Queen of the Cage

By: Yael Grauer
Dec 15, 2011
Cristiane “Cyborg” Santos has not fought in more than a year. | Photo: Dave Mandel

Cristiane “Cyborg” Santos may be a Strikeforce champion riding a 10-fight winning streak, but she has seen remarkably little activity of late. After defeating Jan Finney at Strikeforce “Fedor vs. Werdum” in June 2010, Cyborg entered into prolonged contract negotiations, and though she ultimately re-signed with the promotion, it was not until Aug. 25 of this year.

Moreover, Strikeforce did not announce Cyborg’s next opponent, former Smackgirl open weight champion Hiroko Yamanaka, until the end of September. The two will square off for Cyborg’s women’s featherweight crown in the Strikeforce “Melendez vs. Masvidal” co-main event on Saturday at the Valley View Casino Center in San Diego.

Yamanaka will enter her promotional debut on an eight-fight winning streak and, like Cyborg, has suffered only one defeat. She was submitted by Hitomi Akano back in 2008 but has since avenged that loss, defeating the “Girlfight Monster” by split decision two years later.

Cyborg started at the world-renowned Chute Boxe academy in Brazil but now trains at The Arena in San Diego, along with her husband, former Strikeforce welterweight title contender Evangelista “Cyborg” Santos. She also spends time at Atos Jiu-Jitsu, working under Andre Galvao.

“I like the gym. I am able to get a good workout with my training partners and with my coaches, Evangelista and Julio Calla,” she says. “I miss my training partners from the Chute Boxe academy, but, with Evangelista, I feel like I can continue working in the same form, with the methodology of kickboxing.”

Training with one’s spouse has its benefits. Kim Couture, who trained with Cyborg in two of her own fight camps, describes the couple as happy, positive and inspirational people.

“It’s good for her to have her husband because he’s a great coach and he pushes her very hard,” says Couture. “It was hard. Sometimes, we were so sore from the night before and we’re up at the crack of dawn going for a run, and they’re just always in a happy mood. I love watching her and her husband spar. I could pop popcorn and sell tickets for people to watch those two go at it. I don’t think he goes easy on her, and you just sit there and you’re, like, in awe. That was always my funnest time of the day.”

Despite a lengthy layoff, Cyborg does not believe ring rust will be an issue in the fight with Yamanaka due to her consistent training.

“This time that I spent without a fight, I didn’t spend without training. I trained a lot and completed other methods to improve my MMA. I believe my game evolved considerably,” she says.

Couture expects to see improvement.

“I think we’re going to see her tougher than ever before,” she says.

Hiroko Yamanaka File Photo

Yamanaka is 12-1.
Couture pointed out that Cyborg trains at least twice a day -- sometimes thrice -- even when she is not involved in a fight camp.

“All the rest of us will take time off after a fight or go in once a day when we’re not training, but she’s consistently training like she’s got a fight coming up, so there is no down time,” Couture says. “She’s serious and she pushes herself and she’s very consistent and she just strives to do her best, even when she doesn’t have a fight. I’ve been down there, and she didn’t have anything set up and she still trains every day like she’s training for a championship match. I’ve made it around the globe training with different people, and I’ve never seen anybody who trains as hard as she does.”

Although Cyborg indicated she was working on all aspects of her game, Couture pointed out that she has spent a lot of time refining her grappling. In fact, Cyborg competed in the Mundials over the summer and took first place in the women’s purple belt heavy division.

In addition to her own training, Cyborg also heads up a women’s class at The Arena, which provides her with another view of the sport.

“I really like to teach a little of my work [and] perhaps make future champions,” she says.

Cyborg describes her opponent as “a great fighter with an admirable record.” If the featherweight champion has decided to focus on a specific aspect of her game to prepare for the bout, she is not letting on.

“I am training everything as always,” she says, “to be ready for whatever situation.”

Formerly a dominatrix, Yamanaka has a background in submission grappling and cage wrestling. She had previously competed at 160 pounds or above before making the cut to the featherweight division. Although she is clearly an underdog, Yamanaka may be the largest opponent Cyborg has ever faced.

Though the long-term future of women’s MMA remains clouded, Cyborg is solely focused on the present moment.

“I am not worried about the future, only the present. Tomorrow I will leave in God’s hands. He knows the best for me. For the present, I want to keep having good fights,” she says.

Still, Strikeforce officials have stated that future opponents at 145 pounds will be hard to come by and have even asked Cyborg if she thought she could cut down to bantamweight.

“Strikeforce didn’t ask me to,” she says. “It was only a curiosity, if I could fight at 135 pounds, to have more girls to fight with more frequency,” she says.

Although Cyborg walks around at a considerably higher weight than most women fighting at 135, she has not dismissed the possibility.

“I’ll try hard to achieve it, but it will be hard work,” she says, while pointing out she is currently contracted at 145 pounds.

Couture thinks Cyborg would succeed at a lower weight, as long as she can get there.

“She might have to cut off an appendage, but she would dominate at that weight class, as well,” Couture says. “I think she’s the type of person who could do anything she wants if she put her mind to it, [but she] would have to take some muscle off to make the weight.”

The depth of the women’s featherweight division is an issue, although there are a lot of newcomers who fight at 145, including fast-rising Olympic judoka Ronda Rousey. Talent, however, takes time to develop.

I am not worried
about the future,
only the present.
Tomorrow I will leave
in God’s hands. He
knows the best for me.

-- Cristiane “Cyborg” Santos, Strikeforce champion

“They’ve got years until they’re at her caliber,” Couture says. “The ones that could do it, they talk the talk, but they don’t step up and sign on the line.”

Struggle seems to be the name of the game for Cyborg; a struggle that does not seem as prominent for male champions or even female titleholders in other weight classes; a struggle to find opponents; a struggle to sign a contract; a struggle to perhaps cut down to an unnatural weight for the opportunities it offers. Cyborg looks at these challenges with a positive eye.

“I believe with the growth of women’s MMA,” she says, “that this is going to change.”

Danielle Tha and Hana Maciolek provided translation assistance for this story.

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