Even in a landscape as barren as women's boxing, many doubted that this day would ever come. Holly Holm, one of the principal faces of women's boxing has announced her official retirement from the sport, at the age of 31, to pursue a full time MMA career. Holm carries with her a record of 32–2–3 from her time spent in 14oz gloves. She is a WBF, WBAN, WBC, NABF, GBU, WIBA, IFBA, WBA, and IBA boxing champion, with victories over a who's who of women fighters, and having achieved as much or more in her sport than any athlete could hope. Yet, she remains largely an unknown figure outside of dedicated fan circles; and it's hard not to see this, above all else, as the potential driving force behind her retirement.
Jorge Hernandez, announced her retirement yesterday via twitter. Holm still has one fight left, a fight against 20–1 Mary McGee, on May 11th.
Holm has amassed an MMA record of 3–0 prior to her official boxing retirement, most recently defeating Katie Merrill via second round TKO (watch here) in Bellator. She trains, and has for much of her boxing career, under Mike Winklejohn at Jackson's mixed martial arts, so the groundwork for her MMA transition has been well laid. Winklejohn had this to say, prior to her MMA debut:
"People forget - she was a kickboxer first," Winkeljohn said. "So she'll be ready for anything standing. And her ground game has gotten pretty good. I think she'll surprise a lot of people."
Holm herself offered the following explanation of her move:
"Since I first started fighting, it became my passion," Holly explained her decision. "I decided a long time ago, after quitting school to fight, that I would box as long as my heart was in it. One of my biggest and controversial fights was against Christy Martin. Then, it was Mary Jo Sanders. There's always a champion. This is my own journey. Every one of my fights have helped me to believe in myself.
"When we were deciding which way to go with my future, my trainer, Mike Winkeljohn, said it best, 'You want to climb a new mountain.' This thing has created a new spark in me and I'm following my heart. I wish much success to Cecilia (Braekhus) but not fighting her does not, by any means, define my boxing career. I know there's a lot of talk about that but what does that say about all the women I've already fought? I've never been a paper champion. I've grown so much every step of the way. I'm in this fight, on May 11,100 percent; I'm not distracted. This is obviously an emotional, spiritual and physical journey and I'm so grateful for the people who have supported me. I just want to fight where my passion is (MMA). I train in an MMA gym and always have."
For what it's worth, rival promoters and boxers have weighed in with their thoughts on Holms' retirement. WBA, WBC, and WBO champion, Cecilia Braekhus had this to say:
It´s a pity and I´m disappointed. I will now shift my focus to other challenges, there are a lot of other interesting options for me. One thing I know for sure – true champions do not run away from mega-fights."
And Nisse Sauerland, Braekhus' promoter, took it even a step further.
"If Holly Holm still had the heart, pride and skills to compete at the highest level, there is no way she would have passed on the biggest payday of her career. We have offered her a six-figure sum. But with this offer on the table, she calls it a career and decides to fight in MMA - for a fraction of that money. That just tells you all about how scared she is to fight Cecilia."
However even with her camp affiliations, her long career, and her background in other combat disciplines, and even the potential avoidance of tough fights, it feels like the timing of this announcement carries broader implications.
After UFC 157, a very real message has been sent to women combat athletes: MMA can offer greater money, publicity, and opportunities for success than any other combat sport. Ronda Rousey may have already had some name value from her time in Strikeforce, but Liz Carmouche was transformed into an overnight celebrity, a champion for women's MMA and gay rights, and without the requirement of years of unnoticed accomplishment in her sport.
If the most famous female boxers can expect to make anything between 75,000 and 200,000 per fight, at the very height of their careers, that's a very small amount of money for a very select few superstars. WMMA certainly has the potential to offer more. Ronda made $90,000 in her first UFC fight (pre-PPV points), and while that may be right in line with boxing, it feels like the low end of her earning potential, rather than a notably high watermark.
That's not to say every fighter will make massive amounts of money from MMA, of course. Reported salaries for women, even at top are still a fraction of what they are for the top male draws. And MMA in general provides a harsh monetary climate for young fighters looking to build from the lowest levels. But Holm isn't starting from scratch. Even with only three pro MMA fights she's almost certainly one of the premiere women's bantamweight strikers, and scratching at the door of top 15 status with a couple more wins over name opponents.
Her last fight in Bellator is something of a concern. She needs to work on her ground game, and if she's under contract with Bellator long term, building career momentum will be a real challenge. She may not be on the UFC's radar quite yet, but if she could make her way to Invicta they'd probably look to fast-track her and have her headlining, or co-headlining, events before long. All that is putting the cart before the horse, though.
Whatever the reasons: more money, more avenues for talent development, or a more varied successful skillset; MMA, despite it's relatively short history, is quickly making itself known as the premier home for women combat athletes. And while Holm may be one of the first big names from boxing to make the crossover, I doubt she'll be the last.
(Thanks to BE reader Dukecity505 for pointing me in the direction of this radio interview with Holly Holm shortly before her Bellator debut, in which she confirmed that her contract was for one fight only.)