At UFC 300, 42-year-old Holly Holm eyes an avenue back to title contention

At UFC 300, 42-year-old Holly Holm eyes an avenue back to title contention

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 0

Holly Holm has been watching Kayla Harrison.

An Ultimate Fighting Championship veteran of 10 years, Holm only watched fights from rival promotions when her teammates competed. When she caught Harrison during Professional Fighters League broadcasts, she came away intrigued.

Harrison is bigger than Holm and her expertise as a grappler posed challenges for a former boxer. The way Harrison dominated lower-profile competition invited questions about her true capabilities.

“I’ve watched her with PFL and always thought, ‘I wonder if I would ever fight her,’” Holm said.

That fight materialized in January, when her bout against Harrison was announced as part of her promotion’s milestone UFC 300 event, which takes place Saturday in Las Vegas. They’ll meet during the prelims, where Holm (15-6, 1 no contest in MMA) welcomes Harrison (16-1) to the UFC after six years in the PFL.

Harrison, a two-time Olympic gold medalist judoka, won a pair of lightweight titles in the PFL before jumping to the loftier UFC earlier this year. She enters the match as a -400 betting favorite despite her UFC inexperience.

Those expectations don’t faze the 42-year-old Holm, who rose to mixed martial arts prominence in 2015 when she stunned Ronda Rousey via second-round knockout in what some consider the greatest upset in MMA history.

Holm followed a successful amateur kickboxing career with an 11-year tour into professional boxing starting in 2002. Over that time, she won titles in three weight divisions and was twice named “Female Fighter of the Year” by The Ring magazine. Late in her boxing career, she began competing in MMA. She retired from boxing in 2013 with 33-2-3 record and was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2022.

Holm opened her UFC career in 2015 with a win over Raquel Pennington, the current bantamweight champion. By November of that year, the Albuquerque native had positioned herself for her first title fight, in which she faced Rousey, the sport’s then-undefeated crossover star who was favored by as much as 20-1 odds.

Before Holm, just one fighter survived a full first round against Rousey. When they fought, Holm controlled the first round then floored Rousey with an emphatic high kick in the second. The win earned Holm an ESPY award for “Biggest Upset” and she became the first person to win championship belts in both boxing and MMA.

“I don’t like to live in the past in 2015 because that was so long ago,” Holm said, “but yes, I remind myself of moments like that because I’ve been there before, I know I’m capable, and I want to keep that sound mind-set walking into a fight.”

Holm’s subsequent title fights were less auspicious than her coronation.

She lost her title defense to Miesha Tate via rear naked choke then suffered consecutive defeats by unanimous decision to Germaine de Randamie and Valentina Shevchenko. Despite rebounding wins, she later lost title fights to Cris “Cyborg” Justino in 2017 and Amanda Nunes in 2019.

For some, those defeats help define Holm’s career as much as the 2015 title. She has not achieved the celebrity of Rousey or the dominance of Nunes, but she has chased the most challenging opponents.

That trend holds true Saturday, when Holm meets Harrison as an underdog.

Harrison, like Rousey, is an Olympic medal-winning judoka. Rousey in 2008 won a bronze medal in judo in Beijing, and Harrison in 2012 became the first American to win an Olympic gold medal in the discipline in London, repeating the feat at the 2016 Summer Games.

Harrison made her MMA debut with the PFL in 2018 and became its biggest star, winning lightweight titles in 2019 and 2021. The 33-year-old has said she wants to be considered the world’s best female mixed martial artist and sought higher-profile fights. She signed with the UFC in January after those matchups failed to materialize with the PFL.

After fighting at 155 pounds in the PFL, Harrison makes the steep drop to 135 pounds in her UFC debut. She hopes to compete for the bantamweight title if she defeats Holm.

“She’s a legend of the sport and I don’t usually throw that word around too much, but I consider her a legend,” Harrison said of Holm. “She’s managed to stay in the top 10 for years and years. She’s a former champ. So, she’s a big test for me. But I feel like I’ve prepared for that test and I’m hitting my stride. I’m in perfect form.”

The UFC 300 card brims with former and current titleholders. Former men’s bantamweight champion Aljamain Sterling makes his featherweight debut against Calvin Kattar alongside Holm and Harrison during the prelims. The main card features men’s lightweight contests between Justin Gaethje and Max Holloway, and Charles Oliveira against Arman Tsarukyan. It’s headlined by a men’s light heavyweight title clash between Alex Pereira and Jamahal Hill, and a women’s strawweight title decider between Zhang Weili and Yan Xiaonan.

Five years after her last title shot, Holm believes she has the résumé to merit another opportunity sooner rather than later if she can defeat Harrison.

Holm has won three of her last four fights, a stretch that features wins over Irene Aldana and another over Pennington, though it excludes her most recent match, a second round loss to Mayra Bueno Silva that was later ruled a no contest after her opponent tested positive for ritalinic acid, a banned substance.

Again an underdog, Holm has felt a thrill she hasn’t experienced in years. On Saturday, she hopes to halt another decorated star’s momentum.

“Some fights just get you more excited than others and this one, I’m just a little bit more excited for,” she said. “To have a champion coming over from another league that everybody has been fearing, kind of expecting big things from, it’s exciting for me because I want to be able to shut all that down.”

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