HOLLY HOLM paced back and forth in the Octagon placed in the middle of Etihad Stadium in Melbourne, Australia. From one side to the other, she paced, fast, steady, almost robot-like.
Over 56,000 people had shown up to see Holm face Ronda Rousey for the UFC women’s bantamweight title on November 15, more fans than had ever seen “The Preacher’s Daughter” fight in a boxing ring, where she won multiple titles in three weight classes and reigned atop the pound-for-pound list for much of her 11-year career.
But this was a new arena, both literally and figuratively, and Holm was about to face a mixed martial arts juggernaut who had won her previous three fights in a combined 64 seconds. Rousey was the new Mike Tyson, and Holm was apparently Frank Bruno making the sign of the cross over and over as he was led to slaughter in his 1996 rematch with “Iron” Mike.
Holm wasn’t nervous, though. She wasn’t intimidated by her surroundings or the task ahead. She was just getting warmed up.
“I really like a long warm-up in the locker room,” Holm said.
“I like to get a good sweat going and it takes me a while to warm up. But there’s so much time from when you finish warming up to when you start to fight, and I like to stay warm. It’s that simple. Everybody’s like ‘oh my gosh, you’re wasting so much energy.’ And I’m thinking, if I can’t pace for 10 minutes,
I’ve got a problem! I’m not in quite good enough shape for a fight if I can’t pace for 10 minutes.”
Holm didn’t need 10 minutes to beat Rousey in the main event of UFC 193. It only took five minutes
and 59 seconds for the Albuquerque native to break the former Olympic bronze medallist in judo down and then send her crashing to the canvas with a flush kick to the head.
For the first time in combat sports history, an athlete had won a major boxing title and a UFC championship, and her name was Holly Holm.
“After I was landing a few good straight lefts, I knew that I had it if I didn’t lose focus,” Holm said during the New York stop of a postfight media tour. “Anything can happen in there, and I didn’t want to let down my guard, thinking that this is going to be an easy task, because there’s no way that would be an easy task to take down Ronda Rousey. So I did feel confident in being able to time her, and I just needed to make sure to stay focused and not put my guard down at any time. I thought if there’s a good opening, just take it, and there wound up being the opening, so I went for it.”
Media tour. There was no such thing for Holm during her days as a professional boxer, but here she was, visiting national talk shows, appearing on ESPN and being interviewed by major media outlets in the United States and being celebrated for her magnificent upset.
The pinnacle was a parade in her hometown on December 6 that was attended by over 20,000 people.
Most casual fans knew that Holm was a decorated boxer before she made her way to mixed martial arts and the UFC, but that was the extent of their knowledge of her past.
As far as they were concerned, her only claim to fame was that she was the woman who beat Ronda Rousey.
But if you believe in karma, then this day was inevitable for one of the classiest fighters in the UFC today. She is a living, breathing example of someone who paid their dues in their sport, only to receive little reward from it.
It’s the typical story in women’s boxing, but at least Holm was able to make a living at it, as she became almost like a sports franchise in Albuquerque. With long blond hair and an affable personality, Holm was the girl next door as she transitioned from kickboxing – which she began studying with her longtime and current coach Mike Winkeljohn, to boxing – making her debut in 2002.
A smart boxer who made good use of her long frame to create distance and control the pace and location of fights, Holm compiled a 10-1-2 record, and became the IBA superlightweight champ, but she didn’t create many ripples on the national or international scene until Christy Martin came to Albuquerque in September 2005.
Dwarfing Holm in experience and notoriety, Martin’s only loss in the previous six years had been to the much larger Laila Ali, but Holm added another defeat to the record of “The Coal Miner’s Daughter,” nearly shutting her out over 10 rounds. To this day, Holm considers that night one of the seminal moments of her career, even comparing it to the win over Rousey, which has supplanted the Martin win as the biggest of her career.
Ironically, Holm now has victories over the only two female fighters to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
“It was a big moment to beat Christy Martin when I only had 13 fights,” Holm said.
“I was still a baby fighting back then. So I guess it just depends on the time, because that was a moment that helped prepare me for this one. I feel that this moment is at its highest because she (Rousey) has been more dominant than Christy was with her opponents. And that was with Ronda fighting a lot of the top fighters. She has this big judo background, tons of tournaments, an Olympic medal, and she’s been running through everybody. So I feel like the reason this might be a little bigger for me is that she was
more dominant, yet I dominated her.
“So I have to say this is the biggest moment so far. I’m not finished with my career, so we’ll see what happens.”
For more than six years after the Martin bout, Holm didn’t lose. Her 20-fight winning streak added welterweight and super-welterweight titles, as well as victories over Mary Jo Sanders, Belinda Laracuente, Chevelle Hallback, Jane Couch and Mia St. John.
By 2011, the chatter in the world of women’s boxing was all about a fight between Holm and unbeaten welterweight champion Cecilia Braekhus of Norway.
Yet as Holm prepared for a December 2011 fight against Anne-Sophie Mathis, she was being pulled in another direction by a new sport that had surrounded her for years – mixed martial arts.
Holm fought in two MMA fights in 2011, winning both by knockout, and she was so smitten with the sport that she hinted to team-mates that the end of her boxing career might be near. Then she got viciously knocked out in seven rounds by Mathis and everything changed – at least for the moment.
“In 2011, when I had MMA and boxing, my mind was set on being a champion in both, because no fighter has done that, male or female,” she recalled in February.
“And that’s where my excitement was. I thought, I’m gonna do both. I had an MMA fight, then a boxing fight, MMA, then boxing. And that last boxing fight in December (2011) was when I got knocked out (by Mathis).
“Before that fight, I thought if I win this fight and then I go and fight Cecilia, that would have been the pinnacle of it, and maybe after that I could completely be done with boxing and feel complete with it. That’s what I get for looking too far ahead.”
Ever the competitor, Holm wanted a rematch with Mathis and got it, avenging her loss via decision seven months later, and after shutting out Diana Prazak in December 2012, talks of a Braekhus superfight heated up again.
Negotiations between both camps dragged out, and while the fight seemed to be close to being finalised, it didn’t happen, and in early 2013, Holm announced that her May bout with Mary McGee would be her last. She was going to become a full time MMA fighter.
“I told my coach, I’m having a hard time switching back,” Holm said shortly after the announcement.
“I’m really excited about MMA and I think this might be my last boxing fight. Cecilia’s camp had called with some offers for a fight, and my passion is just really in MMA.
“I’m really excited about it, and it’s scary. It’s an unknown path and an unknown world to me. It’s not totally foreign, but it’s definitely not something I’ve been able to put a lot of time into, and I really want
to make a go at it. And if my heart’s just there, then I need to follow that. And that’s when I came to this conclusion and this decision.”
Holm beat McGee over 10 rounds, retired as super-lightweight champion, and resumed her MMA career. In July 2014, she signed with the UFC, and after two wins in the Octagon, it was announced that she would be fighting Rousey, something that didn’t sit well with many hardcore MMA fans.
Those fans assumed that the newest invader from the sweet science would go the way of future Hall of
Famer James Toney, who was famously (or infamously) defeated in a little over three minutes by Randy Couture in 2010.
What they didn’t realise was that Holm had started her combat sports career as a kickboxer, had been around MMA her entire career, and that with Rousey relying more and more on her boxing and less on her judo and submission game, the idea of the champion wanting to trade with Holm was a distinct possibility.
And that’s just what happened. Outside of two brief grappling skirmishes, this war was waged on the feet, and while Holm used her boxing to create distance and counter Rousey’s rushes, it was her feet and her kickboxing attack that ultimately set up the finishing blow.
It was the ultimate ‘I told you so.’ Not just to the MMA fans that doubted her, but to the boxing world that never treated her the way male fighters of comparable quality would be treated.
There were no million dollar paydays in boxing, no magazine covers, no worldwide recognition. But the 34-year-old wasn’t about to look back or hold grudges.
For Holm, fighting has always been about one thing, and once she gets that, everything else is just a perk of the job: “I just love the win. That’s what I’m enjoying about this moment, that everything I’m doing is just a little reminder that it’s because of the victory.”