Four years ago, the most accomplished male boxer to step inside the cage suffered an inglorious beat down at the hands of Randy "the Natural" Couture. The version of James "Lights Out" Toney who stepped into the cage was far too old, too weather-worn, and too heavy to learn the tricks he needed to stand a chance against the refined skills of Couture or any MMA fighter with solid wrestling or lethal leg kicks. Last Saturday's introduction of the most accomplished female boxer into the UFC was nothing like that ignominious fight.
By now, every MMA fan who's heard the name Holly Holm knows that she's won over a dozen boxing championships and that she was once considered for Fighter of Year honors alongside Georges St-Pierre and Floyd Mayweather. Given that, their image of Holm largely focuses on what her hands can do. But so far in her MMA career, Holm has shown that her legs are just as deadly as her fists, if not more.
In her UFC debut, Holm was matched against a rugged fighter she was expected to beat, Raquel Pennington. Holm controlled the fight with distance and smooth foot work, showing fluid movement around the cage that signaled how long she'd spent inside of a ring, mastering the art of ring generalship.
Pennington fought soundly, but ultimately came up short, losing a split decision. That's partially because when you're undersized in the way she was, in height and reach, sound fighting principles and tempered tactics, usually don't lead to victory. To overcome the physical advantages of an opponent like Holm, the smaller fighter needs either more speed or aggression, along with a durable chin. Pennington didn't naturally have the speed and never seemed to push the pace sufficiently to close the gap. As a result, Holm controlled the distance with side kicks and deft foot movement, getting off first and controlling the pace of the exchanges.
It's exactly that type of control that was lacking in the main event of the night. Ronda Rousey dispatched Cat Zingano because Zingano, as with many of Rousey's challengers, didn't seem understand the fundamentals of distance control. Rousey's challengers forget once the hot lights turn on that Judokas at Rousey's level are experts at redirecting energy, like the kind when you bum rush with a flying knee in the opening second of a round.
At this point, Holm is still too green to take on Rousey, but if life were a video game, and you were building a fighter to challenge the big bad super boss at the end the game, you'd likely pick someone like Holm to take on Rousey. The challenger needs some natural physical advantages (height and reach), a fundamental understanding of distance, strong take down defense, and ideally, a counter striker's precision and speed. Basically, I'm saying someone like Anderson Silva but with better wrestling.
Is there such a fighter in bantamweight division at the moment? Even if there is, can they keep their head straight when the bell finally rings? With her championship experience, Holm might be that person, but not today. She needs time to further refine her skills. Unfortunately, with a shallow division, the UFC may need to feed her to Rousey much earlier than she'd like.
Let's hope Holm is allowed the time to develop, so that when she does get a shot, her fight doesn't like like Rousey's been fed another amateur disguised as a pro.
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