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In female Mixed Martial Arts, there is not a single fighter as intimidating or as ferocious as Cris “Cyborg” Santos. Currently riding a 7-fight winning streak, Cyborg has cemented herself as the Pound-for-Pound #1 female fighter on the planet. She is now seeking a big-name opponent from the UFC women’s bantamweight division to move up in weight to fight her at 140lbs. With a record of 17-1-1, world-class Muay Thai ability, a jiu-jitsu black belt, and overwhelming physical attributes, the question has to be asked: Who can compete with Cyborg?
A few names come to mind; Holly Holm, Valentina Shevchenko, and current UFC bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes. Let’s delve into each fighter’s game and examine how they match-up stylistically with Cyborg.
Holly Holm fights in a southpaw stance and stands slightly bladed. In a bladed stance, jabs and straights down the middle are the preferred strikes, compared to a square stance where lead hooks are more readily available to throw. In Holm’s case, her bladed stance benefits her because she loves to throw left straights and the lead leg side kick. Holm prefers to fight exclusively on the counter-attack, and her boxing career is partly to blame.
Rarely if at all will you see Holm backup in a straight line, she nearly always takes a new angle after backing up. As a boxer, backing up in a straight line has more dire consequences than in MMA due to boxing ring having 4 sharp corners compared to an octagon which has no sharp corners and closely resembles a circle.
While Holm is one of the best strikers in the women’s bantamweight division, her grappling is lagging far behind her striking ability. While Holm’s size and athleticism will help her in grappling exchanges against more experienced grapplers, grappling is still a concern for her. Also, Holm’s preference for fighting on the counter to a fault caused her to have a low output performance against Valentina Shevchenko who is a counter-striker herself. Shevchenko was a step ahead of Holm which created a fairly one-sided loss for Holm.
Holm has her faults, but a fight against Cyborg would be quite interesting stylistically. Holm’s counter-attacking could give Cyborg, who is very aggressive and on occasion throws caution into the wind, serious problems. The issue is that Cyborg will most likely not be afraid of Holm’s power, and will happily take 5 of Holm’s punches to give 1. This match-up would come down to whether Holm could effectively counter-strike against Cyborg while being wary of a takedown.
In reality, Holm would likely be over-cautious of a takedown by Cyborg and fail to throw anything with enough power to scare Cyborg. This will lead to Cyborg bullying Holm into the clinch, and securing a TKO victory.
When Muay Thai is the family business and runs in your blood, you get a fighter as technically sound in striking as Valentina Shevchenko. Shevchenko has an extensive Muay Thai background with a professional Muay Thai record of 58-2 and 3 wins over current UFC Strawweight champion Joanna Jędrzejczyk.
Shevchenko has the profile of a traditional Muay Thai fighter. She stands very upright, her guard is tight, and her feet slightly narrow. Shevchenko moves economically, meaning she doesn’t perform any unnecessary movements that could sap her energy. Her preference is to fight on the counter-attack, using the lead right hook as her preferred counter-strike. While she is a bit of a slow-starter, she uses the 1st round to gauge her opponent’s timing/tendencies and this pays off in the later rounds. Against former champion Holly Holm, Shevchenko lost the first round but as the fight went on she consistently timed Holm’s strikes and ended up dominating most of the fight. While Shevchenko’s striking is elite, her wheelhouse is the clinch game. She batters her opponents in the clinch with elbows and knees while occasionally using the clinch to initiate a takedown. With such elite striking, a surprising number of Shevchenko’s finishes in MMA have come by way of submission. Her positional grappling isn’t noteworthy, but she is a threat on the mat.
Shevchenko has the tools to beat Cyborg, but the fact of the matter is she is too undersized to compete with Cyborg. Even though Shevchenko fights at 135lbs and Cyborg has been fighting at 140lbs in her last 2 fights, Cyborg reportedly cuts 30-35 pounds to make the 141lbs limit while Shevchenko cuts only 5-10lbs to make the 136lb limit. Cyborg would have at least a 25-30lb weight advantage come fight night. Shevchenko is as skilled as or even more skilled than Cyborg striking and in the clinch, but the size difference would be too much to overcome for Shevchenko.
When I’m asked who the best all-around fighter in the UFC women’s bantamweight division is, Amanda Nunes comes to mind. She possesses elite athleticism/size for the division, a black belt in BJJ, and dynamite in her hands. Nunes also trains at one of the best camps in all of MMA, American Top Team, which is full of high-level sparring partners and coaching.
Nunes is an extremely fast starter and comes out of the gate very aggressively. She is the definition of an all-or-nothing type of fighter. She goes maximum intensity in the first round, and her gas tank is quite small so if she doesn’t finish her opponent, the rest of the fight will not be her best showing.
While Nunes is an all-or-nothing type of fighter, the first round is an absolute nightmare for her opponents. She doesn’t use kicks often but throws vicious punching combinations. Nunes’ punches are thrown wild at times, but once she settles into her groove she is quite precise. Her right-straight/overhand is the most effective tool in her standup and has stunned many of her previous opponents. Due to her limited gas tank, her striking output drops off significantly after the 1st round, but this is when she utilizes her high-level jiu-jitsu ability.
When in the bottom position, she does a good job controlling her opponent’s posture while also looking to reverse the position or stand up. She has also submitted quite a few women with the Rear-naked-choke.
The most impressive aspect of Nunes is her killer instinct. When she senses her opponent is badly hurt she is very opportunistic and consistently finds a way to get the finish, whether it be by a rear-naked-choke or ground-and-pound.
Overall, Nunes’ size, punching power, and grappling ability would make her the most likely women to dethrone Cyborg. But the fact that Nunes has major cardio issues would lead to her eventual downfall against Cyborg. It would be an amazing first round, but if Cyborg survives the first 5 minutes it would mean the end to Nunes.
Truthfully, the woman that will defeat Cris Cyborg isn’t currently in the UFC. She is probably an unknown fighter that will shock us all in a few years. Many people look at the best fighters in the world and think that since they’re ranked #1 in their weight class, that they can beat anyone in their division ranked #2 or #78. But the #78th ranked fighter in their division might be a terrible stylistic matchup for them and have a better chance at beating them than the #2 ranked fighter.
For now, it’s clear that Cyborg will not be giving up her throne anytime soon.