Holly Holm was shocked. So was much of the boxing world when she suffered a knockout defeat at the hands of Anne Sophie Mathis on December 2, 2011.
At the time, Holm held a 30-1-3 pro boxing record that included world titles in three weight classes. She was the pound-for-pound queen in the sweet science, with her only previous defeat coming via cuts more than seven years earlier.
But on that night in her hometown of Albuquerque, Holm had no answers for the French knockout artist.
“Basically, she knocked everybody out,” said Holm. “I was just the most recent one. She had these long punches that come at you, and then when they hit you, it feels like bricks are in her hands. Snapping punches can knock you out, too, but she had heavy, thudding punches.”
As stunned fans left the Route 66 Casino, Holm and her team were in the locker room as the 30-year-old got stitched up, but “The Preacher’s Daughter” was alone with her thoughts.
“That's when your mind starts going in the gutter,” said Holm. “You start doubting yourself. Then everybody was getting ready to go out and they asked if I was going to do the press conference. I said, absolutely, because if I don't start facing this now, I'm not gonna get better. I need to be real with myself. I got knocked out, and I've gotta change some things in order to get better and move forward. And the sooner I face it, the sooner I talk about it, the sooner I'm gonna be able to heal from it, move from it, learn from it and get better.”
The team filed out of the locker room. Holm got up to follow them in order to meet the press, but her longtime coach, Mike Winkeljohn, pulled her back and looked her straight in the eyes.
“Listen, we're gonna go out to this press conference.”
“They're gonna ask you if you want a rematch.”
“And you know what?”
“You're gonna say, ‘Hell, yes.’ Because guess what? Muhammad Ali was a champion, he got knocked down and he came back up and he's a legend.”
“Yes, I'm gonna come back and I'm gonna win.”
Winkeljohn had one last thing to say.
“You can beat her.”
Holm pauses, almost reliving the scene where she shook off a devastating defeat and began her comeback.
“In that moment, and I still think about it, it brings tears to my eyes,” said Holm. “By him saying that, right then, it gave me no room for my mind to be in the gutter and keep entertaining those negative thoughts. It put my mind right back on a positive track.”
Positivity has always been a hallmark of Holm’s personality, but it was then that anyone who needed a reminder found out that she was all-fighter.
Holm, a former UFC women’s bantamweight champion who will be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame as part of the Class of 2022 in June, got her rematch with Mathis, who had no hesitation in returning to Albuquerque for the return bout less than six months later. And while Holm’s coaches, family and close friends and teammates were firmly in her corner, there were more doubters than believers that she could turn the tide back in her favor.
“I don't judge anybody for it, but there were some people that were really close to me at the time, not so much anymore, that doubted me. And I can't have someone telling me, don't do this, you don't have to do this. By you telling me that, you're telling me that you don't think I can do it. That means you don't think I'm good enough and if you don't believe in me, that makes me feel weak and I don't need to be around people who are trying to drag me down. I need to be around people who are telling me, 'Hell yeah, get in there - you can do it.' Some people were like, ‘You're gonna retire, right?’ In my head, I was like, yeah, because you would. It gave me confidence in a way that I was doing something special. You wouldn't, but that's what separates me from you.”
That confidence, grit, and heart, along with plenty of skill, took Holm to the top of the boxing world and established her as one of the best to ever do it. And if the three divisional titles weren’t enough, how about recognition as The Ring magazine’s female fighter of the year twice and a 21-1-1 record in world title fights, the biggest of which came on June 15, 2012, when she scored a clear-cut unanimous decision over Anne Sophie Mathis.
“That was definitely my most defining moment in boxing, one hundred percent,” said Holm, who went on to defeat Diana Prazak and Mary McGee before retiring from boxing to make mixed martial arts a full-time endeavor. At 40, Holm is still in the hunt for another world title in the UFC, and as she sits at the number two spot in the 135-pound rankings, she could be a win away from a crack at regaining the title she took from Ronda Rousey in 2015.
It’s been quite a journey for someone who remains the only fighter, male or female, to win major world titles in boxing and mixed martial arts. That’s not something Holm takes lightly.
“I think one of the things that I take the most pride in is that I have been able to do it in two different sports, and that still has yet to be done by a male or female,” she said. “You see a lot of crossovers and I still have yet to see somebody else be able to come into a new sport and be able to be a world champion at the highest level. The competition that I have is the highest competition in women's MMA, and I was able to be a champion in that, and not in a smaller organization. My competition in boxing was always the highest level and I think in some of the most competitive weight classes, as well. And I feel the same in MMA - I feel like the 135-pound division is one of the most competitive weight divisions for women. 115 is as well. In women's MMA, I think those are the two most competitive divisions. I don't want to get to the end of my career and feel like I was a champion because I didn't have opponents who weren’t as competitive. I'm glad that I've had the toughest out there, and I still want to be the champ again and I'm still working for it. And this (getting into the IBHOF) makes me motivated to do more. I want to do the most I can for my legacy.”
And yeah, Holm does wonder sometimes how things would do go if she returned to the ring to face some of today’s best boxers.
“I think in order to be successful in any kind of combat sport, you have to have that pride and a little bit of ego in you,” she said. “I think that's the only way you're successful. You have to feel like you can go out and beat everybody in order to actually do it. So yeah, I think I still could go back over there and smash it. (Laughs) I want to show why I'm getting inducted, because I can still do it. I still evolved as a striker, even though it's been in MMA, and sometimes I'm curious. There are some things I would do different in boxing now, and I think it would be really fun to go over there and shock the world again. But I'm so focused on getting the belt back in MMA that I need to stick with it. I always said, stick to where your passion is highest and then you'll do the best. And my passion is still focused on my MMA championship run and I really want to get back to that belt, so I need to stay true to that. But it gives me fun daydreams sometimes, I guess.”
Holm laughs, content in the reality that she not only made it to the top in two sports, but that she did it the right way. No scandals, no bad press, just a fighter who fights. And to think she’s done it all with the same team in and out of the ring and Octagon that she started with.
“I just feel that when people have put their time and their passion into you and it has been working, you don't mess with that,” Holm said. “Any time I've had losses, it's not been because of my coaching, it's because my focus failed during the fight. Sometimes, and I would say sometimes meaning half the time, when fighters lose a fight, they go, ‘What went wrong?’ and they're looking at all these other reasons to point the finger at everyone else rather than looking at themselves. And if I ever lost a fight, I think, why did I lose? Okay, that's why, and my coaches told me not to do that. That's not their fault I lost, that's my fault. There's never been a fight that I went in that I did something they told me to do and it got me hurt. Not one time. Every time I did what they said I needed to do, I walked out with a victory. And any time I failed with my own focus is when it's been a loss. That, to me, is why I stayed loyal. They've always worked with me and I'm not gonna let them do all this work for all these years and then start to give credit to someone else when my whole background and all my coaching has been from these people who poured their heart and soul into my career, selflessly wanting me to succeed in my own dream. I don't have it in my heart to take anything away from what they've done.”
After hearing words like that, is it any wonder that in Albuquerque, which isn’t home to any NFL, NBA, MLB or NHL teams, Holm was the franchise when she was boxing?
“Yes, there's not any huge franchise sport here, but Albuquerque is such a supportive town when it comes to fighting and sports that I was able to have the career I did in boxing,” she said. “I fought girls from all over the world, and we were able to do it here, and they were even able to make more money than they could in their hometowns because Albuquerque is awesome.”
Awesome is a good word to use for Holly Holm’s combat sports career (let’s not forget she also competed as a kickboxer, as well. Simply put, she’s done something no one else has done, and she’s still chasing more. So getting selected for the International Boxing Hall of Fame? That’s not a surprise, even if it was to her at first.
“When it happened, I was taken off-guard,” she laughs. “It took me a second to go, wow, this is so cool. I really am super humbled and honored. I know that there's awards out there and I'm always super thankful for any of them, but this is definitely the pinnacle of a boxing award, so I'm super proud as well that all the hard work is acknowledged, and just to be considered in the same company as people that I idolized is huge.”