Fighter claims Bellator title in historic debut win
By Greg Beacham AP Sports Writer
INGLEWOOD, Calif. (AP) — Cris Justino walked through the Forum tunnels a few hours before her Bellator debut, deliberately soaking in her memories of the biggest defeat of her fighting life just 13 months ago in this arena.
And then the woman known as Cyborg started the new chapter of her career with a victory that will go a long way toward erasing those bad feelings.
Justino won the Bellator featherweight championship Saturday night, becoming the first fighter to claim title belts in four major MMA organizations with a fourth-round stoppage of Julia Budd at Bellator 238.
In her Bellator debut after seven bouts and three-plus years with the UFC, Justino (22-2) ended Budd’s eight-year winning streak and dethroned Bellator’s long-reigning 145-pound champion with brute style.
Fighting in the same arena where her 13-year unbeaten streak ended with a 51-second loss to UFC two-belt champion Amanda Nunes in December 2018, the 34-year-old Cyborg showed she hasn’t lost the quick, heavy hands that made her the best fighter in women’s mixed martial arts for much of her career.
“When I heard the fight was at the Forum, I said, ‘That’s amazing,'” Justino said. “That’s where I lost my title, and that’s where I can fight for another one. It felt like something important for me.”
After surviving some rough early stretches and eventually asserting her physical dominance, Justino ended it with a flurry of kicks and punches on the fence. She dropped Budd for good with a blow to the body and finished on the ground 1:14 into the round, and then she jumped onto the fence to celebrate with the crowd at the famed arena south of downtown Los Angeles.
“That’s why I call her the greatest fighter of all time in the female divisions,” Bellator President Scott Coker said. “To stay at this level for this long, that’s a testament to her will and also her work ethic.”
Justino was a champion in Coker’s former Strikeforce promotion and the Invicta women’s MMA promotion before she finally moved to the UFC and swiftly became its first women’s featherweight champion in 2017. After losing her UFC title and leaving the promotion with acrimony last year, the Brazilian star signed with Bellator and got an immediate shot to become the first man or woman to hold titles in four major promotions.
“For me, a belt is only a symbol,” Justino said. “I have four belts, and I hold this one today, but maybe tomorrow I won’t. If I do something nice in people’s lives, they’re going to remember that forever.”
Budd (13-3) had won 11 consecutive fights since Ronda Rousey beat her with an armbar back in 2011. The British Columbia native became Bellator’s first women’s featherweight champion in 2017 and defended the belt three times, but Cyborg was too much.
“She’s a warrior, and I knew she was going to bring it,” Budd said. “It was just the constant forward pressure that was messing me up.”
Budd actually dropped Cyborg with strikes midway through the opening round, but Cyborg escaped the jam when Budd illegally threw a knee while Cyborg was downed.
After Cyborg landed better shots in a slower second round, Cyborg dropped Budd with a right hand midway through the third and controlled the rest of the round.
Justino signed with Bellator in September after her UFC contract ran out. She had won six fights in the UFC and become the promotion’s first 145-pound women’s champion, but her lone UFC loss was that spectacular thrashing from Nunes.
The defeat ended Justino’s 21-fight unbeaten streak since 2005. Nunes claimed Cyborg’s featherweight belt and made a pointed argument for her supremacy over Justino as the greatest fighter in women’s MMA history.
Justino reacted to her loss with humility and perspective, but her long-standing friction with UFC President Dana White never smoothed. One fight later, Cyborg left the UFC and signed with its biggest North American rival.