Holly Holm completed one of the most thrilling upsets in the history of a sport full of thrilling upsets. Holm dismantled Ronda Rousey to decisively take the UFC Women's Bantamweight title with a resounding head kick knockout.
It left fans with one simple question: how did this happen?
In MMA short's history there have emerged several distinct games that fighters use to find success in the cage. Every so often one of those basic games or styles takes a leap forward and becomes dominant and then other fighters adjust their own approaches to close the gap. At UFC 193 against Ronda Rousey, Holly Holm employed a very modern MMA striker game to frustrate and then finish Ronda.
This game is based on three basic principles: distance control, disengagement, and making the opponent pay a price for trying to grapple.
For Ronda's entire career the clinch has been her home. If she can get hands on an opponent she can start to employ her prestigious Judo game. Normally Ronda has walked her opponents down to the cage, clinches, throws them to the mat, and begins to attack. So the first goal for Holm was to never move backwards in a straight line, she was always circling or angling off to prevent Ronda from simply bull rushing her to gain the clinch. And any point when Holm's back got near the fence, she immediately would circle or angle off hard to get away and take the fight back to the center of the cage.
When Ronda was able to close the gap and get the clinch, Holm had a simple goal: disengage. There was no real winning scenario for Holm in prolonged grappling exchanges with Ronda, but in short bursts Holm could give Ronda difficulty. Holm was the taller fighter and for many of Ronda's favorite throws she needed to break Holm's posture down, and in that battle within a battle Holm was able to do quite well.
In one instance when Ronda was trying for a head and arm throw, one of Ronda's favorite takedowns. Holm was able to get a body lock. And before Ronda was able to bring Holm's head down and forward for the throw, Holm was able to posture up and put in her own hips to hit a pick up takedown. This is a classic counter to the hip throw in both Judo and Wrestling. Once Holm had Ronda on the mat she immediately backed away and forced Ronda to come back to the feet.
Ronda did successfully drag Holm to the mat at one point and attacked for an armbar. But the throw wasn't a strong one and the entry for the armbar wasn't a high percentage one and again Holm's only object on the ground was to escape and stand back up, which she did.
Distance management and disengaging from grappling is all well and good, but the linchpin that makes it a winning strategy is that Holm made Ronda pay for almost every attempt to close the distance in the fight. Holm's kicks and jabs where used at range to keep Ronda at the very edge of range, and any Ronda attempted to charge in she was met by Holm's snapping left cross.
The result, Ronda was trapped on the outside in Holm's wheelhouse. Ronda's attempts to close the distance resulted in more and more damage as she did not have the defensive skills to avoid Holm's counters. Soon the only offensive weapons Ronda had that were somewhat working was a leaping left hook and her right cross, but she wasn't able to use either of them to close the distance and fight the game she wanted. As the first rounded ended and the second round started Ronda's footwork broke down as she became increasingly frustrated.
A quick example from the first round, here you can see Ronda walking Holm down to the fence. Holm is circling away and feels her back foot getting close to the fence. She then suddenly stands her ground and throws a left hand that stops Ronda in her tracks.
Ronda tries to continue in and get Holm to the fence, so Holm throws a uppercut in close with her right hand as she slips ever so slightly off the the side, taking an angle to Ronda's left.
Holm then throws another left hand that connects solidly as she continues her slides off to Ronda's left, taking her back towards the center of the cage. Holm successfully fought off Ronda's attempt to close the distance and landed a few solid strikes in the process.
Then about a minute into the second round, Ronda was again attempting to stalk Holy down to the cage. Holm circles and then suddenly stands her ground with a strong left had that staggers Ronda. As Ronda tried to regain her balance and stumbled away she was felled by Holm's massive head kick, and her era of invincibility was put to rest with an amazing finality.
The narrative that is emerging of Ronda being "too arrogant" and "tried to strike with Holm" does a disservice to Holm. It was not a decision by Ronda to stay at striking range, Holm worked very hard to force Ronda to stay there. It was the functionally a very similar game plan the Jackson-Winkeljohn camp used for Carlos Condit in his match against Nick Diaz, but this time it reached its designed, violent conclusion. Ronda had a fight dictated to her for the first time, and she didn't have the striking experience or the coaching to make the needed adjustments.