Cris “Cyborg” Justino and Felicia Spencer meet this Saturday in the co-main event of UFC 240 in Edmonton, and the matchup represents a huge opportunity for each woman. Cyborg wants to get back on track after losing for the first time in over 13 years, last December to Amanda Nunes.
Furthermore, the pioneering MMA legend also wants to head into potential free-agency with as much political capital in her pocket as possible. Spencer now has her largest stage yet, and the chance to beat former champions, back-to-back, in her first two UFC bouts, and become a household name.
Suffice to say, motivation for either woman won’t be a question, here. Plenty other areas of the fight will be, however.
Let’s take a look at the matchup in a few crucial categories, and get ready for this marquee bout.
Cyborg is the more experienced, versatile and powerful stand-up striker here, and in most fights she could ever find herself in. Spencer is willing to get busy on the feet with punches and kicks, and has more than a clue in this regard.
She also is aggressive on the inside with uppercuts, especially if she smells blood. Patience and selective striking output from the free-standing positions may be in her best interest against Cyborg, however.
Spencer has a habit of attempting front kicks to the body, and she might want to not try those against Cyborg. Against long, powerful counter punchers like the Brazilian, the type of relatively slow and not snappy front kicks we’ve seen from Spencer in the past are likely to just ensure she eats an overhand right to the head, and while standing on one foot, no less.
This happened to Spencer in her last fight early on, as Megan Anderson clipped her with a nice right punch off of a front kick. Spencer has developed a comfort with this technique, but she hasn’t mastered that particular tool enough to use it effectively against elite athletes.
Spencer often strikes first, generally, but against Cyborg, she might consider biding her time if allowed the luxury. Sometimes Cyborg presses forward on her opponents, and sometimes she counter-punches.
When she’s sharpest, she manages to do both – using her foot work to get within or just outside of jabbing range, and then waits for her opponent to throw first before countering with more speed and power than they can handle. If Cyborg does not initiate a fire-fight with strikes, however, Spencer may want to consider waiting, feinting and moving her feet a bit so she doesn’t let Cyborg get too much of a sense of her inclinations or intentions.
The longer the fight goes, the more likely Cyborg might be to get impatient and storm in. In such an instance she very well could do big damage, but she might also close the distance for Spencer, who will want to get this fight to the ground.
Spencer told ESPN this week that though she doesn’t necessarily see holes in Cyborg’s game, she has observed that the longtime champion often cedes significant moments to her opposition before turning out a nasty KO win.
This isn’t hubris talking from the Canadian, she’s correct. Time and again Cyborg has been taken down, mounted or had her back taken on the ground.
To be sure, she has good ground skills, even off of her back, in spots, but it isn’t uncommon for the former champ to find herself defending from vulnerable positions in fights. She usually is able to use solid defense and her excellent athleticism to work out of these spots and get the fight back where she needs.
Still, if Cyborg lets Spencer into one of those positions, she may find herself in deeper water than other opponents have put her in. Simply put, Spencer is different and much better on top, and on the back than most women at featherweight.
Cyborg may not be able to rely solely on strength, athleticism, and timing to shuck Spencer off her back or escape a mount or ¾ guard. Once Spencer gets control, especially from the back, she hugs tight, hand fights well and uses educated leg and hip entanglements to control her opponents.
She did this expertly to Anderson who did just about everything she could, athletically, to get out of Spencer’s back control. Anderson spun, posted, shrugged, shucked and much else.
The prospect Spencer demonstrated there, however, that anything short of truly technical and well-timed escapes will not suffice against her. Cyborg is very athletic, but she’s not bigger or stronger than Anderson, so she’ll want to do everything she can to keep out of bad positions, Saturday, and not rely on her ability to escape them as she always has in the past.
Of particular concern is Cyborg’s pattern of turning her back to crawl to the cage wall to use it to get up after being taken down. It’s a good tactic, but it leaves her back exposed for a long time and against Spencer, it won’t be as safe as it has been in the past.
From top mount Spencer is also similarly technical. She doesn’t just throw aggressive punches with both hands. Instead, she often uses great trapping – holding with one hand while punching with the other.
In so doing, Spencer is able to compromise the defense on one side of her opponents’ faces and then do damage to it with her other hand. Once an opponent addresses the trapped hand with their free one, she is able to switch up sides and trap the assisting one and start the process over again.
Spencer picks her spots on top and her punches don’t tickle. She is also really well balanced with excellent hip connection from both top and back mount.
She’s got confidence in her squeezes from there, and can punch nimbly while controlling her opponents’ hips.
Spencer is nowhere near as experienced as Justino. The mental strength of Cyborg also cannot ever be called into question.
Cyborg was a rare woman on one of the most reportedly brutal and elite teams in MMA history early in her career, Chute Boxe, where she sparred with men daily. She’s handled being one of the sport’s biggest names for about a decade with aplomb, including the trauma of her most recent loss.
Another rarely remarked on example of her strong psychology is the fact that Cyborg has to literally walk into a hostile work environment every time she shows up for fight week given the negative comments UFC president Dana White has made for years and continues to make about her. Through everything, Cyborg stays confident.
She may not always stay calm in the Octagon, and can be goaded into an aggressive slugfest when she’s hurt or challenged (though far less often than in years past), but Cyborg’s mindset is never weak. With all that having been said, Spencer has given us no reason to doubt her own mental strength, either.
Like Cyborg, Spencer lost her first career fight and rebounded remarkably. She’s immigrated to another country and made a new home, life and successful career through it.
Spencer also has more fights than people realize, when we include amateur bouts. As an amateur Spencer also got a jump-start on exposure to bright lights given that her last two amateur contests took place in the Tuff-N-Uff promotion, which has better production and more eyes on it through broadcast than most professional organizations.
From there, Spencer went directly into the pro big leagues of Invicta FC and the UFC, where she’s yet to falter. Most telling, however, was how well she performed in her UFC debut this past May against Anderson.
Spencer apparently didn’t let her underdog status permeate her own mind, stayed calm while and after eating big shots from Anderson and then acted with the composed and dominating efficacy of a seasoned veteran in not letting her opponent get away once she’d put her in danger. Many young fighters fall apart a bit at the very moments they have a chance to grasp success in a fight.
Spencer could have had that against Anderson once she took her down and took her back, but Spencer was ready for that moment, she’d trained for it and expected it, and then methodically seized it and won in quick fashion.
Spencer has already shown she will show up when she’s the underdog against a larger, more well-known former champion, and she’s demonstrated that she believes enough in herself to stay the course and give her considerable ground skills a chance to secure a win. It seems entirely possible that Cyborg has intimidated many opponents before having faced them or at least after first hitting them.
Spencer may justifiably be the underdog here, but if Cyborg gives her an opening, I’m betting that she won’t hesitate to hit it. Whoever wins will earn it, Saturday, and whoever loses won’t have it be on account of mental weakness.
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