UFC 222 Cheat Sheet — Cris Cyborg vs. Yana Kunitskaya


Another month, another UFC pay-per-view event affected by injury.

February’s UFC 221 in Perth, Australia, was hit hard when Aussie champ Robert Whittaker was forced out of a title defense against Luke Rockhold by multiple injuries.

UFC 222 this weekend has suffered a similar fate. Four weeks ago, featherweight champion Max Holloway pulled out of a main-event title defense against Frankie Edgar, due to a bum ankle.

Saturday’s card is now headlined by women’s featherweight champion Cris “Cyborg” Justino, taking on a virtually unknown challenger in Yana Kunitskaya.

The UFC is used to rolling with punches, though, and the stakes are very real for Justino. ESPN’s Cheat Sheets are here to take a closer look at the event.

Cris ‘Cyborg’ Justino (19-1) vs. Yana Kunitskaya (10-3), featherweight championship

Odds: Justino -1,800; Kunitskaya +850

About two months ago, Justino dispatched one of her greatest threats in years — former bantamweight champion Holly Holm, at UFC 219 in Las Vegas.

This weekend’s follow-up is far less dramatic. Kunitskaya, 28, is recognizable only to MMA’s hard-core fanbase. She retired for four years back in 2012 but has won an Invicta FC title since returning to the sport.

Why is the fight happening, just two months after Justino’s signature win over Holm? There are probably a few ways to answer that.

Namely, the UFC needed a headliner after men’s featherweight champion Max Holloway went down with injury — and despite years of a hot-and-cold relationship with Justino, the promotion has now reached a point with its most dominant female star to phone in a favor.

“When I first got the call, I said, ‘No! You guys crazy! I just fought, I need rest!'” Justino told ESPN. “But then the next thing I did was check my weight. I think the most important thing for me is to make the weight healthy. I won’t tell you what I weighed, that’s a secret, but it was good enough to take the fight.

“I feel great and I’m taking this fight for the team. I’m thinking old school, where you have to be ready for every opportunity. If someone comes to your house, you can’t say you need 10 weeks to train and get your nutrition right. I feel great, my weight is great and I want to keep doing great things for my division.”

For Kunitskaya, there’s a sense of irony in this fight coming together on short notice.

Before she walked away from the sport in 2012 to start a family, Kunitskaya was on a short list of potential opponents to fight Justino, who was the 145-pound Strikeforce champion at the time. She accepted the fight back then but was denied a visa to travel to the U.S. multiple times.

With very little opportunity to make money, Kunitskaya essentially gave up on fighting as a viable career. She gave birth to a son, who lives with her in St. Petersburg.

“It was the worst five years of my life,” Kunitskaya said of missing competition. “I gave all of myself to this sport and couldn’t make any money, so there was no reason not to retire. But then I saw women fighting in more promotions, and I knew if I came back, I wouldn’t have to worry about the money, I could just fight and focus on training. So this is the reason I came back.”

Both women have suffered from a lack of opportunities during respective moments of their careers, which makes it all the more interesting that the responsibility of “saving a UFC card” fell on their shoulders.

This fight may have been booked on three weeks’ notice, but it’s actually many years in the making.

Fight breakdown

Anything’s possible, right? Guys?

It’s the UFC’s job to sell its fights — and this ain’t an easy sell. With zero disrespect to Kunitskaya, she has no business being in this fight. Is she deserving of a UFC contract and a chance in the promotion’s 135-pound division? Absolutely. But a UFC title fight against the most dangerous female fighter in the world? No.

Kunitskaya has fought at 145 pounds before, but it’s been years. She’s not even a massive bantamweight. She trains out of JacksonWink MMA in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a fantastic, super intelligent camp that is known for outstanding game plans. That said, JacksonWink MMA just came up short against Justino with their top female athlete in Holm — and Holm was far better suited to beat Justino than Kunitskaya.

Despite seven career knockouts, six inside the first round, Kunitskaya is not considered a hard hitter on the feet. She certainly doesn’t possess the type of power to back Justino off. Very simply, Justino will have free rein to pressure Kunitskaya as much as she wants, and if she walks into Kunitskaya’s best shot, it still probably won’t be enough to put her away, put her down or even make her think twice about coming forward.

Kunitskaya seems to seek out the clinch, but she isn’t a tremendous striker from that position. She is very active in grappling exchanges and off her back, which has led to some of the more memorable moments of the second chapter of her career.

She caught former UFC title challenger Tonya Evinger in an armbar off her back. She threatened her with guillotines and heel hooks as well. She’s active with upkicks, elbows — she’s feisty on the floor. It’s no picnic there, and she has submission skills to capitalize on an opponent turning the wrong way or getting clumsy in a scramble.

But even trying to envision Kunitskaya pulling off some crazy, once-in-a-lifetime submission on someone with Justino’s physical strength, experience and skill set is virtually impossible. If Justino wants to put the undersized Kunitskaya on the fence, she will do so. If she wants to put her on the ground, she will. If she wants to slip under Kunitskaya’s punches and blast her with counter combinations — you get the point.

Prediction: Justino via KO, 68 seconds.

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