LAS VEGAS — Cris “Cyborg” Justino was relaxing in Portugal less than four weeks ago when the UFC featherweight champion got a phone call asking her to save the injury-plagued UFC 222 show.
“I said, ‘Why are you calling me? I’m on vacation!'” she recalled with a laugh. “But you know me. I started training again while I was still over there.”
After men’s featherweight champ Max Holloway had to drop out of his main-event bout with Frankie Edgar due to injury, Cyborg agreed to be the UFC 222 headliner on short notice and against an unfamiliar opponent — and only nine weeks after her punishing five-round victory over Holly Holm in the same Las Vegas octagon at UFC 219.
Justino (19-1) is taking on unheralded Yana Kunitskaya on Saturday night because she genuinely believes the old sports maxim that a champion should fight anyone, anytime, anywhere.
“This is going to show you it’s real,” Cyborg said. “If somebody knocks on your door and says, ‘Hey, Cris, I’m going to kick your ass,’ you can’t say, ‘OK, I need a 10-minute break and then we’ll go.'”
That knock on the door is coming from Kunitskaya (10-3), a personable Russian bantamweight making her UFC debut at featherweight. Cyborg is a heavy favorite at T-Mobile Arena, but nobody who knows the unpredictability of mixed martial arts would assume Cyborg is only collecting a paycheck.
“I’ve been fighting all my life, and I know I have a chance,” said Kunitskaya, who is also competing on short notice. “It’s a chance to fight the best woman in the world, so I had to take it.”
Kunitskaya is the Invicta promotion’s 135-pound champ, and she hasn’t fought at 145 pounds since before her three-year retirement, which ended in 2016. But Kunitskaya also trains in New Mexico with Holm, who caused a modicum of trouble for the seemingly unbeatable Cyborg in their holiday matchup.
Even Justino is interested to see how she will do in less-than-ideal circumstances.
“Since I took the fight so quick, I think people are going to want to see how she’ll do on short notice,” Justino said. “I think I know, but anything can happen.”
Here are more things to watch on the UFC’s latest pay-per-view show in its hometown:
EAGER EDGAR: The penultimate bout is a compelling matchup between unbeaten Brian “T-City” Ortega and Edgar (21-5-1), the former UFC lightweight champion. Edgar could have waited for his featherweight title shot when Holloway returns from injury this summer, but the 36-year-old veteran decided to risk it all by fighting Ortega, a dangerous contender. “I just want to be active,” Edgar said. “I haven’t fought in almost a year. Time is ticking. I’m not going to get these years back.”
T-CITY’S TURN: An upset victory by Ortega (13-0, 1 no-contest) would herald the arrival of an intriguing new UFC star . The Los Angeles-area native is an exceptional jiu-jitsu player, but his last two fights turned into standup brawls. Ortega’s coaches want him to use his strengths, particularly against Edgar’s ferocious work rate in standup fighting. “I’m going to do whatever I have to do, wherever I have to do it,” Ortega said. “This fight could go a lot of ways.”
SOMEBODY’S GETTING SLEPT: Heavyweights Stefan Struve and Andrei Arlovski will meet on the pay-per-view portion of the undercard. Both fighters have their share of knockout wins and losses on their records, and neither will be surprised if his opponent can’t stand up to his striking barrage. The 7-foot Struve (32-9) has been stopped three times in his last seven fights, while the 39-year-old Arlovski (26-15) ended a five-fight losing streak in November.
DERN’S DEBUT: The show features the UFC debut of jiu-jitsu star Mackenzie Dern, who takes on veteran Ashley Yoder (5-3). The daughter of a Brazilian jiu-jitsu master, Dern (5-0) is a world champion who only picked up MMA two years ago, but already has hardcore fans wondering how quickly she can subdue the strawweight division.
NOTABLE NAMES: The pay-per-view card isn’t as stacked as other recent shows in Boston and New York for the increasingly East Coast-centric UFC, but fans will recognize several undercard fighters: former title contenders John Dodson and Cat Zingano are on UFC 222, along with a bout between veterans C.B. Dollaway and Hector Lombard. Sean O’Malley is a hot bantamweight prospect with impressive hair and a predilection for 1970s attire and music — and he doesn’t get along with his opponent, Andre Soukhamthath.