Over the course of 12 fights and four years, Ronda Rousey developed a reputation for being an unstoppable monster that could take you down and break your arm backwards in less than a minute. As she went from being the Strikeforce champion to inaugural UFC bantamweight champion, her legend grew to the point where she was being called a once in a lifetime athlete and all time great, an indestructible fighter that might never lose. People debated with sincerity whether she could beat then-UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez.
But in her 13th professional fight against Holly Holm in Australia, the unthinkable happened: Holm not only beat Rousey, she routed her from opening bell to the fight’s finish, which ended with Rousey unconscious on the canvas from a thunderous head kick. Had Ronda gotten distracted by the relentless media responsibilities the UFC had pushed on her over the year? Had she underestimated former boxing champion Holly Holm? Maybe. But in the end it was the blueprint that Holm and her coaches at the Jackson-Winkeljohn gym developed and put into practice that day that resulted in one of the biggest upsets in the history of the sport.
Ronda’s gameplan has never been a secret: she likes to get in quick, initiate a clinch, and then send her opponent flying with one of the dozens upon dozens of judo throws she has honed since childhood to razor sharp perfection. From there, she attacks with another weapon developed en route to her bronze medal in Judo at the 2008 Olympics games: the armbar. Judo newaza rule give you mere seconds to work on the ground before a match is stood back up, which explains how she got so good at locking in the fight finishing submission with lighting speed.
But to initiate that chain reaction to victory, Rousey first needs to get her hands on her opponent … and this is where a weakness becomes apparent.
Ronda doesn’t use footwork to hunt her opponent down. Instead, she wades into the fray throwing wild punches. Accuracy isn’t of huge importance in this step. If she hits and hurts her opponent with one of these haymakers, great. But the real goal is to get inside, and the second she’s close enough those wild strikes turn into snaking hooks that wrap around the neck or body of her opponent. Then it’s judo time, often followed seconds later by an armbar.
But when faced with someone who knows footwork as well as Holly Holm does, those lunging attacks become a lot less effective. Past Rousey opponents weren’t able to effectively move and strike at the same time, meaning it was impossible to punish Rousey’s wild attacks without getting tied up. That incentivized her to keep trying until one worked. But Holm was able to use her footwork to sidestep Rousey’s rushes and hit her with a straight left nearly every time she came in. One of those first shots cut Rousey’s lip open, and afterwards Ronda commented on how she was left dazed and out of sorts from that point in the fight onward.
Holm also used kicks throughout the bout to keep the Rousey assault at bay. Front kicks to the stomach stopped Ronda’s forward movement dead several times during their fights, and she mixed them up with oblique kicks directed to Ronda’s knees, a controversial weapon shared by teammate and former light heavyweight champ Jon Jones. It was just one more thing Rousey had to be mindful of, one more thing taking her out of her singular drive for the clinch and takedown.
Holm’s movement went past moving a step to the left or right when Rousey charged in. As soon as the bell sounded to start the fight, Holly starting circling her opponent, weaving and feinting and keeping Rousey guessing as to where she’d be at any given time. Rousey, whose knees are wrecked from a lifetime of judo competition, couldn’t keep up with the spry Holm, who kept perfect distance at all times, only allowing Ronda to close in so she could hit her with a straight left before pivoting left, right, left and circling again and out of reach.
Even when Rousey did manage to get a hold of Holm, she wasn’t able to convert the position to a throw. That’s because Holm must have drilled judo defense a million times in training. As soon as Ronda got her arm around Holly’s neck, Holly put her own arm down and pressed against Rousey’s thigh, preventing Ronda from going hip to hip and getting the angle she needed to make a throw. She then ducked out from under Ronda’s overhook and used her strength to shove Ronda off and separate.
And here’s where Ronda’s dominance actually becomes a negative. The UFC superstar had spent a grand total of 18 minutes in the Octagon, with 11 of her fights being finished in the first round and 8 in the first minute. But we’ve seen cracks in her cardio when the fight has gone into deeper waters. Ronda slowed down significantly in the second and third rounds during her rematch with Miesha Tate, and she looked absolutely exhausted going into her fateful second round with Holly Holm. Some argue that there’s no way for her to keep up that aggressive forward rush game for longer than a round. Survive the first five minutes, and you’ll be facing a depleted Ronda at a fraction of her capabilities. We still have no idea how she’d look in championship rounds.
The end of the Holm fight came 59 seconds into the second round, and featured a worn out Rousey making another sloppy charge forward, eating a straight left that staggered her and dropped her to the ground. Holm, always circling off those punches, was practically behind Rousey by the time she got back to her feet. Ronda never even saw the kick coming that knocked her out cold. And with that, Holly Holm had destroyed the aura of invincibility that once glowed so brightly around Ronda Rousey for years.
Many of the tactics that Holm used were no secret to the mixed martial arts community. It’s obvious enough to say the best way to beat a judoka is to not let them grab you and throw you. Likewise, boxers have been using footwork to nullify the charges of aggressive brawlers for a century. But it’s all easier said than done, simple to identify and near impossible to put into practice, especially against an opponent as good at what she does as Ronda Rousey.
Can Amanda Nunes recreate the performance of Holly Holm and beat Ronda Rousey? There’s a big question mark as to whether Holly could even do it again. It doesn’t take Ronda more than 15 seconds to put you down and tap you out. One wrong step, one zig where you should have zagged, and she’ll have a hold of you. And based on many of the photos coming out of her camp, she’s worked a lot on her strength so there’s probably less of a chance to shuck her off should she wrap her brawny arms around you these days.
Holly Holm had over a decade of professional boxing experience to draw on and prepare her for Ronda Rousey. Nunes is more of a brawler that uses her power and aggression to hurt girls and swarm them before they can recover. It will be a big adjustment for Nunes to change her style to fit the Holm blueprint that beat Rousey. But perhaps her coaches merely plan on picking an element or two from it to add to their own blueprint, one that fits Amanda’s style better. Meanwhile, Ronda Rousey and her team will have some new tricks up their sleeves as well.
The game is constantly evolving, and so are the fighters. Who can adapt best to meet the challenges of their current opponent often wins. That’s why Holly Holm won and Ronda Rousey lost at UFC 193. But in this fight, it’s Amanda Nunes that is on the raw end of the stylistic match-up. If she wants to beat Ronda Rousey, she’ll have to retool many of the very skills that ended up winning her the women’s bantamweight championship in the first place. And that’s a pretty big task, even without a beast like Ronda Rousey literally breathing down your neck.
UFC 207 goes down on Friday, December 30th on pay-per-view.