Before being signed by the UFC, Holly Holm was already a combat sports star, possessing 16 world titles in professional boxing and a record of 32 wins and only two losses, along with vast experience as a kickboxer. Her credentials to enter the Octagon with the world’s most famous MMA organization were impeccable.
Since arriving at UFC 184, where she debuted in the co-main event against Raquel Pennington, Holm was a target of Ronda Rousey. After she famously dismantled Cat Zingano in 14 seconds at UFC 184 without even being touched, Rousey said: "I'd love to try my striking against Holly Holm.”
Following their respective bouts at Staples Center, Rousey received ovations and compliments, while adding to her reputation as one of the world’s most dominating athletes, " Holm, meanwhile, was heavily critiqued by MMA fans and the media who expected more of an impact performance in her UFC debut.
In her next fight against Marion Reneau at UFC Fight Night San Diego, Holm was decidedly more comfortable in the Octagon, working to score points and earning the unanimous decision victory. Still, the absence of a KO gave critics an opening to speculate that Holm might not deliver a beating to Rousey whenever the two finally faced each other.
However, the scenario could not have been better for Holm, who was not seeking to display dominance, but rather win fights as she approached her title shot. According to her trainer Mike Winkeljohn, Holm never fully displayed all her skills in her first two UFC bouts.
Regardless, the Preacher's Daughter quickly became well-known in her division and was projected to be the next challenger in line for the undefeated Rousey.
When Rousey vs. Holm was officially announced, criticism erupted even more. Media and fans did not hesitate to make jokes, comments and even negative predictions about the outcome: Rousey, the favorite, was widely projected to need a matter of seconds, if not minutes, to destroy Holm, who was viewed as one of the biggest underdogs in UFC history.
All bets were against her, but Holm and her team at Jackson-Winkeljohn MMA had a secret weapon that the world would soon know.
Through many of her fights, the Rousey puzzle seemed unsolvable to her many defeated opponents. However, Holm found the missing piece that eluded so many.
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While Rousey appeared virtually unstoppable in the Octagon, often ending her fights in a matter of seconds by knockout or submission, Holm and her coaches, Greg Jackson, Izzy Martinez and Winkeljohn, were studying between the lines. In their eyes the champion was dangerous but not unbreakable, and instead had many flaws in her execution that could be exploited.
Rousey's forte was in judo and keeping the fight close. Holm’s approach to her opponents was less technical and more aggressive; with her experience in boxing, she was a specialist in long distance fighting and keeping constant movement around the Octagon to avoid being clinched, and perhaps demolished.
At the same time, Rousey had gained confidence with her striking. Three wins by KO/TKO, against Sara McMann in 66 seconds; Alexis Davis in 16 seconds; and Bethe Correia in 34 seconds, reinforced the notion that the judoka possessed the most devastating striking reputation in the entire division. Scenes of Rousey furiously hitting pads with her trainer Edmond Tarverdyan also provided the champion a fun way to show off the quality of her fists and, perhaps, intimidate her rivals.
It was clear that Rousey hit hard. However, there was a technical difference between merely hitting hard and established boxing technique. Could Rousey do more than just punch? Holm wanted to answer that question and instead of being intimidated by her opponent securing finishes in seconds, she hoped to benefit from Rousey’s desire to test her striking throughout the encounter.
The confidence of "Rowdy" was high, but Holm and her team saw deficiencies in Rousey’s defense, with little training in the use of footwork and cutting angles, and most importantly, the fact she had never been fully hit by a natural striker. That was the primary objective of Holm, to defeat the indomitable champion, beat her as no one had done.
With publicity and criticism mounting around her personal life, combined with her busy schedule of media and film obligations, Rousey’s mind may have been overloaded as the undisputed queen of the 135-pound division was heading toward the end of her reign. Conversely, the most technically and mentally strong fighter she had ever faced, Holm, was basking in a world free of distractions, and filled with wonderful hospitality from the Melbourne, Australia fans.
We all know the outcome. Lying on the canvas is Rousey. In the background, Holm celebrates with her coaches, alternating between tears and smiles, the perfect finale of a spotless strategy that wrote an important chapter in UFC history. The "impossible" was reality, but how did it did it materialize?
Holm solved the game. She knew what was right and what was wrong; in that sense, the main objective was to get Rousey out of her element, where her judo was strong, and to expose her weaknesses, which lay in the movement and striking.
Meanwhile, "Rowdy" knew "The Preacher's Daughter" was a master at staying away and hitting from a distance, so the champion had to apply pressure to the melee. During the fight, a moving, aggressive Rousey was intent on catching Holm by surprise, a strategy Holm knew she could neutralize with a fast, accurate and dynamic counter attack.
Holm, a southpaw, began to frustrate Rousey midway through the first round after defending an armbar attempt, the infallible weapon that had given Rowdy the edge in so many victories. Holm was the second woman to successfully defend this technique after Miesha Tate.
Holm continued jabbing and moving, while Rousey increasingly fell behind. Feeling perhaps desperate after losing the first round, Rousey followed the advice of her coaches to “apply pressure,” and she sank deeper into the strategy of her challenger. Rousey thought she was determining the pace, not realizing that it was actually Holm who was leading Rousey to move forward against her jabs and her power. No matter which direction the champion moved, she never stayed out of the center line of her rival, which made it easier for Holm to attack.
At the end of the first five minutes, Rousey had been taken to a place where she had never been before: Beaten and bleeding, fatigued, and unable to control her technique. Hands down and mouth open, leading to a weaker jaw that could not withstand punishment. Without the effectiveness of judo, her most lethal weapon, and facing the finest striker she had ever encountered, Rousey was increasingly in danger and she knew it.
For her part, Holm continued executing and did not lose focus, and in the second round had measured the timing of her rival ensure that her attack was even more effective. Holm did not waste time and in the 59 seconds that encompassed Round 2, she was not touched at all by Rousey.
Holm kept her distance, then finally threw the head kick that she promised would shock the world. Down went Rousey, while Holm and her coaches celebrated the successful strategy of an underdog who
Lying on the floor is Ronda Rousey. Holly Holm background celebrate with their coaches the success of the strategy of an underdog who quietly worked her way to what Dana White called the biggest upset in UFC history.
What strategy will Holm bring Saturday against Miesha Tate, another striker, in her first title defense? Watch UFC 196 to find out.
Cristian Villegas is a digital producer for UFCEspanol.com