Holly Holm of the United States celebrates victory over Ronda Rousey

There’s a hard rule in sports fandom: if your favorite isn’t playing/fighting, you cheer for the underdog. The best underdogs are the ones who, statistically, shouldn’t have a chance. The ones expected to put on a good show and leave on their shield, a notch on the champ’s belt. The ones who then shock the world, tearfully accepting their coronation in the hearts of fans.

So, why on earth is Holly Holm vs. Ronda Rousey considered the UFC’s greatest upset?

Significance vs. Quality

Love her or hate her, Rousey’s crossover stardom was the impetus for deep investment in WMMA by the UFC.

Regardless of her attitude or over-promotion, Rousey meant a great deal to female athletes. Fighting is about as hyper-masculine as it gets, and to watch a strong woman dominate pay-per-view numbers was empowering. She accomplished this without diminishing her femininity, posing in Sports Illustrated while hitting back at critics who considered her chubby. One only needs to see the clip of a little girl rushing to hug Rousey during a martial arts demonstration to understand what she meant to many fans.

She wasn’t the magic bullet by any means; WMMA fighters are judged disproportionately by their sex appeal and their divisions lag in terms of skill and depth compared to their male counterparts. But Rousey is directly responsible for women headlining PPV cards and getting spots in UFC commercials.

The question is whether that automatically means Rousey was a high caliber champion. And the answer to that is a resounding no.

Ronda Rousey and Holly Holm battle at UFC 193
Ronda Rousey and Holly Holm battle at UFC 193 (Source: Quinn Rooney/Getty Images AsiaPac)

Ronda Rousey was a questionable queen

Think that WMMA divisions are shallow today? Well, they were laughable a half-decade ago.

Fighters carried skill-sets reminiscent of early 2000’s UFC, being competent in one discipline and marginal in all others. The strikes were often pushed rather than snapped and a lot of the wrestling amounted to a bull-headed, clumsy takedown. There were few serious weight-cutters and no contenders that matched Rousey’s height. The best fighter Rousey beat was Miesha Tate, who would later go on to win the title. But Tate matched up horrendously against Rousey, as her telegraphed double-leg takedowns were perfect judo fodder.

Most of her challengers went on to become middle to bottom-middle fighters who won and lost in equal measure.

Against this level of competition, the UFC marketed her as a savant and casual fans lapped it up. These same fans guffawed when her critics pointed out that Holly Holm was a dangerous opponent.

A true challenger approaches

At first glance, Holm was tall and undefeated, and that’s about it. Her performances against Raquel Pennington and Marion Reneau were comfortable if uninspired. Certainly nothing that indicated she could upset the UFC’s golden girl. But anyone who bothered to look closer realized she was light years ahead of Rousey’s other challengers.

She wasn’t just tall, but cut a lot of weight without sacrificing cardio. Whereas most of her division plodded and shuffled, she bounced in and out. Her left cross and head kick carried true fight-ending power, and she knew how to set them up. She was deceptively strong in the clinch, valuable against a judo fighter. No one predicted that Holm would wax Rousey inside two rounds, but her victory was considered plausible by knowledgeable fans.

There’s a reason that Amanda Nunes destroyed Rousey in one round, and that Valentina Shevchenko would likely do the same in two or three.

The UFC began marketing Rousey’s title reign just as the UFC experienced an explosion in mainstream interest. It seems that most of the fans got swept up in the hype and, without historical context or analysis, believe they witnessed the greatest giant-slaying in the company’s history.

So who owns the real greatest upset in UFC history?

Matt Serra (top) defeats Georges St-Pierre (bottom) by TKO at UFC 69
Matt Serra defeats Georges St-Pierre at UFC 69

The underdog of underdogs

Before UFC 69, Georges St-Pierre sat majestically atop the welterweight division. He was riding a five-fight win streak that culminated in a title-winning knockout over Matt Hughes, avenging his only career loss. He looked every inch the unstoppable welterweight juggernaut he’d be remembered as.

He’d defend his belt against the stocky fireplug, Matt Serra.

Standing only 5′ 6″ with a 68″ reach, Serra sported a 9-4 record overall and went 3-3 in his last six. He’d spent five straight fights at lightweight before returning to welterweight for his most recent two, which he split. Despite being a talented BJJ practitioner, Serra won the majority of his UFC fights by decision. Had Dana White not promised a title shot to The Ultimate Fighter 4 winner, Serra wouldn’t have even sniffed the belt. He gave up height, reach, skill and strength, and everyone expected that the Canadian wonder would roll him.

And for the few couple minutes, St-Pierre looked to do just that. His long strides and natural athleticism let him dart in and out with ease. He exploited his reach advantage and fired off the same high kicks that had crumpled Matt Hughes. But Serra held fast and deployed his own, sneaky strategy, targeting St-Pierre’s ribs with swinging right hands. They weren’t fight-ending shots but carried enough sting that the champion couldn’t ignore them. So when Serra stepped deep and wound up his right hand three minutes in, St-Pierre lowered his hands.

Except Serra was swinging his right hand over the top.

The blow caught St-Pierre behind the ear and he stumbled. Serra swarmed the champion, using his compact reach to fire right hand after right hand to the temple, repeatedly dropping GSP. 30 seconds later, Serra landed cleanly to the chin and pounded St-Pierre out.

The greatest upset in UFC history had been completed.

One of a kind upset

The magnitude of his upset can never be duplicated. Most other “underdogs” went on to have great careers, showing they were undervalued rather than under-skilled. The feedback loop between casual fans and UFC promotion created the Holm vs. Rousey “upset” when the challenger actually stood a good chance. TJ Dillashaw and Rose Namajunas beat the champions they upset in a rematch, revealing they weren’t underdogs at all.

Conversely, Serra lost his belt in a rematch with St. Pierre and finished his career on a 1-3 skid. He pulled off a devious plan to win the belt and could never duplicate the magic.

St-Pierre, meanwhile, changed his entire fighting philosophy after the loss. Serra changed him from a striking-centered fighter to the wrestling machine we love to hate. He frequently cites this fight as his biggest learning experience and would never lose another fight, finishing his career with a jaw-dropping 26-2 record.

So next time a “fan” mouths off about how Holly Holm vs. Ronda Rousey was the greatest upset in UFC history, educate them. Remind them of the difference between an upset in the mind of the uneducated and an upset in the truest sense of the word. Insist they do their research instead of taking the UFC promotional material as gospel.

And then tell them of Matt Serra. Tell them of the portly, aging American who bet it all on a right hand he had no business landing. The man who changed the entire style of the man who may be the greatest fighter in UFC history.

Remind them that a decade ago, you saw a man catch lightning in a bottle.

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  1. In hindsight, Rousey will be remembered as a pioneer, similar to Royce Gracie, for her contribution to WMMA during its developmental stages in the UFC. The amount of hagiography and hype surrounding Rousey (pre UFC 193) was unprecedented, particularly for a woman competing in MMA. She would not be able to compete with any of the top 5 women on the bantamweight roster.

  2. Sorry Siri, I wholeheartedly disagree with you. The simplest way of looking at it was the odds were nearly triple for Rousey as they were for GSP. Odds aren’t everything, so I’ll continue.

    I don’t know how you say Holm comfortably defeated Raquel Pennington, who at the time, was not even in the top 10. She barely got by her via split decision and many think she should have lost. Her performance against Marion Reneau, who also was not in the top 10, was as you said, “uninspired,” at best.

    In the meantime, Rousey rolled through Zingano, who had beaten both Tate (who later beat Holm) and current champ Nunes, and Davis, who also had beaten Nunes, and McMann, who was an Olympic Gold medalist, in less than 2 minutes for the 3 of them, or less than 40 seconds per opponent. That kind of dominance had not been seen in MMA. Not even Cyborg, who was competing against far less competent opponents, was averaging that fast a finishing rate.

    You imply that the BW division was far weaker during Rousey’s reign, than it is today. Far from it. The top 7 fighters had all won at least 5 out of their last 6 fights. In most cases, that sole loss was to Rousey. Pennington, who again was not even in the top 10, just competed for the title, although admittedly both she and Nunes are better fighters now than they were then.

    Holm made a remarkable turnaround in combative skills with Rousey, some think suspiciously so, while Rousey was delusionally over-confident in her striking skills, having KO’ed 3 out of her last 4 opponents averaging less than a minute each, and listening to the media and her coach telling her she was the greatest thing in women’s striking, while going on media blitz after media blitz. It was a perfect storm for an upset, but one few saw coming.

  3. JR – YUEN- 100% Concur.

    Moreover, i completely disagree with the writer’s opinion. It was by far, if not the biggest upset in mma history. Rousey had that invincibility aura and gathered more attention than all of the dominant male champions in UFC but 1, that included filling the house, highest ppv sales, selling out meet & greets and straight down the pipeline to sports illustrated, espys, and of course her true downfall to the sport – Hollywood.

    She was exceptionally great, infact the best judo player in the sport. Her fans complained and nagged 24/7 about how she only used the armbar and wanted her to strike. So she focused on that for a bit instead of her base in judo which shot her to stardom. She got 3 kos/tkos via knees and punches and everyone then hyped her to be the baddest woman on the planet. Indeed, during that time – she was. Rousey, let it get to her head to the point where she thought she could take on a multi world champion kick boxer / boxer via standup techniques, albeit, she stated prefight that if anyone were to beat her it would be Holm. Not only that but she stopped training full time for Hollywood and world travels thinking noone could test her talent. This by the way is not an opinion, it’s exactly what happened. Then fight night came and Rousey did just that, she stood to throw punches with arguably one of the best female boxers in history and it did not work out, not even remotely. Rousey was clipped from the start but continued to throw punches without headmovement, then she was clipped again and again eventually going into Judo auto mode which didn’t work with her “half there” consciousness. Boom! And another one… Stumbles to the mat only to stand up and turn into a vicious neck kick. History was made and that was Hollys only big win to this date. Hell Miesha beat her after.. ?? I call it a lucky night. If Rousey would’ve rushed in and used Judo, Holm would’ve been a gonner. I say this because Holm is factually a distance fighter that counterstrikes, she backs away from her opponents and does not like them close, so Rousey’s Judo wouldve have dismantled her fighting style or ability to even strike, and at that time Holm had no ground game which Tate exploited thoroughly. That was & is a 50/50 fight dependent on Rondas game plan. Anyway, after that loss Rousey lost herself – suicide thoughts etc. She clearly was not a fighter anylonger after that loss and mental breakdown as we viewed with the Nunes fight where she stood there and did absolutely nothing in offense or defense, she literally froze.

    Anyway, Rousey recently received her 6th degree black belt in Judo, working on her 7th, and trains full time wrestling with real life olympic gold medalist. I’ll guarantee you, Mr opinionated writer, that Rousey is still in the top 5 if she were to come back to the UFC tomorrow.

    For fun – my favorite fighters:

    Ferguson, Holm, Wilde, Mackenzie Dern, Cyborg, Alvarez, Tatiana Suarez, Shevchenko, Dillishaw and of course the retired Rowdy one.

    1. . . . in order.
      1. Having an aura of invincibility is not the same thing as being actually invincible. I address that.
      2. I’ve brought up quality of opposition, which is why I think she was great but not some kind of god. Who you stomp matters more than how you stomp them.
      3. Believing a hypothetical scenario in which Rousey validates your belief by doing x,y,z is cute. Because she didn’t do it in that fight.
      4. You wanna believe in Rousey, go for it. Doesn’t change what the fight was or the fact that many people correctly viewed Holmes as Rousey’s most difficult fight. And we were right.

      But by all means, keep shaking your fists at ghosts.