The bull and the matador. It is the metaphor of choice for writer after hackey writer. Yet it is one which you can slap on a write-up of Holm versus Rousey and it will seem completely apt. A bullfight, as Hemingway put it, is not a contest but a tragedy. The odds are stacked against the bull and the more aggressively he fights, the more he will exhaust himself. But once he slows, he's dead. Not many predicted that Ronda Rousey would suffer the same fate.
The 'fight' was a beautiful execution. Rousey was never in the game as Holm danced around her, angled off from her clumsy charges, and skewered her with left straights. The end came just a minute into the second round as Holm connected with her left high kick and sent Rousey to the canvas, unconscious.
The storm of uneducated opinion in the wake of the fight has been deafening and everyone wants to pretend that they always knew how to beat Rousey, they just didn't know if Holm was the 'level of athlete' to pull it off. When someone starts talking about 'A-level athletes' and ranking fighters by 'athleticism', you should immediately disregard their opinion on anything related to fighting. Yes, Holm is a big woman for her weightclass, and holds terrific endurance, but it was her discipline, her form, and her patience which won her this fight. Her choices and composition and not her 'athleticism'.
The second moronic opinion that you will encounter is that Rousey lost because she chose to engage Holly Holm in a striking match. This fits nicely into the storyline of Rousey falling in love with her hands, being put on the cover of Ring magazine to sell copies, and so on. But it isn't true. Those who have actually followed the MMA game for a while now know that while 'striking' and 'grappling' are categorizations we make to break the sport down into understandable chunks, they are not removed from each other. Rousey's entire game is built around the clinch, and she has to get chest-to-chest with the opponent to achieve that. We discussed this five months ago in Killing the Queen: Ronda Rousey.
But the point of this article isn't to gloat—I didn't pick Holly Holm to win, if I could do that accurately I'd be making my living on bets. The purpose of this article is to show that it is not who someone is, it is what they do. Doesn't matter if its Anderson Silva, Ronda Rousey, Jon Jones or Renan Barao, the principles to defusing their favorite tactics don't stop applying just because of who someone is. All I do is examine a few hours of tape (though there were only minutes of Rousey) and list the most effective methods for taking a fighter's A-game away and punishing their few errors. Stick with me and we'll discuss just how well Holly Holm did this.
The Bull and The Matador
Everything that I laid out in that article, and everything which Holly Holm did to hurt Rousey, stems off of the fact that she only has one means of getting to the clinch—moving straight in. Boxing into the clinch is so important in MMA and those two elements alone can often guarantee high level success. Randy Couture is a terrific example, Chris Weidman is perhaps the best example in the game.
The problem is that Rousey isn't boxing into the clinch, she's running forward with punches into the clinch. The act of pumping ones hands isn't boxing. Boxing is done with the feet. Where Weidman will masterfully cut the cage and take space away—which you can see on full display in his bout with Lyoto Machida—Rousey will bullrush in. And it has worked because the women she has been fighting have panicked and stood still to throw punches back.
What Weidman, and every other truly great offensive fighter has been able to do is cut off the ring. This means that when the opponent steps to your right, you step with your right foot to make sure you're still crowding them and vice versa. Stepping straight in is a commitment of the weight to an attack and just gives the opponent the opportunity to get away. Norman Mailer called it 'a balletic art' and it's true that there is a great deal more subtlety and grace to offensive footwork than the casual observer would imagine. For instance, notice here that while Lyoto Machida is doing exactly what the outfighter should do to get off the cage—changing direction and attempting to fake Weidman into committing to one side—it is Machida who is tiring himself out, doing all the extra work, while Weidman is just making small movements to keep The Dragon in front of him.
Here's what would have happened if Weidman were a little more anxious to dive in and hit Machida:
Of course to see absolute ring cutting mastery look at the effortless grace of Julio Cesar Chavez:
Or even the understated craft of a young George Foreman:
You cannot cut the ring with your feet on a tightrope, as Rousey's always are, because the movement of the feet to each side of the opponent is what allows the fighter to widen his stance and create a blanketing pressure. Ring cutting or cage cutting is about meeting lateral movement with lateral movement, not a charge to the corner and the hope that your opponent will get trapped between you and the fence.
The problem with rushing in on a straight line is that the opponent can cut a tight angle to either side and you will not be able to cut them off. It turns a game of crowding and pressure into a game of wild chasing. I wrote in Killing the Queen that:
Side stepping and snapping out non-commital jabs and oblique kicks seems to be the best idea against Rousey who has never been difficult to hit and whom I sincerely doubt has the gas tank to bull rush for three rounds, let alone five. And that's all a Rousey opponent really needs, for the bull rushes to stop.
Notice how Ronda uses an enormous amount of unnecessary movement in changing directions and chasing, but Kaufmann's desire to punch convinced her to stop circling.
And last week I pointed out that:
Rousey in the second and third round against Miesha Tate was a far less mobile opponent than in the first round where she ran across the ring constantly
No one should be telegraphing their charges that heavily and moving so slowly in the second round of a fight. And that is Rousey's greatest weakness. She is built to fight one round. Even in the second fight against Tate, where all Tate did was survive, Rousey was considerably slower by the second round and proved easily hittable. Tate's own boxing is pretty poor, but she check hooked Rousey with ease in the one instance that she decided to move offline rather than wing her right hand each time Rousey stepped in.
Holm's performance took everything that was wrong with Rousey's aggression and used it against her. From the opening moments, Holm was circling, making it difficult for Rousey to get her feet set to run in as she usually does.
The first meaningful blow of the fight came in Holm's usual changing of directions into the left straight, right uppercut, left straight combination which she leaned on throughout her boxing career. Circling to her left, she ran in with punches and was out on the right side before Rousey could respond.
Every charge Rousey made, even when she connected with punches, she would wind up running straight past Holm as the challenger circled out. That is the difference between hitting the mitts a lot and learning the ring craft. A good boxer—or kickboxer for that matter—works to stay in position to hit when they want to continue hitting, or get away if they want to be safe. Rousey wanted to follow up into the clinch, or hit more, and she very rarely could.
Just as expected, the act of actually sprinting after her opponent and having to do it more than once quickly tired Rousey. There were many who felt she could do simply do this into the fourth or fifth round, but keeping it up for one was exhausting enough.
Holm utilized a check hook masterfully. Rousey even had with Holm's southpaw right hand in the weigh-ins, seemingly dragging it into her own face in the crook of her left elbow and getting upset by it.
But joking aside, Holm's checking right hook over the top of the champion's pumping jab or inside of her wide left hook worked to carry the charging Rousey past and allow Holm to pivot out to the side.
Notice how Holm raises her left elbow in expectation of a response. In the above gif it catches a Rousey punch, in the last clip in the below gif, it is in place to cross face when Rousey attempts to clinch.
Not to mention the beautiful weave out under Rousey's left hand in the break between uppercuts.
It was great to see Holm go to kicks so effectively, and particularly straight kicks. Straight kicks are harder to catch than round kicks, particularly low line straight kicks to the knees, shins and front of the thighs. We noted in Killing the Queen that Rousey doesn't often grab legs, and even then you will probably never have seen an oblique kick caught in the UFC because they are fast, quickly retracted, and come in so low that a real stoop would be necessary. Holm used oblique kicks masterfully to jam Rousey as she set herself to charge in with punches—not just painful, but exhausting to be stopped when loading up attempts.
As Rousey slowed down, the kicks became more frequent, and Holm even threw her favorite side kick to the body, something I thought would be far too slow to attempt against a grappler as dangerous as Rousey.
Many of us had our doubts about Holm's punching power coming in. I noted in Killing the Queen:
'I fail to understand why so many of Rousey's opponents have spent their time winging the right hand when they have had so, so little success knocking opponents before her. Right hands punches are tricky and mechanically complex. Timing them on a rushing opponent is even more difficult. Much, much easier is that classic trick to stop a wrestler—driving a large chunk of bone into the path of their face.'
'Rory MacDonald's favorite counter left elbow would work a treat as Rousey stepped in and would actually do some damage. What's more, where a punch folds after the connection, an elbow can kept in front of the face. Ironically, Floyd Mayweather of all people has spent a career punishing opponents for trying to tie him up by letting them walk onto the point of his lead elbow. There aren't a lot of women with one punch hitting power, but anyone can learn to stick their elbow out as someone runs forwards onto it and cause some harm.'
Sure enough, we saw Holm go to the left elbow and she made a stellar connection with it, though it did bring her into a tie up which she had wanted to avoid.
And this was where things got interesting. This article is certainly not a brag, I was writing Holly Holm off like everyone else. I too, knew that it is almost impossible to avoid a clinch altogether for an entire fight. When she got tied up off of the elbow a few minutes into the bout, I assumed this was where Rousey was going to make her comeback. As it turned out, Holm immediately retrieved her right arm and placed it between herself and Rousey to prevent the hip throw.
As she backed onto the fence, Holm shelled up, keeping her right arm tight to her body and between her and Rousey, denying Rousey her usual favorites while the cage wall denied another number of Rousey's throws. I highly recommend—nay, insist—you watch the great Tristar coach, Firas Zahabi's video breakdown of this.
When we examine the best fighters in the world in our Killing the King studies, we often focus not on glaring holes in their game because the best of the best don't tend to have those (though we found one in Rousey's inability to cut the ring). We focus rather on ways to jam their A-game and force them to go to something less practiced, less favored, and probably less effective. Holm's shutting down of Rousey's usual throws is a brilliant example of this.
While this fight was all Holm, I did enjoy that as Rousey worked to drag Holm's arm across the center, she threw a hard knee at Holm's now exposed liver. The exact kind which caught Sara McMann in the midst of what she thought was a wrestling exchange and put her down. It was a good knee and on another night could have winded Holm or bought the time to drag that arm and hit a throw or back take.
Holm didn't avoid the takedown altogether and did get taken to the floor. Immediately getting to her knees, it looked as though she was going to suffer that overhook armlock (the Kom-lock) which Rousey caught Zingano in. But in an instant Holm remembered her training and recovered her arm while Rousey's hips were still loose.
When the two returned to the feet, the complexion had changed entirely and the first good left straights started landing. Rousey's feet were stuck to the ring mat, she was lingering in front of Holm, and she has never had any head movement, cover ups, or parries to speak of.
But Rousey found her mark on one key instant. When Holm went for her favorite step up right low kick, a blow which she has used to hobble many of her opponents, Rousey caught Holm's chin. Holm wobbled, Rousey sprinted in, and Holm did what any good boxer does when they're hurt, she grabbed a hold... of a world class judoka. And then she took her down!
Just as with Alexander Gustafsson against Daniel Cormier and Jon Jones, sometimes it is in the striker's best interest to do something that is completely unexpected of him. Certainly it looks great to the judges and observers, you get a ton of goodwill simply by the fact that you were able to take down the much better wrestler with none of their pedigree, and in this instance it saved Holly Holm from a swarm of punches while she regathered her wits.
By the second round, Rousey was swinging wilder than ever before. Holm's simple roll out off of the fence saw Rousey swing wild and fall to the mat as Holm jogged to the centre of the cage. It was reminiscent of when Nicolino Locche tired Takeshi Fuji into submission in the boxing ring.
As Rousey became less threatening, Holm began to stiff arm her just as we discussed in Killing the Queen:
'Willie Pep and Lennox Lewis both used a tactic known as 'heeling' in boxing, driving the palm of the hand into the opponent's face and pushing their head back. Pep used it to keep the brawling infighter, Sandy Saddler off of him, Lewis used it to keep hurt fighters from cuddling up to him. You will see Jon Jones perform exactly the same thing combined with a circle out, but I'll forgive you if you missed the purpose because most focus on the eye poking he performs during this manoeuvre.'
'Similarly in sumo, where 300lbs giants drive straight in and look to get dominant clinching position, many fighters have had terrific success by driving the head back by use of the web of the hand against the throat—known as nodawa. '
Holm would fire her left straight and immediately shove Rousey back by the face.
The end came as Rousey walked onto another left straight, and went down momentarily. Just as the bull gets slower, and heavier, and drives itself onto the killing blow, Rousey had run onto the left straight.
As she sprung up to her feet, Holm was behind her. While Rousey turned, Holm threw the high kick and knocked Rousey out cold. Holm was made to deliver a few unnecessary hammerfists, but that's just MMA.
The kick, while coming off of an unusual sequence, adhered to the rules which have made Holm such a dangerous kicker generally. Whenever she throws her round kicks, she has preceded them with a combination or feint, and moved off line to shorten the path and bring it through a blind angle. To read more about that check out Is Holly Holm the Woman to Beat Ronda Rousey?
Nothing sums up the fight so beautifully as this sequence. Holm feints, Rousey charges, Holm circles around, comes in with a double left straight, and circles off again:
What is next for both? Well, the challenger almost always has to win a best of three series in the UFC, particularly against a long standing champion, so expect a rematch in a few months. For Holm? Keep training and growing. Her ability has come on in leaps and bounds while she's been quietly getting the rounds in through her short UFC tenure. For Rousey? It's hard not to feel for her. She was set up to fail and the internet is reveling in it.
Clickbait in print.
Rousey had been lied to by hype and management. Used on the cover of Ring magazine to shift extra copies with the line “is boxing next?” Even after dropping a clear 10-8 round in the first, her coach was telling her she was 'perfect'. She may have believed she was an excellent striker, god knows the people around her told her it enough. What she really needs is to get away from her current gym and trainers and to move into a truly elite camp where she can be surrounded by fighters who will do what Holm did to her day-to-day until she learns that bull rushing is not the key to beating elite fighters or to career longevity.
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