UFC 222: Cris Cyborg takes Yana Kunitskaya’s best shot before retaining title via first-round TKO
Cris Cyborg def. Yana Kunitskaya via TKO (Round 1, 3:25)
The nickname doesn’t exactly humanize her.
If Cristiane Justino were known to fight fans as “The Karate Hottie” or “Cupcake” — these are actual nicknames of actual women in actual UFC fights — she’d still be viewed as an indomitable force, what with her 13-year run of invincibility in mixed martial arts. But at least she would be depicted as a force of nature. The robotic moniker that’s instead been hung on Justino, “Cyborg,” carries with it cruel connotations.
Being viewed as strong and exceptional surely feels flattering to an athlete, but machine-like, even monstrous? Not so kind.
The nickname does look appropriate, though, sitting atop the 32-year-old Brazilian’s résumé. Justino has not lost a fight since her 2005 professional debut. Since then she has 20 conquests, 17 by knockout. For as long as many fans can remember, Cyborg has brutalized badly overmatched opponents, and Saturday night was the latest installment of that superhero serialization. Sort of.
The women’s featherweight champion took out a UFC debutante named Yana Kunitskaya in the main event of UFC 222 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. It ended at 3:25 in the first round. Brutally.
But not easily.
Kunitskaya — nickname “Foxy” — was a huge underdog, but she entered the octagon with confidence and within seconds countered a Cyborg kick by taking the champ to the canvas. From there, she looked for a submission that would have been perhaps the biggest upset in UFC history. Even after Justino regained her feet, the challenger was all over her, controlling the fight against the cage and not giving the champ any room to operate.
Until Justino finally created just enough space to unleash her fury. It felled Kunitskaya, and Cyborg wasted no time in swarming her for a TKO finish.
The main event finish was reminiscent of what had happened minutes earlier in the co-main event … except that fight went to the upstart, not the veteran. Brian Ortega, a 27-year-old unbeaten featherweight, became the first fighter to finish Frankie Edgar, knocking out the former lightweight champ in the first round. That sets up Ortega for a challenge of 145-pound champ Max Holloway.
Cyborg Justino set up her next fight as well. Moments after fending off a surprisingly tough challenge, she was thinking to one that lies ahead. “I am waiting for Amanda now,” she said, referring to bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes, who has been calling for a superfight against Justino. “She called me out, and I want to fight her. I just want to remind everyone that she called me out, and when you call out Cyborg, Cyborg will answer.”
As for this night’s challenger, the 28-year-old Kunitskaya enhanced her resume to a degree, even in defeat. The Russian is a former champion in Invicta, an all-women promotion that’s essentially become a feeder organization for the UFC’s female divisions. She is skilled at muay Thai, taekwondo and other combat disciplines. On Saturday night she showed herself to be a black belt in confidence, aggression and toughness.
It was enough to keep her in the fight with Cris Justino for a while, but it was not enough to put a halt to the dominance that fans have come to expect. All Kunitskaya (10-5, 1 NC) was able to do on Saturday night was show that Cyborg (20-1, 1 NC) is indeed human.
Perhaps she’ll even be treated as a human going forward. It was only a few years ago that she had to listen to classy UFC president Dana White derisively refer to her as “Wanderlei in a dress and heels,” a comparison to an aged male middleweight whose face wears the scars of years in combat sports. There is some irony, then, that Justino has become White’s most prominent female fighter. Ronda Rousey has climbed out of the cage and into the wrestling ring. Joanna Jedrzejczyk lost her belt and her unbeaten streak in an upset last November. And along comes Cris Justino, for whom the UFC created a featherweight division. The promotion’s website lists just three 145-pound women other than Justino, two of whom Cyborg has already beaten.
So now it looks like a superfight may be next for this MMA superstar.
Men’s featherweight: Brian Ortega def. Frankie Edgar via KO (Round 1, 4:44)
Edgar was scheduled to challenge for the title on this night, but champion Max Holloway was injured in training. So up stepped Ortega, one of the UFC’s rising young stars. This save-the-day matchup immediately captured the fancy of fans as one of those crossroads meetings that shows fans how far a youngster has risen or how far a veteran has fallen.
If the 36-year-old Edgar, a former lightweight champ and two-time challenger for the featherweight belt, was considered a gatekeeper — the guy who previously had always locked the gate and thrown away the key. In recent years, he’s halted the upward momentum of several fighters, most recently up-and-coming Mexican striker Yair Rodriguez last year.
But the unbeaten Ortega, 27, was not one to shrink from the challenge. He had finished all six opponents he’d faced in the UFC (though one win was overturned to a no-decision after Ortega failed a drug test), and he said his goal was to finish Edgar. That’s something no one had ever done.
Well, there’s a first time for everything. And as unexpected as that was when it happened, it was even more unexpected how it happened. Ortega (14-0, 1 NC) has become known as a submission monster, and every time he got near enough to Edgar to lock him up, everyone knew what was coming. Except no one knew. Ortega didn’t take the fight to the canvas, he instead threw an elbow out of a clinch that stunned Edgar. Then, as the always-game Edgar (22-6-1) came forward, as is his way, Ortega dropped him with a nasty uppercut. Game over.
It was a ‘wow’ performance that alters the hierarchy in the 145-pound division.
Men’s bantamweight: Sean O’Malley def. Andre Soukhamthath (29-27, 29-27, 28-28)
Clearly, the UFC was pumped to showcase O’Malley. How often does a 23-year-old who has barely made a ripple in the octagon get to fight right before the main event and co-main of a pay-per-view? Well, the Montana youngster obliged by going out and kicking some … leg. And body. And head.
O’Malley (10-0) hurt Soukhamthath early on with a leg kick, then picked him apart for the entirety of the first round with a relentless stream of kicks and punches and feints and shifting stances. It looked like Soukhamthath, 29, might not make it to the horn. But he did, and even produced a takedown early in Round 2 to appear to seize the edge. Wrong. O’Malley did most of the damage from the bottom and almost locked in a triangle choke. By round’s end, he was the one on top.
Soukhamthath (12-6) wasn’t done, though. But O’Malley nearly was. Early in the final round, he threw a kick and immediately recoiled, unable to put weight on his right leg. Soukhamthath seized the moment and took the fight back to the canvas, and this time remained in control. But O’Malley was the one persevering this time, surviving until the final horn. He didn’t get up, leading to the bizarre sight of a fighter having his hand raised while lying flat on his back in excruciating pain.
The kid has a future, but that future might be delayed a bit while the leg heals.
Heavyweight: Andrei Arlovski def. Stefan Struve via decision (30-27, 29-28, 29-28)
The bigger they are, it’s been said, the harder they fall. If that’s true, no one in the UFC would fall as hard as Struve, who stands 7 feet tall. But this bout suggested an amended idiom: The bigger they are, the harder it is to reach them.
Arlovski, a onetime UFC heavyweight champ, took that into account as this fight wore on. He is 6-foot-4 but looked like Sky Low Low while squaring off with the big Dutchman. Struve smartly kept his distance, and strikes thrown his way mostly were windmills. So Arlovski, who typically lives for standup combat, did everything he could to take the fight to the canvas, where the two men were equals in height. Three takedowns in the first round gave Arlovski the early edge, and he maintained that slim edge the rest of the way by taking Struve to the canvas in the other two rounds as well.
At 39, Arlovski (27-15, 1 NC) would be old for this sport if he were anything but a heavyweight. However, the division’s champion, Stipe Miocic, is 35, and many of his contenders are approaching or even north of 40. So Arlovski, after winning his second straight to turn around a career that had been in a five-fight skid, still is in the mix. And with Struve (28-10) only 30, he has time on his side as well.
Women’s bantamweight: Ketlen Vieira def. Cat Zingano via decision (29-28, 29-28, 28-29)
Zingano came in on a two-fight losing streak … although there’s not much streaking going on, either way, when you’re sitting on the shelf. How inactive has she been? Those two losses were her only bouts in 3½ years — and the first of the losses came against Ronda Rousey, who has been out of the sport for over a year. But that Rousey bout was a title challenge, so Zingano still represented a name fighter for Vieira, 26, to test herself against.
Consider the Brazilian’s exam grade to be a strong pass. She started slowly, getting tagged a few times while the fight was standing for the first half of the opening round. But when she countered a Zingano kick by taking the Coloradan to the mat, where she controlled her until the horn. Vieira took the fight right back to the canvas just seconds into the second round, and this time she did some damage with strikes and bettered her position while trying to set up a submission. But Zingano survived.
Zingano (9-3) came out for the final round with appropriate aggression, but appeared to injure her left leg or foot while throwing a kick. Vieira (10-0) took advantage of the injury and distraction to put the fight back where she wanted it, and it appeared that that’s where it would stay. But Zingano, 35, is as gritty as they come, and she fought her way back to her feet and took it to Vieira for the last two minutes. Just not enough.
Strawweight: Mackenzie Dern def. Ashley Yoder def. Macvia decision (29-28, 29-28, 28-29)
Lightweight: Alexander Hernandez def. Beneil Dariush via KO (Round 1, 0:42, punch)
Men’s bantamweight: John Dodson def. Pedro Munhoz via decision (29-17, 29-28, 28-29)
Middleweight: C.B. Dollaway def. Hector Lombard via DQ (Round 1, 5:00, punches after bell)
Welterweight: Zak Ottow def. Mike Pyle via TKO (Round 1, 2:34, punches)
Men’s bantamweight: Cody Stamann def. Bryan Caraway via decision (29-28, 29-28, 28-29)
Light heavyweight: Jordan Johnson def. Adam Milstead via decision (29-28, 29-328, 27-30)