Tonight in Melbourne, Australia’s Etihad Stadium, Ronda Rousey, the greatest women’s fighter ever, will defend her bantamweight title for the seventh successive time. In sports, and especially in fighting, it’s important to account for the impossible. Still, Rousey is all but certainly going to win, and probably sensationally, eerily—not inside a round, as she has in 11 of her 12 professional fights, or a minute, as she has eight times, but within the span of a few deep breaths, as she has in her last three fights on the trot. Any other outcome will be a surprise.
Right now, relative to the competition, she is maybe the greatest fighter alive. Recently-disgraced legend Vitor Belfort last week described her as “a shark that swims alone in the ocean,” and that feels about right. Ronda Rousey is an athlete without peer. The 28-year-old former Olympic judoka has fought six times in the UFC, and has tallied a total ring time of just 17 minutes 57 seconds. In December 2013, Miesha Tate lasted 58 seconds into the third round. In the two years since, Rousey’s fought four times, for a combined two minutes 1o seconds.
These figures matter because in mixed martial arts, figures don’t matter. In fighting, where there are so many ways to win, a decision is just as good as a knockout or a submission, and there are plenty of great champions past and present—Randy Couture, Georges St. Pierre, Demetrious Johnson, José Aldo, Jon Jones—who have beaten the living piss out of more than a few challengers over the course of a fight only to win comfortably on cards.
These figures are here for context. Rousey has finished every single woman who has been locked in a cage with her, and along the way has made an absolute mockery of the women’s 135-pound division. Right now, there are maybe three women she hasn’t yet fought who are worthy of fighting her. One is Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino, a larger and heavier knockout artist who once used steroids and may or may not be able to effectively compete after cutting to bantamweight. Another is Amanda Nunes, a woman with four losses on her record who possesses uncanny athleticism, technique, and power. The third is Holly Holm. She’s one of the great women to ever box, and she is fighting Rousey tonight.
Rousey is the UFC’s biggest star, and the UFC expects the Holm fight to be one of its biggest events ever. It invested heavily on promotion, the culmination of which is the best ad the UFC has ever cut.
It traces the parallels between two young girls who rose to the apex of male-dominated sports on twin trajectories leading them to Melbourne and a fight for the women’s bantamweight belt. It is beautiful, heart-wrenching, and, because it presents them as equals, ultimately false advertising.
Holly Holm was born in Albuquerque, N.M. 34 years ago. She grew up a fantastic athlete; when she was 16, she took an aerobics class being taught by Mike Winkeljohn, a very high-level kickboxer in his prime. He invited her to a kickboxing class; today, Holm is considered one of the best women’s boxers to ever live, and Jackson-Winkeljohn MMA, where “Wink” coaches alongside Greg Jackson, is one of the great fighting schools in the world.
Holm started kickboxing in 2001, but quickly transitioned to boxing, which was her calling. At 5-foot-8, she was long, quick, and tireless. She immediately rose through the ranks, winning dozens of titles and accolades. When she retired in 2013, some considered her the best the sport has ever seen.
She started competing in MMA alongside boxing in 2011, and in her first three years cagefighting, she went 7-0 with five knockouts. The most spectacular win was in her fourth fight against Allanna Jones, where she unleashed a brutal left head-kick.
On July 10, 2014, she agreed on a deal to join the UFC’s women’s bantamweight division, just five days after Rousey knocked out Alexis Davis in 16 seconds. Immediately she was asked about fighting the champ.
“I know I have a lot to learn, so I do want to have a couple fights before fighting Ronda,” Holm said to MMA Junkie’s Ben Fowlkes. “But if you told me that’s what I had to do right now, I’d say fine, let’s grind it out and get to work.
“I just feel like there are some more things I want to learn first.”
MMA is young, and so a dearth of premier talent plagues every division. Women’s MMA has the same problem, but more so. In an alternate reality where there was no Ronda Rousey, the UFC’s women’s bantamweight division would be one of the most exciting in the sport. It’s stacked with talent, with up-and-comers mixed in with terrific fighters like Tate, Cat Zingano, and Sarah Kaufman. But unfortunately for them, Rousey exists, and she’s already maimed or knocked out just about everyone.
“Somehow, people feel like there should be a reckoning or an accounting for the possession of a generational talent,” Sherdog’s Jordan Breen tells me. “Somehow, it’s a disappointment if Rousey fights anyone less than Cris Cyborg.”
In other words, people want to see what happens if Rousey is in there with someone who can fuck her up. So for the last year and a half, Holm was groomed for an eventual showdown with Rousey. The UFC pushed her as the best boxer of all time in a throwback to UFC’s earlier days, where boxers swung at wrestlers who shot on jiu-jitsu players who rolled with judokas. Holm’s first bout was Feb. 28 on the UFC 184 undercard against journeyman Raquel Pennington. Holm could only eke out a split decision; in the main event, Rousey submitted Zingano in 14 seconds. In July, Holm fought 38-year-old Marion Reneau. She won easily in a unanimous decision. Two weeks later in UFC 190, Rousey took on 9-0 Bethe Correia.
The champion charged across the ring, grabbed the back of Correia’s head, and started unloading hockey punches before forcing the challenger back against the fence. Then Rousey uncorked a punch that landed just behind the ear. Correia was asleep before she hit the ground. It was unsettling. The whole thing took 34 seconds.
It’s Holm’s turn now. There are no more warm bodies to throw between Holm and the shark who swims alone. Even if there were, it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. Holm’s 34 years old now, and her body has the wear and tear of 50 professional boxing, kickboxing, and MMA bouts. It’s time.
“Styles make fights” is a broad cliché that has been made into gospel by fighting’s pundit class, and the one that essentially underwrites the promotion of this bout. Ronda Rousey has done everyone in, but can she stand with a top-level boxer? is the basic pitch. Pay up and find out.
This line places stress on tactics, as if fighting were something you think through, rather than do. It actually does hold in much or most of mixed martial arts, but this is a sport, and at the highest level of every sport are freaks—people who are quicker, faster, more agile, more cunning, more talented, and just better than everyone else who competes. In team sports, the teams with the best players almost always win, regardless of any particular overarching competitive philosophies. Fighting is not quite as meritocratic as team sports—Holm is getting her title shot as the seventh-ranked contender in the division—but the champions are almost always the very best the sport has to offer, regardless of their base discipline, battling the best in the world and emerging on the other side.
The top level of modern fighting can’t be dissected into a game of rock-paper-scissors, because everyone is competent nearly everywhere. Everyone at this level has the best coaches, the best training. Rousey is the best in the world not because she’s a stylistic nightmare—although she is—but because she’s more talented than any woman to ever fight. Before she put on gloves, she competed in the 2004 Olympics at 17 as the youngest judoka in the Games. She claimed bronze in 2008, and was then was shrewd enough to get into MMA. Rousey is stronger, faster, smarter, and more vicious than anyone she’s ever met in the cage, but she’s most dangerous because of her ability to transition from boxing to judo to wrestling to jiu-jitsu faster than anyone else can, a function of the way her mind and body work together more closely and quickly than theirs do.
“People always say someone who can stop her takedown can beat Rousey,” Breen says. “Who the fuck is stopping this takedown?”
This doesn’t mean she’s unbeatable. Rousey has faced adversity in the UFC. On Feb. 23, 2013, she took on Liz Carmouche, a jiu-jitsu practitioner, in the first-ever women’s UFC bout. After a scramble, Carmouche was able to lock in a cross face so tight that Rousey’s jaw was dislocated and her sinuses broke. Rousey still won, but it was a fleeting glimpse into what, at the time, was a weakness. It may still be there, but Rousey is still young, and evolving at an astonishing rate. She’s still the most devastating finisher on the ground in the sport, but now, as she showed when she chose to stand up with the striker Correia, she’s a legitimately excellent puncher, with undeniable power.
Holm can win because she’s an athletic freak herself, if not nearly at Rousey’s level. Her boxing is the best and sharpest in the division. She’s clean, long, with blinding hands that dart in for unanswered combinations. Rousey moves in the cage at right angles, but Holm’s instincts and foot speed are such that she has the ability to quickly pivot out of trouble and flit away. It still won’t be enough.
“When you have someone so many standard deviations ahead of the competition like Ronda Rousey,” Breen says, “you need to have some kind of ace in the hole, some kind of big physical advantage.”
Fans are excited about a hypothetical fight between Cyborg and Rousey because while no one thinks Cyborg is the better fighter, Cyborg has an ace in the hole in her knockout power. Others—Anthony Johnson, Conor McGregor, John Dodson—aren’t the best or most complete fighters in their divisions, but have power that can stop better fighters dead, and knock them out cold. They can win at any moment. Holm isn’t like that at all.
Her boxing is spellbinding; her feet are always underneath her, and her transitions from offense to defense and back again are blinding. Just watch her train here in an open workout this week in Australia:
For all that, though, her hands don’t translate to raw knockout power. Holm has beaten two women in what amounted to competitive sparring bouts through volume and seemingly limitless cardio. What actually makes her a threat is her kickboxing. Like her teammate Jon Jones, she has an array of front and side kicks that she can use to either keep opponents at distance or batter their bodies. The most dangerous weapon she has at her disposal is a left head-kick that can stun women even through their guards.
The problem is that it would probably be insane to try a head-kick on Ronda Rousey. If Rousey catches a leg or grabs Holm while she’s off balance, the champion will trip her, and at that point, the fight may as well be over.
“Welcome to hell,” Breen says. “Welcome to animated GIF land. Welcome to infamy.”
Rousey is the better, more complete fighter. Against everyone’s she’s fought, there’s been a palpable fear.
“She intimidates a lot of girls,” Winkeljohn tells me. “But Holly’s been fighting a long time.”
If Holm can lean on anything, it’s that for a long time—for virtually as long as Rousey—she has been one of the best fighters on the planet. Holm won’t be cowed by the moment or the champion at its center. She has the psychology and confidence of someone who’s been at the summit of a sport. This is, in a way, dangerous. One cocksure second can send a competitor to the hospital.
But something could happen. Lightning could strike, and upsets don’t often happen when challengers do exactly what they’re expected to do.
To fight successfully takes delusion, and when locked in a cage in unarmed combat against someone faster, stronger, quicker, smarter, and better, fighters need even more. If Holm wins, it’ll likely be off something completely unexpected, whether it is an ill-advised left head-kick, or a throw of her own that takes Rousey by surprise, or something else entirely, the sort of thing that only someone who’s played at an elite level would be brazen enough to even try. It isn’t her boxing as such that gives her something like a chance; it’s what boxing gave her.
“These people are batshit delusional,” Breen tells me, laughing. “Maybe deep down, she thinks she’s going to get torched. But she’s probably thinking, She’s tough, but I got this. That’s Ronda Rousey. But I’m Holly Holm.”
Photo via Sporting News