Holly Holm’s Octagon career has only just begun. | Photo: TJ De Santis/Sherdog.com
At some point during her foray into mixed martial arts, Holly Holm went from accomplished champion boxer with potential to Ronda Rousey’s next great foil.
It happened suddenly, and somehow, it also happened before Holm ever agreed to terms with the UFC. As the Jackson-Wink MMA standout made the rounds from New Mexico’s Route 66 Casino to the Bellator MMA prelims to Legacy Fighting Championship titlist, Rousey’s shadow loomed large, perhaps much larger than it should have for a relative novice to the sport.
Interest in the hypothetical reached a fever pitch when Holm’s manager, Lenny Fresquez, suggested that his fighter would need a six-figure payday and a fast track to a title shot if she were to ever join the Las Vegas-based promotion.
“The UFC doesn’t have anybody but maybe five girls who can give Holly competition,” Fresquez said in December 2013. “We’re just waiting for them to give us the right opportunity to fight Ronda Rousey, because we want a title fight.
“We’re looking for six figures, and there’s not too many fighters in the UFC that make six figures,” he continued. “Holly’s a franchise, as you can see. She’s not just your normal fighter; she’s more of a franchise. To be honest, I think she’d represent as the face of the UFC better than Ronda Rousey.”
From that point on, negotiations played out in a less-than-ideal public forum, as UFC President Dana White called Fresquez a “lunatic” and later asserted that the organization was “not interested whatsoever” in signing Holm following a meeting with the New Mexico-based manager. Perhaps Fresquez was more savvy than White realized, as the back-and-forth only served to raise Holm’s profile.
Eventually, cooler heads prevailed. “The Preacher’s Daughter” finally inked a deal with the UFC in the summer of 2014, a few months after capturing the Legacy FC bantamweight crown with a victory over Juliana Werner in her seventh professional MMA bout.
Holm was initially booked against “The Ultimate Fighter 18” cast member Raquel Pennington at UFC 181, but a neck injury suffered in training resulted in the bout being postponed. That delay only allowed the stars to align so that Holm made her Octagon debut against Pennington on the same UFC 184 card where Rousey would defend her title against Cat Zingano.
It seemed like the perfect showcase to audition for a future spot opposite the Olympic judoka, but pressure continued to mount as Holm’s first UFC appearance drew near, culminating with the announcement that her fight was going to be elevated to the co-headliner.
“Holly was good that last camp until all of a sudden she found out on the Internet that she was the co-main event,” longtime coach Mike Winkeljohn told Sherdog.com. “And that was a heavy load at the moment no matter what anybody thinks. It’s hard when you have all that pressure and everybody has all those expectations. You second guess everything you’re doing.”
“It builds up a lot,” Holm said. “We were talking about negotiations with the UFC before my last fight with Legacy. So it was just negotiation, all this hype and media for months. And then I finally signed. We talked about the first fight, finally set it up, injured myself with my herniated disc, had to postpone the fight.
“So then they said, ‘Well, we’re gonna put you on the same card as Rousey.’ I knew they were going to be comparing the two. That’s what promoters like to do is drop a little bit of hype. I knew that , so I’m like, ‘Well, we’ve already got all this going on. My first fight in the UFC, might as well just bring it on.’ [Then it got moved] to the co-main event, and at that point I was just numb to it... I felt like that was the longest training camp I’ve ever had because all the talk before I even had a fight, then having to postpone it even longer. I felt like I was talking about Raquel Pennington for months and months -- well, I was. It was a relief when the fight was over.”
It wasn’t that Holm’s performance against Pennington was bad. She won, after all, but the split-decision triumph was hardly the type of outing to strike fear into a champion who has made a habit of clocking out in less than a minute.
Unable to author the type of spectacular knockout that bolsters a contender’s portfolio, Holm was summarily dismissed by the hyper-critical MMA community as a viable threat to the reigning bantamweight queen. Of course, Holm never made any promises, because Conor McGregor-esque bluster just isn’t her style.
“[Before the fight] everybody said, ‘Do you think you’re going to live up to the hype? I said, ‘No,’” Holm recalled. “The movie that comes out that everybody talks about that is the most awesome movie, when you go watch it, it’s usually not as good as they say. If ou go check it out with no expectations it’s like, ‘Wow, that was good.’ I feel like that’s what it was.
“Everybody was expecting me to go in and do a head-kick knockout. There was a couple that would have been it, but I just skimmed her hair,” she added. “A fight can change just like that. You can be on an even playing field and one punch lands just right and it’s like, ‘Wow, look at that performance.’ I just figure I’m glad they’re talking about me. Because if they weren’t, then I wouldn’t be anything to look for.”
Perhaps those near misses were a blessing in disguise. If Holm had managed to produce anything nearly on par with Rousey’s 14-second submission of Zingano, the scene would have been set for the Albuquerque native to take center stage before she was truly ready.
“I’m glad that my best performance of my life wasn’t my first fight,” Holm said. “I’m glad that I know I have more to prove.”
Holm’s sophomore Octagon appearance will come with considerably less fanfare, as she faces Marion Reneau on the main card of UFC Fight Night “Mir vs. Duffee” at Valley View Casino Center in San Diego. It’s a card that takes place on a Wednesday evening, on the heels of UFC 189, the promotion’s most heavily-hyped event of 2015. Ronda Rousey is nowhere to be found. Neither, thankfully, are the premature comparisons that accompanied Holm’s rookie outing.
“It’s been nice. I’m not gonna lie,” Holm admitted.
Still, Holm knows that a different kind of expectation looms. As overwhelming as her initial UFC bout might have been, it is the type of environment she eventually wants to experience again, when the time is right. If she doesn’t deliver against Reneau, Holm could be relegated to also-ran status as quickly as she became a person of interest.
“There’s different feelings this time,” she said. “Before, there was a lot of anxiety about it and coming off of injuries. But this time it is more, ‘Well I know that I was hesitant in the first one so I better show more.’ So I still feel just as much pressure but in a different way -- and pressure I put on myself. I know that my performance wasn’t as I wanted it to be last time, so I need to do more.”
The Pennington bout was only Holm’s eighth as a pro, and despite her shortcomings there was plenty to like. Her ability to land combinations while moving in and out of danger was apparent in rounds one and two, and she stuffed all five of Pennington’s takedown attempts throughout the contest. On the flipside, naysayers will point out that Holm didn’t show knockout power, and a third-round slip by Holm looked worse than it was and was the fight’s last lingering image. (FightMetric.com does not credit Pennington with a knockdown.) That Holm has to quell doubters on the heels of a win is much better than the alternative.
Sometimes it can be easy to forget that Holm is still grasping the many intricacies of MMA. In her professional debut, Holm returned to her corner awaiting a standing eight count after scoring a knockdown. With her boxing days now completely in the rearview mirror, Holm’s skills remain a work-in-progress, but sometimes it’s difficult for that progress to match expectations.
“It’s coming along, and I feel better all the time in practice. But every fight gets harder too. I feel like I’m always on the fast track,” Holm said. “I didn’t get to have an amateur MMA fight. I had to hop right into it. I’ve only had [eight] fights in MMA ever -- and zero grappling tournaments. And people talk about fighting for the title, so I do feel like I’m on an accelerated path. But I don’t really want it any other way. I’d rather just take the challenge. I don’t want to be a paper champion.”
And don’t think for a second that the championship aspirations have subsided within Holm’s camp. While Winkeljohn is more measured than Fresquez, he has no doubts that his longtime pupil is on the right path.
“I think it will be next year. I think it’ll be a 2016 thing,” Winkeljohn said. “She’ll have that belt around her waist. I’m a believer in Holly Holm. She’s always overcome. She works harder than anybody in the gym.”
If Holm’s bandwagon is a little less full than it was five months ago, as a longtime combat sport athlete, she understands that comes with the territory. In the long run, it isn’t going to change her approach.
“I’ve had plenty of that pressure, and I’ve had a ton of negativity in boxing. It’s not something that ever bothers me. I’m gonna do it regardless of what people say. Most of the people behind the computers are not doing what I do and don’t understand it anyway,” she said. “It really has no effect on me.”
MMA history is littered with flash-in-the pan stars who burned out shortly after they arrived. Holm may not have made the greatest first impression, but in her mind, that only means the best is yet to come.