A BRUTAL DEFEAT IN THE RING FOUR YEARS AGO PUT HOLLY HOLM ON A PATH TO DELIVER A SEMINAL MOMENT AGAINST RONDA ROUSEY IN THE OCTAGON
THOSE PUNCHES launched by Holly Holm's fists, the ones that collided with Ronda Rousey's nose, mouth and cheeks? That snapping roundhouse kick to the head—you've most likely seen it by now—that caught Rousey under her ear, divorcing her from consciousness and leaving her aura of invincibility as badly punctured as her face? Those blows resembled love taps compared with the violence that Holm endured on a December night in 2011.
Holm was a polished boxing champ at the time, a lithe welterweight with three dozen pro fights that included wins over Mia St. John and Christy Martin. But on that night she stood (barely) in the ring of New Mexico's Route 66 Casino and took a beating. Her opponent, a French fighter named Anne Sophie Mathis, reared back and fired away, turning Holm's face into a Cubist smear. At one point Holm needed the referee's assistance to untangle herself from the ropes. The fight, mercifully stopped in the seventh round, marked a low point in her life, to say nothing of her fighting career. While no one knew it at the time, it would also mark a major moment in mixed martial arts.
After the fight, Holm held two opposing ideas in her mind. She was already gravitating away from boxing and toward MMA, the versatile and voguish combat sport that was steadily elbowing (and kneeing and choking) boxing out of the mainstream. The money and glory and competition were spilling to MMA; Holm reckoned she might as well follow. Plus, her hometown, Albuquerque, was becoming ground zero for the sport, as fighters from all over the world converged there to train with Greg Jackson and Mike Winklejohn.
At the same time, Holm wanted a rematch against Mathis. "It's like you want to undo history," she says. "If I don't at least try, I'll regret it the rest of my life." Anyone who didn't agree with her, who thought she shouldn't risk more damage, was told to stay away. "Holly wanted no negativity in her camp," recalls Julie Kedzie, one of Holm's Albuquerque sparring partners. "Don't think I can do it? I can't have you around."
The rematch was held in the summer of 2012 in the same casino. Holm made adjustments and beat Mathis by a decision. Holm learned that she could recover from a beating. And that fighters are rewarded for suppressing instincts to brawl and for sticking to their game plans. And that revenge can be a powerful motivator.
This was nothing new for her. Holm is a self-described tomboy. As the younger sister of two boys, Brian and Weston, Holly by necessity learned to hold her own. Each season brought a new sport at which she could excel. But combat sports nourished her most. "I'm competitive by nature, and one thing about fighting, it is the most physical and competitive sport," she says. "It's you against them. I love that."
As a teenage boxer and kickboxer, she won fights early and often. Blonde, muscled and heterosexual, she was an easy sell for promoters. But she bristled at self-promotion. She rejected the nickname Hottie Holly in favor of ... nothing. She also lacked a hardscrabble backstory. Her father, Roger, is a preacher at Albuquerque's Edgewood Church of Christ in the East Mountains. Her mom, Tammy, who also lives in Albuquerque, is a massage therapist. In 2012, Holly married Jeff Kirkpatrick, who runs a New Mexico roofing business. She never fought to work off anger.
Her transition to MMA was fast. Her ascent was faster. At 135 pounds she won various fights for various promotions (i.e., leagues) for as little as $500 apiece, mostly by bringing her striking to bear. In the summer of 2014 she got the MMA equivalent of a call-up to the big leagues: The UFC offered her a five-fight deal. Holm was signed in part because of her record and her pedigree, but also because there was heavy demand. The UFC had finally created a women's division, mostly to accommodate Rousey, whose skills and popularity could no longer go ignored. Soon the problem became finding capable opponents for the star.
In Holm's first two UFC fights her nerves jellied and she "scratched out" a pair of decisions, as MMA fighters say. When she was tapped in August to oppose Rousey in UFC 193, the choice was considered a mild surprise, given Holm's inexperience. Rousey had become an A-lister, her fights spanning less time than most Vines. Holm, an 18-to-1 underdog, was unfazed. "Odds are just something people write on paper," she said. Besides, she was confident that Rousey couldn't hurt her any worse than Anne Sophie Mathis had.
In the buildup to the fight Holm cried daily. "So much was going into it; I loved it and I hated it," she says. "Every day had its own emotion." While she concealed her anxiety, Rousey did not conceal hers. After a testy weigh-in, Rousey took to Instagram and declared in part: "Fake ass cheap shotting fake respect fake humility b---- ... 'preacher's daughter' my ass." Even accounting for prefight goose-the-pay-per-view hype, that was weirdly hostile. As Holm told her camp, "Her head's in a different place than normal."
On fight night Rousey's head literally was not in the right place, perched as it was in front of Holm's jabs. Rousey has an unrivaled ground game, but her stand-up game revealed gaping holes. Sticking to a masterly plan, Holm squeezed off jabs and slickly moved away. Then the same feet that moved with such agility became weapons. We can argue about whether it sealed "the greatest upset in the history of MMA," but let's agree here: Holm's knockout kick to the champ's head was a seminal moment in the sport's history.
The UFC has a new champ who's the opposite of the old champ. Rousey gorged on celebrity: movie roles, WWE cameos, media appearances. Holm lists her hobbies as sewing and baking. If Rousey was irrepressible, a bottomless well of candor, her successor chooses her words carefully and acts like, well, the self-possessed 34-year-old adult she is.
Last week, just a few days after her triumph, Holm was already thinking about her inevitable rematch with Rousey, most likely in the summer of 2016. Holm knows from experience the galvanizing effect of losing. "If I had the best night of my life," she says, "that means she had the worst night of hers."
Holm's reverie has been interrupted by stardom. Back in Albuquerque, the city council quickly declared November to be Holly Holm month. The UFC sent its new star on a media tour. Holm would rather have been back in the gym. How is she handling this displacement from her comfort zone? "Living a comfortable life," she says, "doesn't usually result in something big."
THE UFC HAS A NEW CHAMP WHO'S THE OPPOSITE OF THE OLD CHAMP. ROUSEY GORGED ON CELEBRITY. HOLM LISTS HER HOBBIES AS SEWING AND BAKING.
Photograph by Victoria Will for Sports Illustrated
QUINN ROONEY/GETTY IMAGES
DECKED BY HOLLY Holm's masterly game plan included a flurry of lefthanded jabs that set Rousey up for the final blow.