LAS VEGAS -- It felt like the best (and equally, the worst) time to ask Cris Justino a million-dollar question.
On Thursday, “Cyborg” sat in a chair inside her guest room on the fifth floor of the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino. The thermostat was cranked to 85 degrees, the highest it would go, and she had three layers of clothing on.
Justino looked tired but hopeful. She had just finished an hourlong weight cut and (fingers crossed) weighed 145 pounds on the dot. An electronic scale in the bathroom confirmed this hope moments later.
The cut, for a Muay Thai title bout at Lion Fight Promotions the following day, was one of the best of Justino’s career. She woke up light on the day of the weigh-in, 148 pounds. She never cried once during the final cut, which she’s been known to do.
Even a good cut is still a difficult one for Justino, though. She leaned on her friend and former manager Tito Ortiz at the weigh-in until it was her turn to step on the scale and, immediately afterward, had an IV line inserted to help her rehydrate.
In the final seconds of that weight cut in her hotel room, right when she hit 145 pounds, I asked Justino a question that is currently a big one in mixed martial arts.
“Can you really weigh 10 pounds less than you weigh right now?”
There is one marquee fight for Justino in 2014, and it’s against UFC bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey. The two have gone back and forth in headlines for years, and a matchup between them would draw big business for the UFC.
The main reason the fight hasn’t happened yet is weight. Rousey has settled into the 135-pound division, and the UFC has said it won’t book her to a catchweight. Justino, who walks around at 170 pounds, has had difficulty cutting to 145 before.
One year ago, Justino and Ortiz, her manager at the time, declined a multifight deal with the UFC based on financial reasons and the fact that it was “impossible” for her to compete at bantamweight. The UFC does not promote a 145-pound division.
This year, however, Justino has stated she intends to be at 135 pounds by summer. Concerns about her health still exist, but she is willing to remain at the weight for three fights: Once to prove she can do it and then two Rousey fights. Two fights because she wants to beat her twice, leaving no doubt who is the best.
“It’s a year later, and I guess all the things Ronda has said about her, all the things [UFC president] Dana White has said about her, it hurt her feelings,” Ortiz told ESPN.com. “Hearing all that makes a person want to make it possible.
“If she thinks she can get down there, we’ll try. We’ll make that push. But for this [145-pound Muay Thai fight] she had no carbs. She didn’t lift any weights. She was still walking around at 159 pounds. She’s still having trouble. Yes, it was easier this time, but she’s still making that 15-pound cut the week of the fight.”
What Ortiz is saying is that Justino committing to 135 pounds is one thing. Her actually weighing it is another.
Her stable of coaches is willing to try anything it takes to get her there, and they are supremely confident she would handle Rousey easily (early knockout predictions were made) -- but all of them have reservations about the cut.
“She walks around at 170 pounds with a six-pack,” said Andy Schnadig, Justino’s strength and conditioning coach. “You start getting to 160, and you can see the veins in her abdominals. To get to 135 she’s going to have to lose lean muscle tissue.
“I don’t think going to 135 pounds is really good for her, but she kind of has to do it to prove her point.”
In addition to general health concerns, no one knows how Justino will perform with 10 pounds less muscle on her frame. One of the identifying characteristics of the Brazilian’s success has been her physical strength.
Schnadig said it is difficult to predict where on the body Justino will lose muscle mass and even more difficult to predict what effect it will have on her performance.
“Where it’s going to come off is genetics,” Schnadig said. “We can’t spot reduce and say she has really strong hips, so we can afford to lose muscle in her glutes. It’s going to come off where it comes off.
“I don’t know if she’ll lose some of that incredible power she has in her hips or not. You’ve seen her fight. She’s a killer. She’ll still have that aggression, but everything from basically her bottom rib to her knees is so strong. If she loses that muscle tissue, maybe she doesn’t have that anymore.”
For now, Justino and her camp are putting those concerns aside and taking it day by day. She came in to last week’s cut light partially because of an extensive roadwork program, which saw her run eight to 10 miles per day.
Schnadig would prefer to move away from that schedule, as he said long runs can encourage the body to carry fat as a fuel source. He said 70 percent of Justino's future weight loss will be tied to significantly altering her diet.
The plan is for her to defend her Invicta FC featherweight title in either April or May and then fight for the all-female promotion’s bantamweight title by summer.
Justino lost to Jorina Baars via unanimous decision at the Lion Fight kickboxing event Friday, but that result has no effect on the rest of her year in MMA, according to manager George Prajin.
“She’s a little disappointed, of course, but it doesn’t change anything in our plans,” Prajin told ESPN.com. “Our goal is still get to 135 by summer and fight Ronda Rousey in the fall if the UFC is willing to step up.
“I don’t see how this fight or this loss puts Cris back at all in the MMA world or makes people want to see the [Rousey] fight less. Rousey is out making movies while Cris is taking on the best fighters in the world in other sports.”
If a fight between Rousey and Justino doesn’t happen in the UFC, it won’t be due to Justino’s loss. And likely, it won’t be due to Justino’s friendly relationship with Ortiz, who has a rocky history with the UFC.
“It doesn’t matter at all whether Tito is managing somebody or not,” UFC co-owner Lorenzo Fertitta told ESPN.com. “That might affect whether or not the fighter makes good decisions or not, but it wouldn’t affect whether or not we’d sign them. I have no ill will towards Tito. I don’t care.”
If the fight doesn’t happen, it will be because either Justino can’t make the weight or the UFC decides it can’t contract her at 135 pounds if she intends to fight at the weight only twice in the Octagon.
The first problem is the one Justino has control over, and she’s working on it. She smiled when asked about weighing 135 pounds last week. Still weak from the cut and the fact that she had consumed 8 ounces of water in the last 48 hours, she kept her answer short.
“This time, it does not feel impossible,” Justino said. “In December, I put it in my head that nothing is impossible. I’ve put it in my head that I can. I can.”