Cris 'Cyborg' Santos is returning to a changed landscape in women's MMA

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Having rejected an offer to join the UFC, Cris 'Cyborg' Santos makes her Invicta debut April 5. (AP)

Having rejected an offer to join the UFC, Cris 'Cyborg' Santos makes her Invicta debut Apr. 5. (AP)

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The last time Cris “Cyborg” Santos fought professionally, Newt Gingrich was the front-runner in the Republican presidential primaries, Breaking Dawn: Part I had just hit theaters and an upstart judoka by the name of Ronda Rousey showed promise with her second win on the Strikeforce circuit.

Needless to say, much has changed since Santos was the face of women’s MMA.

Since Santos received a one-year suspension for testing positive for stanozolol leading up to her Dec. 17, 2011 fight with Hiroko Yamanaka, Rousey rose from niche sport newcomer to mainstream sports icon; the all-female fighting promotion Invicta launched while Strikeforce went the way of Gingrich; and UFC president Dana White 180’ed on his position that women were too pretty to fight, placed them as headliners on the UFC 157 card, and slapped Santos with perhaps the cruelest insult when he labeled her “irrelevant.” (Oh, and Twilight fans watched Alice and Edward kiss in advance of their happily-ever-after ending in Breaking Dawn: Part II, in case you were wondering.)

“It’s been a tough time,” said Santos, 27, relaxing on the couch of her Holiday Inn hotel room Thursday night as she prepared for her return to the ring against Australia’s Fiona Muxlow as part of Friday night’s Invicta 5 fight card. Banana bunches, hardboiled eggs, and half-empty bottles of Pedialyte -- the hallmarks of her weight cut to 145 pounds -- are spread before her on a coffee table.

A tough time -- that’s about as much as a reticent Santos will reveal about her 16-month layoff -- but talk to anyone in her inner circle and they’ll tick off a list of indignities ranging from her mounting bills to her dwindling bank accounts, the sponsors who hightailed it away from her, her divorce from fellow fighter Evangelista Santos, and perhaps the worst of it all -- the Strikeforce incident.

It was Aug. 18, 2012 -- eight months into her steroid suspension -- when Strikeforce hosted its main event, Ronda Rousey versus Sarah Kaufman, near Santos’ San Diego apartment. As the former Strikeforce featherweight champion, Santos expected to sit where all the fighters do: cageside, where fighters can get a close-up of their potential opponents and television cameras can capture the fighters’ reactions. But when Santos arrived, she discovered she’d been banished to the bleachers, high above the cage and far from the TV sightlines.  When a friend fighting on the card found out about her seat placement, he sent her a ticket for a floor seat from his allotment. But again, Strikeforce officials shepherded her to the top of the stairs and back of the arena.

“It really bothered her,” says George Prajin, who manages Santos along with UFC Hall of Famer Tito Ortiz.

But Santos says the year off, brutal as it was, offered her a chance to re-evaluate her career, her future, and the weaknesses in her game. She focused on improving her jiu-jitsu to balance out her potent punching power, changed management, and with the help of Ortiz, opened her own gym in her native Brazil called The Rock. The gym is part of Ortiz's and Prajin’s plan to extend her brand beyond the cage.

In one of her first conversations with Ortiz, Santos told him, “When I beat Gina Carano and won the [Strikeforce featherweight] belt, my life didn’t change, my bank account didn’t change.”

She still drove the same car and still couldn’t afford a house that she could have lost during her suspension.

The Rock gym is part of the team’s first attempt to fix that. Though, even Ortiz admits not all his plans have gone off without a hitch.

There was the contract debacle with the UFC. Prajin claims the UFC initially offered her a three-fight deal, which included one tune-up fight, a fight with Ronda scheduled for the summer and a rematch slated for the fall.

“They offered an OK deal but they weren’t offering what they're giving Ronda and we didn’t think it was fair,” says Prajin.

Then came what Prajin calls the dealbreaker with the UFC: a demand that Santos sign an eight-fight contract. Prajin says that’s when his team went to Invicta.

At the press conference last February announcing Santo’s return to the cage with a three-fight Invicta card, Ortiz talked Santos into wearing a T-shirt reading, “Ronda Will Be My Bitch.”

After the conference, she told Ortiz, “I can’t do that stuff. It’s not me.”

That’s not to say Cyborg doesn’t believe in the message of the T-shirt, of course. The Brazilian says she would fight Rousey tomorrow, “but I should give her time to train.”

But there’s a subtext to the entire conversation, a tacit admission behind Santos’s bold proclamations that, “I don’t have to prove anything.”

Santos actually needs Rousey more than Rousey needs her right now.

The Invicta fights will be Santos’ best opportunity to shift the balance. Everyone one of her opponents, including Muxlow, are merely proxies for Rousey. They are proxies whom Santos must not only beat, but also dominate to force the UFC to rethink its contract offers and its thoughts on a 140-pound catchweight for the two fighters.

This reality isn’t lost on Santos’ management team.

The Rousey fight, says Prajin, “is her financial future.”

It might be more than that. It might be her sole shot at redeeming a reputation that’s taken the metaphorical equivalent of one of her punches.

-- Melissa Segura