The Curious Case of Cris Cyborg

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The UFC has never been good at hiding its biases. This is especially true when it comes to Dana White.

The departure of Cris “Cyborg” Justino from the UFC has been eye-opening, however. Not for the way her tenure with the world’s biggest fight promotion ended, or the way the two sides never really felt at ease with each other during their tenuous business relationship.

Those things were to be expected. That Justino’s time in the UFC came to a mudslinging, video-doctoring end wasn’t the least bit shocking. The only surprising thing was that—after all the abuse she’d suffered at the hands of a certain UFC executive—she’d ever considered becoming a UFC athlete in the first place.

Dana White is a man who just turned 50 years old. And yet, despite getting older, White has never morphed into anything more than what would happen if a Tucker Max book and an Affliction shirt fucked and made a human baby. White, having avoided the bullshit growing up stuff that happens to everyone else, is essentially a very rich 12-year-old trapped in a Grown person’s body. Like Arthur, except without the part where he finally turns into an adult.

And obviously, being a very rich 12-year-old trapped in adult human body means he does the sort of things 12-year-olds do. Chief among them: making fun of fat people, ugly people, fat and ugly people and/or nerds on the internet. This is where White seems to truly shine; for it is in the mocking of others that White seems to find true happiness. Especially when his target is Cris “Cyborg” Justino.

Before Justino signed a UFC contract in 2015, White never passed up an opportunity to deride her. It got worse after Ronda Rousey Cale along. White designated himself promoter, protector and explainer. Rousey was a phenom of a fighter who ascended to star status through a combination of hellacious athletic skills, a finely-tuned killer instinct and a willingness to say whatever dumb shit was on her mind at any given moment.

White seemingly saw something of himself in her, or at least the thing he believed himself to be. He was a fighter (boxercise instructor) who’d built a billion-dollar company (Lorenzo Fertitta mostly did that in spite of him) and who took no shit from anyone (at least until Ari Emmanuel came along).

“She's a fucking unique individual. She's like a Diaz brother,” White said of Rousey in 2012. “She really is. Inside like a fucking dude trapped in this beautiful body.”

Okay, sure. That was some weird shit. But for White, it was something like poetry, and it showed you just how smitten he was with his newest project.

He created a women’s bantamweight title for Rousey; by this I mean he gave it to her, just handed it right over; which was curious, but also fine, since it was clear from the outset that nobody in the UFC’s bantamweight division in those days could beat her. And if you suggested that someone else might be deserving of the “best in the world” title—someone like Cris Cyborg—boy, you never heard the end of it.

And, sure. That’s what a promoter is supposed to do. But White also began serving as a translator of sorts, reworking the offensive things Ronda said (and this happened a lot) and telling us what she really meant, as though we were not of sufficient intelligence to understand her.

Like in 2014, when Rousey said this:

I've said before, I don't care if she's injecting horse semen into her eyeballs, I'll fight her, but that's just my personal decision. But I can't make a decision for the whole division. I can't say it's the right thing. This girl has been on steroids for so long and injecting herself for so long that she's not even a woman anymore. She's an 'it.' 

White explained Rousey’s words thusly:

What Ronda's saying is [Justino has] taken so many drugs that she's probably not a woman anymore. She's not a transgender fighter. She didn't have a surgery. I think that this is the fight business. People say mean things about each other.

Ronda called her a fucking cheater. She called her an 'it.' [Justino] calls Ronda a chicken. Is Ronda a chicken? Huh? Should Ronda be offended by being called a chicken? Grow the fuck up, everybody.

Ronda called Justino an “it” and said she’s not even a woman anymore, okay, but Cyborg called her a chicken! Which is clearly just as mean as being called an “it,” so everybody needs to grow the fuck up!

But White couldn’t leave stupid enough alone, and instead opted to try and soften Rousey’s awful words with…even more awful words of his own. And then a pantomime. Seriously, you have to watch this video for yourself. It’s embedded below.

I said when I saw her at the [World MMA Awards], that she looked like Wanderlei Silva in a dress and heels. And she did. Did she not? Who wants to dispute that she didn't look like Wanderlei? Walking up the stairs, jacked up on steroids beyond belief. And looking like Wanderlei Silva in a dress and heels.

Someone in the media (I was there, but I can’t remember who, and all I can hope is that it wasn’t me, and I also hope I wasn’t one of the media folks who laughed at this offensive bullshit) then asked if White saying she was jacked up on steroids beyond belief meant he thought Cyborg was on steroids. Great question, Bob Woodward. Sigh.

“I don’t know,” he said.

That wasn’t the first time White said something offensive about Justino—who is genuinely one of the top five humans I’ve met while covering this ridiculous sport over the past 12 years—nor would it be the last. Which made it utterly remarkable that he somehow—after years of being an offensive, boorish, misogynistic dickhead—managed to bring her into the UFC fold.

But old habits die hard, apparently, especially when your default habit is asshole. White never really went all-in on Justino the way he did with Rousey, which isn’t a surprise. Cyborg was far more like a Diaz brother in her fighting than Rousey ever was, but she didn’t do it while trapped in the sort of beautiful girl body White prefers.

And so theirs was a relationship built on sand from the start. White promoted her, but only begrudgingly. Not even after Justino proved herself a capable drawing card (in a company devoid of them) did he show anything but the minimum amount of interest in treating her like an attraction. And after Justino lost to Amanda Nunes—her first loss in a decade—White seemed relieved that he could finally stop pretending he had any interest in the Cyborg business. As I wrote for Bleacher Report:

But Justino is not any other fighter, nor has she ever been afforded the sort of respect typically granted to others. Long before she joined the UFC, Justino was a favorite target of Dana White's cruelty, particularly in his defense and promotion of Ronda Rousey. Once Justino arrived in the UFC in May 2016, their relationship never really took a turn for the better.

As recently as last week, White decided to call attention to Justino's so-called ducking of a Nunes rematch. This is a curious path for the UFC president to follow, but it's not surprising once you remember it wasn't all that long ago that White essentially called Nunes a coward because she was too ill to defend her championship. 

It is remarkable that Justino ever entered into a UFC contract to begin with, given the fraught nature of their relationship and the depth of White's hateful comments toward her over the years. Justino also knows what she's worth and won't accept a fight just because it's the bout the UFC wants; both of these are traits generally frowned upon by UFC brass. 

Justino’s recent win over Not Quite Barry Horrowitz seemed to put her in line for a rematch with Nunes, but it also put her on the cusp of free agency. White said he wanted to do the rematch, and said he would even sign her to a one-fight deal (which wasn’t really a one-fight deal thanks to the UFC’s indenturing champions clause), but things fell apart about as quickly as you can imagine after Cyborg posted a video of a conversation she said showed White was lying about their interactions regarding the rematch.

Except, well, he wasn’t.

I know, right? There’s a first time for everything, after all!

White never likes when his fighters show him in an unflattering light (who he really is, I mean), so you can only imagine how angry he was when this video—purporting to back up Justino’s side of the story and paint White as a liar (er, more of a liar)—ended up being pure fiction.

It was doctored.

In an apology posted a few days later, Justino said the audio was edited by someone on her team to make White look bad. She apologized, but there was no coming back from it. Not if you know how fragile Dana White’s ego really is.

I want to let everyone know that the video was edited by my Production Team to make it appear as though Dana told me “and listen whenever you hear me saying stuff, I’m not saying …the truth.” Dana did not say that to me, and the subtitles in the video were incorrect. As you can see from the unedited video, Dana actually said “and listen, whenever you hear me saying stuff, I’m not saying negative things about you”

And with that, any chance of Justino and White’s relationship continuing went up in smoke. White did an “interview” with someone on his payroll and said he’d given up the UFC’s matching rights for her contract offers.

He was out of the Cyborg business, he said. She could go to Bellator for the “easy fights,” he said. This part was even funnier once you considered she’d just fought an opponent whose primary skill was just being really fucking tough and gutsy.

(Before any of you have a conniption and start screaming FIGHTER BASHING FIGHTER BASHING, let me assure you that Felicia Spencer is far tougher than I could ever hope to be—Cyborg would reduce me to tears with but one punch or probably a feint—and my admiration for Spencer’s fortitude is off the charts.)

And rest assured, White will keep saying things about Justino that are not true: That she was scared of Amanda Nunes. That she wasn’t that good. That she just wants to fight easy chicks. All that shit. You’ve heard it before. It’s all bullshit. What White should talk about is how Justino tried to sway public influence by releasing a doctored video that depicted White in a poorer light than even he usually depicts himself in.

But that would be a tough sell. Because when a man known for almost never telling the truth complains about someone else doing the same thing to him, it’s hard to imagine anyone taking him seriously.