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Fighter on Fighter: Breaking down UFC 222’s Cris Cyborg

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Featherweight queen, Cris Cyborg, will square off with promotional newcomer, Yana Kunitskaya, this Saturday (March 3, 2018) at UFC 222 inside T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada.

It’s hard to get a full read on someone’s skills when they are murdering unworthy competition. That’s the reason regional prospects with undefeated records are always looked at with a bit of disbelief until they prove themselves in the Octagon, as it’s much harder to look good opposite legitimate competition. Luckily, Cyborg lived up to expectations last time out opposite the toughest foe of her career, showcasing patience and technique to beat up Holly Holm. It would be lovely to see those skills again with similar match up, but Cyborg is back to facing an undersized foe with little high-level experience.

Nevertheless, let’s take a closer look at her skill set:


Cyborg is a special athlete. Few women in fighting shape are large enough to require a weight cut to 145 pounds, so size alone separates Cyborg from most. Of that short list, far fewer are equipped with Cyborg’s athletic gifts and physical strength. Even outside of Featherweight, the majority of fighters in women’s mixed martial arts (MMA) tend to be grapplers without the ability to throw technically clean punches with fight-ending power.

Much of Cyborg’s game relies on overwhelming her opponents. Regardless of what range or facet of MMA from which she’s working, Cyborg is aggressive and relentless in pursuit of the finish. On the feet, that aggression comes in the form of numerous right hands. She’ll occasionally use a sharp jab to stand up her opponent straight before the heavy blows come, but the right hand is the core of her striking. To mix it up, Cyborg does do a nice job of punching to both the head and body. Since her opponent often is keeping her hands very tight to try and avoid the knockout punches, the body is often an easy target.

Though she’s moved away from rushes, Cyborg has the option of simply ignoring her opponent’s offense flurrying. Alternating right hands and left hooks, Cyborg’s approach is simple but undoubtedly effective. She’s a very durable fighter, and there isn’t a woman in MMA who could trade punches with Cyborg and come out on top consistently.

Leslie Smith tried — and her toughness should never be questioned — but the hand speed and power difference was immediately obvious (GIF).

Cyborg’s last pair of performances were the most technical and measured of her career. In the first, she still walked down and battered Tonya Evinger like a red-haired terminator, but Cyborg was smart from every distance. At range, she punished her opponent’s lead leg to the point where it was giving out. As Cyborg moved closer, her head movement showed dramatic improvement and allowed her to avoid many of Evinger’s wild strikes.

Once in a closer range, Cyborg would let her hands fly, but she was never sloppy or loading up too much. In addition, Cyborg would end her combinations by punching into the clinch, another area where Cyborg tends to dominate with a refined mix of physicality and technique. After clubbing her opponent with a right hand, Cyborg will transition into the double-collar tie. From there, she’s able to throw her opponents around, slam home knees to the face, and even crack her opponent with the occasional elbow.

Opposite Holm, Cyborg fell into some of her opponent’s trap early. Holm was moving well and angling off, refusing to give Cyborg an easy target. If Cyborg stepped in too heavily, Holm would burst forward with the cross, and a few of them bloodied her foe’s nose. Once Cyborg accepted that she could not overwhelm Holm with sheer ferocity and began to counter instead, the results were immediate. Cyborg quickly gained a read on Holm’s timing, repeatedly countering the left hand. In this week’s technique highlight, we talked about why Cyborg was so successful in catching Holm coming in.

In Cyborg’s only recent loss in any sport, she faced Jorina Baars in a Muay Thai title fight. Baars’ current record is 42-0-4 in her sport, so there’s obviously no shame in that loss, but it’s worth mentioning that Cyborg improved from that defeat. In all likelihood, losing to Baars inspired Cyborg to refocus on her head movement and avoid barreling forward, a pair of traits that allowed Baars to counter with kicks and knees up the middle.


Getting brutalized by Cyborg’s right hand and knees is pretty unappealing, so most of her opponents attempt to take her down. Unfortunately for them, physicality and size are even more important in wrestling exchanges, leading to little success for her opponents.

Cyborg only looks for takedowns when her opponent is actively trying to clinch. Once again, it really comes down to physicality, as Cyborg is often able to simply lift and slam her opponents without much effort. For example, she likes to counter the stereotypical women’s MMA head-and-arm toss simply by lowering her base, squeezing her grip and lifting her opponent the other direction.

It’s worth mentioning that Cyborg’s top game can be pretty devastating. It’s not complicated, but Cyborg has smashed opponents simply by standing over their guard and dropping bombs. Alternatively, Cyborg will throw her opponent’s legs by and dive in with a punch, as she’s quite nasty from dominant positions with punches and elbows.

Tonya Evinger is perhaps the most experienced wrestler who Cyborg has faced, and Evinger did find some success. She was able to lock her hands around a double leg on the fence, which is probably the best position in MMA to finish a takedown from. Cyborg burst up, but Evinger clung to her hips and countered with a trip. Cyborg returned to her feet in seconds once more and stuffed all future shots, but that exchange should give any full-size grappling specialist at 145 pounds some hope ... if such a thing exists.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

Cyborg’s fights may not feature many extended grappling exchanges, but she does have a ton of credentials. She’s a brown belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu under Andre Galvao — one of the sport’s best — and has won multiple gold medals as a purple belt in big tournaments. Plus, she took bronze in 2009 at ADCC, which is quite an accomplishment.

In MMA, the only time Cyborg really attacked with submissions came in her bout with Gina Carano. After giving up mount in a poor takedown attempt, Cyborg quickly hip escaped into a nice heel hook attempt, which allowed her to scramble back to good position.

It was a quick and effective display of transitional jiu-jitsu.

Beyond that small instance, it’s tough to get a read on Cyborg’s jiu-jitsu in MMA. She could have looked for submissions from top position opposite Marloes Coenen, but Coenen is a solid submission fighter herself. Plus, Cyborg was absolutely dominating with ground strikes, so there was no real reason to switch it up.


Cyborg is almost certainly going to brutalize another tough Bantamweight. Kunitskaya has some striking credentials, but she’s hopelessly out-matched in terms of power and athleticism. Barring some catastrophe, it’s safe to expect the 16:1 favorite to do her part in setting up a super fight with Amanda Nunes come July.


Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt, is an amateur champion who trains at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. In addition to learning alongside world-class talent, Andrew has scouted opponents and developed winning strategies for several of the sport’s most elite fighters.

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