Finally, the hysterical takes regarding the rise and fall of a certain UFC gender-barrier breaker have begun to subside. It took more than a week for professional hot-air machines to target the next cash-cow controversy and leave the rest of the fight game to its quiet corner of the world.
Now, everything starts anew.
While Amanda Nunes stands as the biggest beneficiary of the final 48 seconds of the UFC’s 2016 schedule, at least financially—she got a piece of that sweet UFC 207 pay-per-view money—the UFC has yet to figure out a way to effectively market her. Instead, there is another women’s star that stands to gain the most market share and upgrade her position in the rapidly changing pecking order: Holly Holm.
Given her brutally difficult 2016, the opportunity arrives as a gift.
The woman who first shattered Ronda Rousey’s aura followed that resume-pumping accomplishment by seemingly losing all of the momentum she’d gained. In her first attempt at defending the women’s bantamweight title in March, she was up on all three judges scorecards heading into the fifth round of her fight against Miesha Tate, only to be submitted with just 90 seconds remaining. A few months after that heartbreak, Holm was thoroughly baffled and definitively outworked by Valentina Shevchenko en route to a unanimous-decision loss.
In a year, she fell from undefeated media darling to floundering, falling contender. To make matters worse, her latter defeat left her with a broken thumb, per ESPN.com's Brett Okamoto, putting her out of action for months of healing and recovery time.
As often happens in a sport that values relentlessness at the expense of thoughtfulness, a step back proved beneficial. As Holm recuperated, the women’s divisions were rocked by change. Tate lost to Nunes, then lost again and retired. Rousey was blasted in her return and may never be back. The UFC, limited by the dearth of available champions, surprisingly instituted a women’s featherweight division. Cris Cyborg declined a title fight, then tested positive for a banned substance.
Suddenly, there was a shortage of big names, yet Holm still stood square in the middle of women’s MMA, among its most recognizable. It was her star power alone that put her in the UFC 208 featherweight title match with Germaine de Randamie, and her star power that can elevate her further.
Remember, Rousey is not the only one who’s done late-night and daytime television to chat it up. In a sport that still struggles to gain wide audience acceptance, Holm has had arguably more of that type of exposure than anybody other than Rousey and Conor McGregor.
As such, she stands to potentially win huge if she captures a UFC title in a second weight class when facing de Randamie on February 11.
If she does so, she will become part of a small and elite group. The only ones to successfully pull off the feat are Randy Couture, B.J. Penn and McGregor.
Such an accomplishment would mark a spectacular turnaround and put her back at the vanguard, as if she never left.
“I guess when I look at , I think about my year and I think it’s been the worst year for me,” Holm said during a recent media event (h/t MMA Fighting). “2016 was not successful for me. I don’t think about anybody else actually. When it comes to fights, it was in November that everybody was putting out on social media, ‘Oh, my gosh it’s been a year [since beating Rousey], congratulations Holly.’ And all I’m thinking is, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s been a year since I’ve won.'"
Still, throughout that painful year, Holm’s star power has only grown.
At UFC 196, Holm had a featured role in the co-main event of one of the year’s most-watched combat sports events, the first meeting between McGregor and Nate Diaz. According to MMA Fighting’s Dave Meltzer, that show drew about 1.65 million pay-per-view buys. Against Shevchenko and featured as the headliner, Holm drew the best summer ratings a UFC on FOX show has ever seen, pulling in nearly 4.7 million viewers at the peak of the main-event match, according to Meltzer.
Her bout with de Randamie will be the third time in her last four fights she’s been in the headline spot. The UFC brass has already invested marketing money into her and clearly sees the possibility of additional future returns.
So there is much to gain past simply winning the title, even if that is her ultimate motivation.
Her chances in the fight are difficult to predict. De Randamie is one of the few potential competitors that can match Holm’s striking experience, having fought professionally in kickboxing for several years—reportedly compiling a 37-0 record—before transitioning to MMA.
So far in the UFC, de Randamie has had an uneven run. In four fights, she’s gone 3-1, with her loss coming via TKO to Nunes. One of her three wins was a split decision.
Since the start of 2014, de Randamie has pulled out of more fights (three) than she’s competed in (two). To her credit, both of the bouts she participated in ended in dominant TKOs.
Her style and her length—de Randamie is a wiry 5-foot-9 with a 71-inch reach—pose a stern challenge for Holm.
Given their backgrounds and preferences, it’s likely that the fight is decided in the striking realm. Given what’s at stake, Holm couldn’t ask for anything more.
After a nightmare year and two losses, she has the chance to turn it all around in a single night. The spotlight is hers for the taking.