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Cris Cyborg eager to trade blows with former boxing world champ in her first Bellator title defense

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Cris “Cyborg” Justino has for years expressed a burning desire to venture beyond mixed martial arts and test herself in professional boxing. But the fact that she will be facing a two-time boxing world champion on Thursday night is not what she’s most excited about for Bellator 249.

“No, it’s a different situation, because we’re going to be fighting MMA,” Cyborg told ESPN this week, referring to her main event matchup with Arlene Blencowe, who once reigned as both the World Boxing Federation female welterweight champ and Women’s International Boxing Association super lightweight titlist. “In the cage, we can use everything against each other, not just boxing.”

That said, when the cage door closes at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut, for the first defense of her Bellator women’s featherweight championship, it’s no secret that Cyborg (22-2, 1 NC) will come out swinging. “Everybody knows I like to strike,” she said. “The fight is going to be very exciting.”

What makes it especially exciting for Cyborg is not that her opponent is a former boxing champ — she has already faced one of those in 2017, when she took on multiple-time boxing titlist Holly Holm in the UFC. What’s most thrilling for her is that standing across the cage will be a natural featherweight. Cyborg spent many years competing against bulked-up bantamweights while at the same time having to answer to critics who thought she should trim down to 135 pounds rather than compete in a division with practically no other elite women.

“I feel very happy because I fought for a long time to make 145 a real division, a solid division,” she said. “I’ve always believed that our division could be the best division in women’s MMA, because there are a lot of girls; they don’t walk around at 135, they don’t walk at 125 — they walk around heavier than that. And it’s very important that you fight healthy instead of cutting a lot of weight.”

It was one of those 135-pounders, of course, who in 2018 put a sudden halt to Cyborg’s decadelong run of supremacy. In a superfight between the UFC’s featherweight and bantamweight queens, Amanda Nunes added a second belt to her trophy case with a stunning 51-second knockout. It was Cyborg’s first defeat in 21 fights going all the way back to her professional debut in 2005.

There would be no opportunity for redemption in the UFC. Cyborg and promotion president Dana White had long had a rocky relationship, stemming in part from White making an offensive comment that she “looked like Wanderlei Silva in a dress and heels,” a reference to the timeworn male fighter. So even though Cyborg texted White after her loss to Nunes asking for a rematch, and even though she wore a T-shirt in a TV interview with “Cyborg vs Nunes Coming Jan 2020” emblazoned across the front, White insisted that Cyborg was trying to dodge the fight. The UFC boss stuck to that story until her contract ran out, at which point White said, “We’re out of the Cyborg business.”

Enter Scott Coker, the Bellator president who had been in the Cyborg business back when he was running the Strikeforce promotion. For Coker, signing Cyborg was a no-brainer. “She was definitely a needle-mover for us in Strikeforce,” he told ESPN earlier this year. “And I know she was a needle-mover in the UFC, and she’ll be a needle-mover for us in Bellator.”

Coker immediately booked Cyborg against Bellator’s longtime 145-pound champion, Julia Budd, and in January he had a new champ, after Cyborg dethroned Budd with a fourth-round TKO. That elevated the Brazilian legend to a status she has termed “mixed martial arts’ only grand slam champion” — she has reigned in Strikeforce, Invicta FC, the UFC and now Bellator.

The new belt in a new workplace also has rejuvenated Cyborg. After hinting at retirement during her UFC tenure, she now says there is no end in sight for her career. “It’s a new time,” said the 35-year-old, who lives and trains in Southern California. “I feel very, very motivated here in Bellator to continue. One day the end will come, but I like to live in the moment.”

Thursday night will be the biggest career moment for Blencowe (13-7), who is 37 and from Australia. She began competing in MMA in 2013, but during her first couple of years in the game, Blencowe split her time between MMA and boxing. Her results showed — she lost four of her first six MMA fights. But Blencowe has been on a roll ever since, with her only losses coming against champions. She competed for the Bellator belt once before, dropping a split decision to Budd in 2017. Since then, she has won three in a row.

As one might expect from an ex-boxer, Blencowe likes to throw hands. More than half of her MMA wins have come by knockout. Her nickname is “Angerfist.”

Cyborg maintains her focus on this being not a boxing match but an MMA fight. However, she still does believe the sweet science is in her future. “I always want to find new ways to test myself,” Cyborg said.

Her MMA stardom aside, Cyborg has competed at the highest level in grappling — in both 2011 and 2012, she won gold medals in the World Jiu-Jitsu Championship. She won gold in freestyle wrestling at the 2007 Brazil Cup. In 2014, with just two pro kickboxing bouts under her belt, she challenged then-undefeated Lion Fights Muay Thai women’s world welterweight champion Jorina Baars.

For Cyborg, it is all part of the journey — and the learning. “When you separate skills like this, and train to compete in only jiu-jitsu, only wrestling, only Muay Thai, you learn more,” she said.

Boxing is next. Well, not next, but inevitably down the road. Cyborg has trained in the ring with Vergil Ortiz Sr., whose protege son, Vergil Ortiz Jr., was recently called “the future of boxing” by Golden Boy head Oscar De La Hoya. She has sparred with women’s pound-for-pound No. 1 Claressa Shields, the undisputed women’s middleweight champ, who afterward said, “She has legit skills.”

Cyborg relishes the praise, at the same time taking care to store it away for her future.

“I’m really focused right now on Arlene Blencowe,” she said. “But boxing is a dream I have. Before I retire — and I don’t know when that will be — I would like to go in the ring. It’s going to be a big challenge, but I’m ready. I’m always ready for a challenge.”

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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home

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On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

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Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”

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Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.

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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment

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The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.

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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls

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With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

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