LAS VEGAS — Holly Holm has been down this road before. She’s entering a championship fight as a big underdog, with most of the attention directed toward her opponent.
She was as much as a 20-1 underdog at one point in 2015 when she went to Australia to face Ronda Rousey for the UFC women’s bantamweight title. That bout came at the height of Rousey-mania and Holm was treated as little more than an afterthought.
The pre-fight banter wasn’t so much about what Holm needed to do to hand Rousey her first defeat; rather, it was about how long she’d be able to last. Rousey entered that bout having won her three previous fights in 34, 14 and 16 seconds, and she’d only been out of the first round in one of her 12 fights.
Holm scored what ranks among the most shocking upsets in the sport’s history, when she shut down Rousey’s judo from the start and knocked her out with a head kick at 59 seconds of the second round.
It made her the first former boxing world champion to hold a major mixed martial arts title, but it created a level of celebrity for her that she wasn’t nearly prepared to handle.
“After she beat Ronda, her life changed dramatically at home,” her coach, Mike Winkeljohn, said. “There was a lot of pressure on her.”
Holm got divorced from Jeff Kirkpatrick, her husband of more than six years, and Winkeljohn said that has changed her. She’s back, he said, to being her old self again.
That is fortuitous timing, to say the least, because Holm once again is facing a championship bout in which her opponent is regarded as the greatest of all time, as Rousey was in 2015, and the odds are stacked against her.
She’ll meet Amanda Nunes for the women’s bantamweight title on Saturday at T-Mobile Arena in the co-main event of UFC 239 as a 4-1 underdog, but she’s ready, Winkeljohn said, to shock the world yet again.
“She’s as good as ever if not better than,” he said.
Holm has had a rough go record-wise since she beat Rousey. She’s lost four of six since and hasn’t won back-to-back fights.
She was choked out in the waning seconds of her first title defense by Miesha Tate, then lost close decisions to Valentina Shevchenko and Germaine de Randamie. After an impressive head kick knockout of Bethe Correia in Singapore on June 17, 2017, that brought back memories of her win over Rousey, she was beaten at UFC 217 in a featherweight title fight by Cris “Cyborg” Justino.
Without much changing, she could have won three of those four fights, but isn’t willing to do anything but accept blame for the way she fought on those nights.
“I just need to make it happen, and that’s the bottom line and there are no ifs, ands or buts about it,” she said. “I need to make it happen. I had the opportunity in front of me and I didn’t make it happen while the fight’s going. I’m not going to sit here and make any excuses for my other fights.
“I could have made those fights victories, and I didn’t. That’s what I’m going to do different in this fight. [I’m going to make it happen.]”
Holm is a winner. She was 33-2-3 as a boxer with nine knockouts and won world titles in three weight classes. She’s 12-4 in MMA and held the UFC women’s bantamweight belt for five months.
Things could be a lot different for her had she won some, if not all, of her four losses in the UFC. She was clearly ahead of Tate when she made a mistake and got choked unconscious with 90 seconds left.
She lost a tight stand-up battle with Shevchenko, who is now the women’s flyweight champion, then lost a decision in a bout for the featherweight title to de Randamie that many believe she should have won.
Cyborg pulled away to win their match, though it was competitive enough that it was chosen as Fight of the Night. Still, Holm believes it was a winnable fight.
“One thing a lot of people have asked me after my losses is how I’ve been able to keep myself mentally strong,” Holm said. “Well, none of those fights were me just getting handled. All of my losses have been close and so I know I’m there and I know I’m capable of beating these girls. What I did not do is capitalize.
“I look back at those fights and think, ‘I could have done this,’ or ‘I should have done that,’ but everything is super clear in hindsight. You need to learn from it and move forward and that’s what I’m going to do.”
Winkeljohn said that he’s identified what he called “some small things she’s been doing we have to stop and have tried to fix,” and expects those who are doubting Holm to be surprised on Saturday by the way she performs.
Nunes is a healthy 4-1 favorite and, coming off of a 51-second knockout of Cyborg, is on an all-time high. He suggested much of it is mental for Holm.
He said there are plenty of parallels between the Rousey fight in 2015 and the Nunes fight on Saturday.
“It’s the exact same thing,” Winkeljohn said of the build-up to the two fights. “Holly, when she’s an underdog, rises to the occasion. When she’s a favorite, it’s kind of weird, but there’s this weird dynamic with her where it’s not the same. But let me tell you: She’s ready to shock the world for a second time. I know I’ll put money on it.
“Holly is so hard on herself and she wants to do everything perfectly. She gets so mad at herself and she’s constantly upset if she’s not perfect. Holly will start crying. It has nothing to do with her herself and what she expects from herself. … But I think the dynamic in her personal life has changed and that’s bleeding into her performance. We’re seeing the old Holly and that’s a good thing.”
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