MMA star Cris Cyborg makes boxing debut for love, not money

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FILE – Brazilian Cris “Cyborg” Justino celebrates after defeating Sweden’s Lina Lansberg in a UFC Fight Night mixed martial arts bout in Brasilia, Brazil, September 25, 2016. Justino is making his professional boxing debut in his city native of Curitiba, Brazil, Sunday, Sept. 25, 2022. (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres, File)

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When Cris “Cyborg” Justino turned 37 this summer, she was in the midst of hundreds of hours of grueling training for her professional boxing debut.

And Justino hasn’t worked up a sweat for months at this compact gym on a small industrial street in Orange County just for a paycheck.

“I don’t do it for the money,” she said. “It’s the opposite, actually.”

One of the world’s most accomplished mixed martial artists has been pursuing a dream she’s had since learning to fight in Brazil nearly two decades ago. After competing professionally in Muay Thai and grappling, this former handball player will enter the squared circle for the first time on Sunday evening to face Simone Silva in Curitiba, Justino’s hometown.

“I have butterflies in my stomach, but I like to feel that,” Justino said. “I had a lot of amazing fights, but it’s good for me to still have challenges. I always want to challenge myself. I never want to stop. Why not? Everyone has to do something uncomfortable. You can’t just sit on the couch and think about having a dream. We have to go. »

Justino recognizes that his last fight is not practical from an economic point of view.

While women’s MMA and women’s boxing have both seen steady growth over the past decade, fighters in both sports confirm that MMA almost always pays women much better. There are many reasons for the disparity, but most fighters agree that structured MMA promotions do a superior job of promoting women. Women’s MMA is also widely perceived to be more viscerally exciting, as it offers far more opportunity for stoppage wins than boxing.

Justino hasn’t lost an MMA fight since 2018, and while she won’t confirm exact numbers, she makes far more money as Bellator’s current featherweight champion than she will make in boxing. . Even two-time Olympic boxing gold medalist Claressa Shields started an MMA career in search of the big paydays that didn’t reach boxing’s top women.

“It’s really not the best thing I can do for money, but money isn’t everything,” Justino said. “It’s for my love of boxing.”

When Justino decided she shouldn’t wait any longer for her boxing debut, she was still surprised by the lack of financial rewards in the sport, even for a fighter with Cyborg name recognition and star power. Justino’s first fight will be available in the United States, where she lives, only on internet streamer Fite as a $13.99 pay-per-view event.

“We were talking to American (boxing) promoters and we were like, ‘Really? ‘” said Ray Elbe, Justino’s trainer and fiancé. “’Really, is that it?’ That’s why we do it in Brazil, because it’s a little better.

Combat sports are teeming with athletes entering different sports in search of bigger paychecks and attention. Mixed martial artists spend thousands of hours working on their punches, but very few are good enough to compete in a ring with the best boxers in the world – or even YouTube stars with strong boxing skills, like Jake Paul proved it by beating former MMA stars Ben Askren and Tyron Woodley.

Justino has drastically altered his normal in-ring training routine, adding swimming and other cardiovascular work to a new roster of boxing workouts that includes a collaboration with former world super champion Mia St. John. -welterweight.

“Boxing for MMA is different from real boxing,” Justino said. “You have to work harder and have a lot of different strategies. You can’t just shoot someone if something is wrong.

Justino battled with Shields, whose London showdown with Savannah Marshall for the undisputed middleweight boxing crown was postponed until October 15 following the death of Queen Elizabeth II. Shields went 1-1 in the Professional Fighters League cage in 2021, and she is tentatively set to return to MMA in November.

Justino encouraged his friend’s newfound passion while realizing how difficult it is. She hopes her move in the opposite direction will increase the visibility of women’s boxing.

“I hope this will open the door for other women to come to boxing,” she said. “I hope people love the fight and want to see MMA fighters in the boxing ring.”

If her fight goes well, Justino would love to try her luck against Irish champion Katie Taylor, whose fight with Amanda Serrano in New York last April was perhaps the biggest event in women’s boxing to date. And no matter where boxing takes him, Justino intends to return to the Bellator cage soon to defend his belt.

“I was never done with MMA,” she said. “If it opens the door to more (boxing) fights, I would, but I’ll always come back to MMA.”

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This story was originally published September 24, 2022 1:57 p.m.

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