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UFC 193 on Saturday at Etihad Stadium in Melbourne, Australia, was every bit the historic event it was billed as being. It set the new all-time attendance record for the Ultimate Fighting Championship; it hosted the first former boxing champion to cross over and win UFC gold; and oh yeah, Ronda Rousey lost.
It’s only right that a historic event ended with an upset for the ages. For my money, it’s the biggest upset in the history of the sport. Of course, Matt Serra beating Georges St. Pierre and Fabricio Werdum submitting Fedor Emelianenko are acceptable options, as well, but Holm overcame a mountain of doubt in completely non-fluky fashion.
It’s pretty uncontroversial to say Serra got lucky, and he went on to get decimated in the rematch. As for Emelianenko, his loss was the first stumble in the downward spiral of his career; he was clearly getting older and in the twilight of his prime. However, Rousey is still young, and she was completely trounced in all phases of the fight. Before the fateful head kick, Holm shrugged herself out of the clinch, defended and escaped an armbar and even took down the incumbent champion. There is almost no silver lining for Rousey: She was thoroughly beaten from the opening bell to her canvas face plant.
It’s said that experience is something you don’t know you don’t have until you get it, and that failure is the best teacher. Both of these lessons apply to Rousey, who crumpled under the record-setting stadium lights. Still, there are more lessons to be learned from the event. Here are some of them:
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1. Dominance is a double-edged sword.
It was painfully apparent that Rousey had no real game plan in the fight. She had never needed one before; eventually she gets her hands on her opponents, flips them on their backs and finds the finish. Rousey got her hands on Holm, and nothing happened. From there, Rousey snuck in some patchy offense, but she was never able to make the necessary adjustments. I don’t think she knew how to -- it’s a skill she has never needed before because she laid waste to everyone else so effortlessly.
Make no mistake, this was no Buster Douglas scenario. Mike Tyson, for all his dominance, met and overcame adversity long before the infamous upset -- namely, his win over James Tillis, the crafty veteran who was the first person to go the distance with “Iron Mike.” Tillis was the vehicle through which Tyson proved that he was not just a power puncher and that his boxing was technical enough to win when he couldn’t get the knockout.
I genuinely thought Holm was going to be the Tillis to Rousey’s Tyson, and I was expecting to write about that parallel. Instead, Rousey looked tired and lost when Holm didn’t stick to the script. I won’t go so far as to say Rousey got caught up in her own hype. She’s a consummate professional and too fierce a competitor to let herself slip like that. To me, it’s more likely that her dominance arrested her development and she simply lacked the necessary tools to make mid-fight adjustments. Quick, easy finishes made her a star, but they also set up her undoing.
2. Women’s MMA is in good shape.
I’ve never felt so comfortable saying this, but women’s MMA is bigger than Rousey. Holm’s arrival warrants as much. More important than that, though, is the burgeoning star of Joanna Jedrzejczyk. Her unanimous decision against the gritty Valerie Letourneau was masterful, even if it wasn’t as viscerally compelling as her previous fights.
Letourneau is a well-rounded grinder who often wins through punishing attrition. She’s not an easy fighter to look good against in the cage. Though Letourneau gave the champ fits sporadically, Jedrzejczyk never missed a step; she looked as crisp in the fifth round as she did in the first. We’ve seen the dynamic output that allows Jedrzejczyk to end fights instantaneously, and now we know she’s capable of expanding that into a five-round process without fading. If you’re a fan of technical violence, she’s as good as it gets. This is to say nothing of her charming personality and infectious enthusiasm.
On top of the two newfound stars of women’s MMA, UFC President Dana White announced that the company is looking to institute a women’s flyweight division. This will likely happen later than sooner, since the potential of bottoming out the thin bantamweight division is too risky to make it immediately viable. Still, when it eventually happens, it opens up a vacuum for the next female star to take the stage.
Rousey pushed women’s MMA into mainstream consciousness, but until recently, her dominance was also seen as a liability, as many believed that nobody would tune in unless she was on the card. Now, there are other recognizable names, and that’s a good thing.
3. Fighting is not an individual sport.
It has long been speculated that Edmond Tarverdyan has a lot less to do with Rousey’s success than the former champ admits. No other MMA fighters from the Glendale Fighting Club stable have prospered meaningfully, and even previously successful fighters like Travis Browne have shown no discernible improvements from training with him. The magnitude of Rousey’s success, however, validated Tarverdyan, at least enough to muzzle those suspicions. That muzzle has now been ripped -- err, kicked off.
Without question, Rousey’s striking was painfully ineffective against Holm. Keep in mind, striking is supposedly Tarverdyan’s primary wheelhouse. It would have been foolish to expect Rousey to strike on Holm’s level -- Holm has a decade plus of a head start -- but you’d expect that someone with the professed expertise of Tarverdyan would be able to minimize that disparity so Rousey could play to her strengths.
Despite all the proclamations that Rousey’s striking was an ever-evolving threat, there has really been zero evidence of it. Knocking out the embarrassingly un-athletic Bethe Correia was fine and all, but other than that, when did Rousey ever really win a striking exchange? Ripping off speedy combinations on focus mitts is one thing, but Holm exploited what every analyst knew all along: Rousey’s defensive striking is bad. Against Holm, it was really bad.
Holm is not a superior overall technician, nor is she a superior athlete. However, there is no denying that she was much better prepared than Rousey when the cage door closed. That’s a testament to the huge difference between training with tried-and-true kingmakers Greg Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn and operating under the suspect tutelage of Tarverdyan. Rousey has gone on record to extol the virtues of training judo with a host of different coaches growing up. The writing is on the wall, and it’s time to do the same with MMA.
4. Sometimes, being wrong is beautiful.
This is what sports are all about. That’s a clichéd sentiment, I know, but when MMA is on, it’s electrifying. Few serious analysts thought Holm had much of a chance. Personally, I was self-conscious about my prediction that Holm would make it to the third round. Yet somehow, the woman who looked underwhelming against Marion Reneau and downright impotent against Raquel Pennington was able to shatter MMA’s most indestructible avatar.
Times like these make fandom worth it. For a brief moment, a fight feels larger than just a fight, and the experience of watching is both more human and more something-else all at once. From the schadenfreude of seeing a cocky fighter get his or her comeuppance to the frustration of seeing a larger-than-life icon fall from grace, this is why we watch.
Sometimes, answers beget more questions, and the act of questioning itself is a more valuable learning experience than the actual knowledge gained. We got plenty of answers at UFC 193, but they only lead to more unknowns. We don’t know if Holm’s monumental upset is a harbinger of a new era in women’s MMA or if it will be the backdrop for an epic comeback narrative for Rousey. Whatever happens, I’ll be watching.