Until today, things were looking pretty good for featherweight star Cristiane "Cyborg" Justino—maybe better than they have for the entirety of her career thus far.
In May, she made her long awaited UFC debut in her hometown of Curitiba, Brazil, where she smashed Leslie Smith to a first-round TKO. In September, she made the sophomore effort her UFC career, also in front of thousands of fans in her native Brazil, this time mauling Lina Lansberg inside a round. Granted, both of these fights were contested at a completely illogical catchweight of 140 pounds—a weight she had to nearly kill herself to get down to—but at least she'd finally been welcomed into the UFC fold.
In early December, the future started to look even brighter for Cyborg, as the UFC announced they'd be introducing a 145-pound women's featherweight division. Though she was bafflingly left out of this new division's inaugural title fight—the honor will go to Holly Holm and Germaine de Randamie instead—at least the UFC had finally introduced the division where she's at her healthiest and her best.
Yes, barring a handful of minor controversies and question marks, 2016 was looking like a banner year for the fight game's favorite human-robot hybrid. Then, on Thursday morning, it all came crashing down.
In a matter of minutes, all of our Twitter timelines and Facebook feeds were overflowing with the grim news that Cyborg had been notified of a potential violation by the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), the iron-fisted agency that the UFC has charged with cleaning up the sport.
The UFC's official statement on this bleak twist read as follows:
The UFC organization was formally notified today that the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) has informed Cristiane "Cyborg" Justino of a potential Anti-Doping Policy violation stemming from an out-of-competition sample collection on December 5, 2016.
USADA, the independent administrator of the UFC Anti-Doping Policy, will handle the results management and appropriate adjudication of this case. It is important to note that, under the UFC Anti-Doping Policy, there is a full fair legal review process that is afforded to all athletes before any sanctions are imposed.
Consistent with all previous potential anti-doping violations, additional information or UFC statements will be provided at the appropriate time as the process moves forward.
Now, before we go any further, it's worth underlining one particular part of this statement: that Cyborg will receive "a full fair legal review process that is afforded to all athletes before any sanctions are imposed." While sports fans are notoriously quick to pick up the torches and pitchforks, we should all do our best to keep our cool until she's been given her due process.
Then again, any fan outrage resulting from this news is somewhat understandable. Cyborg has, after all, been popped for ban substances in the past. This low moment of her career occurred in early 2012, when it was announced that she had tested positive for the anabolic steroid stanozolol in the wake of a 16-second blitzkrieg of Hiroko Yamanaka.
In the day since news of her failed 2016 test first broke, however, we've learned that Cyborg did not test positive for a performance-enhancing drug as she did in 2012. Instead, she tested positive for a diuretic called spironolactone. While the use of this substance certainly insinuates performance-enhancing drug use, it is not a performance-enhancer itself. So again, it's important that we wait for more information to emerge before we walk her to the gallows.
Cyborg explained her use of this diuretic in a statement acquired by MMAFighting.com.
"What I can say now is that they are talking to my doctor, and I'm calm," Cyborg said in this statement. "Everybody knows I'm sick, that I'm recovering from the weight cut I had to do for the fight [with Lina Lansberg]. What is happening is post-weight cut. Everybody knows I'm sick. They are talking to my doctor to solve this the best way."
"It's nothing bad. I'm on medical treatment."
Cyborg's explanation was echoed in a statement that her boyfriend Ray Elbe posted on The Underground:
"Not for a steroid, and she has a prescription as part of the post fight therapy she's been receiving due to the severe weight cut," Elbe wrote. "This has been known for a few days, and Cris doctor has been in direct contact with USADA turning over all the necessary patient files to document the reasons Cris needs the medication."
One final detail worth noting as we sift through the rubble of this disaster is that, if Cyborg really was prescribed this diuretic by her doctor, she likely could have applied for a Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE) with USADA. If she had, she probably could have avoided this whole ordeal. Yet it appears she did not do so.
Whatever comes of this MMA SNAFU, it makes things very interesting not only for the UFC's new featherweight division, but also the bantamweight division that sits 10 pounds below it.
Had Cyborg's career continued to motor along without running over this unfortunate spike strip, she probably would have been the next woman in line for the winner of Holm and De Randamie's looming featherweight title fight. With this ugly twist, however, she's likely to be tied up for some time.
If USADA lands on a guilty verdict, she'll likely be handed a one-year suspension, which is the punishment they typically hand out for "specified substances" like diuretics. Even if she's eventually proven innocent, however, she's still likely to be tied up in an ugly, bureaucratic battle for some time. So, while she is clearly the best female featherweight on earth, she's unlikely to be available when the time comes to prove it in 2017.
As unfortunate as all this, however, Cyborg's probable hiatus does open the door to a veritable WMMA mega fight: a long-awaited rematch between Holm and the woman she famously beat last year, Ronda Rousey—perhaps even with two belts on the line in the nascent featherweight division.
Granted, the fruition of this mega fight will require Rousey to defeat Amanda Nunes in her massively anticipated December 30 comeback bout, and Holm to defeat De Randamie to win the featherweight title. Neither of these outcomes is anywhere near certain. If Rousey and Holm do win their upcoming title fights, however, Cyborg's absence from the featherweight title picture will allow the UFC to put together a fight that would tower as the biggest in the history of women's MMA.
In the meantime, of course, we'll just have to sit back and wait to see how things unfold.