In September I wrote up a gameplan for John Dodson to beat Demetrious Johnson. It wasn't easy and, as expected, the champion held onto his belt--even more easily. Now I'm supposed to do the same thing for Ronda Rousey and Holly Holm and . . . well, it feels just about as hard. So to make things easy, here's what I said back in September, with Rousey's name inserted for DJ's.
I'll say up-front that this is one of the hardest articles I've ever had to write. [Ronda Rousey] is not only one of the most dominant champions in all of MMA, but one of the most well-rounded fighters, period. Since mounting the UFC's [women's bantamweight] throne, [Rousey] has held the newborn division in an iron grip, and it's getting harder and harder to envision anyone knocking [her] off any time soon--but today I will attempt to find the strategy to do just that.
Rousey may not be as fully well-rounded as Demetrious Johnson, but the gap between her ability and that of her competition is far wider; to wit, Rousey is no Mighty Mouse, but neither is Holly Holm John Dodson. That being said, no fighter is invincible, however they may seem. Unless she retires early, Rousey too will face that Mike Tyson vs Buster Douglas moment, when the utter impossibility of her defeat doesn't stop it from happening.
If Holly Holm is to be that woman, then there a few key things she'll have to do.
1. Angle after punches
2. Create space and kick
3. Reactive takedowns
Let's run through these points in reverse order, starting with . . .
3 - REACTIVE TAKEDOWNS
This is almost certainly the most surprising part of the gameplan. After all, every one of Rousey's 12 career wins (as well as the three amateur bouts before those) demonstrate how suicidally dangerous it is to grapple with her. Whether on the ground or on the feet, nobody has gotten tangled up with the Olympic judoka and escaped unscathed.
The problem for an out-fighter is that it's virtually impossible to evade an aggressive opponent without grappling at some point. This is true not only for MMA, but for boxing as well. In fact, Holm regularly made use of the clinch during her boxing career. The goal of an out-fighter is not necessarily to stay constantly out of range, but frequently out of danger; not "all the way out all the time," but "all the way out or all the way in." For Holm, mid-range has always been the most dangerous distance, a place where her frequently more powerful opponents could withstand her punches and poke holes in her already porous defense.
Stepping into an opponent solves this problem just as well as backing away. In fact, without one the other becomes less effective as the fight wears on, and the opponent becomes more and more determined to close the distance. By quickly changing direction and closing the gap, Holm can break her adversary's rhythm, and quickly get back to her preferred range.
Of course, this tactic is a little more complicated in MMA than it is in boxing. The referee isn't likely to break a clinch in the Octagon unless both fighters have completely neutralized one another for at least a minute. Most of Rousey's opponents have been overpowered and outmaneuvered in the clinch long before a minute has elapsed, and the last thing Holm wants is to tie up with Rousey for any extended period of time. Then again, the second-to-last thing Holm wants is to spend the entire fight jogging backward, inviting Rousey to simply run through her punches and drag her to the floor.
The solution? Quick, well-timed takedowns, followed by immediate separation. Judging by the first minute of Holm's open workout, this is something she plans to use against Rousey.
Without the ability to grapple with Rousey, Holm will be doomed to a night of ineffectual backpedaling--and most likely a short one, at that. By choosing her battles and shooting occasional takedowns of her own, Holm can break Rousey's rhythm, slowing her seemingly relentless forward momentum and giving her something to think about.
The most important thing for Holm is to keep these takedowns purely reactive. That means using them as counter attacks only when Rousey becomes so determined to close the distance that she sacrifices her balance for the sake of forward movement. In other words, Holm must resist falling into the trap that Miesha Tate fell into over and over when she rematched Rousey two years ago.
1. After fighting her way back to her feet, Tate has just landed a solid left hook on Rousey.
2. The moment Rousey attacks with a jab, Tate vaults into a double leg takedown.
3. Despite a decent amount of penetration, Tate fails to blast Rousey off her feet.
4. As she continues to drive, Rousey pulls her right leg back, limiting Tate to a single leg . . .
5. . . . while at the same time turning on an angle to sweep Tate's own legs out from under her.
6. Rousey throws Tate emphatically to the ground.
Against Ronda Rousey, failures tend to be catastrophic in nature. Rather than having her takedowns stuffed, Tate consistently flung herself into counter takedowns. The moment Tate lost drive on her leg attacks, Rousey would adjust her angle and grip, and use Tate's momentum against her. To avoid the same fate, Holm must avoid shooting until there is no other choice. As soon as there is no way to get all the way out of range, she must get all the way in, and quickly, hitting Rousey's hips before she can adjust her feet and twist the exchange to her advantage. And then Holm should disengage, standing back up and reclaiming the distance. Rinse and repeat.
Of course, grappling with Rousey at all is a risk. No fighter in the UFC dominates opponents on the ground as consistently as Ronda. As a calculated risk, however, a gameplan that includes short bursts of offensive grappling makes a lot of sense.
2 - CREATE SPACE AND KICK
Since moving to MMA, Holm's kicks have been her most effective weapon. Defying the expectations of every opponent that came into the cage expecting a knockout puncher, Holm's hands have served as distractions first and foremost, while her kicks do the heavy lifting.
For Rousey, who has proven quite adept at leg attack takedowns as well as the more conventional throws, Holm will want to dial down the number and frequency of kicks. Completely abandoning her most effective weapons, however, would be a huge mistake. Instead, the former professional boxer should weather Rousey's assaults with straight punches and footwork (more on that in the final part of our gameplan), and wait for Rousey to take a backward step. The instant Rousey responds to one of Holm's flurries by retreating, the challenger will have her opening.
Holm used this approach to great effect in her last fight against Marion Reneau.
1. Holm stands with plenty of distance between herself and Reneau.
2. Lunging across that space, she leads with a straight left that falls short of the mark.
3. Shifting into a squared stance, she follows with a straight right.
4. Finally, Holm steps off line to deliver a kick, letting her left hand linger on Reneau's guard as she winds up.
5. Reneau's hands are in no position to block a kick that, thanks to Holm's busy hands, she never saw coming.
Holm's punches are more nuisance than knockout threat, but annoying is all they need to be. In this example, Holm uses her fists simply to obstruct Reneau's vision and bring her arms away from her ribs. Rousey can certainly take a shot, and has taken them from harder hitters than Holm; but she certainly can't see through a solid object. And if Holm's kicks are hidden from view, Rousey will be far less likely to counter them with takedowns.
If Holm is patient and waits to apply her kicks until it's relatively safe to do so, then she will be able to swing the momentum of the fight in her favor. No matter how far Rousey's striking skills have come, she has never demonstrated an ability to fight off the back foot. If she is punished every time she takes a step back and rebuffed every time she comes forward, all while Holm finds openings for her most dangerous strikes, then Rousey's pace will slow, and her confidence will weaken. All Holm needs is one small crack in Rousey's grim-faced exterior to begin pouring on the volume.
Then again, that amount of striking will only leave her open for the takedown, unless . . .
1 - ANGLE AFTER PUNCHES
Well-timed lateral movement is the single most important aspect of any gameplan to beat Rousey. Until a fighter comes along who can compete in a prolonged clinch sequence, Ronda's challengers must evade her bullrushes as often as possible, or else give her a reason to back off.
Now in some cases it behooves a fighter to brawl with an aggressive opponent, if only briefly. Fabricio Werdum did this with Cain Velasquez, and it helped quickly establish him as a threat, not a man to be run over. In Rousey's case, however, the risks are just too great. To this day Miesha Tate is the only fighter to survive an initial brawl with Rousey--and even Holly Holm would have to acknowledge that Tate is a fighter of unusual toughness. Slugging it out with the champion would seem to be, at the very least, a risky endeavor. What Tate's last fight with Rousey does show, however, is that Ronda is extremely hittable. Lucia Rijker she is not.
This is something that Holm, who has often struggled to connect with great accuracy, can benefit from. Ronda's lackluster defense will afford Holm the opportunity to make her punches count more than they usually do, and Ronda's forward momentum will put her constantly in harm's way. But instead of standing her ground and trading blow for blow with the more powerful striker (and yes, Ronda is a harder hitter than Holm, boxing background be damned), Holm should opt to throw no more than two or three punches at a time before moving to one side or the other.
This tactic has been a staple of Holm's game for years. As a professional boxer, she was consistently disadvantaged in terms of punching power, but her constant movement and activity allowed her to even the score.
Much like the clinch attempts/takedowns discussed in the first section of this article, Holm's pot shots serve to break the rhythm of her opponent. Here, she twice manages to slow the advance of Ann Sophie Mathis. Even though neither of Holm's crosses lands, they force a reaction from Mathis, a moment of hesitation that allows Holm to skirt out to her left along the ring ropes, away from the corner in which Mathis was trying to trap her.
Rousey is aggressive, and she is dangerous in every phase. Nonetheless, she is not an expert ring-cutter. The champion lets her toughness and aggression make up for a decided lack of boxing ability (not unsurprising given her relatively limited experience with striking). Bethe Correia attempted to use a stick-and-move strategy against Rousey, but couldn't manage more than a few seconds before she was sucked into a brawl. But Bethe Correia is a novice herself. Holly Holm has been playing the part of an out-fighter for over a decade. She is beyond comfortable with this style of fighting, and though the rules are a little different in MMA, she seems to have adapted well.
Obviously, the odds are in Rousey's favor. Ronda has more MMA experience. She is stronger and almost certainly hits harder. Whereas Holm has to focus on keeping the fight in a very specific range and phase, Rousey has never seemed to worry about where and how she gets the finish, so long as she gets it. That being said, Holly is the first dedicated out-fighter that Ronda has ever faced, and the most experienced combat athlete as well. To recall the Tyson-Douglas comparison, the first man to defeat Iron Mike was longer, taller, and not known as a power puncher. In the end, he fought the perfect fight against an acclaimed (and distracted) champion, and shocked the world.
It bears keeping in mind.
For more in-depth analysis of Rousey-Holm, and the superb co-main event fight between strawweight champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk and Valerie Letourneau, check out the latest episode of Heavy Hands.