How Holly Holm’s finest hour became her biggest burden

How Holly Holm’s finest hour became her biggest burden

On November the 14th 2015 Holly Holm created one of the greatest upsets in Mixed Martial Arts history when she defeated the legendary Ronda Rousey to claim the UFC Women’s Bantamweight Championship, a result that sent shock waves not only across the world of combat sports but the wider mainstream media as well. After years of comparative obscurity, the fight launched Holm into a realm of global super stardom intended to last for years to come, yet just 12 months on the Preacher’s Daughter finds herself with her career firmly in question; an afterthought in her division and with her finest achievement now written off as an opportunistic fluke. This report is designed to look the past 15 months of Holm’s career in more detail, chronicling every punch, choke and knockout kick of one of MMA’s most unjust rollercoaster stories.

To understand the rise and fall of Holly Holm it is important to look at the road that got her there in the first place. Born of the 17th of October 1981, Holly Rene Holm was the youngest of three children raised in the small town of Basque Falls in New Mexico. As a child, Holm was a regular sportswoman, engaging in the likes of soccer, gymnastics and swimming before turning her attention to boxing by the age of 18, a role she combined with a spell working as a part-time waitress. After competing in her amateur event in January 2002, Holm soon emerged as one of the standout figures in the wild west of women’s boxing, claiming over 17 boxing championships over 11 years and being named as Ring Magazine’s female fighter of the year in both 2005 and 2006. Despite the high accolades however, there was an air of mystery that surrounded Holm in her boxing career; of her 38 professional fights, only three ever took place outside of New Mexico, whilst her unwillingness to take on some of the sports biggest names, in particular Norwegian superstar Cecilia Brækhus, lead some to question the legitimacy of Holm’s record as a fighter. For over two years, murmurings of a potential super-fight between Holm and Brækhus fluctuated throughout the boxing world, but just when it appeared that a breakthrough had been made, Holm made the decision that she was to retire from professional boxing, her attentions having been pulled in another direction by a new sport that had surrounded her for years – mixed martial arts.

Holm’s boxing career saw her claim 17 championships over the space of 11 years, earning her a place in the New Mexico Boxing hall of fame in 2013.

The Early MMA Years

When Holm made the announcement that she was to pursue a career in MMA, the reaction of most within the boxing community was one of scepticism and bemusement. Former heavyweight champion James Toney had attempted a similar transition into the sport two years previously, only to be humbled by UFC legend Randy Couture in a black mark moment for boxing on a whole, and there were fears that a similar fate could befall Holm should she decide to follow through with her transition to the Octagon. Unlike her contemporary however, Holm was much more prepared to make such a transition; prior to committing to a career in boxing, Holm had previously held an IKF Welterweight title in kickboxing, whilst her partnership with long-time coach Mike Winklejohn saw her welcomed into the illustrious Jackson Wink MMA academy in her hometown of Albuquerque. Over the next two years, Holm would enjoy spells competing in both the Bellator and Legacy fighting promotions, claiming victories over the likes of Strikeforce veteran Jan Finney in the process and on the 4th of April 2014 secured her first major MMA championship when she defeated Juliana Werner to claim the Legacy Bantamweight Championship. It wouldn’t be long before the UFC would come calling, signing Holm in July of 2014 on a reported five fight contract.

Holm made her UFC debut in February 2015, when she took on Bantamweight gate-keeper Racquel Pennington in the co-main of UFC 184. On paper, the fight seemed to be tailor made for Holm’s boxing derived credentials, Pennington’s passive, wrestling based approach allowed for Holm to build up a sizable number of points with methodical striking and strong takedown defence, but as the fight progressed it also became evident that Holm lacked the clinical edge required to see off the former Invicta fighter. Indeed, it was arguably Pennington herself who came close to finishing the fight, taking advantage of a slip to knock Holm down in the second, but Holm was able to recover and hold on for a deserved yet equally unsatisfying split decision victory. Her sophomore fight with Marion Reneau was much improved, but once again helped to showcase a lack of diversity and aggression within Holm’s stand-up game, a second judge’s decision doing little to win over an increasingly sceptical audience.  Even though MMA journalists were more sympathetic, the almost universal consensus was that Holm was still a long way away from being good enough to challenge the top brass of bantamweight division.

And then came an announcement that would go on to change her career forever.

Holm’s UFC debut against Raquel Pennington saw her claim a split decision win over the former Ultimate Fighter competitor, but also helped to raise questions about her abilities at the top level of the sport.

 

Ronda Rousey: UFC 193

On the 21st of August 2015, Ronda Rousey appeared on ABC’s Good Morning America that Holm would be the next contender for her women’s bantamweight championship; A fight initially scheduled for January, but later moved forward to November after a proposed Robbie Lawler fight was postponed due to injury. The announcement took many within the MMA community by surprise; Holm had looked far from the finished article in her first two UFC fights, while some experts expressed disappointment at the in-form Miesha Tate being overlooked in the title picture. For Rousey however, arranging the fight against Holm was seen as perfect sense; despite being a submission specialist, Rousey had begun to earn attention for her striking abilities in the Octagon, appearing on the front cover of boxing’s Ring Magazine and finishing her most recent opponent Bethe Correira with a flurry of strikes in just 36 seconds. A victory against the former boxing champion Holm would go a long way to cementing her status one of the most dominant combat fighters both in the UFC and mixed martial arts.

Whilst Rousey took the media circus to promote her upcoming fight, Holm remained a much more preserved figure, spending hours upon hours with the illustrious Jackson’s MMA training team working explicitly on neutralising Rousey’s Olympic level judo game. Holm declared that she had been preparing a game-plan to beat Rousey ever since her MMA career began in 2011, but few expected anything other then another Rousey walkover when she, Rousey and thousands of MMA personnel set off for Melbourne, Australia in November 2015.

Holm and bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey face off at the weigh-in of UFC 193. Rousey’s behaviour during the event sparked major criticism from many in the MMA media.

 

By the time the main event came around at the Etihad Stadium, UFC 193 had seemed like a comparatively run of the mill event. Home-town favourite Mark Hunt had secured a comprehensive victory over old rival Antonio ‘Bigfoot’ Silva, whilst women’s straw-weight champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk helped to improve her growing stature thanks to a one-sided decision win over Valérie Létourneau, but come the main event there was a feeling among the sold out crowd that the night was set to bring one final twist. For a fighter facing the biggest match of her career, Holm cut a figure of serene focus as she entered the Octagon, embracing her coaches and team personnel before slowly circling to appreciate the Australian crowd from the Octagon. Rousey meanwhile approached the ring in less then ideal fashion, looking bloated and overly agitated especially when compared to her normally meticulous self.

As referee Herb Dean called a start to the fight, Rousey looked to immediately cut off her New Mexico opponent, closing the with pace in an attempt to give herself room to engage in a clench. Holm however was wise to this, striking her opponent with a hard combination including a straight punch to the jaw the caused the champion to abandon her comparatively low key opening to the fight. Still stunned from the first shot from her opponent, Rousey began to make aggressive moves in an attempt to engage Holm in the clench, chasing Holm around the octagon with reckless abandon as Holm landed shot after shot on the champion from the distance. The only time the fight made it on the ground was through Holm herself, taking down Rousey with a crude double leg when the Californian made a rare break through the 34 year old’s defences. The second round started much in the same way was the first, with Rousey making increasingly desperate lunges at Holm all whilst taking further counter strikes to the head. Entering the second minute of the round, Rousey was bloodied and breathing heavily, as Holm swung a vicious left hand the way of her opponent.

“Oh beautiful. Beautiful, SHE’S HURT!” commentator Joe Rogan exclaimed as the shot forced Rousey to take a knee to the canvas. As the Californian attempted to regain her footing, Holm swung a left leg to the head of her opponent knocking Rousey fully off her feat and to the ground. Holm pounced on her opponent to a land a further few blows but the damage had already been done; Holly Holm had just become the new UFC women’s bantamweight champion, and done so in the most comprehensive fashion imaginable.

The kick heard around the world

 

As was to be expected, most of the aftermath following 193 was centred firmly on Rousey. Media commitments and poor preparations were both cited for reasons her defeat, as was her poor strategy in the fight itself. The term ‘trying to outbox a boxer’ one repeated with much regularity in the weeks and months following the fight. Media sources were also quick to start a dismantling of Rousey’s legacy; where once the Olympic medallist was considered a game-changing figure both within MMA and the wider sporting world in general, the party-line was now one that painted her as a figure of ridicule; a can fighter whose failings had been exposed the moment she had took on a true top level opponent, a statement which not only does a disservice to the qualities of Rousey but also top level names like Tate, Davis and Zingano whom Ronda had beaten in the years previously.

Holm’s abilities too were treated in similarly hyperbolic fashion; With most sporting upsets, be it a Leicester City, Buster Douglas or a Trevor Bayne, there is sometimes an air of cynicism over the successors abilities to achieve such a high profile victory in future match-ups, but such was the convincing and dominant nature of Holm’s victory that such an air of doubt never seemed to take place. Instead, Holm was touted by media journalists as the new face of women’s MMA, training partner Jon Jones lauded her as the greatest women’s striker of all time, whilst the normally rowdy Conor McGregor fans took to serenading her during the press conference of UFC 194.

As a champion, Holm also proved to be something of a refreshing change. Whilst Rousey’s brash and abrasive personality made her as much a figure of scorn as one of appraisal, Holm struck a much more affable and conservative figure, her rare media appearances demonstrating a refreshing humility, whilst also avoiding being caught up in the distractions that had played a part in Rousey’s downfall months earlier. Holm would be the first to admit she never had the media X-Factor in the way that Rousey did, but for her that was a sacrifice she was perfectly fine with accepting. She was a fighter, not a pretty face. Considering the scale of her victory over Rousey, the praise lavished onto Holm should have come as no surprise, but considering her less-then-stellar outings against both Pennington and Reneau the extreme nature of the accolades began to be seen as incredibly concerning, and by the time her home town of Albuquerque declared November 2015 as “Holly Holm month” the 34 year old had been placed on a pedestal that would eventually come to be her undoing.

Holm poses for cameras at a celebration event in her hometown of Albuquerque, declaring November 2015 “Holly Holm month” in celebration of her achievements.

 

Miesha Tate: UFC 196

Against the wishes of UFC president Dana White, Holm decided against an immediate rematch against Rousey and instead took on number one contender Miesha Tate in the co-main of UFC 196. Tate was seen by many as the logical choice for Holm’s first defence; the former Strikeforce champion had long been considered the best female bantamweight behind Rousey, whilst a run of four wins in her past four MMA fights meant that she gone to repair the damage caused from her one sided defeat to Rousey at UFC 168. Still riding her wave of post Rousey euphoria, Holm entered the fight as the bookmakers favourite, and was looking to send a comprehensive statement in a fight that was supposed to solidify herself as the new standout star of the bantamweight division.

Clad in champion black, it soon became clear that Holm would face a very different threat in Tate then what she did against Rousey in Australia; whilst Rousey’s all-action, gung-ho style played directly into Holm’s hands, Tate approached the opening round in a much cagier manner, forcing Holm into making most of the early running, and scraping the first round to a series of well-timed but largely ineffective strikes. Early in the second however, Tate managed to break Holm’s traditionally rock-solid defences and took her opponent to the ground for the first time in her UFC career. It was there that Holm showed an alarming lack of knowledge in the ground game, seemingly unable to react as Tate hammered down on her with a series of thunderous elbows. Tate came close to securing a rear naked choke late in the second, only for the klaxon to call an end to round and save a visibly relieved Holm from her precarious position.

When the fight reverted back to a standing game, Holm resumed her dominance, taking rounds three and four with relative comfort to give her a one point lead from all three judges, but the warning signs from her round two humbling on the ground still rang in Holm’s ears heading into the final round. Another takedown from Tate, and the fight, as well as her post Rousey legacy, could very well be turned on its head. For the majority of the final round, Holm successfully shrugged off each of Tate’s increasingly desperate takedown attempts, until with two minutes remaining Tate thrust her opponent to the ground and onto her knees. In her desperation to regain her footing, Holm inadvertently gave up her back to Tate, who then used the opportunity to once again for the neck of the preacher’s daughter. Realising she was in trouble, Holm attempted to judo-toss her opponent off her back, but only succeeded in allowing Tate to pull her to the ground and apply a full choke to the champion. Holm shrugged and squirmed as she fruitlessly attempted to fight off the pressure, her consciousness fading, Holm flung her fists aimlessly in reactive fashion before the pressure took its toll; the fight was over.

Holm struggles as Tate applies a rear naked choke in the closing stages of the fifth round. Holm’s refusal to tap out at the expence of her health sparked both praise and condemnation from MMA fans

 

In the aftermath of her defeat, views around Holm from mainstream and MMA media sources appeared to be staunchly mixed. Holm’s performance against Tate certainly did enough to justify her place in the top echelons of the division, but there was also an underwhelming feeling that her time at the top of Bantamweight pyramid had come to an end so soon. In the build-up to 196, Holm’s promotion and advertising had been built unsurprising around her status as Rousey’s conqueror, and how her victory was seen to be the catalyst for a new generation of female MMA fighters with her as the figurehead of the division. Losing in her first defence to one of Rousey’s victims lead to much of this good rapport being questioned; was her victory over Rousey truly a coming of age moment or rather the result of a lucky fighter taking advantage of a cocky and under-prepared opponent? On the whole however, the positive responses to Holm post 196 far outweight the negatives, and the general consensus was that a comfortable win in her next fight would see her slide firmly back into the main event picture.

 

Valentina Shevchenko: UFC on Fox 20

On paper, Valentina Shevchenko was seen as a perfect recovery fight for Holm. The Kyrgyzstan born fighter was coming off the back of her own defeat to Amanda Nunes at UFC 196, whilst her small build comparative to other bantamweights meant that there little chance of her troubling Holly should the fight ever be taken to the ground. The fight also marked a change in the way that Holm was marketed by the UFC; for her first four fights in the company the promotion of Holm had been comparatively restricted, be it as an under-card act for her matches against Pennington and Reneau or as the next anticipated victim of Rousey at 193.Even her title match against Tate at 196 ended up being overshadowed by the bravado and exhibitionism that came with the Nate Diaz and Conor McGregor match-up serving as the main event. For the Shevchenko fight however, Holm was pushed firmly to the front and centre of UFC marketing; giving the 34 year old the main event of the company’s illustrious Chicago Fight Night card, and with most of the promotion selling the event as the first step towards Holm’s quest to regain her lost crown. In the eyes of both the company and casual MMA fans, the Shevchenko match had switched from being one which Holm was in contention to win to by one she was expected to win, a peer pressure that Holm herself expressed concern towards in the days building up to the fight.

With over four million viewers tuning in for the main event, Holm started the match in confident fashion, setting the pace during the early stages of the fight and dropping her Peruvian opponent with a short right hand entering the middle stages of the first round. As the fight progressed however the momentum of the fight began to shift towards that of “The Bullet”, catching Holm with counter right hands over and over again and starting to find a home for the inside leg kick. Realising that she was falling behind with the judges, Holm started to take a more aggressive approach, utilising a more kick based attacking style to help turn the tide back in her favour. The move however was to no avail, as Shevchenko continued her slick counter-striking game to bludgeon and exhaust an increasingly desperate Holm throughout the third, fourth and fifth rounds. The counter attacking style that Holm had used so effectively against Rousey was now being used against her, and it came as little surprise when all three judges ruled the fight in favour of Shevchenko by 49 points to 46, and condemning Holm to a second successive defeat for the first time in her professional fighting career.

Holm’s loss against Shevchenko marked her second successive defeat in MMA, with all three judges scoring the contest 49 to 46 in favour of the Kyrgyzstan born fighter.

 

Whilst murmurings about Holm’s abilities had been around ever since her title loss to Tate at 196, the loss to Shevchenko helped to amplify these criticisms to extreme levels. The striking ability that had been so highly praised against Rousey at 193 was now dismissed as the tired techniques of a glorified points fighter, whilst the title victory itself was written off as a lucky break for a fighter undeserving of such an opportunity in the first place, comparisons between Holm and boxing one-hit-wonder James Douglas becoming increasingly prevalent during this time. Sadly for her, Holm was never given an immediate chance to answer these critics, as a hand injury sustained during the Shevchenko fight forced her out of action until the end of the year, and placing further scrutiny over her short term career heading into 2017.

 

Germaine De Randamie: UFC 208

After the Shevechenko fight, Holm found herself at something of a career crossroads; At the age of 35. the preacher’s daughter is one of the oldest fighters currently competing in the bantamweight division, and with this comes the inevitable concerns about her viability as a long term contender in the sport, particularly as her lack of speed was cited as a big factor in her defeat to Shevchenko back in July. Holm also faces the problem of attempting to enter a main event scene much more competitive then the one she left behind back in July; From once being the sole domain of Rousey, the Women’s Bantamweight Division as emerged as one of the most competitive and volatile divisions currently in the UFC, thanks in part to a new generation of fighters establishing themselves as top-level contenders. The dangerous Amanda Nunes holds the mantle of division champion, while names such as Juliana Pena and Valentina Shevchenko have put themselves in line for title opportunities in the future, and in the process left Holm as an afterthought in a division that she was expected to be the face of for years to come.

After a six month layoff, speculation began to mount over the next step in Holm’s MMA career. A fight against Bethe Correia was reported to be scheduled for January, while rumours of a potential super-fight with Cris ‘Cyborg’ Justino began to build momentum within the MMA community. It therefore came as something of a surprise when UFC president Dana White announced Holm in a title match for UFC 208, competing against Germaine De Randamie to crown the UFC’s inaugural Featherweight Champion. For Holm, the title announcement was something of a best case scenario; returning her to a main event picture which had been placed in jeopardy following her losses to Nunes and Shevchenko, while the opportunity to become the first female two-weight champion would do wonders in securing her long term legacy in the sport. The fight however also carries with it a number of unknown quantities; De Randamie is considered in some quarters to be one of the hardest strikers in women’s MMA but her company record up until this point has been largely mediocre, her three wins coming against fighters with an 0-6 record including an underweight an outclassed Anna Elmost in her most recent encounter at Fight Night 87. All the indications therefore seem to point to a Holm win, but then again many said the same thing prior to Tate and Shevchenko…

Holm takes on Germaine De Randamie for the UFC Featherweight Championship this Saturday. De Randamie currently has a 3-1 record in the UFC, with her most recent win coming last May.

Holm’s past two years in MMA has been a testimony to the reactionary nature that comes within MMA and in the wider sporting industry in general. Following her fights with Pennington and Reneau, Holm was dismissed as a green prospect fighter with many of the skills to succeed in MMA but still far from being considered a complete package. Her demolition of Rousey turned her into an unstoppable superwoman who just happened to be a really nice person when she wasn’t throwing head kicks, whilst her successive losses to Tate and Shevchenko has rendered her in the eyes of some as a washed up one-hit wonder with her best years as a fighter well behind her… this coming 12 months after she was branded as still a work in progress. And whilst I wouldn’t go as far as to write her MMA eulogy anytime soon, the need for her to get back to winning ways this weekend will be paramount if she to avoid becoming one of the sport’s more curious footnotes.

 

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