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UFC 184: Rousey vs. Zingano - Toe to Toe Preview: Raquel Pennington vs. Holly Holm

Phil and David break down everything you need to know about the much hyped Holly Holm taking on the much ignored Raquel Pennington at UFC 184.

Phil MacKenzie

Bantamweight (135lbs)
Holly "The Preacher's Daughter" Holm
Odds: -750

Raquel "Rocky" Pennington
Odds: +525

History lesson / introduction to the fighters

Phil: Raquel Pennington was the perennial "tough out" in Invicta FC, taking on all comers and often stumbling at the toughest contenders she was thrown against: Leslie Smith and Cat Zingano. She fell to Jessica Racozky at the semi-finals of The Ultimate Fighter, and then lost to Jessica Andrade in the UFC. This perhaps establishes her as a kind of fun, lower mid-tier brawler, but it's easy to forget that she's young (26) and young in her professional career (2012), and that we often overlook the capacity for evolution that gritty, violent fighters can possess- we think of them as being frozen in place by their own atavism.

David: I'm not sure Pennington would appreciate being referred to as an atavism, but I see your point. She's as blue collar as it gets in the division, or anywhere else for that matter. In a division like BW, blue collar is pretty good, all things considered as the specialists lack dimensionality, making the status as jack of all trades valuable.

Phil: Holly Holm is one of the greatest women's boxers of all time. Her MMA career has been conducted in a constant state of held breath. Will she make it to the UFC? Will she fight Rousey? Will she be ready? She's ticked all the boxes thus far, with a perfect 7-0 record with 6 of them coming by stoppage due to strikes.

David: There's definitely a Mirko Filipovic feel to Holm's presence. However, Mirko entered MMA at a time when you could get away with being a specialist. Granted, you can still get away with being that kind of specialist even now, but there are things about Holm's game that still make me modestly skeptical, which we'll get to in a bit.

What are the stakes?

Phil: A win gets Holm a hyped-up title shot against the Rousey-Zingano winner, and this is what Zuffa must desperately be hoping for. Pennington is well-rounded enough to test Holm in the right ways, but Women's 135 is unfortunately just too shallow for this to be a genuinely significant challenge- the division is so stratified and uneven that it's very difficult to get a good handle on where everyone stands. Rocky might be better than we think, or Holm might be worse, or vice versa. With confusing fights like Tate-McMann, the division increasingly establishes itself into a concept of Rousey... and then everyone else. I have no idea what happens if Pennington wins.

David: Nothing. Pennington will draw Kaufman, McMann, or something ridiculous if she wins. To be sure, Zuffa is hoping Holm is everything she's been cracked up to be. The division is in serious need of contenders and Holm satisfies the surface level competitiveness of said event by selling Holm's singular threat on the feet. Pennington and the words "title shot" go together like "Goodfellas remake", which is to say, not at all.

Where do they want it?

Phil: Distance control is one of the more difficult skills in MMA, and it's particularly rare down at women's 135. The primary skillsets of the best fighters (Rousey, Zingano, Justino and even Tate) are based around crushing clinch and takedown games. Essentially, all of them do their best work when they play the bully.

It's very rare that we get someone like Holm, who is an effective outside fighter. Fighting from southpaw, she has a crisp outside leg kick that she tends to throw in conjunction with her left straight, either using the kick to step in a la Hendo, or using the kick to attack the lead leg when the opponent is braced from taking the left straight. It's interesting to see that she's a more effective (or at least a more damaging) MMA striker than she was as a boxer- like many Winkeljohn-trained fighters, she's a more effective kicker than she is a puncher, and throws the round kick to the liver and to the head to devastating effect. In the clinch, she's fairly simplistic with knees and push aways, but she has clean technique and great athleticism. Essentially, she's going to want to keep Pennington backed up with combinations, and then kick her to death.

David: Yep. Holm at distance. Pennington in close. Holm's game isn't mindblowing. In fact, when you watch her in a vacuum, you kind of wonder what the big deal is. It's not that she's mediocre, or unimpressive. Rather, there's an ugly duckling quality to the way she fights; unaware of her strengths, but nonetheless wearing her pugilism aptitude naturally. She just doesn't draw attention to her striking even when she's winning with it. It's an odd effect, but it's there. She's still there looking for the kill shot, but none of how she achieves her success ever feels forced, or like she knows she obviously has more on her competition.

Phil: Pennington is way more of the classical archetype. She's largely a hard-nosed clinch fighter, although she can crack and throws some solid kicks to the body. If pushed onto the defensive in the stand-up phase, she has a tendency to default to running backwards with her hands up, so Holm may have success following up punch combinations with a body kick. Pennington's best area is pushing the opponent up against the fence, where she uses grinding push-off elbows and knees. Her offensive grappling has looked improved in recent fights, but she is still prone to defensive lapses. Her last major flaw is that she doesn't quite have either the power or the endless cardio that a clinch-heavy offense really needs. She's a strong, sturdy bantamweight, but she does fade somewhat over time. Oddly enough, I still think she can win this fight, to the extent that she is drastically undervalued on the odds.

David: Agreed. While not a ringing endorsement of the division, there's such a dramatic clash of styles from opponent to opponent that being vanilla kind of pays off. Not only that but if Holm is gonna lose a fight, Pennington's method of top control clinch happy pugilism will be the blueprint. Raquel knows what she is, and what she isn't. If she can make this a physical matchup, it's closer than it looks. The odds are ridiculous. The thing about MMA is that after awhile, it's no longer a sport. It's just unfiltered id, kicking and screaming until ether victory or defeat occurs. Pennington needs to make Holm feel like she's not competing in a sport. She needs to make Holm feel like she's being attacked by the gang of Clarrence Boddicker.

Insight from past fights?

Phil: I'm going to go for another fight where an undefeated, old prospect who built up a shiny record in a combat sport where there perhaps wasn't the greatest level of competition fought a tatted-up journeyman with a deceptively shitty record- Wonderboy Thompson vs Matt Brown. In fact, I think Brown's endlessly tenacious, wrestling and clinch-heavy offense is a reasonable facsimile of what Pennington should (and likely will) attempt.

David: True, but I always look back to Holm's fight with Jones, which Connor Judo Chopped the other day. This is what I was talking about above; she has that quick left hand that she wants to throw cleanly rather than savagely. This may sound impressively stupid but I think there's such a thing as 'too technical'. I want Holm to let her natural power and speed take over. The fact that she's throwing the same punch over and over and missing a lot of them tells me she's using it as both offense and defense. Forget moderation. Merc these fools. To be fair, she seems to have difficulty striking in an MMA context, and in addition, Jones ends up getting flatlined by a left high kick.


Phil: Much like heavyweight contests, this is simply a fight where sudden technical dominance or yawning flaws in approach can suddenly appear out of nowhere and utterly change the tone of the contest.

David: Every division needs its own Weizorek vs. Shipp.


Phil: I still think Pennington is a live dog. With that being said, if I have to offer my opinion, I think that Holm owns the edge in finishing offense, and if the fight goes deep she has two things which Pennington has always struggled with: pace and natural athleticism. I think we get a surprisingly tough, competitive scrap where Holm takes over and lands more volume towards the end. Holly Holm by unanimous decision

David: Holly Holm by Unanimous Decision.