This is part one of a two-art article. You can find part two here.
It started slowly. First one clean punch, then another. As Ronda Rousey came forward, relentless as always, Holly Holm seemed poised and determined, matching Ronda's fiery determination with icy calm. Rousey ran into more punches, but eventually got to the clinch, where her excellent judo gave her an edge. We all knew she would eventually.
That's where our expectations started to fail us. There aren't many words hyperbolic enough to describe the upset that Holm began building from the opening bell, and nothing can describe the shock that rippled through the MMA world when Holm put the stamp on a brilliant performance with one of the most perfect head kick knockouts in UFC history.
Of course, criticism for Rousey will pour in. It has already started to. "Why didn't she go for more takedowns?" "Why was she trying to box with Holm?" "Where was her stamina?" Don't be fooled. The Ronda Rousey that showed up in Melbourne would have beaten every last one of her previous 12 opponents. Holly Holm fought the perfect fight.
Here's how she did it.
PUNCHES AND ANGLES
They key to Holm's success was her ability to move laterally to evade Rousey's infamous bull rush. But footwork alone wasn't enough to accomplish this. Holm expertly timed her punches, landing them as Rousey came in and using the tiny moment of hesitation caused by her connection as a window through which she could slip out to the side and repeat the whole process again.
1. Holm moves back and to her left as Rousey comes forward.
2. Rousey tries to feint her way in . . .
3. . . . but Holm doesn't let her get set, intercepting Rousey with a right hook over the shoulder.
4. As she lands her punch, Holm pivots out to the right, forcing Rousey to reset.
5. Rousey closes the distance once again.
6. Holm uses a quick feint this time to force Rousey back and put some doubt in her mind.
7. Once again, Holm moves back and to the left.
8. Rousey steps to Holm's right this time and tries to cut her off with a left hook, but Holm beats her with a shorter hook . . .
9. . . . and once again uses the impact to pivot away, getting her elbow in the way of a Rousey right as she moves.
10. And again, Holm draws Ronda in.
11. Holm meets Rousey's forward momentum with a forward step of her own.
12. She suddenly closes the gap with a brutal elbow to Rousey's face.
13. Again she slips out to the right, though this time has to fight off a clinch.
Holm spent the bulk of her time in this fight retreating and moving from side to side.
Holm has never been a powerful puncher thanks to a few flaws in her fundamental mechanics--you can read more about that here. Against Rousey, however, it wasn't much of a problem. In fact, the vast majority of Holm's punches seemed to land with devastating effect.
It was Rousey's style that turned Holm into a devastating puncher overnight. Determined to close the distance from the very beginning of the fight, Rousey repeatedly ran into Holm's punches, her momentum magnifying the impact. Though she has used small head movements to get inside in the past, Rousey has never faced a dedicated out-fighter, and didn't know how to crack Holm's bubble without leaving her head centered and her chin exposed. Over and over she charged straight into the end of Holm's left hand, exhausting herself in the process and making each blow more effective than the last.
Not only did Rousey's relentless forward movement increase the impact of Holm's punches, they allowed her to be more accurate too. Holm is used to throwing a lot and landing a little. Even in MMA, in which her more consistent kicks can boost her numbers, Holm has not proven to be terribly accurate, landing just 33% of significant strike attempts according to Fight Metric. Against Rousey, however, that number skyrocketed to an incredible 71%. Holm simply couldn't miss, and Rousey had no idea how to make her.
Holm has intercepted aggressive opponents in the past but, as you can see in the GIF above, this often required her to clinch. The expectation going into the Rousey fight was that Holm would not be able to stop Rousey in close and mid-range. As it turned out, she could.
CONTROLLING THE POCKET
Rousey is a swarmer through and through. Even as her punching technique improves (and it's becoming clear that punching is about the only aspect of boxing that she and Edmond Tarverdyan have worked on) Rousey was always a bull-rusher, determined to eat up the distance between herself and her opponent until she could get to the clinch and go to work.
To many, this meant that Holm needed to avoid the clinch at all costs. It was said that she needed to backpedal constantly, never allowing Rousey to close the distance. Unfortunately, this simply isn't a feasible strategy. As an out-fighter, Holm's home is absolutely at long range, but no boxer in history has ever fought a determined pressure fighter without winding up in the pocket at one time or another. Expecting Holm not to wind up in close range is about as unrealistic as asking Rousey not to get hit on the way in; the problem can be mitigated, but there is no avoiding it altogether. Holm could only move away for so long before Rousey was close enough to either hit her or grab hold of her.
So she closed the distance on her own terms. In the gameplan I drew up before the fight, I suggested that Holm would need to hit a reactive takedown or two to break Rousey's momentum. Others suggested step-in elbows and short punches. Holm used both tactics to claim the clinch, and the short range in which Rousey's strikes are most effective, as her own.
1. Holm slowly retreats while Rousey comes forward.
2. As Rousey plants her left leg, Holm goes for a lead leg kick.
3. But Rousey smashes her on the chin with a left hook while she only has one foot on the ground . . .
4. . . . sending Holm stumbling backward.
5. Pressing the advantage, Rousey charges forward with a right hand, but Holm rolls under it . . .
6. . . . and connects her hands around Rousey's waist.
7. Now Ronda starts to turn, looking to counter with an Uchi Mata.
8. But instead of driving forward and giving Rousey the momentum she needs, Holm simply lifts Rousey into the air . . .
9. . . . and puts her down, on her back.
On the surface, the idea of Holm attempting to take Rousey down seems ridiculous. Obviously Holm would want nothing to do with Rousey on the ground, and the very idea that a former boxer could unbalance a lifelong judoka is completely counterintuitive. From a strategic perspective, however, it makes perfect sense.
The clinch was always a safe zone for Holm in the boxing ring. When aggressive opponents began to close down her escape routes, she was always willing to take a well-timed step forward to initiate a clinch, taking away her opponent's options for attack and forcing a reset. MMA is different, of course. In fact, MMA is more like classic boxing; the clinch is a battleground, not a respite. Timing can get any fighter close enough to grab on, but there can be no passivity when it comes to in-fighting in MMA.
And that's why Holm went on the clinch offensive instead. With Rousey in close and swinging, Holm simply couldn't afford to keep backing up. Off-balance, out of position, and with her back near the fence, she was in no position to create space--but that didn't change the fact that Rousey had yet to take all of the space away. Doing the best thing she could with what little distance remained to her, Holm changed directions, driving into Rousey and getting in deep on a bodylock. With her hands connected, not even Ronda Rousey could easily outmaneuver Holm. And, much to her credit, Holm benefited from a cool head: unlike Miesha Tate, who powered through takedown attempts so desperately that Rousey had no trouble countering, Holm actually reversed the direction of her takedown after Rousey began to adjust for a throw.
Too often we think of fighting as some sort of video game, in which skills exist on a flat spectrum. Rousey has better takedowns than Holm, so Holm couldn't possibly think to take her down, right? If that were true, another former boxer in Alexander Gustafsson wouldn't have been the first man to take down Jon Jones, nor would he have toppled former Olympian Daniel Cormier in October.
The reality is more complicated. Holm is nobody's idea of a perfect wrestler, but she certainly understands timing and distance as well as any wrestler out there. Her takedown technique might not be perfect, but a perfect entry is more than enough, even against an Olympic bronze medalist. By aggressively pursuing the takedown (and stepping in with hard elbows, as in the first example) Holm took charge of the range of the fight, rather than letting Rousey do the same.
Check back Wednesday for part two, in which we'll talk about some of the more subtle aspects of Holm's strategy, and break down the head kick heard round the world.
For more on Rousey-Holm, keep an eye out for a new episode of Heavy Hands, the only podcast dedicated to the finer points of face-punching (and kicking, too).