By Kevin Iole, Yahoo! Sports
Cristiane Santos could probably walk down the street in any major city in the U.S. and not have a soul recognize her.
Many fight fans may not recognize her real name.
But say her nickname, Cyborg, and the reaction is always the same: When is she going to fight Gina Carano?
Santos, a Brazilian who meets jiu-jitsu specialist Hitomi Akano of Japan on Saturday’s Strikeforce Card at the HP Pavilion in San Jose, Calif., on Showtime, has been on a collision course with mixed martial arts’ most popular female fighter almost from the moment she made her U.S. debut on an Elite XC card in Stockton, Calif., on July 26.
She fights like a female version of Wanderlei Silva, one of the most feared strikers in mixed martial arts history.
“I don’t think a day goes by that someone doesn’t ask me when Gina and Cyborg are going to fight,” Strikeforce promoter Scott Coker said. Strikeforce purchased many of the assets of Pro Elite, which was going out of business. Among them were the contracts of two of the most high-profile women in the business.
Saturday’s card is the first for Strikeforce since the purchase, but Coker said he never had planned to put Carano and Santos on this card. Carano, though, plans to fight again in the summer and that may be the time the fight occurs.
“Gina’s management wanted the fight right away, but it always seemed to make more sense to me to wait a little and to let it build,” Coker said.
Santos, 23, is as eager for the fight as Carano, which will be the biggest in women’s MMA history when it is held. Though Pro Elite considered it a pay-per-view bout, Coker said he’ll put the fight on Showtime.
She was a national-level handball player in Curritiba, Brazil, when Chute Boxe Academy trainer Rudimar Fedrigo happened to see her.
He saw her athleticism and her intensity and thought she’d be a natural for MMA. Santos, who was then known as Cristiane Justino, wasn’t so sure. But she reluctantly agreed to give it a try.
It turned out to be a life-changing event for her, and not just because she would go on to become among the elite female fighters in the world. On her first day in the gym, she met Evangelista Santos, an MMA fighter who was training at Chute Boxe. He eventually became her husband.
He, too, is nicknamed Cyborg, though there’s no argument in the family over who the real Cyborg is. “It’s his name,” she said. “I took it to honor him.” The Santoses aren’t the only couple in which both husband and wife became fighters – Randy and Kim Couture and Spencer and Emily Fisher are MMA fighters, while Brandon Vera is an MMA fighter and his wife, Kerry, is a Muay Thai boxer – though they’re the only ones who are known by the same name.
She said her style resembles her husband’s because he’s worked with her on her technique from the early days.
And she said it’s helped her mentally, as well. Every fighter has self doubts, but she said having a spouse who is a fighter as well makes a significant difference.
“He totally understands what I’m going through,” she said. “He’s an experienced fighter and has been around a long time. I may come across something I haven’t seen before and he can talk to me about it and explain it to me. And when I have a problem, he’s very understanding.”
She didn’t fight for nearly two years until joining Pro Elite, because she said there weren’t many women at or around her weight of between 140 and 150 pounds. She continued to train, but was getting frustrated by not being able to fight. Pro Elite, though, put it on two of its Elite XC cards and she suddenly skyrocketed to stardom.
“You just have to watch her first for a couple of minutes and you know why,” Coker said. “She’s like a Tasmanian Devil. From the first second, she’s all over you. She comes out and comes at you and tries to wear you down and knock you out. That’s the kind of fighter people love.”
Carano is one of the top draws in the sport, be it a man or a woman, and she also employs an entertaining style. Santos said she likes watching Carano fight, but would prefer to be the one in the cage swapping blows with her.
“She’s a pretty good fighter, but I don’t know how good she really is,” Santos said of Carano. “She always has a lot of media around her because she’s famous, but [fame] won’t win a fight. You have to do it in the cage.”
Santos said she doesn’t know all that much Akano, her opponent on Saturday, but insisted she won’t be looking ahead to a date with Carano.
“You know how MMA is,” she said. “There are so many ways to win and to lose. You have to be just as prepared for every fight. And I think one of my strengths is the way I prepare. I know [Akano] has very good jiu-jitsu, but my goal is to prove I’m an all-around fighter.”