There are so many words that come to mind when I think of Holly Holm, but undoubtedly the most appropriate is “classy.” I was one of the few who predicted an upset in her November 14th UFC fight with super star Ronda Rousey. When I posted Team Holm’s “We Believe, Upset/Downunder” poster on my Facebook page, friends suggested I be institutionalized. Few, however, were as familiar with Holly’s boxing credentials as I was.
Holly Holm first came onto my radar when she upset Christy Martin in 2005. “The Coal Miner’s Daughter“ had slugged her way into the living rooms of boxing fans on the coattails of some notable male boxers, distinguishing herself by appearing on the undercard of Tyson-Bruno in 1989. Although her career was tapering off by the time she met Holly in the ring, Holm’s slick determination made it an easy fight against a still formidable opponent. Holly Holm displayed three things a great fighter requires: skill, patience and conditioning. I became and avid fan.
While the number of championships Holly has attained seems to differ depending upon the source, let it suffice to say she’s earned practically every accolade a female boxer could achieve during her years in the square ring - and all are well-deserved.
I was dismayed by her KO loss to French gargantuan, Anne Sophie Mathis, in 2011, but Holly’s championship heart drew her back to the ring six months later to outpoint Mathis and regain the title. Rarely do fighters who are soundly defeated reclaim the confidence to make a significant comeback, but Holly did, and she hasn’t lost a fight since.
When Holly announced she was switching to MMA a few years ago I got goosebumps. How would such a pure boxer fare in the brutality of the octagon? She had early kickboxing experience, winning the International Kickboxing Federation National Welterweight Title, and I wondered if Muay Thai might be a better choice. But even Jorina Baars, the undefeated Muay Thai welterweight champion with a victory over phenom Christiane “Cyborg” Justino, has languished in relative obscurity after 37 bouts. The fact is: MMA is the fastest growing combat sport in the world and its expanding fanbase is where today’s pugilistic glory lies. Holly’s decision was obvious.
Many pundits were unimpressed with Holm’s early MMA matches, but if you observed each one carefully, you could see that Team Holm’s approach was like building an elaborate jigsaw puzzle. Every fight included several essential pieces that were meticulously locked into place, and if you studied each one, there was a picture emerging. Like George Seurat’s technique of pointillism, at first it glance it only appears as a chaotic scattering of colored dots, but if you stand back and really look, a world of marvelous images is exposed.
Nothing reinforces training like actual combat. Thus, each of Holly’s fights provided an opportunity to make incremental improvements in attentively selected aspects of the discipline, featuring her signature combination punching followed by a wide away of leg kicks. It was a master plan orchestrated by Team Holm, and in a few short years Holly had become a “striker” to be reckoned with.
But every protagonist needs a nemesis. Enter Ronda Rousey.
Sophisticated, attractive and outspoken, Rousey became a household name when UFC president, Dana White - in a stunning reversal of his decision never to bring women into his franchise - named Ronda the UFC’s first Bantamweight Champion in 2012. “Rowdy Ronda” dominated her opponents with superlative judoka skills on the way to a 12-0 record, ending all but one of her bouts within the first round. She was candid in her lack of respect for her opponents - reminiscent of a young Cassius Clay when he was dubbed “The Mouth” - and some were hoping to see Ronda humbled, or at least tested.
As MMA fans snored at the prospect of Rousey-Tate III, a press release late in the summer of 2015 upset the apple cart. Tate was passed over. Rousey would face undefeated newcomer, Holly Holm, in UFC 193 in January 2016. Then Robbie Lawler’s thumb injury escalated the women's bouts to the top of the card, putting Ronda Rousey’s Bantamweight belt on the line in the main event in Melbourne, Australia.
Immediately I started studying videos of their fights, including those from Holly’s boxing days, and came away with an inescapable conclusion: Holly Holm had the talent to dethrone the previously unstoppable champion.
Astonishingly, the odds-makers did not see it that way. They were willing to ignore Holly’s 33-2-2 professional boxing career and her 9-0 record in MMA. The fact that she had four times the number of fights as Ronda was completely disregarded. A sense of déjà vu swept over me. Rather than sugar plumbs, historic upsets danced in my head: Ali-Foreman, Douglas-Tyson, Holyfield-Tyson, and Hopkins-Trinidad among them. Fights where a champion perceived as invulnerable was stunned when outsiders were unable to see through the hype and make an unbiased comparison. Every instinct told me Rousey-Holm would be the same.
While Ronda had made improvements in her stand-up game, her footwork remained sloppy and her conditioning was questionable. In her second fight with Miesha Tate, Ronda was winded by the end of the first round and showed clear signs of exhaustion in the second. On the other hand, Holly was superbly conditioned with exceptional footwork honed over more than 100 rounds of professional combat. Thirty-seven boxing matches had refined her lateral movement and quick combinations to surgeon-like precision, and her left leg kick was a thing of beauty.
I watched the final public training sessions in Melbourne a few days before the fight. Both fighters did their usual routine. Holly even sparred with a fan from the crowd. She appeared to be completely relaxed, and showed no signs of exertion at the end of her workout. Just another day at the office.
But something significant occurred halfway through Ronda’s session. She started breathing through her mouthpiece just as she did against Tate. And this was only a workout. When you see a fighter struggling for air, that’s never a good sign. It might indicate something as innocent as nasal congestion, but more often it means they haven’t put enough time into their roadwork. I suspected it was something that would play-out during the fight … and I was right.
I went to a local sports bar the evening of the fight so I could get a whiff of the atmosphere surrounding the event. As I chatted with people I discovered that most were neither boxing nor MMA fans. They had come to see Ronda Rousey, not quite knowing why. When I started describing the challenges she had to overcome to retain her championship, they countered with blank stares. Most knew nothing of Holly Holm. But I suspected that would change before the night was over.
As the main event approached, the boisterous bar noises subsided and everybody’s attention was drawn to the big screens lining the walls. When the fighters entered the ring at the Etihad Stadium the mood of both teams was apparent. Holly entered doing her usual side-to-side romp, like a thoroughbred race horse at the starting gate, chomping at the bit. Ronda entered wearing her notorious glare, bringing a cheer from the crowd. After the instructions, Ronda refused to touch gloves with Holly and the patrons responded with a disapproving groan.
Then the fight unfolded almost exactly as I had imagined it. From the bell it was apparent that the two fighter’s footwork and ring generalship were a universe apart. Ronda lurched forward with a limping gait, pawing with her left and falling off balance with nearly every exchange.
Holly glided gracefully, gauging her distance and landing straight lefts, then moving to the outside of Ronda’s left to avoid a counter, leaving Ronda swinging at empty air. It was Boxing 101 between master and student, and a pall slowly fell over the onlookers.
Ronda managed to get Holly to the floor and went for the armbar, but Holly pulled out of it and got back to her feet. The momentum of the fight changed in that moment. After the third grapple, Holly picked Ronda off her feet and slammed her to the mat after Rousey had just landed her best punch of the fight. During the grappling it was clear that Holly was not only more skilled in the stand-up game, but she was also physically stronger.
Then the fatigue I had seen in Ronda’s fight with Tate and her workout a few days before came into play. She was gasping for air by the round’s end, her face was bloodied, and she was visibly fatigued. Disguised panic emanated from her corner during the break, as Edmond Tarverdyan instructed in subtle exhortation, “We’re keeping our hands up … we’re feinting,” because Ronda was doing neither.
On the other side of the octagon, Team Holm was cool and collected. Holly looked as though she’d been out for a leisurely stroll and was contemplating whether she would have tea & toast or a nice scoop of Rocky Road on the way home.
At the opening of the second round it was clear that the outcome would only be a matter of time. A stiff leg kick to the body made Ronda grimace. When she attempted to counter, her telegraphed left hook launched her into the cage as Holly adroitly ducked under it and pranced back to the center of the ring.
The end came with startling suddenness. Holly landed a straight left that stunned Ronda, but Rousey instinctively countered with a wild left hook. The momentum of the missed punch turned her 180 degrees, she lost her balance and slipped to the canvas. As she scrambled to her feet, she made the disastrous mistake of keeping her back to her opponent. Holly stepped up behind her, pulled her into position, and landed a left head kick that ended the contest. It was a stark reminder that - as Holm reminded reporters in the days preceding the fight - “Nobody is unbeatable.”
Holly was gracious in victory and hugged Ronda after the outcome was announced. Class personified.
In the post-fight press conference statements regarding a rematch were already flying, even though Dana White had previously stated that automatic rematches are something that occur in boxing, not MMA. But Ronda Rousey is the UFC’s darling and their Cash Cow, so they'll do everything possible to assure her a chance of regaining the title.
In the meantime, it would be a shame to make Holly sit in Albuquerque with her new title belt until UFC 200 in July, 2016 - the earliest a rematch could logically take place. I hope she fights one of the top contenders in March during the interim. It would be a chance for her to settle into the championship before the hysteria of another Rousey match takes front and center.
A premature rematch for Ronda would likely result in a similar outcome. The old axiom in boxing is, “When a fighter wins decisively, a rematch will bring the same result, only sooner.” It’s hard to imagine a KO in less than 6 minutes, but the principle still holds. Ronda needs time to reevaluate her striking game and find a better method of conditioning. Even then, the doubts created by a unequivocal defeat can be career-ending to all but the stout of heart. The coming months will tell us what kind of stuff she’s made of.
So now the new queen of MMA is an athlete who becomes the first to win titles in both boxing and MMA - an even more historical achievement than beating Ronda Rousey. Such success couldn’t have happened to a more deserving person. All hail Holly Holm! Long may she reign.
Other essays and articles by Charles Long can be found in the boxing section of Convicted Artist. He is the author of “Adventures in the Scream Trade - Scenes from an Operatic Life,” available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
"Adventures in the Scream Trade - Scenese from an Operatic Life" available for preview on iTunes