Don’t Sweat The Technique: Cris Cyborg vs Holly Holm – Part 1

At UFC 219 we have the biggest match-up in women’s mixed martial arts this year and no worse than the 4th biggest fight in the history of women’s mixed martial arts when discussing the caliber, accomplishment, physical and technical tools of the fighters. This Saturday night we have a match between a former UFC Featherweight title challenger, a multiple time boxing champion and former Ultimate Fighting Championship Bantamweight Champion Holly Holm.

On the other side of the octagon will be former Strikeforce, Invicta and current UFC Featherweight champion, Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino.

Today I am going to address eight talking points about Holly Holm, discussing the positives, negatives and intangibles that will define one of the biggest fight in women’s mixed martial arts history.

8) Holly Holm’s boxing is wildly overrated. Many people’s confidence in Holm’s hands is based upon her titles in boxing; not actually watching, reviewing or analyzing her fights. At best Holly Holm is a limited technician who gets by on movement, volume and seemingly endless amounts of cardio and at worst she is a pillow fisted, arm punching, point fighter whose majority of success comes from an exceedingly one dimensional boxing game that is bolstered by the fact that she is able and willing to throw an endless torrent of punches that often give the impression she is outfighting her opponents when in fact she is merely outhustling them.

Holm’s footwork, range of effective punches, set ups, feints and combinations are equal parts limited by poor weight transfers, suspect hand positioning, inefficient stance which results in her punches being both telegraphed and ineffective.

7) Holly Holm’s best weapon is her kicks, I got a lot of heat for this when she first came over to mixed martial arts because most mixed martial arts fans don’t watch or know boxing, so once again Holm’s professional accomplishments created the idea that maybe Holm was the gold standard of technical and tactical boxing which wasn’t anywhere near the truth.

Where Holm’s true value on the feet comes is with the kicks, in boxing she only had her hands to rely on forcing her to throw an excessive amount of punches to be effective, as many of her shots came up short or were slipped or blocked, Holm had to throw two or three times the volume of her opponent to be effective.

But in mixed martial arts, the tools are much more diverse and their usage much more varied meaning that her endless string of punches act not just as a weapon but they become a setup for the big gun in her holster (i.e. her kicks).

Holm’s hands create an illusion of a threat and when an opponent backs up or seeks to circle out, Holm can eviscerate them with a kick to the liver or decapitate them with a kick to the head. Holm’s diversity of kicks, smoothness in delivery and power make up for the wildly inefficiency of her hands both in regards to power, technique and accuracy.

6) Holly Holm’s standup hasn’t progressed, she has been given more tools to mask her technical limitations in both her striking offense and defense. What has made Holly such a tough out is.

a) The division she works in. Most of the women she faces aren’t world class athletes by any stretch of the imagination, which allows her huge advantages in strength, balance, fluidity, agility, and quickness. This limits the ability of fighters who have her scouted out to take advantage of her flaws or to make her TRULY pay because they lack the power to hurt her or the athleticism to get to her or away from her (Correia, Tate, Pennington).

b) The second and more obvious reason she is able to do such “good” work in the world of mixed martial arts is because most women in mixed martial arts are wrestlers or grapplers who are picking up the striking game, even the women who are considered “strikers” don’t have a pedigree that supports that claim. In layman’s terms, the striking just isn’t that good in a world where at one point Ronda Rousey was considered a devastating and evolving striker, you know a striker even one as fundamentally flawed as Holm, will flourish.

Most of the women were competitive world class wrestlers (McMann), world class judoka (Rousey) established wrestle/grapplers (Tate, Murphy, Zingano, Pena, Davis). They had resumes that supported their skillset, very few in this or other divisions have individual achievements or even fairly extensive records in striking to back up any claims of being a world class or very good striker (outside of MMA).  The one’s who have had a legitimate striking pedigree have given her problems and a lot of them (Schevchenko and De Randamie).

5) Holly Holm is a one dimensional fighter. Holm hasn’t registered a win with anything outside of striking in the entirety of her career, a large part of that is the huge advantages she has in experience, physical gifts and to some degree skill level on the feet. Very few women have the tools to truly test her on the feet, but when she has been faced with opponents who can, she has been exposed.

Of more importance is the complete lack of consistent growth and development Holm has shown in the other areas of mixed martial arts, outside of her clinch fighting, which is remarkably effective. Holm has shown no real ability to use wrestling offensively, as witnessed by her repeated and ineffective attempts to take Germaine De Randamie down.

She had shown some class in regards to defensive wrestling but when faced with a fighter who could handle her work on the feet, she was summarily and repeatedly taken down by a much smaller fighter in Valentina Schevchenko.

Even in her fight with Miesha Tate it was her footwork, mobility and volume of strikes that hindered Tate’s takedowns. When Miesha actually got her hands on Holm she took her down quite easily and Tate is far from a top wrestler in or out of mixed martial arts. This leads us to the final range, which was also exposed by Miesha, when Holm was taken down by Tate in the second round of the fight she was dominated and nearly choked out, the second time she was taken down and summarily choked into unconsciousness with less than a minute left in the fight.

Whether offensively or defensively, Holm hasn’t really shown any consistency in effectiveness, technical skills or fundamental nuance in any range outside of the striking one offensively or defensively she has been a non-factor when actually engaged in legitimate grappling or wrestling exchanges.

4) Holm is most effective on the counter. Holm’s sense of range and ability to maintain or extend her range allows her to manipulate her opposition’s footwork, activity, and pressure, creating opportunities to score by moving around and forcing opponents to pursue. Holm’s length, athleticism, and defensive footwork allow her to out-position opponents and extend the distance, forcing them to try to close the distance or cut the cage down. This allows Holm to pick them off with a variety of jabs, straight shots, and kicks, which are made more impactful due to the collision created by Holm’s offense coming out and the opponent coming in, a strategy somewhat similar to that of Lyoto Machida or Gunnar Nelson. The difference between Holm and these two, however, is her willingness to lead and the amount of volume she throws, which ironically makes her vulnerable to counters.

3) Cardio and pace are two of Holm’s biggest weapon’s. The fact that Holly can set a high pace, maintain a high pace and build on a high pace is what really separates her from the majority of fighters in boxing and in mixed martial arts. If you are going to pressure her, cut the cage off on her; you have got to finish her quickly or be prepared to spend a huge amount of energy to get in position, stay in position and regain the position or placement you need to be in in-order to take away the advantages of her footwork and mobility.

Holly’s punches may be a bit telegraphed and predictable, as are her blitzes of offense which makes them easier to avoid, block or counter. But the same rule applies, can you finish? If you can’t Holly should be able to maintain that activity until you slow.

Essentially she taxes you physically as you are under a consistent torrent of kicks and punches, that regardless of true power will eventually wear on your body, much like the constant blocking, evading or countering of said strikes will wear on your body. The same would apply in regards to attempts to cut down the cage and her, as both things create mental and physical fatigue on her opponents.

Those things eventually lead into defensive irresponsibility, slower pressure footwork, infrequent or inaccurate counters. All of which embolden her to press on with her assault and sway judges due to the perceived change in momentum, as her opponent’s work rate, defensive responsibility and ability to pressure wane as Holm’s seemingly increases or stays steady.

2) Holm’s biggest strength is the intelligence/self-awareness of her camp. Many fighters switch camps often or go to different camps for extended periods, this helps exposure and growth as you get different looks and perspectives. What it can hurt is a fighter’s consistency, as new coaches often try to overhaul a fighter instead of making them the best version of themselves. The result is a fighter showing shiny new skills, but getting away from the core principles that got them to the top.

Unfortunately it often results in a huge setback for the fighter, as they aren’t as effective with their main skill and to make things worse they are leaning on skills they haven’t quite mastered or gotten comfortable enough to achieve consistent success.

For examples you can look at any number of grapplers or wrestlers who eschew their wrestling or grappling forcing standup exchanges when they lack the seasoning, athleticism or skill to effectively compete in without exposing glaring defensive and offensive shortcomings. A more specific example was long range striking Paige VanZant, who was beaten up and summarily choked out when she chose to fight at range with the more experienced, diverse, dynamic and schooled range striker Michelle Waterson.

Holm never has those gaffes because of the consistency of her camp where tools are slowly integrated and done so with the purpose of enhancing the effectiveness of her core skills or protecting her from the holes in her core skills. There is no sense in completely revamping. Instead they focus on constant improvement to provide a variety of ways for her to impose her will and force her game on an opponent, or to provide a buffer from opponents who can tax her in her range and create opportunities for her to regain control. Examples of this would be her surprisingly effective clinch work, her takedown of Ronda Rousey, which helped rile her up and create an even quicker opportunity to land the KO shot when the safe zone for Ronda got her taken down.

Another example would be the attempted takedowns and clinches that disrupted the counters and leads of De Randamie, this took some of the snap off her shots and accuracy off her counters allowing Holm to work her way back into the fight in losing a disputed decision.

Regardless of how many losses Holly has suffered, none have been one sided. Each decision loss has been close and the fight she was submitted in was a win for her until the minute she went out. This consistency is in large part due to the lack of upheaval in her camp and the strategic manner they approach her prep and fight night execution. Holm wasn’t losing to pushovers and she wasn’t outmatched or outclassed.

1) Holly Holm is not Cyborg’s most dangerous fight but she could KO Cyborg with a kick to the head or some devastating punch. Although that is highly unlikely due to Justino’s highly regarded durability, as well as her highly regarded ability to distribute punishment indiscriminately. If you want to put her away, you have to risk being put away yourself; it’s a losing proposition for most and would for all intents and purposes be the same for Holm. No Holm is not any more dangerous a fight than any other opponent, because Holly’s likelihood of knocking Cyborg out isn’t any better than her previous opponents and the chance of her submitting Cyborg is far below her previous opponents.

What Holm is, is a DIFFICULT challenge, unlike the majority of Justino’s opponents Holly has a uniqueness in physical tools, technical skills, experience and pedigree that presents her with some challenges that she previously hasn’t had to deal with. Much like the fight with Evinger, the intrigue is more about how hard Holm can make her work, how difficult she can make it for Justino to get into the positions she wants to get into and execute effectively. In Tonya’s case the roadblocks were her wrestling, her top control and her durability; as people felt she could tie up, extend, possibly take down and get to work on Cyborg.

In Holly’s case the roadblocks for Cyborg would be Holm’s footwork, as she is one of the few women who know how to circle, pivot, enter and exit on angles, extend and close distance dynamically. Justino has never faced an opponent who can be as elusive as Holm is, nor has she faced a fighter who can set, maintain and build a pace like Holly.

Nor has she faced fighter with the kicking game and more importantly the combat sports experience Holm possesses. While there are clear paths to victory based on her fairly one dimensional game, lack of offensive refinement and sophistication; the fact of the matter is Holm is very savvy, mentally tough and beyond superhuman in regards to cardio, meaning the usual positions Cyborg gets to and dominates in are going to require more effort to achieve and more discipline to maintain and execute in. And if Cyborg falls victim to over pursuing due to frustration or overconfidence, if Justino loses focus and muddies her offensive footwork, or worse yet fades badly and isn’t able to pull the trigger on counters, maintain pressure or god forbid is forced on the defensive. Then Holm can truly be dangerous, but the only way destroyer Holly comes out; is after awkward, trickster Holly has set the table for her to close the show.

This is a fight between the two most established and most popular names in women’s mixed martial arts, Cyborg the unstoppable force who has dominated mixed martial arts for the better part of the decade. She has not rested on her physical skills, nor been satisfied with the tools at her disposal. Justino has tested herself in multiple combat sports and by working with countless coaching and fighting luminaries in the sport.

But in Holm she is facing the most accomplished, physically gifted and experienced combat female sports athletes in the world; Holm as a result of these tools, her veteran savvy, and awkwardly effective style has the ability and the tools to pull the second biggest upset in mixed martial arts. What she doesn’t have is the balance and/or the execution. Simply put she is still painfully one dimensional in her striking both in the range of tools and the range of styles she can use.

While being fiercely competitive with the best women in her division, she has still lost to the best opponents she has faced skill wise. Justino is no different, a world class athlete who doesn’t lean on her physical tools, instead using them to enhance her impressive but still developing striking, wrestling and grappling skills.

If Justino was all skill and no ability I might say Holm, if Cyborg was all ability and no skill I might say Holm; but the fact of the matter is Cyborg is both and is better than Holm on both fronts. Is a win impossible? No. Is a win likely? Not at all.

In Part 2 I address five talking points about the other half of this fight Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino, discussing the positives, negatives and intangibles that will define one of the biggest fights in women’s mixed martial arts history.