It’s not unlike bringing your kids in for their first swimming lesson, only to discover you share a local pool with Michael Phelps. Or going for a check-up on a balky knee and unwittingly walking straight into the office of Dr. James Andrews.
Serendipity is quite the mad scientist, and another of its experiments reached full expression last week when, after a protracted and public negotiation period, women’s bantamweight Holly Holm signed a five-fight deal with the UFC.
Though the 32-year-old world boxing champion and heretofore undefeated pro cage fighter may not be a prospect in the strictest sense of the word, before last week she was still working the sport’s minor leagues. And by her own admission, she still must push hard to expand her game and the ceiling of her potential if she's going to succeed at this level.
“I have a lot of work ahead of me,” Holm said in an exclusive interview with Bleacher Report. “People ask if I’m excited [to join the UFC]. It’s a lot to take in, definitely. It feels a little more worldwide than it felt before…I’m just trying to stay level-headed.”
Born into an athletic family in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Holm’s MMA path started in the late 1990s when, as a 16-year-old mired in offseason doldrums, she signed up for aerobics sessions at the gym down the street. The Tae Bo craze was still in full swing at the time, and this gym happened to have a little bit of combat flair.
Famously, the name of Holm’s instructor was Mike Winkeljohn, one half of the modern-day Jackson-Winkeljohn coaching juggernaut that leads a stable of luminaries including Jon Jones, Carlos Condit, John Dodson and Tim Kennedy.
“I just wanted to stay in shape for soccer. How awesome for me that it was Jackson-Winkeljohn?" Holm recalled. “I watched some teammates fight, and I thought ‘wow, they’re not joking around.’”
Serendipity can only set off the touch paper, of course. At some point, talent has to take over. Holm has that in spades. However, to this point, the known quantities of her skills are confined to the striking game.
The good news on that front for Holm is that the southpaw can hurt any opponent with either hand and throws lethal combinations. Her high kick can close the curtain any time it lands, she has excellent movement and sense of range and her cardio is top-notch. The bad news is that her ground game is largely unknown and untested, especially against elite competition.
The latter became a key bargaining wedge between Camp Holm and the UFC. Despite her obvious talent and the marketing assets she brings as an outwardly friendly and telegenic preacher’s daughter, Holm’s road to the UFC was paved with turbulent back-and-forth contract talks, which lasted more than half a year and included UFC president Dana White thundering that Holm “hasn’t fought anybody” and calling her manager, boxing promoter Lenny Fresquez, a “lunatic.” In March, White said the UFC was “not interested whatsoever” in signing Holm.
Fresquez also openly admitted during the negotiations that he asked for “six figures” for Holm in a title fight with champ Ronda Rousey. Recent reports now show that celebrity fighter Gina Carano, and not Holm, is more likely to receive an immediate shot at Rousey, despite not having fought professionally in five years.
Though Holm has said she is OK with Carano receiving the shot, would she go back in time and handle any aspect of the negotiations differently if she could?
“No,” Holm said. “I figured it would be like that. Sometimes, things don’t happen overnight. I set it aside…I let Lenny take care of it.”
In a way, more serendipity might have arrived for Holm during the negotiations, this time in a rather strange package following her April fight with Juliana Werner under the Legacy FC banner. Holm threw a picturesque head kick in the fifth round to win by TKO, but she fractured her arm earlier in the fight and is now on the shelf until at least October.
The timing of the injury, Holm said, might have allowed the negotiations to drag on without holding up her fight career. The down time also seems to be helping with her newly busy schedule outside the cage, which appears to involve very long strings of phone interviews.
“I’m still healing,” she said. “I can't train 100 percent right now. I don’t ever want to get a broken arm, but it’s a good thing it happened during this transition.”
And then there’s the Rousey question.
Will Holm be able to defend one of the champ’s takedowns, much less The Armbar? Holm doesn’t exactly dub herself a shoo-in, but she seems to keep the window open a crack. She also says she welcomes any bulletin board material about her deficient ground game and overall fitness as a challenger, drawing a parallel to criticisms from her boxing days.
“I’m very impressed by Rousey, but there are huge, huge upsets in sports history,” Holm said. “There is criticism, but it’s not the most I’ve ever seen. That was my rematch with [Anne Sophie] Mathis. Talk about people doubting.”
For those not aware, in 2011 Mathis served Holm a brutal KO loss, only the second of Holm’s career. Holm went against the popular opinion by throwing herself into an immediate rematch, which she won by decision.
Could some such unlikely tale of table-turning be bearing down on the UFC’s women’s bantamweight division and one of the company’s biggest stars in Rousey?
“In my mind, anybody is beatable. That’s why people watch sports,” Holm said. “I don’t want to be the person who lets people down. It’s up to me now to perform.”
The Beaten Path series interviews, ranks and analyzes the top prospects in MMA. For the previous interview in the series, click here. All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Scott Harris writes about MMA for Bleacher Report. For more, follow Scott on Twitter.