First of all, let it be said that Cris Cyborg needs to come with some kind of Parental Advisory Label. Warning: Contains infinite brutality. Or how about, Warning: High beatdown levels: may not be suitable for children or lactating women, consume no more than 1.5 cans max, daily.
UFC 219 had finally arrived. Going into this contest, the fight for the Women’s Featherweight Championship, both combatants looked like the professionals they are; calm, composed, handling their huge media obligations with aplomb and managing the anxieties that come with an event of this magnitude. Cyborg was playing with teddy bears and trying to convince the world that she’s sweet and lovable and not all that violent really, and Holm was looking for some extra coin on the side as a fitness instructor. Anticipation was high as the MMA world waited to see what would eventually transpire, what style would emerge ascendant: finesse versus brute force.
Fast forward to the main event. As per usual, Holm came sprinting out of the blocks like she was being chased by the neighbor’s dog. She wore her emotions clearly on her face, but of course she’d been in high-pressure situations plenty of times before. No big deal. Cyborg, on the other hand, walked out like she owned the arena and was graciously letting thousands of people hang out in it for the night. Confidence rose off her like steam, while old angry-faced Jason Parillo stalked behind giving everything around him his cock-eyed stare. Inside the cage, it appeared as though she was just there for a little casual sparring. Forget big deals, this wasn’t even a small deal.
We move to the opening frames of the contest itself. Cyborg shimmied to the center and kept her distance. No raging, no dread wings of vengeful death erupting out of her back, no spitting fireballs or shooting laser beams from her eyes, she approached Holm in a measured fashion. Perhaps she was thinking, “See what my opponent has to offer and react, find the range and settle in”. Or maybe it was something more like, “I should dye my hair green next time. Red’s just not working for me anymore, oh look, some silly human has come to try and slay me again. Silly human.” We may never know. This calculating Cyborg is something we caught a glimpse of in her last fight against Tonya Evinger, and it was on full display this time around.
Holm did what Holm does. That is, bounce around in a lowered stance waiting for shots to counter. In the first few exchanges she had early success, clipping her opponent with her usually fast, crisp boxing. Looking closely, Cyborg appeared genuinely surprised by this, as if she had never been punched in the snout before. Holm was off to a promising start.
The difference in power levels
While Holm connected early, managing even to draw a little motor oil from one of Cyborg’s front-mounted exhaust vents, one thing quickly made itself glaringly apparent. Several things, actually, but let’s begin with horsepower. Cyborg, it seemed, chose the path of energy management, anticipating that the fight may indeed become a protracted war. She fought well within her capabilities, ratcheting down her output to match her opponent’s.
When Holm closed the distance to clinch and subsequently push her up against the cage, Cyborg was content to give her a little hug back, making no real attempt to reverse positions, or to disengage. That was often done on Holm’s terms. On the surface this made it appear that Holm’s strength was greater, however it’s more likely that Cyborg was holding back. Could she have taken Holm’s ankle and tossed her into the sun? Probably. In just a few exchanges Holm’s face bore the startling aftermath of Cyborg’s ferocious power. This was primarily due to another issue: Holm’s unfortunate predictability.
Cyborg exploits Holm’s weaknesses
Why Holly Holm insists on yelling like an Eastern-block tennis player (as commentator Jon Anik described it) every time she initiates an attack is an impossible question to answer. Yell, punch, punch, end with a kick. The book of Holm’s attack has now been read by anyone she faces, and easily countered. She headhunts, failing to vary her targets. Rarely did she target the legs or body of Cyborg, her one-dimensional nature ruthlessly exploited.
Early striking success quickly dwindling, she repeatedly found her signature blitzes timed by her opponent, who countered straight lefts with blistering overhand rights and hooks. And even a casual shot thrown by Cyborg had enough velocity behind it to snap Holm’s head back. The slow-mo replays between rounds gave the American’s face the appearance of being in a wind-tunnel.
Toward the second half of the fight, Cyborg began to pull away from early rounds that two judges had Holm winning. Holm would charge in with head either lowered or high in the air, never moving off the center line, which allowed Cyborg to bop it at will. And when Cyborg bops you, you stay bopped. The culmination was an eye-watering flurry that left Holm dazed, and had this occurred a little earlier in the round we may have even seen a KO. It was not to be. Holm survived and would go on to guts out another two rounds, showing the depths of her determination, her drive, and her heart. Wanting to win, wanting to do her coaches proud, whatever the motivation, nobody can doubt Holly Holm’s tenacity.
Beginning of the end
In the main, Holm was out Holm’d. Cyborg beat her to the bell with her faster, harder counter-striking, and threw unanswered leg and body kicks at will. Even her high kicks, which many assumed would be the route to victory for the American, were finding their targets.
And we received an answer to a question the world was asking in the build-up: how would Cyborg’s gas tank hold up if she were to be taken five rounds? Well. Given the fact she wasn’t even breathing through her mouth between the fourth and the fifth, it’s safe to say she’s made some good upgrades to her hardware. For all the help she needed, her corner could have easily consisted of two chimps and an empty coffee cup and we would have seen no difference. Meanwhile, in the other corner, Holm’s team already looked to be at Defcon One.
It was in the final round that we saw an intensifying of the attack from both fighters, Holm even landing hard enough to rattle Cris’ cage, and showing what she’s really capable of. But it was too late, the American too battered. Apart from a little swelling around the lips, Cyborg looked in good spirits, expecting no other outcome as the (remarkably close) scores were read.
What does the future hold?
For all the punishment she took, Holm did indeed push the Goliath of WMMA into uncharted waters, and earned the type of success that none have managed in the past. But rather than test Cyborg’s limits, she only exposed depths to her game that the world simply hadn’t seen before. A big Brazilian iceberg, there is far more to Cyborg than what’s floating above the surface. And she’s still improving. A scary thought.
Where does she go from here? She expressed a desire to face Invicta featherweight titleholder Megan Anderson next, while showing some reticence about a possible fight with bantamweight champ Amanda Nunes, citing that she’d rather not face a fellow Brazilian. The UFC will keep feeding sacrifices through the bars while the entire featherweight division struggles to find any relevance at all. Just another day’s work for Cris Cyborg, the reigning, defending queen of violence.
For Holly Holm, no doubt she’ll go back home, realign the geography of her face and take another look at that drawing board. At the age of 36, she may only have a few more years left up her sleeve to reclaim that which she lost. It’s a big ask, but if you say anything about the former boxing queen, say she will fight to the death no matter the opponent, no matter odds.