That dirty word Holly Holm hates is back. Again.
The same word boxing analysts had on their lips after she was brutally knocked out by Anne Sophie Mathis in December 2011.
The notion came from a good place then, as it does again now, like déjà vu, after suffering a violent beatdown at the hands of bantamweight queen Amanda Nunes at UFC 239 – an experience Holm described as a “nightmare.”
So, as the news broke last week that the 37-year-old former bantamweight champion will dust off the battle armor once more and return to Melbourne at UFC 243, it begs the question, ‘what does she have left to prove?’
However hard those fighters who fought on UFC 193’s card had worked, the speaker system worked harder.
Swelling like the renowned surfs of the nation’s coastlines, the cheers of the 56,214 strong Australian crowd in attendance that night were still not enough to drown out Holly Holm’s post-fight speech – tearfully grateful and broken with the sheer joy at what she’d just accomplished.
The odds she’d overcome were fairly staggering, +700 by frugal bookmakers, some of the more generous neared the +2000 mark.
That was just for that fight. In reality, her victory that night in 2015 was a direct result of four years flipping the bird to those betting against her, and inadvertently, those who thought they had her best interests at heart.
The footage of her defeat to Mathis is shocking. Without a loss in the ring in seven years to that point, Holm – shaking like a freshly-born foal and left eye purple like a fresh cut of liver – is knocked limp through the bottom two ropes by two successive right hands, unimpeded on their way to finding their already disfigured target.
Holm would have none of the concern, suggestions, or sympathy that followed – she just wanted to get back to it. After all, like long-time coach Mike Winkeljohn said to her that night, “Muhammad Ali is a legend, he’s been knocked down and he came back and he’s a legend,” – why should she be any different?
The next four years, she tore through everything and everyone; beating Mathis in the rematch to win the WBF Female, IBA Female, & WBAN Welterweight titles followed by two more victories in the ring before tearing through nine of the world’s greatest MMA fighters, and landing at her historic 5 minutes 57 seconds with Rousey.
That’s a pretty powerful pep talk.
So when, five months after winning it, Holm lost the title to Miesha Tate maybe we thought we knew what was about to unfold. Maybe Holm did too.
But the past wasn’t prologued this time.
Nor would it become so. Since beating Rousey in 2015, Holm is 0-4 in title fights in two divisions. Yes, two were decisions (against Cris Cyborg and Germaine De Randamie, both for the UFC Featherweight Championship), and yes, both were close-ish. But with each loss, Holm’s sting seemed a little less potent.
The fact is, Holm was facing the elite of the elite. Where Rousey had once represented the potential of world-class one dimensionalism, there was now a new breed of the top 1% of women’s MMA and as a result, an updated Litmus test for those who could challenge them.
She was, and possibly still is, one of the few female bantamweights for whom a title fight case can be made. But that doesn’t always mean it should be.
It’s a testament to the respect and admiration she commands that when, in July of this year, she once again faced the consensus greatest of all-time, a part in all of us that thought maybe, just maybe she could do it again.
As ever, Holm believed it. Her longtime coach and one of the sport’s most highly regarded trainers, Mike Winkeljohn believed it, saying she was “As good, if not better than ever”.
With comments like that and Holm’s impossible to dislike persona, why not dare to dream again?
But then it doesn’t happen – or rather, the dream is scratched out, crumpled up and not even thrown in the recycling to come back anew, as was decreed by GOAT Amanda Nunes’ right hoof – what then?
Then, the ‘r’ word comes back, and this time it comes sodden with the weight of a beleaguered public, a public that needs absolutely no convincing of Holm’s importance in the UFC, MMA, and combat sports as a whole, but simply thinks enough might be enough.
Though past her former glory, the 37-year-old still ranks high in the division’s talent crop and could well enjoy success against anyone other than Amanda Nunes – a double-edged sword for her career longevity and still-burning title aspirations.
In her UFC 243 opponent, Raquel Pennington, Holm faces a fighter cut from the same diuturnal cloth, one of a growing class of competitors who has also felt their own mortality at the hands of the greatest female fighter the world has ever seen.
Fighters, no, people like Holm are rare.
Is it ‘enabling’ when those closest to her continue to somehow insist that she is better than ever and can still “shock the world?” The rest can’t help but think, ‘this isn’t 2015.’
And, more importantly, it doesn’t need to be.
Rhodri Morgan is a combat sports writer based out of London, England. When not covering MMA, he can be found roaming the halls of a south London Wholefoods, finding a dog to befriend and rolling in the doomed pursuit of the perfect kimura.