Super 8: Eight Reasons Why Cyborg v Kavanagh Is The Fight to Make

When Cris “ Cyborg” Justino signed to Bellator, there was much fanfare and there were even more questions; her run in the Ultimate Fighting Championship was fairly successful, going 6-1 overall and 4-1 as a Featherweight. As successful as her time had been we had seen some decline in Justino, in her last 3 fights she had two decision wins over Holly Holm & Felicia Spencer. One sided yes, but not nearly as dynamic or destructive as we have seen in previous incantations in every organisation she had competed in; on top of that Cyborg had been dropped and brutally dispatched in one round by current UFC Double Champ and current P4P entrant Amanda Nunes.

So now the question was what did Cyborg have left, would she show further decline or would she come into Bellator and experience a resurgence, returning to form not just winning fights, dominating fights; but FINISHING FIGHTS. After two big wins where Cyborg has looked untouchable, Scott Coker needs a fight that can whet the appetite of casual fans, a fight where we can see her challenged in ways that could lead to wins or at the worst provide a competitive fight. Today i am going to discuss the one fight that makes the most sense, and that’s’ a fight with Bellator veteran Sinead Kavanagh; i am going to explore why this fight works for both Cyborg, Kavanagh and Bellator

8) Momentum – when facing a name fighter, even one who is on a decline you have to place them against opponents who have experienced consistent success to present the idea that we have a competitive matchup, one you can justify to both hardcore and casuals. In her first fight Cyborg faced  former champion Julia Budd who was on a five fight win streak before she stepped in to face Cris; in her second she faced Arlene Blencowe who was on a three fight win streak. Kavanagh is on a two fight win streak, winning one by stoppage over former title challenger Olga Rubin and winning a one sided decision over former Invicta FC title challenger and TUF competitor Katherina Lehner. 

7) Narratives – There is a narrative that Cyborg has “struggled” with fighters who have solid/seasoned striking backgrounds; in fights w/gina carano and holly holm though Cyborg won, there were moments when she looked like a really good fighter, not an unstoppable juggernaut and when she fought Nunes (considered one of the better MMA strikers) she didn’t look vulnerable she was shown to be vulnerable versus a fighter w/physical tools and applicable skills. So now that we realise Justin is both declining physically; the fact she is facing a fighter with a background as a high level amateur boxer (5 time national champion), the question will be raised regarding her durability and legitimate skills as a striker and as a mixed martial artist as her best work is done AFTER she establishes hers striking. Kavanagh has the pedigree – the skills and experience to create  room for doubt for fans of cyborg and casual observers.

6) 3 dimensional striker – Sinead has shown herself to be effective, in mixed martial arts, in three dimensions of striking offense – counters – defense; what i mean by this is she has shown the capacity to fight off the front foot behind her jab pressing her opponents/backing them up, she has shown the ability to more or less stand their ground and counter them using small pivots and angles to out-position them. She has also shown the ability to establish a jab an fight off the back foot, letting them pressure her as she walks them into shots or out positions them and punishes them. Cyborg has faced very few fighters with the skills to do any one of these things, much less all three; even if the girls have the “skill” to do any of them, most haven’t faced comparable enough athleticism/skill to be able to do it with any success versus someone with Cyborgs experience, physical tools, and skillset. Holm couldn’t get away from the pressure and volume, Blencowe couldn’t back cyborg up; Budd couldn’t hold her grown and punish the aggression. Kavanagh with what she has shown in Bellator and throughout her extensive boxing career, seems to have both the pedigree, IQ, experience and skill to do all three, at least in spots, versus Cyborg. Meaning that for the first time in a long time Cris will have to work not just to get in position, but to stay in the positions she wants to strike, clinch and wrestle. In fights versus Blencowe – Budd – Carano – Smith, even Nunes; Cyborg was able to dictate the time, place and length of engagement, i don’t think that will be as easy to do versus a fighter with Kavanagh’s skillset & resume

5) Volume & Placement of  punches – On numerous occasions i have discussed Cyborg’s level changes as being one of the determining factors in her dominance, i’m not talking about wrestling; I am talking about how cyborg will attack the head and body/legs when facing an opponent, by switching targets it makes it harder for the opponent to defend shots and it also hinders their ability to assert themselves offensively. She has done this as far back as the Gina Carano fight, and as recently as the Blencowe fight; in fact the one time she got predictable she got KO’ed versus Nunes. Rarely has cyborg been on the receiving end as most women, due to a lack of footwork and positioning go completely defensive and get overwhelmed or resort to big loaded up shots to the head that get them countered. Kavanagh doesn’t have that problem as she is both mentally and physically conditioned to strike at multiple ranges (long – mid – close) and she will strike in multiple dimensions ( pressing – standing her ground – off the backfoot). More importantly Sinead is an avid body puncher, one of the best in MMA; meaning Cyborg will have to pay a price for every step she takes forward or back, a price she is used to paying not charging. Another effect of this body punching is it will allow Sinead to find her rhythm and have more success landing headshots in concert with the body shots; as well as taking some of the wind out of Cyborgs sails (i.e. gas tank)

4) Defense – Sinead isn’t necessarily hard to hit per se; but she is hard to hit the way opponents would like to hit  her, basically she is hard to hit with a combination of shots, much less power shots. She can use footwork to pivot away from an opponent, use angles to enter and exit ranges; she also has upper body and head movement that can limit an opponent’s willingness to fire and hinder their ability to land shots. Part of Cyborg’s success is momentum, opponents can’t get away from her strikes, which only emboldens her to fire even more, worse yet opponents can’t hit her without getting hit back..which is a trade she will gladly take. Versus Kavanagh that won’t be the case, it won’t be nearly as easy to push her to the fence when she isn’t able to put shots together, it won’t be as easy to keep her on the fence when she cant put shots together; which means it will be harder to punch into clinches, or use the threat of strikes to set up takedowns because Kavanagh won’t be intimidated, flustered or easily overwhelmed by strikes as so many lesser accomplished strikers have been (Spencer – Blencowe – Smith – Etc). Even against more accomplished strikers such as Holly Holm, the lack of consistent and technical defense allowed her to take over a fight that had been considered “close” by judges.  Whether it’s the jab, the hook to the body, the overhand right or the 1-2; Cyborg is going to have to work to land consistently, and if she can’t land consistently then much of her game becomes difficult to consistently apply.

3) Just for kicks – as good a striker as Kavanagh has shown herself to be, in regards to the kicking dimension of mixed martial arts she hasn’t been as progressive or skilful as she has been in regards to punching. In my opinion this has limited her ability to maximise her effectiveness offensively and defensively, as her opposition knows that at a certain range she is not a threat and regardless of the work she does with her hands there will be moments they can take away their usage by kicking her when she is out of range, or limit their impact because they can get away from them without being punished with a leg kick as they back up or pivot out. This forces Sinead to throw more, move more and expend more mental energy because there is a whole range where she is defensively vulnerable and offensively limited; don’t believe me watch her fight with Leslie Smith, the fight turned on a head kick that caught Kavanagh completely unaware. An while she recovered and got back into the fight the fairly consistent and hard kicks thrown by smith in concert with her volume punching turned what would have been a tough win into a tough loss; as Smith used punches to punctuate punching flurries, to get Sinead in positions she didn’t want or to use as the ground floor which she built the rest of her offense off of. In fights with Harding and Lehner, the usage of kicks kept her honest and allowed them some respite from her variety of strikes and combination of strikes; allowing them to have success in striking battles they would have otherwise been outmatched in. Cyborg has better hands than all three, so in that regard alone she poses problems for SInead; but to make matters worse, Cris has been an active, powerful kicker and if Smith – Harding – Lehner can have success with punch kick combos or individual kicks. You know that Cris Cyborg can and will.

2) Physicality is a tool – Cris Cyborg is no longer at her peak physically, she is no longer a force of nature who cannot be resisted or pushed back against; nonetheless she is still head and shoulder above most fighters in division; in fights versus Spencer – Blencowe – Budd, all three sturdy – strong – fairly big Featherweights, Cyborg was able to push them to the cage, hold them on the cage and savage them. Sinead on the other hand was pressured and some say bullied to the cage by Leslie Smith, a fighter who couldn’t get out of the first round with Cris, much less stay on her feet versus Cris. This bodes well for Cyborg who regardless of questions about her chin and ability to recover from shots; still has the ace in the hole of controlling where a fight takes place based purely on her size and physical strength, i am aware of the inconsistent defensive and counter wrestling shown by Sinead. But I believe a) there aren’t many women in Bellator with those types of wrestling chops for one and b) there aren’t enough women with the physical horsepower to play that game for three rounds much less five. Cyborg is one of the rare exceptions, Cat Zingano would be another; based on tangible physical skills and dimensions alone both fighters present a threat of controlling Kavanagh in the best case scenario, beating her round after round in the worst case.

1) Skills pay the bills – One thing that has been overlooked in Cyborgs career is her actual skillset; early on she was a whirling dervish of punches – knees – elbows, with no attention to defense, and no real offensive precision. She really just clubbed women second after second, minute after minute until they broke mentally and physically. But along the way Cris developed an all round game, one that was both technically and strategically sound; a game that used her physical abilities as a tool instead of a crutch. She is now one of the best counter punchers in MMA, she can press an opponent and counter their attempts to keep her off them, she can fight off the back foot and punish girls who dare to pressure, she throws body head punching combos and punch/kick combinations. She has shown an ability to punch into clinches (Sinead’s inside game ain’t great), use punches to set up takedowns, and work a savage positional top game that often leads to ground and pound finishes. That’s not even mentioning her ability to defend, recover from and counter takedowns with wrestling or strikes; all this is to say that Kavanagh hasn’t ever seen the range of skills all in one opponent, so while she can show Cris things she hasn’t seen at a high level in her mixed martial arts career. Cris can show her things that Sinead hasnt seen at a high level in her much shorter mixed martial arts career; there wont be any simple solution versus Cyborg, because she is not a simple, dumb or limited fighter. Even knowing she got KO’d by Nunes, the question becomes does SInead have that type of power and explosiveness to land that shot, much less have the same effect if and when she lands; there are questions about cyborgs ability to fight off her back, is Sinead the one to exploit that, there are questions about whether Cris can fight at pace for five rounds. Once again is Sinead capable of exploiting that…  History says no.

I feel this fight needs to happen, both women are older, meaning neither has time to waste; more importantly this fight checks all the boxes organisationally, obviously Zingano was brought in for a high profile fight with Cyborg, but her first win was not definitive enough to justify that. Smith wants a fight; but hasn’t looked dominant enough to make up for the fact she was bullied and dispatched in short order by Cyborg. Sinead on the other hand has two impressive wins, a disputed loss to smith that really could have gone either way and a loss to Harding on a cut; you can spin those losses as neither resulted in her being dominated or decisively finished. More importantly she has a background and a style that guarantees a certain amount of fireworks and a certain degree of difficulty for Cris; which is something Bellator sorely needs to legitimise and maximise her time in Bellator, one sided beatings are appealing but tiresome. People want to see her challenged and I believe SInead Kavanagh is Bellator’s best bet to do so.