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UFC 184 Technique Recap part 2: Holly Holm vs Raquel Pennington

Holly Holm had a tough fight on her hands in her UFC debut against Raquel Pennington. BE's striking specialist Connor Ruebusch breaks down the cause of her frustrations.

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome back to the Technique Recap. This week we're looking back at UFC 184, a fun-filled event rife with good, bad, and otherwise enlightening examples of clinch fighting. In part one we examined the devastating clinch techniques of Tim Means and Alan Jouban, both of whom used a combination of elbows and punches to finish their opponents in the first round. Now we'll turn to the co-main event, a striking battle that, while not as technical or decisive, was still largely contested in the clinch.

Holly Holm had a lot of buzz coming into the UFC, riding a successful boxing career and a 7-0 MMA record into her Octagon debut against tough-out Raquel Pennington. Prior to the event I wrote about some of the limitations of her striking style, notably her lack of strong punching mechanics. Pennington provided a nice opportunity for Holm to prove herself capable of more and, unfortunately for the 33 year-old contender, she showed more of the same against a substantially higher level of competition, just squeaking by with a deserved but essentially unsatisfying split decision win as a result.

Let's take a look at one of the MMA-specific consequences of those flawed fundamentals, on which Pennington capitalized throughout the bout.

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1. Holm drops her weight, preparing herself to punch.

2. Her elbow flares as she drives forward with a straight left, parried by Pennington.

3. As she is wont to do, Holm steps her left foot forward, squaring her stance as she attempts a shift right hook. Pennington changes levels and bobs underneath this punch.

4. Holm now finds herself in clinch range, and extends both arms to shove Pennington away before she can strike.

5. Too late--Pennington cracks Holm with a right hook across the jaw as she struggles to back out of range.

Holm is an out-fighter in the purest sense. Her technique isn't perfect, but she is most comfortable on the outside, moving side to side and using her straight punches and kicks to keep her opponent at range. This desire to maintain range is so strong in Holm that she often finds herself flailing to reestablish her preferred distance. This wouldn't be such a problem if Holm's method of punching didn't put her right into mid or close range.

Take a look at the punches above (watch the GIF if you can). Holm telegraphs her cross by settling her weight and cocking her punch the moment before she attacks, doing nothing to disguise this movement with her lead hand. As she throws the left, her elbow flares, not only diminishing the power in the punch but making the strike even more obvious to Pennington, who parries the blow effortlessly.

At this point Holm wants to continue attacking, but she doesn't seem to know how to throw a technical left hook. She only knows how to shift, switching stance mid-punch and marching forward to land it. This can work at times--Holm managed to drop Katie Merrill with a shift punch to the solar plexus--but only when the opponent respects Holm's punches enough to back up as she comes forward. Against a stalwart bruiser like Pennington, the shift carries Holm, with her knees unbent and her hips square, right into close range, the last place she wants to be.

Pennington isn't the world's greatest wrestler, but Holm still did an admirable job of adjusting her hips and moving her feet to deny her opponent's takedown attempts on the inside. The troubling thing is how often she allowed herself to get into that position in the first place. Even worse, Holm found herself being outstruck by Pennington in this range, certainly not a smart look for a supposedly dangerous boxer.

Here's another look at that careless dive into the wrong range, which Holm carelessly replicated all night.

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1. Holm starts at very long range--far too long to initiate a punch without being timed and avoided.

2. A throwaway jab accompanies her advance, but does little to disguise her intentions.

3. Pennington's defense is nothing special, but she still manages to parry Holm's left straight . . .

4. . . . and she once again ducks under the shift right hook.

5. Now Pennington gets in on Holm's hips, and the two start battling for position.

Take a look at the position of Holm's body in frames three through five. Leaning forward, legs nearly straight, off-balance and feet squared. Pennington's level change isn't particularly strong, and her ability to finish strong on takedown attempts is virtually nonexistent. Holm was certainly more than capable of stuffing every one of Pennington's attempts. Still, the fact that she found herself fighting off takedowns so frequently is not a good sign. Once she does wind up in the clinch, there are more than enough flaws for a skilled clinch grappler (of which one just happens to rule Holm's division) to exploit.


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1. Pennington is in on Holm's hips, but fails to connect her hands.

2. As Holm slides her left forearm inside to crossface Pennington, the latter is forced to slide from double leg to clinch.

3. Keeping Holm in close with a left underhook, Pennington tries a right uppercut, but misses.

4. Holm tries a knee, but Pennington absorbs it with her right arm.

5. Now Pennington stands up straight and winds up for a right hand upstairs.

6. Holm has no control of Pennington's posture, nor the angle to avoid her right hand. She takes a short cross clean on the jaw.

7. Trying to get back, Holm charges forward, but leaves herself open, head forward and feet square.

8. Pennington easily stymies her assault with a quick, clean jab.

In part one we looked at the value of angles in the clinch. Alan Jouban used a collar tie to whip his opponent off balance and into position for an elbow to the temple. Above, Holm could have done something similar with her crossface. Ideally it would've looked something like this, an uppercut counter from former Rajadamnern champion Malaipet Sasiprapra's Thai clinch tutorial.

Note how Malaipet uses his crossface to control the direction of his opponent's body in relation to his own. pressing down on the back of the other man's head and keeping the structure of his arm firm to maintain space (the arm can withstand much more force with the elbow at an obtuse angle--try it out). Compare this to Holm's position in frames three through four above. The crossface is there. Holm presses her forearm into the neck and jaw of Pennington. But there is no posture control, and Holm stands directly in front of her opponent, giving Rocky every opportunity to haul off and hit her in the face. A strong side clinch should prevent such a thing from happening.

At other times Holm went for the traditional collar tie that Jouban used to knock out Rich Walsh, but suffered from technical deficiencies there too.

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1. Same as before, Holm dances around a bit on the outside. . .

2. . . . and then drops her weight, preparing to dive in with a straight left.

3. Again, the flared elbow, the dramatic forward movement--Pennington parries the clearly visible punch . . .

4. . . . and once again ducks under the inevitable shift right hook, going for the takedown.

5. Holm smartly skips around to her left, tying up Pennington's neck in a double collar grip. She pulls her hips back to throw a knee and . . .

6. . . . Pennington uppercuts her in the mouth before she can get it off.

Let's turn to Malaipet once again to see where Holm went wrong in this clinch attempt.

As Malaipet demonstrates, the double collar tie is a powerful position, one intended to bend an opponent, quite literally, to your will. Like Holm, Malaipet pulls his hips back, but he also yanks down on the back of his opponent's head, breaking his posture and making it nearly impossible for him to defend the follow-up knee strike. Note also that his head is very close to that of his opponent, denying the space to punch should the other man prove incredibly strong and difficult to break down.

Holm's clinch, by comparison, is a pretty slapdash affair. Rather than gripping the back of Pennington's head, she clasps her hands around her neck, giving her substantially less control over the other woman's posture. It doesn't end up mattering all that much, because Holm does very little to affect that posture in the first place, and Pennington still finds herself standing upright and in position to punch when Holm begins to load her hips for the knee. And that punch has no trouble connecting cleanly, given the foot of space between Holm and Pennington's heads.

For Holm, boxing was never about fighting on equal ground. Hers was a movement-based style, in which she would circle the ring, shoot in with quick and plentiful combinations, and then tie up, waiting for the ref to separate her from her opponent. With the exception of her newfound kicking prowess, she has adapted this strategy quite literally to MMA, changing very little about the way she approaches her fights.

Unfortunately for Holly, MMA refs are decidedly less eager to break up clinches, and MMA fighters are often quite keen to engage in that range. To enjoy a long and successful career in the UFC, Holm will need to either adopt a more fundamentally sound punching method--one that doesn't send her caroming into a range where she must outgrapple her opponent--or develop a more fundamentally sound clinch game to make up for the fact that she's going to spend a lot of time there. With Ronda Rousey licking her chops at the top of the heap, waiting for fresh meat, Holm would be best served to make this change sooner rather than later.

For more analysis of Holm vs Pennington and an in-depth discussion of the place of fighting styles in MMA, boxing, and kickfighting, check out this week's episode of Heavy Hands, the only podcast dedicated to the finer points of face-punching.