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UFC 219 main event breakdown: Cris Cyborg vs. Holly Holm

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As she enters her first UFC featherweight championship title defense, Cris “Cyborg” Justino appears to be the best version of herself, a professional in control of every facet of her mixed martial arts game. Once a wild berserker who charged forward in unmitigated bursts of power, Cyborg has spent the last several years buffing and polishing her footwork, angles and technique, and has become downright refined.

With that backdrop, she comes in at UFC 219 against the patient stylings of Holly Holm, the one-time bantamweight champ who is bidding for a second championship after surviving a rocky stretch in the wake of her world-shaking win over Ronda Rousey two years ago.

For Holm, the opportunity is potentially history-making, not solely because of the possibility of becoming the UFC’s first two-division champion, but because she has the chance to put the name of another “unbeatable” on her resume.

Of course, no one is truly unbeatable, as we all were reminded of again as we witnessed Rousey’s shortcomings betray her in real-time, leading to a Holm high kick knockout. And while Cyborg doesn’t come in with an undefeated record, she may boast an even more ferocious aura than Rousey. Cyborg, now 32 years old, hasn’t lost an MMA bout since her first professional fight more than a dozen years ago. Further, no opponent has even been able to go the distance with her since Yoko Takahashi survived a nine-minute mauling in the days of 3-minute rounds back in 2008.

As such, Cyborg (18-1, 1 no contest) was installed as a -400 favorite, per BestFightOdds.com, but that number has slowly crept toward Holm as bettors theorize that her meticulous game-planning and methodical counter-striking offers Cyborg the kind of challenge she hasn’t seen in years.

To be sure, Cyborg will start the action in this fight. Holm is reactionary when she’s fighting opponents without knockout power, so against Cyborg she won’t have much interest in leading. That’s the same approach she took against Rousey, but there are way more traps waiting for her this time around.

Cyborg has too many offensive weapons to struggle in the way Rousey did. When it came to her standup, Rousey basically became a boxer, and she was never going to beat Holm — who had years of that discipline — with that kind of one-dimensional approach. Cyborg does so much more on her feet.

In her last matchup against Tonya Evinger, Cyborg showed tremendous discipline in her approach, backing Evinger down with angles before leading with her jab or kicks and setting up her power strikes. There was no recklessness or over-aggression. She simply backed Evinger up until she ran out of room to operate, essentially stacking the deck in her own favor over and over.

She showed a mastery of range control, she fired off combinations, she slipped counters. She was patient and opportunistic, hitting the best available target. According to FightMetric, she landed 38 strikes to the head and 36 to the body and legs, overloading Evinger with data. It was a performance that married the sublime with raw power.

She’ll need more of the same against Holm, who snapped a three-fight losing streak with a head kick KO of Bethe Correia in June.

Stylistically, Holm and Cyborg have very different standup styles. While Cyborg uses the angular Muay Thai stance, Holm favors American-style kickboxing, bouncing on her toes. Because of that, Holm’s recent fight with Germaine de Randamie might be instructive here. Holm attempted to stop or slow de Randamie’s forward movement with side kicks to the thigh and occasional takedowns. She had good success in the former, but none with the latter, going 0-for-9.

Technically, Holm (11-3) has everything you could want. The 36-year-old moves well, has sharp strikes and boasts strong conditioning. But if there is one common criticism of her, it’s that she rarely seems to put it all together.

Sometimes, she is clearly the more effective striker, but she lets her opponent stay in the fight due to an abundance of caution. Other times, she has been locked in close fights but never seemed to flash the urgency demanded of such situations. The only logical conclusion to draw from it all is that her preference of fighting her style trumps even the danger of losing.

Things worked for her so well against Rousey because Rousey’s forward charges were downright clumsy. Holm used that reckless aggression against her by cutting angles and forcing Rousey to chase her, then hitting her when she was out of position. She outclassed Correia in much of the same way.

Fighting out of her southpaw stance, Holm’s best weapon is her left high kick, but she has a strong cross and mixes up her targets well. Despite her successful boxing background, her jab is a surprising weak spot, and something she abandons for long stretches of time. That fundamental flaw may be part of the rationale behind her approach. The jab is often used as an offensive entry point, and without it, Holm often resorts to waiting for her opponent in lieu of pressing the action herself. For sure, the jab can also be defensive as well, as it can hold a forward-moving opponent at bay. A lack of one is a decided problem against Cyborg.

Barring a knockdown — a distinct possibility for sure — this fight is likely to be contested entirely on the feet.

Cyborg has only two takedowns in her last four fights, and Holm is 0-for-9 in her last four fights. Even if she tries it, Cyborg defends 94 percent of the attempts against her, per FightMetric.

But if the fight does get there by whatever method, the fight swings wildly in Cyborg’s favor. Even though Cyborg has no pro submission wins, she’s a Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt and has performed well in international BJJ and submission grappling competitions. Aside from those laurels, her top game is savage, with ground-and-pound that has stopped several opponents including Gina Carano and Lina Lansberg.

Cyborg should win this fight. She has enough technique and finesse to match Holm, but her firepower is on another level, and there’s little doubt she’ll be the more active fighter of the two in racking up points. Counterstriking is an art, and one Holm does well, but it is a practice with little room for error. By definition, you’re fighting from behind, and against Cyborg, that’s limiting the already-small chances of victory. The pick is Cyborg via fourth-round stoppage.


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