Yesterday, the UFC announced that Cris "Cyborg" Justino will fight Megan Anderson while slamming its heavy promotional hand on the table. The fight, scheduled for the co-main event of UFC 214 on July 29—beneath the Daniel Cormier-Jon Jones title rematch—is a reboot of the of the women's featherweight division: in the same statement, the UFC announced that it was stripping the title from current champ Germaine de Randamie because of her refusal to fight Justino. For good measure, the statement included this nugget: "UFC maintains that any champion is expected to accept fights against the top contenders in their respective weight classes in order to maintain the integrity of the sport."
Not sure if that last line is an inside joke aimed at everyone who's paid attention to the recent careers of Michael Bisping and Conor McGregor, or if the UFC is speaking to other dodgy champions, but whatever. This was a fight that both Justino—who spent 11 years terrorizing 145-pound women in Elite XC, Strikeforce, and UFC-feeder league Invicta FC before enduring a series of extra-hazardous weight cuts for ultimately meaningless 140-pound catchweight bouts in the UFC—and Anderson—Invicta's first post-Justino featherweight champion—both wanted to happen. It's not like there were many other options. If the UFC didn't make this fight, they'd probably have to take a division so hollow it doesn't have top-10 rankings out back and put it out of its misery.
Remember: Germaine de Randamie wasn't even supposed to be here. She's a bantamweight who stepped in to a 145-pound main event because the UFC grew tired of Justino turning down fights because of lack of time to prepare, and because she was sorting out a drug-testing issue. (Justino was ultimately cleared of potential doping violations.) When she won a close decision over Holly Holm for the belt at UFC 208, de Randamie's late hits brought new attention to the part in the Unified Rules that says rounds end when the referee stops it, not at the sound of the horn. (Which is dumb. Should a cop cite someone for erratic driving when they cross the white line, or wait until they hit the guardrail?) de Randamie waffled about her next move, showed no enthusiasm for a skull-thumper with Justino, barely uttered a public word for months, and turned her Instagram private.
Last month, through her manager Brian Butler, de Randamie dismissed a potential match-up with Justino based on her 2011 drug test failure. "For that reason, Germaine and her team don't believe that Cyborg should be allowed to compete in the UFC at all. If that is the only fight the UFC wants, then Germaine is willing to wait and see if the UFC will strip her belt before making her next move," Butler said.
Surprise! Being a disputed, uncharismatic champion means that if you justify picking fights based on six-year-old evidence, your reputation is probably going to end up in the dirt. After the Justino-Anderson announcement, de Randamie said she "had absolutely no idea I was being stripped of the belt"—literally the exact scenario her manager mentioned a few weeks ago—and that she's going back to bantamweight. Assuming she fights again, the jeers will burst eardrums.
And now, four years after the UFC incorporated a women's division, the UFC is shoving aside the fill-in who became champion and setting the stage for Justino's coming-out party. It's a moment of validation. Justino has long been one of the UFC's most public antagonists, having criticized the promotion for everything from failing to get her a fight to fostering a culture of bullying that compelled her to, uh, punch Angela Magana in the face. But we are in an era where personalities outshine promotions and behind-the-scenes acrimony. Justino has charisma, a reputation, and a talent for violence that no one her size seems able to match.
That doesn't bode well for Anderson, who told Brett Okamoto at ESPN that the UFC only called her about the Justino fight—and, later, signed her to a multi-bout contract—in the hours after she booked another Invicta title defense. Aside from the benefits afforded through a seven-inch reach advantage, it's hard to imagine how Anderson beats Justino. But a loss wouldn't end her career, which only started four years ago, and she knows that outcome would reveal a lot about the UFC's broader intentions. "…I think by signing a multi-fight agreement—say worst-case scenario, it doesn't work out as planned on July 29, and the UFC cuts me? That would just reiterate that they're not invested in 145 pounds," Anderson told Okamoto. "So I think whatever the UFC's plan is for me, whether I win or lose this fight, will show how they view this division."
That's an unusually honest, intelligent reading of the situation. If the UFC kicks Anderson to the curb, then featherweight is just a rarities and B-sides collection of WMMA fighters from wherever, showing up to have Justino spill their plasma on a canvas with the UFC logo. If the UFC gives Anderson a second chance, pillages more of Invicta's roster, and fills out the division with a bare minimum of talent, it shows the promotion is willing to start a division from seed in hopes that it might outlast its most recognizable face. Who knows? Anderson could pull off a long-odds win, deny Justino her belt, and the UFC could burn the whole thing down anyway. But whatever comes next at women's featherweight will be an improvement, considering how strangely and terribly it started.