ANAHEIM — It took a long, often frustrating path to get here, but Cris ‘Cyborg’ Justino is officially a UFC champion.
Justino (18-1) claimed the UFC’s vacant featherweight championship on Saturday, defeating Tonya Evinger via TKO at 1:56 of the third round. The championship bout was one of three title fights at UFC 214 inside Honda Center.
The 32-year-old Justino has been dominating women’s MMA since her career began in 2005, and a UFC title was really the only thing missing until Saturday. She debuted with the promotion last year, but spent her first two fights cutting to 140 pounds. The UFC opted to open a featherweight division for Justino earlier this year.
“I’m really happy I’m the world champion,” Justino said. “It’s perfect timing, because I feel at the top of my career now.”
Many expected Justino to finish the bout early, as she so often has throughout her career. She failed to do so, which was a credit to the heart and toughness of Evinger (19-6), who holds a 135-pound title in all-female promotion Invicta FC.
Justino fought a composed, patient fight, even though it felt she could hurt Evinger almost at will. She used her obvious speed advantage to counter Evinger’s punches and kicks, repeatedly rocking her with the right hand.
A former collegiate wrestler, Evinger, tried to tie Justino up and take her down throughout — and she managed one takedown in the first round — but Justino’s counter wrestling was on point. The few times she did go to the ground, she instantly popped back up. Whenever she defended takedown attempts, she landed knees to Evinger’s body.
The finish came mercifully, as Evinger toppled sideways after several knees to the midsection. She never went unconscious, but her body seemed to freeze up from the damage.
Justino’s victory provides some sense of identity to the UFC’s 145-pound division. The division opened earlier this year with a fight between Germaine de Randamie and Holly Holm. De Randamie won that fight, but refused to face Justino, citing her failed drug test from 2011. Both De Randamie and Holm have since gone back to 135 pounds.
Sixteen of Justino’s 18 wins have come by knockout. Her next opponent is not yet known. Currently, the only two female featherweight fights the UFC has promoted this year have been title fights.