? Who wants to dispute that she didn’t look like Wanderlei? She got up, walking up the stairs, jacked up on steroids beyond belief and looked like Wanderlei Silva in a dress and heels.”

Later, longtime UFC broadcaster, comedian, actor, and one of the most successful podcasters in the world, Joe Rogan, encouraged White to have UFC fighters roasted and suggested Cyborg be the first one on the chopping block. When White replied saying that he wouldn’t know where to begin with making fun of Cyborg, Rogan responded, “Her d---.”

In a subsequent interview, Rogan said he was sorry that he hurt Cyborg, claimed that he took full responsibility for the sexist joke, but then also qualified his pseudo-apology. “I shouldn't have said it, but it's what you say if you're hanging around with comedians, you know? It's what we do. Plus, I had a couple of drinks. It was just a dumb thing to do,” he said.

You know, just locker-room talk, you guys.

Rogan would go on to smile and laugh recounting his mocking of Cyborg on a later episode of his podcast, seemingly unable to understand why she expressed public disappointment with his comments.

Cyborg told media Saturday that those types of sexist attacks from White and Rogan, which then were of course parroted the world over, still hurt her family to this day, including her young daughter.

“You know, my daughter almost fight in school because of this,” she claimed.

“She wants to fight when kids say things about me … you have to let it go but it’s no good. It’s no good … they say, ‘Oh, your mom have a penis,’ a lot of [expletive] things ... the kids say things [to] her, like before the Amanda Nunes fight, and it’s hard,” she ended, her voice breaking.

For years now Cyborg has been consistent in calling out the hate speech used by UFC higher-ups to disparage her. She says she’s been bullied by White and the UFC through their words, and she’s right.

That much is simple and straightforward. Sexist language has been used against her, and Cyborg says it is hurtful.

The way that ugly speech landed on her and her family is all that matters, not the intention of those who uttered the insults, not what supplements she’s used, not her appearance, not how tough she is.

Though nowhere in the same disgusting league as White’s attacks on Cyborg’s appearance and her womanhood, the promoter has in recent months begun to feed media members a narrative that Cyborg does not want to fight in the UFC anymore because it has tough competition, and that she is unwilling to rematch Nunes, who handed Cyborg her first defeat in 13 years. This has come just at the time when negotiations to extend her UFC contract stalled and she decided to fight out her contract and test free agency after UFC 240.

“And, this [bullying] has continued,” Cyborg went on.

“It has never finished. Like saying I’m scared to fight Amanda Nunes, saying I don’t want to fight her. This is [a lie], because I texted him after the fight saying I wanted a rematch. And, this [doesn’t] help me growing my brand. This [does] damage [to] my brand. And for me to keep working for a promotion, I don’t want someone [to] damage my brand. I want someone to [grow] together. And, because of this we’re going to have to take a little time and see what’s gonna be better for me.”

Whatever secret negotiations have gone on between Cyborg’s team and the UFC, Cyborg has repeatedly and publicly called for the rematch since she lost to Nunes. Whatever is being said and offered and debated in negotiations that we don’t know about, it is clear that White is saying things in public that damage Cyborg’s name and “brand,” as she put it.

Fans can decide for themselves if it makes sense that perhaps the most dominant fighter in MMA history is now suddenly afraid to fight, as White claims is the case with Cyborg. It’s important to recognize that this fits a pattern for White, however.

He routinely publicly disparages fighters that he has trouble coming to contract terms with or who are publicly critical of the UFC’s labor practices. White, who has never fought mixed martial arts, routinely questions UFC fighters’ hearts and claims they aren’t interested in fighting, with no supporting evidence.

He’s done it to Georges St-Pierre many times over the years, Tyron Woodley and Jon Jones. The tactic from White goes back decades, in fact, as he pulled the same thing discussing Tito Ortiz and Randy Couture.

Cris Cyborg says that she needs respect from her promoter, in addition to money. (Getty Images)
Cris Cyborg says that she needs respect from her promoter, in addition to money. (Getty Images)

All of these men, like Cyborg, have been willing to criticize the UFC.

If White is to be believed, he knows the heart needed to be an MMA fighter, and many of the sport’s most accomplished and famous stars simply don’t have it. Maybe he’s right, maybe he’s wrong.

It certainly can’t feel good to hear your boss say these things about you, in any case. And speaking of fighters like Cyborg that way does not make them more marketable.

So, if you’re a soon-to-be free agent like Cyborg — she told Ariel Helwani on his MMA show Monday she’ll wait out her three-month exclusive negotiation period with the UFC to explore other options — why do you pursue free agency instead of re-signing with the UFC? After all, the UFC offers the biggest stage and often pays the most.

Free agency for elite MMA fighters is limited. Some top fighters have signed with Bellator in recent years, for example, and claim to make more money there than they did in the UFC. Still, a promotion like Bellator is a mixed bag.

There always seems to be news about its corporate owner, Viacom, the promotion struggles to fill arenas, and it’s regularly had undercard fighters sell tickets as a part of their contracts as if it were a regional amateur show. International organizations like Rizin are a big deal, but they hold events much less frequently than the UFC, and Cyborg has said she wants to fight even more often than she does now.

Yet, she says she’s about to test free agency. According to Cyborg, it isn’t just money she’s looking for from a promoter, but also respect.

In that context, her decision is easier to understand. Let’s try to put ourselves in her mind.

You’re a female athlete in a world where everything is harder for female athletes.

Add to that, your boss publicly calls you ugly and says you’re afraid to fight good competition. He has not publicly apologized and you claim he’s also never done it in private.

The person who interviews you after your fights has also used his public platform to make fun of you, calling you a man, offered a weak non-apology, and then continued to chuckle about the situation. You were famous before ever having to work with these people.

You set television rating records without them. You were the world champion for over a decade without them.

I don’t know what the right career move for Cris Cyborg is at this point, but I sure wouldn’t blame her if she decides to leave the UFC.

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