For as long as she lives, Holly Holm will be connected to Ronda Rousey, the way she was last November, when her left leg connected on one of the sport’s all-time kicks.
That seems like such a long time ago, with so much history between then and now. Title changes, fighter returns, suspensions and an ownership shift; it never stops. The movement is so continuous that sometimes it’s better to step back, stay still and observe instead of chasing it.
That’s the life of Rousey, who was last seen walking out of the cage in 2015 as a crumpled heap of devastation. While doing nothing fight-related since, she appears poised to return to a division that’s put itself through the grinder and leapfrog everyone for a title shot.
While Rousey hasn’t officially announced a return, she’s sent out recent signals, including a Reebok commercial that noted “perfect never gets a shot at redemption.” UFC President Dana White also recently noted Rousey would get a title fight upon returning.
The signs are there. All she needed was the proper situation. Well, the divisional landscape is now ripe for the picking, having changed multiple times in her absence, including another shift after Saturday night’s UFC Fight Night in Chicago with Holm suffering a second consecutive loss since her kick heard ‘round the world.
This one—a clear-cut unanimous decision at the hands, feet and takedowns of Valentina Shevchenko—may mean the end of Rousey vs. Holm II as a drawing card. The potential rematch might have survived one Holm loss, but a second straight defeat sets her back in a crowded division that has become sheer chaos.
“I’ve never in my career, whether boxing or MMA, felt like I’m at the top,” Holm said in the post-fight press conference. “I know there’s always someone else aspiring to be the best. When I first came here, I said I want titles in both boxing and MMA. I had drive behind me. I still do. I never looked at the division and said, ‘I made it to the top, so now I’m just going to stay there.’ There’s always someone hungry out there. That’s why people watch fights, because you never know what’s going to happen. It’s unpredictable.”
It’s unpredictable. It’s also often unfair.
“Fair” is a four-letter word in mixed martial arts where you can do nearly everything right for an entire training camp and nearly the entirety of a fight, then make one mistake and lose both the bout and your consciousness. Everyone finds that out at some point, and Shevchenko may soon discover it firsthand.
Shevchenko is a lifelong martial artist, starting her training at age five and competing professionally in boxing, muay thai and kickboxing in a career that began when she was just 15 years old. Now 28, Shevchenko earned what is the biggest victory of her combat sports career; yet, it’s likely to mean little for her title hopes past treading water.
Unfortunately for the No. 7-ranked bantamweight Shevchenko, her one UFC loss is to current champ Amanda Nunes, and a single win over Holm won't be enough to push her past everyone in front of her. Shevchenko—and the rest of the fight world—better start preparing herself for Rousey vs. Nunes.
On the bright side, the chaos that has reigned over the bantamweight division means anything is still possible. Rousey lost to Holm. Holm lost to Miesha Tate. Tate lost to Nunes. Cat Zingano lost to Julianna Pena. Holm lost to Shevchenko.
There was a time when White had no interest in women’s MMA, sure that a lack of depth would make its long-term existence untenable. That seems like a quaint little notion today, with the division so deep that the UFC can’t seem to put a favorite into a headline fight without making her an endangered species.
Shevchenko (13-2) did it by out-executing Holm in all phases, a stunning development given Holm’s athleticism, fastidious preparation habits and sustained history of success. Prior to Saturday night, Holm had never suffered consecutive losses in her professional combat sports career, a span of 50 fights over 14 years.
With both fighters styling themselves as counterstriking enthusiasts, someone would have to take the lead. Ultimately that became Holm, who attempted to use her three-inch size and two-inch reach differential to her advantage.
That turned out to be a disaster. Shevchenko was brilliant at setting traps and using a speed advantage to counter Holm with sharp jabs and check hooks that repeatedly connected and upset her opponent's timing.
According to FightMetric, Shevchenko connected on a whopping 54.8 percent of strikes (119 out of 217) while Holm landed just 73 of 231 (31.6 percent). Shevchenko also used Holm’s forward momentum against her with three takedowns. From the second round on, it was a clinic.
“We expected the counters, the tight clinch game, and the trips, which she did all that,” Holm (10-2) said in the press conference. “I was trained on all the right things. My performance was not right tonight.”
Holm can take solace in the fact that almost everyone in the division who's gone before her has left with the same lamentation. Right now in the UFC women's bantamweight division, the favorites can't win. On the other hand, for Holm, Rousey and everyone else, if there's ever been a time to embrace the underdog label, this is it.