On February 28th, the Octagon heads to Los Angeles’ Staples Center for UFC 184 with the women’s bantamweight division taking center stage in both the main and co-main events.
Headlining this stacked card is a battle of the unbeatens as the one and only UFC women’s bantamweight champion, “Rowdy” Ronda Rousey, will put her title on the line against the unquestionable #1 contender “Alpha” Cat Zingano. In the co-main slot, undefeated striking sensation Holly Holm will make her highly-anticipated Octagon debut against the always rough-and-ready “Rocky” Raquel Pennington from The Ultimate Fighter 18.
With the Pay-Per-View event a little over a week away, the four headliners got on the phone to talk with the ever-inquisitive MMA media about their upcoming matchups. While many of these press engagements result in verbal sparring sessions between the contracted opponents, the fighters in attendance showed nothing but respect and mutual admiration, with the current champ Rousey being at the tip of the complementary spear.
“At this point, Cat is the greatest challenge,” Rousey said. “I solve the fight as it happens. I know Cat brings so many weapons to the table. Not just the way she fights, but the way she endures. It’s impressive. She’s one of those people who needs to be finished to the very end. There isn’t one clear cut way to finish it. That’s what makes it so exciting. I will find a way.”
Touting a 10-0 pro record, including nine first-round submissions, the Rowdy one is coming off an utterly dominant year inside the Octagon where she finished both of her challengers with strikes in a combined 82 seconds. It’s borderline insane to imagine Rousey being any better than that, but the champ believes she is in superior physical shape than she has ever been in because of her knee surgery in August.
“I feel better than I did when I was 16 years old when I had my first knee surgery,” Rousey said. “I’m perfectly healthy and in better shape than ever before. And I can feel my body is itching to fight again.”
As for the heralded challenger, Zingano has earned this title shot twice and both times were via third-round TKOs. Originally, the Coloradan made her Octagon debut at the Ultimate Fighter 17 Finale in a title eliminator against Miesha Tate, where Zingano stopped the former Strikeforce women’s bantamweight champion with knees and elbows. A torn ACL plus complications from the surgery sidelined Zingano for an epic 532 days, which came to a conclusion when she finished Amanda Nunes and improved her pro record to 9-0.
“I’m different,” Zingano said. “I know she knows that and I know the promotion knows that. I have to go out there with my intensity and aggression and show everyone that. I know that I go out there and make it work. I am a bigger, better fighter and I get better every time. What do I have to lose? I’m at the top and there is nowhere else to go. Being the underdog, I like that. I’ve got a lot to prove. It forces me to be authentic and pull out my best stuff.”
The other featured struggle at 135 pounds is a clash between the irresistible force of Holm versus the immovable object of Pennington. Once slated for UFC 181, the former withdrew due to an injury while the latter would go on to secure a highlight-reel submission finish.
After splitting the difference in her first two UFC bouts, Rocky silenced some critics by slapping a fight-ending bulldog choke on Ashlee Evans-Smith with only a second remaining in the first round. It was a great win and a huge step in the right direction, but Pennington knows many are counting her out of this bout before it starts and it is her job to prove that she is ready for the bright lights of a co-main event.
“Regardless of Holly’s hype train getting us there, my work has paid off and I deserve to be there,” Pennington said. “It’s exciting. If you put that pressure on yourself it kind of plays a part. I feel like it’s only made me progress that much more and be prepared even more for the fight next week.”
Finally, making her Octagon debut against Rocky is Team Jackson’s stand-up savant, “The Preacher’s Daughter” Holm. The punching protégé of the great striking coach Mike Winkeljohn, Holm has ran roughshod over her MMA competition thus far by amassing a 7-0 pro record, including six striking stoppages with five of those stemming from kicks. It’s far from just her feet one has to worry about, as Holm was a multiple-time pro boxing champion sporting a 33-2-3 record across an illustrious 13-year career.
“I’m super proud of everything that I experienced in boxing,” Holm said. “If you’re a female boxer then you are in it just because you love it and I think there should be more of a following for it. I did boxing because of passion and I do MMA because of passion. It is amazing to see how much more attention and following and support there is for women’s MMA. Women's boxing has had its up and downs. I feel like women’s MMA is at a point where you can’t ignore it and I think that’s great.”
At UFC 184 in Los Angeles, the women’s bantamweight belt will be up for grabs as Rousey collides with Zingano and a pair of possible future contenders will tangle as Holm faces Pennington.