Nearing the halfway point of her UFC main event fight in Kallang, Singapore, on Saturday, Holly Holm showed little sense of urgency. She moved and feinted but rarely attacked. Her fists remained cocked and ready but passive. The action—or inaction—was sluggish enough that referee Marc Goddard took the uncommon step of warning both fighters that at some point they would have to engage.
"Listen ladies," he said, "I respect the game plan, but you have to make something happen."
Holm's opponent, Bethe Correia, wasn't budging. Correia is by nature overly aggressive, but by this point in the third round, it was clear she was diverting from her base instincts and staying away from Holm's counterstriking strengths in an effort to force the former UFC bantamweight champion to lead the dance. Correia smiled at Holm, shook her head, taunted her. And finally, she invited Holm to attack, waving her forward.
It was as if she were saying, I dare you.
After all this time, it's become clear Holm has certain offensive preferences. One of them is to let her opponent go first. Correia was turning the tables on her to a degree that Holm had rarely seen. Holm was flummoxed enough that in the first round she attempted only 13 strikes, and landed only seven, per FightMetric.
But this? This was going too far. And proving MMA is a sport that loves its instant karma, Correia's audacious invitation was met by force; a shin upside the head that recalled the one that Holm landed against Ronda Rousey so many months ago, back when she was seemingly ready to take over the MMA world.
The kick was a thing of beauty: a Brazilian kick that presents itself as a front kick to the body before curling up and around the opponent's shoulder and to their jaw. It was textbook, crashing into Correia's face and sending her down in a heap.
"I think obviously if I was training to fight me, I'd say, 'She has a left kick; watch out,'" Holm said in the post-fight press conference. "It's one of those things. I think you know it's coming, but I still want to hit you with it."
It was brilliant, and for most, it was good enough to erase all the tentative moments that came before it. It was good enough to wipe out Holm's three-fight losing skid. It was good enough to remind the world that on her best day, Holm is one of the best in the world, and that someday soon, she might go a step beyond that by wrapping another gold belt around her waist.
And now, the downside. It's not worth getting overly critical—Holm won, and she did so in highlight-reel fashion. But even in victory, she does things that lead to second-guessing.
After her last two losses—decisions to Germaine de Randamie and Valentina Shevchenko—Holm openly spoke about turning up the heat with her aggression and leaving no doubt in the minds of the judges regarding who won each round. That didn't happen against Correia, at least not for the first two rounds. Holm did win both rounds on the judges' scorecards, but neither of them were what anyone would call decisive. They were simply "enough."
One way to look at that is she was pacing herself for a possible five-round fight. Another interpretation is that she was what she's always been: slow and methodical.
"One of my goals was to not let it look messy," Holm said. "Her style is she wants to get in, make it look like a brawl. I wanted it to look clean. I'm not happy with even letting her land a couple shots in the second round. I wanted to pick clean shots and do it right. The game plan was not to rush anything, even if the crowd might boo. I thought, 'I'm the one in here fighting, and I'm going to pick the right shot.'"
Holm is clearly a fantastic fighter. Her boxing resume proves that; so does her dominant KO win over Rousey. But those moments of excellence are often sprinkled in among long periods of inactivity, even when she is the more talented of the two in the cage. MMA is a dangerous game, and a certain amount of defensive caution must be imparted in every game plan. Unchecked aggression is also a path to peril. But as she moves on to conquer her next mountain, Holm has to ask herself whether the balance is right.
But that's a discussion for next week. Now is a time for celebration, and there is much to enjoy. Holm is no doubt back on the short list of bantamweight championship contenders, and in all likelihood, her counterstriking style would sync well with current champ Amanda Nunes—if Nunes can get by Valentina Shevchenko in July.
Holm could also bounce back up to featherweight to fight the victor of the Cris Cyborg-Megan Anderson title match, which is almost set, per Ariel Helwani of MMA Fighting.
Winning creates opportunities, but it can also mask problems. With her win in Singapore, Holm ended a drought, but now she'll take the escalator to higher-level competition. Athletically, she's as good as anyone she might face in the future, so it may be her approach that makes the difference between winning and losing.
Saturday showed everything she can be and everything she is—the good and the bad on display; the power to change and the ability to evolve hers to summon in an instant.