Things didn’t totally go Holly Holm’s way at UFC 184.
Maybe that will turn out to be the best thing for her.
Holm made her Octagon debut amid a boatload of hype on Saturday, after establishing herself as one of women’s MMA’s hottest free agents with three undefeated years on the independent circuit. Before her arrival—once delayed in 2014 by injury—there were even whispers she might be the one to finally give Ronda Rousey a real run for her money.
After Holm eked out a split-decision win over the outsized Raquel Pennington and Rousey doused Cat Zingano in just 14 seconds, however, those murmurs no longer apply. It’s clear now that Holm will need more seasoning at the sport’s highest level if she ever means to challenge the UFC women’s bantamweight champion.
Watching Rousey tie Zingano in knots in less time than it takes to get dressed in the morning only reaffirmed her singular status in the MMA landscape. She’s still a few levels—heck, maybe a generation—ahead of her nearest competition, and Holm just isn’t there yet.
Holm’s fights in smaller organizations made it look as if her size, mobility and striking skills might be the antidote for Rousey’s prodigious judo skills.
Her first UFC appearance just made her look nervous.
After the judges announced their split verdict in Holm’s favor—29-28, 28-29, 30-27—she admitted as much to UFC color commentator Joe Rogan inside the cage.
“It’s a new experience, and the unknown is there, so there’s a lot of nerves with it,” Holm said. “I feel like because of all the hype, I don’t feel like I can live up to it, you know? There’s so much talk, and there’s a lot of nerves involved.”
Before she even entered the cage, Holm appeared to have a pronounced case of the infamous Octagon jitters. She skipped/marched into the arena to a traditional Scottish dance tune, and by the time she arrived at the UFC’s corporately sponsored prep point to receive her final instructions from officials, she was visibly shaking.
Or maybe that was a dance? In any case, it didn’t inspire a ton of confidence in the official odds, which made her the overwhelming favorite over Pennington, according to Odds Shark.
Once the bout began, it appeared as though she never really settled down. She was slow out of the gate, landing just eight significant strikes in the opening round, according to the official FightMetric statistics.
Throughout their 15 minutes together, she noticeably outpaced Pennington—punctuating each strike with a loud kiai—but many of her punches came up well short of the mark. Her high kick attempts mostly sailed over Pennington’s head, and Holm looked tight, with her combinations coming off rigid and forced.
She established a slim lead during the first two rounds, but Pennington—in her fourth UFC fight—didn’t go away. She slowly whittled into the lead with counterstrikes, bloodying Holm’s nose and sending her stumbling to the mat at one point with an off-the-mark punch that landed in the crook between Holm’s neck and shoulder.
Holm was the rightful winner of a rightfully close decision, and the bout wasn’t as bad as the boos from the crowd in Los Angeles or the biting reviews on social media made it seem. But this was also not the potential star we’d seen tear through lesser competition in smaller events, as Holm even acknowledged (via Todd Martin):
And, again, maybe that’s for the best.
In retrospect, the worst thing that could have happened to Holm would have been a title fight against Rousey in her Octagon debut. It likewise would be a mistake to thrust her into a bout with the champion in her second UFC fight or maybe even her third.
Against Pennington, Holm did not leave the impression that her high-volume but low-impact striking style would have much for Rousey. Already 33 years old, it seems doubtful she’ll ever be able to close the gap on the wickedly strong, technically exquisite champ, who has reportedly been arm-barring people since before she could walk.
But to even see Holm give her best performance against Rousey—if she ever gets there—she’ll need her legs under her in the UFC. That’s going to take a few more outings, preferably in high-profile spots, on television or pay-per-view.
The building blocks for a formidable force in the women’s bantamweight division were there on Saturday. At 5’8”, Holm towered over Pennington, who is listed (perhaps generously) at 5’7”. Her mobility was superb, and her takedown defense was impressive. She unleashed punching and kicking combinations with remarkable skill and range.
But make no mistake: UFC debuts are hard.
Ask Anthony Pettis. Ask Shogun Rua. Ask Brock Lesnar.
After all, this was just Holm’s third professional MMA fight outside her home state of New Mexico and her first against UFC-level competition. Even if Pennington came in at 5-4 overall (2-1 UFC) and was largely viewed as a showcase opponent for Holm, there were other obstacles in her way.
Surely, while going 7-0 on the indy scene and 32-2-3 during a professional boxing career from 2002-13, nothing prepared her for the bright lights of a UFC co-main event. Certainly there was no way to prep for fighting in front of nearly 18,000 fans at Staples Center, most of whom had already been told by the UFC that Holm was something special.
Even after an underwhelming first impression, she can still be a very good fighter in the 135-pound women’s division. It’s just going to take some time to acclimate herself.
Let Rousey fight Cris “Cyborg” Justino. Seriously, make that fight at any weight. Just make it.
Let Rousey fight Bethe Correia, whom she called out at the post-fight press conference.
Let her fight anybody but Holm—for a little while, anyway.
A prospective bout between the two will still be interesting enough not to rush it. If we’re eventually going to see Rousey vs. Holm, there’s no harm in waiting until we get the best version of both.
Chad Dundas covers MMA for Bleacher Report.