The Once and Future Queen of Fighting

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The Once and Future Queen of Fighting
Photo courtesy of Holly Holm

Holly Holm spent the first 17 years of her life in Bosque Farms.

It is not a town or a city. It is not much of anything except a four-square mile collection of ranches and farms. It was once a settlement for Dust Bowl refugees. Even today, it doesn't take an active imagination to see some truth in this.

Holm's family moved to Bosque Farms when she was in the womb. Her father is a preacher, which would someday give Holm her fighting nickname.

Her childhood was the middle-class kind. There were few Sundays spent huddled around the television watching football. Instead, Holm's family would take day-long bike rides together or jump on their trampoline. It was the start of a life spent pursuing athletic endeavors.

She played soccer for Manzano Heights High School. She'd grown up swimming each summer but realized in high school that she disliked the loneliness of the pool.

"You're in the water, and stroke after stroke, you're just staring at that black line on the bottom of the pool," Holm says. "It gets old. For me it did, anyway. For practice, you're there for three hours. Three hours of staring at a black line is too much."

Her brothers wrestled, and she spent afternoons hanging around the practice room. After wrestling was over, there would be aerobics classes, led by a local trainer named Mike Winkeljohn. Holm thought the aerobics classes looked interesting; they were something she could do to stay in shape.

Which is how she found herself taking the aerobics classes that would change her life and give her a profession.

After the classes concluded, Winkeljohn would lead sparring classes.

"I would watch them sparring, and I thought it looked fun," Holm says. "I wanted to try it. I'm just lucky that Mr. Winkeljohn's gym is the one I walked into. I didn't have to go out and find a great trainer. I just walked in there to the best trainer in the world."

Holm still refers to Winkeljohn as "Mr. Winkeljohn." This habit stems from her earliest days at his traditional kickboxing school. You bowed to your opponent before you started sparring. You bowed after you finished. You always treated your coach with the utmost respect.

"It's like when you have a teacher in high school. Even when you leave, you still refer to them as Mr. or Mrs.," Holm says. "I don't think I have ever called him Mike. People will say, 'How's Mike,' and I'm like, 'Who is Mike?'

"But if you say 'Wink' or 'Mr. Winkeljohn,' I get it."

After a few months of training, she told Winkeljohn she wanted to try her hand at fighting.

"Keep coming in and sparring, and I'll let you know if something comes up," Winkeljohn told her.

"I wanted him to tell me when I was ready," she says. "And he did."

One day, Winkeljohn told Holm there were some amateur fights coming up and a spot that might work for her. It was against an Arizona state kickboxing champion, no easy task for a first experience in the ring. The fight was a "demo," which is another word for a sparring session with a bit more intensity.

Holm outweighed her opponent by 20 pounds. But given her lack of experience, Winkeljohn figured the bout was even. In the car on the way to the event, Winkeljohn shared a bit of advice.

"They will tell you not to hit hard since it's a demo," he said. "I don't care what they say. I want you to hit as hard as you can, and I want you to go as hard as you can."

In an experience that would replay throughout her career, Holm followed her coach's advice to the letter. She hit hard and threw with every bit of force she could muster. Twenty seconds after the fight started, her opponent's corner threw in the towel.

It's supposed to be a demo, they said. Holm was going too hard.

Holm went back to her corner.

"Good job," Winkeljohn said with a smile.

*****

Photo courtesy of Holly Holm

Holm did well enough as an amateur that she turned professional at 20. She was attending college at the time but found it difficult to balance work, school and training. She made $500 for her first professional fight, but that only paid one month's rent. She needed income but enjoyed fighting enough that she wanted to give it her best effort.

And so she dropped out of school to focus on fighting. She hasn't looked back since.

"I can go to school when I'm 40, but I can't fight when I'm 40," she says. "So I said I'm going to give it a go and see what happens for a year. And that was it."

Holm elected to pursue a professional boxing career. Her debut was on January 25, 2002. As she'd never boxed as an amateur, her first pro boxing fight was her first boxing match, period. As a kickboxer, her kicking game was her specialty. But matchmakers were having a tough time finding a kickboxing opponent for her, so they asked if she wanted to try boxing.

"OK, we can do that," Holm said.

The fight took place at the Isleta Casino and Resort in Albuquerque, N.M. It was a success, with Holm knocking Martha Deitchman out in the third round.

Over the next 11 years, Holm would go on to compile a career boxing record of 33-2-3, becoming one of the best female boxers in the world. She would face Christy Martin, who was then considered the most famous female boxer in the world.

Martin had more than 50 fights on her record at that point; Holm had 12. Martin had competed on a Mike Tyson undercard.

Holm? She'd fought near Albuquerque, mostly.

Photo courtesy of Holly Holm

Martin was a huge task for Holm, and she was a significant underdog.

"They were good at always challenging me, and I trusted them," Holm says. "But it was the most nerve-wracking thing I'd experienced to that date."

Holm scored a unanimous-decision win over Martin. Mentally exhausted afterward, she sat in the locker room and cried. She'd had big moments in fighting, but none compared to the feeling she'd just experienced. She learned that she could face adversity and overcome.

"It ended up not even being my hardest fight," she says. "But it was the best feeling in the world."

*****

Photo courtesy of Holly Holm

As 2011 rolled around, Holm looked for new challenges.

For a decade, she'd trained at one of the best mixed martial arts gyms in the world, sparring with MMA fighters like Julie Kedzie.

Though she'd never trained grappling, she'd been around others who did. When Kedzie or another female fighter was preparing to fight a striker, Holm was asked to help her prepare. Even though she knew nothing of the grappling game, she was willing to give it her best shot.

"I would tell them I didn't know what I was doing, but I would try if it's going to help her out," Holm says. "And then I would have a lot of fun doing it. After a while, I started thinking that I wanted to try an MMA fight."

One day, Holm was preparing for an upcoming boxing match. She decided to voice her interest to Winkeljohn, and her coach loved the idea.

"He was like, 'Here's what I'm thinking, Holly. We'll go here, and you'll be here before you know it. You can beat so and so and then fight so and so,'" Holm remembers. "I said, 'Oh, you've been thinking about this, too?' He never wanted to say anything, though. He wanted it to be my decision."

The pair began working on wrestling and grappling.

"I was kicking myself in the butt for not learning along the way," she says. "It was right at my fingertips for all these years. I could have been learning. But then, if I was doing that, maybe I wouldn't have done so well in boxing."

Much like her boxing career, her first two professional mixed martial arts bouts were in Albuquerque. She stopped Christina Domke with leg kicks in the first round of her March 4, 2011 debut. Next, she scored a win over durable veteran Jan Finney.

She set a goal for herself: to become the first woman to hold championships in boxing and mixed martial arts.

She continued in both sports, alternating fights between both. She suffered a brutal boxing knockout to Anne Sophie Mathis late in 2011 and knew immediately that she would have a rematch. Holm focused only on boxing after that and defeated Mathis in the rematch in June 2012. She took no MMA fights that year but did beat Diana Prazak in a boxing match in December.

In 2013, Holm prepared for another boxing match, but her projected opponent elected to fight someone else. Holm decided, at that moment, that she wanted to focus on MMA.

There was interest from several promotions, but Bellator was coming to Rio Rancho, N.M. in February and wanted her on the card. She agreed to a deal with the promotion and defeated Katie Merrill by knockout in the second round.

After the fight, Holm met manager Lenny Fresquez in the locker room. He told Holm she had a boxing fight scheduled for May; he didn't want to tell her before the Bellator fight to avoid ruining her concentration. What Holm wanted was time off, but she agreed to the fight and went back to the gym.

While preparing for the fight, she came to a realization: She was no longer motivated in preparing for boxing matches. She shared her concern with Winkeljohn, saying that she wanted to come in the gym and grapple and learn mixed martial arts.

"I told myself when I began that if I had the passion for it, everything would fall into place. Money, opportunity, sponsorships. Those all come when you're doing well, and you do well when you're passionate about it," she says. "If I'm not feeling that, I need to listen to my heart."

She went through with the boxing match because she'd already signed a contract. Her motivation was that she didn't want to leave boxing on a loss. She beat Mary McGee to close her boxing career with a win.

Holm is still asked if she'll return to boxing. The answer is a resounding no.

"I don't miss it. As far as training, MMA is fun and new and different. For 12 years I boxed professionally, but then I was done," she says. "I needed a spark. I'm not done fighting, but I just lost the passion to go in and box. And that was it. I moved on."

*****

Photo courtesy of Holly Holm

Holm compiled a 6-0 record in mixed martial arts, becoming one of the hottest prospects in the world. With Ronda Rousey's rise to fame in the UFC—and her undefeated record—fans around the world have clamored for the UFC to sign Holm. Rousey has been mostly unchallenged in mixed martial arts but has never faced a striker of Holm's caliber.

During the week of UFC 171, Fresquez met with UFC officials to discuss a contract. Holm is currently signed with Legacy Fighting, but her deal is structured so that she can leave for the UFC.

But a deal was not reached, and Dana White then announced that he was no longer interested in signing Holm. This is a negotiation tactic from the UFC president, who often determines that louder and more public means better.

"We do want to fight Ronda within a certain amount of fights. And we do want a certain amount of money for that," Holm says. "If I'm not going to be paid, I might as well fight where I'm at. "

She does not like to discuss money, preferring that Fresquez handle that end of her career. It worked out well, then, that UFC officials asked Holm not to attend the meeting.

She had a family reunion the same weekend, with ample opportunity to consume Irish staples like corned beef hash. But mostly she just does not enjoy situations where she will be asked to put a price on her talents.

"It makes me feel very cocky, and I'm not cocky at all. I don't want to say, 'I'm worth this much.' But it is a career with a small window, and you want to take advantage of the opportunity," Holm says. "If it really was just me, I would say, 'Oh sure, I'll do it for free.' I wouldn't be able to say, "I'm worth this much.' I would be terrible at managing myself."

Despite their current negotiating standstill, it is not hard to imagine a day when Holm is finally under the UFC banner. Money talks, after all. Though the UFC may have balked at her asking price the first time around, the two sides are likely to come to a deal at some point.

And when they do come to a deal, the speculation will begin anew: What might happen when Holm steps in the Octagon with Rousey? Will Holm's striking be too much to handle? Or will Rousey toss her around and submit her, like she has done to all but one opponent during her professional and amateur career?

"I still get armbarred in practice, so I'm not going to say it can't happen. I think a lot of people only focus on the armbar. But to get the armbar, you have to get the setup. You have to get there," Holm says. "She's good with judo. And the thing is, it's second nature to her. You give her two seconds to think in the clinch, you'll probably be on your back."

Holm says that Rousey's mental strength may be her greatest weapon of all.

"She believes in herself, and she believes she can beat everybody she gets in there with," Holm says. "I think a lot of girls get in there not really believing they can do it. They get in there thinking they're going to give it their best shot, but they don't really think they can do it.

"That's where a lot of them have gone wrong. Everybody knows about the armbar, but she still gets it. They know it's coming, and she still does it. She is amazing at it. But everybody is beatable."

Brandon Gibson, the striking coach at Jackson/Winkeljohn, says that Holm has the tools to beat Rousey.

"Not only is she an amazingly gifted physical athlete, but she takes a cerebral strategic approach to every element of MMA. She's been able to pick up moves quickly," Gibson says. "She’s been working wrestling with Izzy Martinez and does grappling with Ricky Lundell. But the bigger thing is that she’s been boxing out of an MMA school. She’s always been aware of it, and that means she’s going to learn it that much faster.

"She became a dominant boxing champion while working out of an MMA gym. When Holly becomes an MMA champion, that's going to be much more suited to the skill set she has."

Holm concedes that she would not relish the idea of fighting Rousey immediately. She has only been training grappling for a short time, after all. Ideally, she would like more time to prepare for taking on such a world-class challenge.

"I have a lot to learn. But I'll never say no to a fight," she says. "So if it came soon, I'll get ready for it."

*****

Photo courtesy of Holly Holm

And so she continues learning on the job. She's preparing for a bout with Juliana Werner on Friday night, and then perhaps a future that might include a fight with Rousey.

Is she ready for Werner? Can she hang with Rousey?

"The truth is, I'm not ready. I still have training. I'm not even ready the week of the fight. I have to make weight. I have to go through the mental part," Holm says. "I'll be ready when I'm warming up in the locker room.

"That's when I'm ready."

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