Why Bellator's signing of Cris Cyborg is so significant: 'Biggest contract given to a female fighter'

Combat columnist
Yahoo Sports
Cris Cyborg prepares to fight Felicia Spencer in their featherweight bout at UFC 240. (Getty)
Cris Cyborg prepares to fight Felicia Spencer in their featherweight bout at UFC 240. (Getty)

For years, Scott Coker was on the other side of this transaction: A top fighter would finish his or her contract and then move over to the UFC.

It happened with many of the biggest stars of the last decade, including some of the biggest stars in MMA history.

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Ronda Rousey was in Strikeforce, founded and owned by Coker, before she was in the UFC. So, too, were Amanda Nunes and Miesha Tate. And Daniel Cormier and Luke Rockhold and Jacare Souza and Tyron Woodley and a whole host of others.

Coker has returned the favor a few times in the five years he’s been at the helm of Bellator, landing Benson Henderson, Ryan Bader and Rory MacDonald, among others, as free agents from the UFC.

On Tuesday, Coker landed perhaps his most significant among them, when he signed former UFC, Invicta and Strikeforce featherweight champion Cris Cyborg Justino to a multi-fight contract that he refers to as the biggest in MMA history.

The Bellator president wouldn’t define what he meant by biggest, but let’s just say he made it clear that Cyborg won’t have to cut coupons if she doesn’t want to do so.

“Here’s the thing: I don’t want to get into the contract in terms of exactly what we gave her, but we’ve done our research into what the top female fighters in the world made,” Coker said during a telephone interview with Yahoo Sports. “I’ll be honest with you: There is some documentation that came from I want to say civil [court] cases where different managers were having arguments with their fighters and some of those numbers were disclosed in terms of what these fighters were making.

“All I want to say is we’ve done our research and I feel comfortable in saying this is the biggest contract given to a female fighter in overall contract amount.”

Cyborg was dropped by the UFC a few days after she defeated Felicia Spencer at UFC 240 in July. She released a video of her post-fight conversation with UFC president Dana White backstage in which she later admitted someone on her team doctored the audio to make it appear as if White had said something he had not.

White declared that the UFC was “out of the Cyborg business,” and gave her permission to seek a new deal.

There were precious few options for her beyond Bellator. Coker has an active featherweight division which not many promotions that would have been in position to sign Cyborg had.

The UFC still doesn’t have a Top 10 ranking for its women’s featherweights, the only one of its divisions where that’s true.

“If you look at what we’ve done, in Strikeforce in the past and in the last two, three years here, is we are in the 145-pound weight class [for women],” Coker said. “The UFC found people for her to fight, getting people to move up or whatever, but I’m not sure they were in the business of promoting 145-pound women the way we are and the way we have done.

“We have a lot of people for her to fight. [Champion] Julia Budd immediately pops into my mind. Olga Rubin comes to mind. Arlene Blencowe comes to mind. We have Leslie Smith. There’s another free agent out there we’re talking to, Cat Zingano. We’re trying to figure that out. Right off the bat, I think we have five or six girls that she could fight and it would be great.”

Cyborg’s addition gives Bellator a star whose talent is unquestioned. Before she was knocked out by Nunes in their featherweight title fight at UFC 232 in Inglewood, California, in December, she was widely regarded as the greatest women’s fighter of all time.

Nunes has surpassed her in the eyes of some, but not all. Her record speaks for itself and her Bellator fights will be hot news in the MMA space.

Landing Cyborg gave Coker the opportunity to gloat a bit. Many of his ex-Strikeforce stars went on to do big things in the UFC. He pointed out a slew of fighters who had success with him previously and then went on to stardom in the UFC.

The popular narrative, he said, isn’t always the right one. And he insisted he’s not concerned about some of the problems White said he had with Cyborg. White has criticized her for failing a 2011 drug test and said she was hard to work with and turned down a lot of fights.

Coker said he had no issues with her and would deal with her as he always had, though he stressed she would be tested.

“Back in the day, I always heard, ‘Well, Strikeforce isn’t as good as the UFC,’ which was proven to be bullshit when the sale happened and those guys got a chance to fight in the UFC and prove themselves,” Coker said. “ … We know Cris and we know what she can do. In the overall scope of things, she was in the UFC for three or four years and they didn’t build a division for her. Let’s be real.

“We will. We’re committed to building out this division and making it as deep and as competitive as possible. We’ll get her the fights and we’ll go from there.”

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