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Fighter on Fighter: Breaking down UFC 219’s Holly Holm

Mark J. Rebilas | USA Today Sports

Former boxing champion, Holly Holm, will look to dethrone Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Featherweight queen, Cris Cyborg, this Saturday (Dec. 30, 2017) at UFC 219 inside T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Holly Holm has to have one of the weirdest careers in UFC history.

The decorated athlete burst onto the scene by winning seven straight with six stoppages, earning her spot on UFC’s roster. Her first couple fights were uninspiring, but they were still victories ... enough for her to be sacrificed to Ronda Rousey. Famously, Holm battered Rousey from pillar-to-post in a completely non-competitive bout, capturing the title in a perfect upset.

Since then? Holm seems to have been figured out a bit by a pair of masterful strikers in Valentina Shevchenko and Germaine de Randamie. Even a drastic step back in competition opposite Bethe Correia resulted in 10 of the least interesting minutes of combat in 2017 prior to a sudden high kick knockout. Now, Holm finds herself in yet another “unwinnable” title match and plans to exceed expectations.

Let’s take a closer look at her skill set:


Continuing with the trend of weirdness, Holm is unquestionably an effective striker, one of the best in women’s mixed martial arts (MMA). Despite her boxing credentials, Holm has found very little success with her hands as of late, relying almost entirely on her kicking game.

On paper, Holm essentially has three ways she can do damage. Listed from most effective to ineffective, those methods are range kicking, countering her foe’s attempts to close that range, and bursting forward with short combinations.

In some cases, the fight never really evolves past Holm’s distance work. In Holm’s victory over Marion Reneau, for example, Holm was never forced to do much besides kick from the outside and occasionally flurry. She picked apart her opponent and kept her in a defensive shell, easily winning the fight without taking much risk. Boring as it was, Holm’s bout with Correia was contested in similar fashion. The Brazilian was patient but nothing else, enabling Holm to potshot her with kicks until a question mark kick fully found its mark (GIF).

That’s pretty much the ideal result for Holm.

In her bouts with Shevchenko and de Randamie, however, this approach failed. Both women were skilled enough to kick with Holm, and they showed patience in waiting for Holm to charge in. Holm does not move her head much on the advance, which led to both women being able to plant, take their head off the center line, and crack Holm with counters.

If Holm’s opponent seeks to close the distance, it’s very different story. This is where Holm’s counter game comes into play, as she’s very skilled at suddenly planting her feet, landing blows and exiting to her lateral movement before her opponent can capitalize. The exit here is very important, as Holm routinely rolls after her counter blow, grabs the clinch, or lands and pushes her foe away.

As a Southpaw, Holm’s money punch is certainly her left cross. The New Mexico native is versatile with the strike: using it as a lead, mixing in straight body shots, and setting up her kicks with the cross. In addition, Holm will often counter with her left hand. Circling away from her opponent, Holm will make her foe miss and then capitalize with a crisp cross. This was seen repeatedly against Rousey, as the Judoka sprinted face-first into multiple crosses and counter elbows (GIF).

Like her cross, Holm’s right hook is an important punch that serves multiple purposes, from counters to lead. However, it’s most effective use is as a setup for kicks.

Holm's left round kick is the center of her kickboxing attack, the most powerful and important weapon in her arsenal. Just about every Southpaw that's ever fought recognizes the value of left kick, as it's one of the more simple power strikes to land on an opponent in the Orthodox stance.

It's important to note that Holm sets up her left kick -- usually to either the body or head -- rather well. The set ups are usually pretty simple, but Holm's distance and timing make them effective. For example, one of her most common kick combinations is the cross-kick, in which the initial cross either moves her opponent's defense out of position or merely serves as a distraction prior to the real blow. Alternatively, Holm commonly uses the right hook -- or merely slaps her opponents' lead hand down -- to encourage them to slip into the kick (GIF).

Holm will also look to kick on the counter. As her opponent reaches for her with a punch, Holm will slip a kick underneath her arm into the exposed ribs. When the body is wide open and stretched out, it's particularly susceptible to being kick.

The Rousey fight is undoubtedly the best demonstration of Holm’s movement and counter punching. For high-level Southpaws, getting a dominant angle, forcing the opponent to turn, and then hitting her while she turns to face is a major part of the game. In this week’s technique highlight, we analyze just that.

Besides the round kick, Holm has some other dangerous kicking techniques. For example, she uses the lead leg side kick to great effect. If her punching combination come up short, Holm can instead push her opponent backwards with the side kick. Furthermore, Holm works to build off her side kick with other lead leg attacks. For example, Holm can surprise her opponent with a hook kick.

Lastly, Holm uses the oblique kick very well. Against opponents looking to close the distance aggressively and moving on a straight line, the oblique kick will completely stall their approach, making it a valuable weapon for "The Preacher’s Daughter."


It’s taken a few fights, but we finally have a fair read on Holm’s wrestling ability. On the whole, she’s been very difficult to take down, only succumbing to the takedown when set up expertly by her opponents.

On the rare occasion that Holm has pursued the takedown, she’s used the increasingly common counter running double leg that is popular among distance strikers. Since she’s thought of as a striker, it’s not particularly difficult for her to change levels a bit and drive her opponent to the mat.

Opposite de Randamie, Holm showed some really disappointing offensive wrestling. She repeatedly attained dominant positions like the body lock, back clinch, or hands-locked-along-the-fence double leg. Unfortunately, Holm showed a lack of understanding in regards to posture, trying to muscle de Randamie around and failing to complete the takedown as a result.

Defensively, there’s an obvious benefit to working from the edge of the kicking range. If Holm’s opponent shoots without set up, it’s simply not going to happen. To have a chance to finish a shot, her opponent has to close the distance without getting countered, which is a tremendously difficult task on its own.

In the clinch, Holm did an excellent job of defending Rousey’s Judo attack. By keeping her hips back and framing at the waist, Holm was able to deny a great deal of her opponent’s attempts. Additionally, Holm would grab one of Rousey’s arms with both of hers — severely limiting her foe’s offensive options — before turning a corner and escaping the clinch.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

Holm’s jiu-jitsu has really only been tested twice. In her title fight with Rousey, her defense held up, and she was able to win the title because of it. In her bout with Miesha Tate, however, Holm tried to rush back to her feet, and it cost her the strap.

Several minutes into the first round of her bout with Rousey, Holm’s opponent managed to secure a clinch in the center of the Octagon. From there, the Judoka looked for her usual head-and-arm throw. While Holm didn’t let her really complete the throw, Rousey was able to drag them both to the mat and overhooked her opponent’s arm.

From there, Rousey threw her leg over and tried to transition into the armbar. However, Holm prevented her from doing this with some important little details. First and foremost, Holm kept her head tucked and did not allow Rousey to hook her face with the leg. Furthermore, Holm kept her weight back and allowed Rousey to slowly slide off the top position, eventually loosening the hold enough that Holm could yank away and return to her feet.

Opposite Tate, Holm failed to show that same patience. Unfortunately for "Preacher’s Daughter," her method of standing up involved turning her back and trying stand up quickly. That can be an effective method of escape, but it’s also quite risky and can give up the rear naked choke.


Is this Holm’s final chance to capture a title? It seems pretty likely. She’s a multi-decade combat sports athlete, so the end of her career is likely getting close. Even aside from all that, she’s been beaten multiple times by 135-pound fighters, which leaves the Featherweight crown as her only remaining option.


Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt, is an amateur champion who trains at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. In addition to learning alongside world-class talent, Andrew has scouted opponents and developed winning strategies for several of the sport's most elite fighters.

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