Saturday, July 2, 2022

UFC Fight Night: Holly Holm returns from lengthy layoff once again on the cusp of a title shot

When Holly Holm made her debut in the Octagon at age 34 in 2015, just two years after the UFC promoted its first women’s fight, the decorated former women’s boxing champion was considered an outsider. Seven years later, it’s hard to imagine the UFC’s bantamweight division without Holm at the top of the rankings.  

Holm (14-5), whose head-kick knockout of Ronda Rousey is still prominently featured on the promotion’s highlight reels of best moments in company history, never actually defended the 135-pound title she held for less than five months following her monster upset of Rousey, but she has remained a fixture in the title picture across two divisions.  

Now, at 40, Holm enters the main event of Saturday’s UFC Fight Night card in Las Vegas as the No. 2 ranked bantamweight in the world and possibly on the verge of securing a fifth shot at UFC gold when she challenges No. 5 Ketlen Viera (12-2) inside the UFC Apex facility.  

Holm, who will be inducted into the first female class in June at the International Boxing Hall of Fame after making a combined 18 title defenses across three divisions, has previously been known as one of the most versatile and accomplished female combat sports athletes in history. But the legacy of “The Preacher’s Daughter” may have taken on a new wrinkle in recent years due to how incredible her longevity has been.  

Although Holm has been idle from the Octagon for 19 months following due to separate battles with hydronephrosis and a knee injury that forced her out of originally scheduled bouts against Julianna Pena and Norma Dumont, it marked the first time in a while Holm has had to deal with the setbacks of sustained injuries.  

The crazy part is that Holm is just 4-5 since her 2015 win over Rousey yet has routinely fought the best of the best that the world had to offer, with losses to current or former UFC champions Miesha Tate, Valentina Shevchenko, Germain de Randamie, Cris Cyborg and Amanda Nunes. But Holm has never stopped evolving her game in the process and, because of that, never left the top of the rankings across both the bantamweight and featherweight divisions.

With Pena, who upset Nunes for the 135-pound title in 2021, set to rematch the female G.O.A.T. later this year following their stint as coaches on “The Ultimate Fighter,” there’s a strong chance Holm could find herself next in line should she get past Viera. And for Holm, even with age and injury having made the past two years more challenging than ever, one has to like her chances of potentially competing on even terms with either of them.  

“I have to win, regardless,” Holm said, regarding the stakes of the Viera fight, during Wednesday’s media day. “I hate to lose, anyway. I just hate to lose no matter what is on the line. That’s No. 1. I want to get in there and I want to win on Saturday. But, also, as far as a career, if you don’t win, the next steps and options are never as many as you want. They are limited. In the long run, I need this win if I want to keep progressing to getting the belt.” 

Asked about what keeps motivating her to continue adding to her game while climbing the ladder of contention at her age, Holm said the answer is very simple. 

“It’s in me. I think, it’s just that I’m passionate about the sport,” Holm said. “I think you are either born with that or you are not.” 

Holm has certainly come close to being a UFC champion once more after losing her title via fifth-round submission to Tate — in one of the most dramatic finishes in the sport’s history — but has been unable to get over the hump. She dropped a frustrating decision to de Randamire in their 2017 bout for the inaugural featherweight title before losing a competitive decision to Cyborg for the same title two fights later.  

After retooling with a thorough victory over Megan Anderson at featherweight in 2018, Holm received a shot at Nunes’ 135-pound title but lost via first-round TKO due to a devastating head kick.  

If Holm seemed ready to fade away, it likely would’ve come after the loss to Nunes, back during a time when “The Lioness” appeared just about unbeatable. But not only did Nunes go on to lose her title during the interim (in an upset loss to Pena even bigger than Holm-Rousey), Holm rebounded herself with solid decision wins over top contenders Raquel Pennington and Irene Aldana.  

If there has been any reason to question Holm’s pursuit of regaining a UFC title as her sole motivation, recent comments from the fighter, herself, did the trick in the aftermath of undisputed lightweight champion Katie Taylor’s thrilling April victory over Amanda Serrano, in what was billed as the biggest fight in women’s boxing history.

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Holm began to openly flirt with the idea of making a return to the sweet science to challenge Taylor, the 35-year-old Irish star who claimed gold at the 2012 Olympics. Asked about her current contract status this week, Holm said she has “two or three” fights left on her UFC deal and would certainly be interested in Taylor, but that it’s not something that is occupying her attention away from possibly fighting the winner of Pena-Nunes II.  

“I think it’s good in life to dream,” Holm said. “You think about things that intrigue you and that you look forward to that could possibly be exciting. I’m really MMA motivated right now … but [Taylor] would intrigue me for the fact that it’s at a whole different weight class. I have fought at 140, 147 and 154 in boxing but never at 135. Am I supposed to come back and fight for a world title in a fourth division?  

“To be able to show that I could go back and compete at the highest level and still get a belt, does that intrigue me? Yes, but that’s not what my goal is. I still have my contracts in place and my fights in place. I want to win here, regardless. I have loved fighting for the UFC so I’m not trying to get out but I definitely think that I’m in a unique position. A lot of people have tried the crossing over but haven’t been able to really do it successfully. I was able to do it successfully coming one way but then to do be able to do it coming back? Call it the competitive spirit. 

“Sometimes that is what is driving my passion, to do things no one has ever done before.”  

The good news for Holm is that she has no peers in terms what she has already accomplished in combat sports. The only question now is whether she still has enough left in the tank to keep adding to it.  

If her recent form is any indication, Holm is still as good as she’s ever been and has no plans on slowing down anytime soon.  

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