In 2004, during my first year at the University of Wisconsin, I took Economics 101: Intro to Microeconomics. I wasn’t terribly interested in economics at the time (and my bank account today would show a similar mentality), but I did need to take a math class, and Econ 101 qualified. I knew that the class wasn’t really going to be my thing when, on the very first day in the very first 400-person lecture, someone decided it would be a good idea to debate the relative merits of capitalism with the professor. (For those of you unfamiliar with Madison, Wis., there’s pretty much always someone in my fine city willing to discuss the different economic systems in a condescending way with you.)

After that ordeal, I decided that my time might be better spent elsewhere, so my attendance at that particular lecture was sparse. I did manage, however, to get a B in the class, and even came away with some valuable knowledge of the very basic economic principles that are in play all the time.

Take, for instance, the laws of supply and demand and how they impact the price of certain goods. If the available quantity of a certain good (supply) decreases, and the demand for it is high, then the price associated with that good will rise. If the supply of a certain good increases, and the demand for it is low, then the price associated with that good will be lower. These are fairly basic rules that impact much more than the price of beef at the grocery store.

The MMA world is certainly not immune to the effects of economics. As the sport’s popularity has grown, so, too, have the salaries commanded by its participants. The winner of the very first UFC tournament in 1993, for example, earned $50,000 for his efforts. Twenty years later, as the demand for the sport has grown, that number falls somewhere in the middle of the UFC’s salary schedule. Beyond the income growth for both fighters and executives, economics has recently played a key role in the introduction of a new group of athletes to the UFC—women.

Correctly anticipating the significant success of the promotion’s first female fight—the inaugural women’s bantamweight title contest between Ronda Rousey and Liz Carmouche—the UFC has already scheduled bouts between other prominent females for its upcoming cards. Seasoned MMA veteran Miesha Tate will face undefeated Cat Zingano in mid-April, while Sara McMann will face Sheila Gaff at UFC 159 later that month. The signing of these four women signals the UFC’s acknowledgement that the demand for women’s fights is increasing and, thus, the promotion wishes to also increase its supply of available combatants to maintain its marketplace advantage.

One name currently missing from the UFC’s upcoming cards, however, is Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino. Cyborg, the consensus No. 1 women’s featherweight fighter in the world, has yet to sign with the world’s premier MMA promotion and will next compete under the Invicta FC banner on April 5. The reasons behind her absence from the UFC are as complex as the language in the contracts the promotion offers prospective fighters, but there’s one man who has done his part to clear the air for fans.

Since retiring from active competition in July 2012, former UFC light heavyweight champion Tito Ortiz has begun a second career as a manager and took Cyborg on as his most significant client. Reportedly dissatisfied with the UFC’s contract offer, Ortiz instead directed his client to sign a three-fight deal with Invicta. His plan to eventually arrange a superfight between his client and Rousey hinges on the ability of both fighters to continue their winning ways and otherwise remain fixtures in MMA. If all goes according to Ortiz’s strategy, Cyborg and Rousey will fight at 140 pounds in what will be one of the biggest mixed martial arts contests in history.

That all sounds well and good, but can it actually work?

For Cyborg, earning a spot against Rousey means more than just going unbeaten in 2013. The two are in completely separate weight classes and, as champion at 135 pounds, Rousey should feel zero pressure to move up a division to face Cyborg. Ortiz can talk all he wants about Cyborg’s position in the women’s MMA pantheon, but the reality is that Rousey’s face—not Cyborg’s—was in USA Today and on Cyborg has had a great career thus far, but Rousey has far surpassed the Brazilian as the world’s preeminent female fighter, and Cyborg’s continued absence from the UFC is not going to do her any favors in the publicity department. The onus is, thus, on Cyborg (and, by extension, Ortiz) to build herself back up to a place where casual MMA fans will demand a fight between her and Rousey. To do so, she must defeat the entirety of her Invicta opposition, and do so in highlight-reel fashion.

Cyborg’s nine stoppage victories in 12 pro fights are part of an undefeated streak that stretches back to her second professional fight. In her ninth pro bout, she stepped in the cage against Gina Carano at a time when Carano sat atop the women’s MMA throne and proceeded to knock her off of it inside of one round. Cyborg’s next three fights ended in similar fashion, and there’s really been no fighter who has put her in danger since her rise to prominence in 2008. The sport’s female divisions have expanded talent-wise in the last several years, but Cyborg will undoubtedly be considered the favorite in all of her forthcoming Invicta fights. While winning in MMA is never a foregone conclusion, her previously demonstrated dominance is a good predictor of her future performance.

But then there’s the matter of Cyborg’s outside-the-cage problems—specifically, her positive steroid test that negated her most recent win and kept her out of competition for a full year. In order to make a fight with Rousey happen, Cyborg must never get popped for performance-enhancing drug use ever again. The UFC has obviously put a lot of its promotional capital behind Rousey, and it’s not about to put its most popular new fighter’s career as a bantamweight champion on hold so she can fight someone who has repeatedly tested positive for PEDs. The promotion has already raised a few eyebrows with its treatment of other fighters whose training regimens included a little something outside of the rulebook, so Cyborg’s chance to fight Rousey would evaporate with even a single positive test. For Ortiz’s plan to match up Cyborg with Rousey to come to fruition, he must ensure his client’s drug screenings to come back blank.

Of course, Cyborg is only one half of the equation. On the other side is Rousey, whose competition in the UFC will only continue to grow more difficult as more women begin to enter and excel in the sport. Rousey came dangerously close to losing her UFC debut when Liz Carmouche took her back and sunk in a pretty deep choke/face-crank, and her future opposition will not be any easier. Rousey might have defeated all of her opponents with first-round armbars thus far, but she’ll be repeatedly facing the best female bantamweights in the world as she attempts to defend her belt. Expect Rousey’s opening-round stoppage streak to come to an end sooner than later, but that doesn’t necessarily mean she’ll lose those fights.

Unlike Cyborg, however, Rousey probably does not need to stay undefeated to keep the prospect of a fight between her and Cyborg alive. In fact, one might argue that a loss for Rousey might make that fight more realistic, since that would eliminate the need to keep her available for bantamweight title bouts. An undefeated Rousey is obviously a more marketable fighter than one with losses on her ledger, but for the purposes of a superfight with Cyborg, a blemish-free record is not a requirement. Of course, Rousey would also have to be willing to bump up to a higher weight class, but that would likely just mean less of a weight cut for her. As long as Rousey remains a threat in women’s MMA, champion or not, a fight with Cyborg is definitely doable.

The demand for women’s MMA is continuing to rise, and the unprecedented coverage given to Rousey in the lead-up to her first UFC fight is the most obvious sign of that. Just like the UFC has been able to more or less consolidate the supply of the world’s best male fighters, it’s now making similar moves to expand its female roster. Economics aside, though, the UFC is now perceived as the sole destination for high-quality MMA by the majority of people interested in the sport, and perception is reality. Cyborg can dominate her opponents in Invicta thoroughly, and Ortiz can use those victories to continue to demand a fight between her and Rousey, but as long as Cyborg remains outside of the UFC, her victories will not be viewed in the same light as Rousey’s, even though the quality of their opposition will be similar.

Ortiz is a fantastic promoter, and as a former fighter he’ll always ostensibly put the interests of the clients under his managerial umbrella first. As long as he represents Cyborg, he’s going to insist that she is the best fighter in the world. It’s on that foundation that he’ll argue that it’s Rousey, not Cyborg, who must do things like travel outside her weight class to prove her place in the sport. But no fighter is bigger than the sport itself, and Ortiz would do well to remember that the UFC’s promotional power is exponentially greater than Invicta’s as he turns down contracts that would give Cyborg more attention than she got in all of her previous fights combined. Wouldn’t having his client as the dominant anchor of a new UFC women’s featherweight division be an equivalent success?

Ortiz’s main concern at this point should be other female fighters surpassing Cyborg in popularity due to their positions as UFC fighters. The UFC made Rousey into a superstar, and it could pretty easily do the same thing with any of the other bantamweights it recently signed, at which point Cyborg’s marketability as a superfight opponent disappears. A fight between Rousey and Cyborg might materialize one day, but it better be soon. The demand for Cyborg right now is high, but as the supply of great female fighters continues to grow, the demand for any single one decreases. Ortiz is taking a gamble by withholding Cyborg from the UFC, and the longer she’s out of the public eye, the less a fight with Rousey will matter.

Photo: Cris Cyborg (L) and Tito Ortiz (Diego Maka/MMA Brasil)

About The Author

Eric Reinert
Staff Writer

Eric Reinert has been writing about mixed martial arts since 2010. Outside the world of caged combat, Eric has spent time as a news reporter, speechwriter, campaign strategist, tech support manager, landscaper and janitor. He lives in Madison, Wis.