UFC 198 is one of the most stacked cards the promotion has ever put together. The most anticipated happening may very well be Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino’s debut at a catchweight, and not the headlining heavyweight title fight. Justino has a ferocious style and has won her last ten straight by ko/tko. Most fans and media pundits are writing off her opponent Leslie Smith as a proverbial sacrificial lamb. Vegas odds reflect that sentiment, having her listed anywhere from a -1200 to a -2000 (a 12-1 or 20-1) underdog. I agree that Justino should be favored like almost any naturally larger power puncher should in a fight, the recent Canelo vs Khan fight shows us why. But this is the fight game, where seemingly small factors can make big impacts, and there are a few which may give Smith a bit of an edge.
1. Recent fight history
Since 2013 Smith has been fed a steady diet of tough fighters to contend with. This stretch is bookended with wins over the current tenth-ranked bantamweight Raquel Pennington and Rin Nikai, joining Meisha Tate as the only women to defeat the awkward-styled Nikai. She has four losses to three girls in that stretch, but they were all closely contended scraps. The possible exception would be the Jessica Eye fight, where Eye was able to land strikes on Smith very consistently in round one. Leslie did snap Eye’s head back a few times in that round, displaying the power which has yielded her four ko/tko’s in her career. If Smith’s cauliflower ear didn’t split there’s no telling how the fight would’ve ended up.
The takeaway is that Smith has been tested against very capable, experienced fighters recently. The same can’t be said for Cyborg. The women’s featherweight division is far behind the bantamweight, and outside of Marloes Coenen the women facing Justino had little fight experience collectively beyond their local circuits. Probably not coincidentally Coenen has lasted the longest in the cage with Cyborg, making it into round three in their first contest and four in their second. Smith should be a “sharper” fighter than Justino is used to facing.
2. Fighting style
Smith is a muay thai-based striker with power. She’s fluent using all of her tools, particularly in the clinch. Cyborg has steamrolled a lot of fighters, but many had a grappling base and seemed tentative and gunshy in the striking game. Smith is no stranger to taking strikes, and Justino’s forward-moving aggressive attack could play into her clinch game at the least.
3. Cyborg’s weight cut
Cyborg had to cut an extra five pounds for this fight and did so with flying colors, weighing in at 139. Smith also came in at 139. She’s made flyweight in the past, so presumably she had the luxury of having next to no weight cut to deal with for this fight. Justino has been sucking weight for the past few weeks like she hasn’t done since her Shayna Baszler fight at 140 in ‘08. This may have an effect on her energy level. It also may effect how well she can take strikes to the head. The cranial fluid which helps cushion the brain is depleted during severe weight cuts. If Smith can land a head kick similar to the one Jorina Baars dropped Cyborg with in their muay thai fight it could write a storybook ending to Smith’s upset bid.
4. Confidence vs pressure
Smith is coming into this fight as a major underdog, while Cyborg is making her UFC debut in front of tens of thousands of her native Curitibans. The pressure is all on her to not only beat Smith, but to have a “statement” win.
These two have sparred in the past, so Smith has “felt” Cyborg. While many fighters who faced Justino seem to have lost before the opening bell due to intimidation (understandably so) that shouldn’t be the case for Smith. People fear the unknown, and Justino is a somewhat known commodity for Smith.
Fight fans are constantly reminded that anything can occur in the fight game. Tonight Leslie “Peacemaker” Smith may become women’s mma’s Buster Douglas. Crazier things have happened, right?