Cris Cyborg has long been the standard-bearer of women’s MMA.
As far back as 2009, when Gina Carano was undefeated and emerging as the first star of the women’s game, Carano was put to the test by being booked against Cristiane Justino, also known as Cyborg, in the first Strikeforce women’s featherweight title bout. Cyborg finished her in one round. Carano has not fought since.
A few years later, when Ronda Rousey burst on the scene, Cyborg was viewed as the biggest obstacle in her path to establishing supremacy among fighting women. From 2011 until around 2015, Rousey and Cyborg circled each other threateningly — but fought only with words. Rousey exited the sport without having competed against Cyborg.
Cyborg did have a fight with Amanda Nunes, though, and knocking out Cyborg in less than a minute in 2018 earned Nunes something more than a UFC featherweight championship. It firmly established her as the greatest fighter in women’s MMA, both in that moment and in the sport’s history.
It has gotten to the point where every time Cyborg puts on the gloves, it’s a big moment. On Friday night in Hollywood, Florida, she headlines Bellator 271 and puts her featherweight championship on the line for the third time, facing Sinead Kavanagh (Showtime, 10 p.m. ET).
The event takes place at Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, the same venue where two weeks ago another emerging star, Kayla Harrison, won her second straight PFL lightweight championship. Harrison is now a free agent and making the rounds to check out possible next career destinations. She was at UFC 268 in New York last weekend. Harrison lives in South Florida. Might she be on hand to size up Cyborg?
Here are three things to watch for at Bellator 271.
Can Cyborg continue to be as dominant as ever?
Cyborg (24-2, 1 NC) is 36 and has been fighting professionally for over 16 years. But she does not appear to be slowing down. She was taken to the fifth round by Leslie Smith in her most recent title defense in May, but Cyborg brutalized Smith along the way and got the TKO finish.
Cyborg has had to fight past the first round in her last four bouts. That’s been a change for a powerful woman who has scored 10 of her 19 knockouts within the fight’s first five minutes. But working overtime has only put the old-time Cyborg dominance on display for longer.
Now along comes Kavanagh (7-4), an SBG Dublin teammate of Conor McGregor. A former amateur boxer in Ireland, Kavanagh is on a two-fight winning streak. She’s never been in a cage with the likes of Cyborg, who is a 25-to-1 favorite.
But as Bellator builds its 145-pound women’s division — former UFC title challenger Cat Zingano has joined the roster and won a couple of fights, and who knows about Harrison? — we could soon see the title fights become more challenging for Cyborg.
Which heavyweight will make the biggest impact?
Tyrell Fortune, who competes in the co-main event, is 11-1 going into his second straight big test. In July, he submitted veteran Matt Mitrione in less than two minutes. Now he faces Linton Vassell (20-8, 1 NC), a two-time challenger for the Bellator light heavyweight championship.
The main card opens with unbeaten Steve Mowry, who is 9-0 with nine finishes. He faces resilient newcomer Rakim Cleveland (22-13-1), who has been knocked out only once: By Derrick Lewis a decade ago.
As heavyweight contenders go, Fortune would seem to be more within reach of champ Ryan Bader than Mowry is. But Friday’s main card will present both big men and their opponents with an opportunity to impress.
How much longer can Aaron Pico be a “prospect?”
Pico is just 25 but has been under contract with Bellator for six years. The company signed him as a developmental prospect in 2014, and he did not make his professional debut until 2½ years later. Amid much hype at Madison Square Garden, Pico lost to Zach Freeman in 24 seconds. Over the 15 months that followed, though, Pico reeled off four straight wins, all first-round knockouts. He was on his way.
Or not. Pico was on the wrong end of knockouts in his next two bouts.
Now he’s again on an upward swing, as winner of four in a row — two by knockout, two by submission. That turnaround coincides with Pico’s 2019 move to JacksonWink MMA. Friday’s bout could tell us what we need to know about Pico (8-3). He faces unbeaten Justin Gonzales (11-0), a former LFA champ. Who’s the real prospect here?
Friday’s full Bellator 271 fight card
Showtime, 10 p.m. ET
Women’s featherweight championship: Cris Cyborg (c) vs. Sinead Kavanagh
Heavyweight: Linton Vassell vs. Tyrell Fortune
Men’s featherweight: Aaron Pico vs. Justin Gonzales
Women’s featherweight: Arlene Biencowe vs. Pam Sorenson
Heavyweight: Steve Mowry vs. Rakim Cleveland
YouTube pages of Bellator/Showtime, 7 p.m. ET
Women’s flyweight: Bruna Ellen vs. Desiree Yanez
Welterweight: Ronan Faraldo vs. Robert Turnquest
Men’s featherweight: Cody Law vs. Colton Hamm
Women’s flyweight: Valerie Loreda vs. Taylor Turner
Middleweight: Jordan Newman vs. Shane O’Shea
(c) = defending champion