Virtually every time Saturday that Holly Holm would begin to discuss how she was able to take apart Ronda Rousey at UFC 193 and win the women’s bantamweight championship in one of the sport’s biggest upsets, tears welled in her eyes and her voice cracked.
Few outside of her team and her closest circle of friends and family gave her much of a chance to eke out a win, let alone to pummel the previously unbeaten Rousey.
The highly anticipated title fight was one-sided in Holm’s favor from start to finish. Holm’s boxing was too much for Rousey. Holm was able to neutralize Rousey’s judo and vaunted ground game. It was Holm who was the picture of calm, while Rousey seemed unusually antsy and nervous.
Rousey walked to the corner at the end of the first round a champion in name only at that point. Holm had beaten the fight out of her in the first five minutes. A former boxing champion at three weights, Holm understands the importance of controlling distances and angles.
She snapped her jab repeatedly into Rousey’s face. She caught her charging in with a powerful straight left hand. Several times, Holm clipped Rousey with a standing elbow that would have been the envy of many a Muay Thai fighter.
Everything she tried, worked.
And it worked because she’s in one of the sport’s best camps, and her coaches, Greg Jackson, Mike Winkeljohn and Izzy Martinez, figured out how to use Holm’s strengths to her advantage.
“I spent more time in the gym than I did before any fight in my life,” Holm said.
She left boxing to pursue MMA, with the dream of one day getting to the UFC. But she took it slow and wasn’t eager to jump into a major bout before she was ready. She was just 2-0 in the UFC heading into the bout against Rousey, who was 12-0 and had created an aura of not only invincibility, but also inevitability, around herself.
The three months since the fight was announced were an emotional roller coaster for her.
Most of Rousey’s opponents are beaten before the bell rang, intimidated by her reputation and her string of quick finishes. Rousey is super aggressive and always storms out of the corner. It makes it uncomfortable for the opponent right off the start, having to try to find a way to fend her off and get into some kind of rhythm.
Rousey’s previous opponents were unable to withstand the furious opening assault and get settled into a routine. Holm, though, handled it perfectly, using Rousey’s aggressiveness against her.
UFC president Dana White made a good point a few days after the fight was announced that he reiterated Saturday.
Though Rousey entered the bout 12-0 in MMA compared to 9-0 for Holm, Holm was vastly more experienced. She was 33-2-3 as a boxer and 2-1 as a pro kickboxer. Her overall fighting record was 44-3-3, and she’d been in the middle of the storm before.
“[She was] cool as cool can be,” White said of Holm. “She’s been here a million times. This girl has had 45, or 40-something fights, and she’s held many world titles. She’s been in big fights like this before. She’s been here before. This wasn’t new to her.”
She had her ups and downs in practice, she admitted, and said there were times she walked out of JacksonWink MMA in Albuquerque, N.M., after what she felt was a poor practice and sat in her car and cried.
She didn’t, though, let the bad days destroy her. She had moments of doubt, but knew that time and again in her past she had been in difficult bouts against quality opponents and came out on top.
Why should it be any different, she told herself, against Rousey.
“I don’t think you can prepare yourself if you’re not aware of what’s happened, and she’s been the most dominant athlete,” Holm said. “There were days I got to the gym, didn’t perform well and I sat in my car upset, and I cried.
“I thought, ‘You know what? If I perform like that, that’s not going to get me a win. So I have to come back tonight, correct those things and get better.’ There are those moments in your mind that you doubt yourself.”
But as she drilled over and over the techniques that Jackson, Winkeljohn and Martinez thought would enable her to defeat Rousey, she was able to overcome the doubts.
That comes from having been there and done that.
She carried herself with class and dignity throughout the promotion, calmly dealing with the doubters and the critics. None of them, she knew, would fight for her, and their opinion didn’t matter a whit.
Even on fight night, she jogged happily down the aisle to the cage, as if she was out for a light run.
Rousey came in with her typical glower, but Holm didn’t back down.
“Every fight is a different journey,” she said. “I was worked up, but definitely relaxed. I kept telling myself, ‘It’s right now. Don’t get too relaxed. Be confident in your training and be confident in yourself and now is the time to perform.’ I just kept running that through my head.
“I didn’t want to look out and see everybody and get overwhelmed by all the people here. I didn’t want to look across and, well, there have been times I guess where I didn’t want to look across and go, ‘God, I’m fighting Ronda Rousey.’ I just wanted to go, ‘I’m fighting Ronda’ … [because if you don’t do that] you can get so mentally beat.”
She was on top of her game both physically and mentally. The end came swiftly, when she caught Rousey with a hard left hand. That might have been enough in and of itself to finish the fight.
Rousey staggered away, and Holm reached for her and turned Rousey back toward her. She then let go with a kick to the head that felled Rousey.
Holm’s emotions bubbled over afterward, and she couldn’t stop thanking her teammates and her coaches.
“A lot of people put in a lot of work and sacrificed to help me get here and do this,” she said.
It sets up a massive rematch potentially for July at UFC 200 in Las Vegas and so, in that regard, it’s good for the sport, too.
Interest was intense in Saturday’s bout, and the rematch, if it happens, figures to be bigger.
Holm might see a different Rousey that time, but this much also is true:
Holm is relatively knew to MMA. She spent a decade as a boxer but is still learning mixed martial arts and evolving.
It’s going to be a different Holm that Rousey sees, as well.