LAS VEGAS, Nev. — For Albuquerque’s Holly Holm, tonight is essentially a been-here but decidedly not a done-that.
This one’s different.
For the second time in her MMA career, Holm will face a seemingly indestructible champion with the champion’s UFC title at stake. In November 2015, that opponent was Ronda Rousey. Tonight, it’s Brazil’s Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino.
Holm-Cyborg, for the latter’s UFC featherweight title, is the main event of UFC 219 at T-Mobile Arena just off the Vegas Strip.
The combat-sports world will long remember Holm’s spectacular upset victory over Rousey in Melbourne, Australia. Holm remembers it, too, of course, and cherishes the memory.
And, yes, knowing she’s capable of such a thing gives her confidence that she can do it again.
“Yes, I’ve had the experience of fighting on such a big card for a title before and having a lot of pressure on you,” Holm (11-3) said during Thursday’s interview session at T-Mobile. “… Knowing I’ve gone through this before has helped.”
Cyborg, though, is not Rousey. No one, including Holm, expects the powerful Brazilian fighter to be exhausted and defenseless by the end of the first round, as Rousey was that night in Australia before succumbing to a Holm head kick in the second.
“This is a different fight,” Holm said, “so there’s different thoughts, different nerves, different game plans, different things going through my head.”
Yet, the Holm camp’s game plan for Cyborg (18-1) likely isn’t terribly different from that formulated for Rousey 25 months ago: move and counter. Use your opponent’s trademark aggressiveness against her. Exploit your superior hand speed and superior striking technique. Frustrate her, take her into the later rounds where she rarely has had to go. Look for an opening to deliver a lethal head kick.
Above all, stay off the ground.
To say that’s easier said than done is, well, strikingly apparent from a glance at Cyborg’s record. Of her 18 victories, 16 have come by knockout or TKO. Though she has never won a fight by submission, she has brutalized many a victim with powerful strikes on the ground.
“I always respect my opponents and I always am ready for war,” Cyborg said recently on a UFC 219 teleconference. “You know, you kill or you die.”
Cyborg has sought to refine her boxing skills by working with Norway’s Cecilia Braekhus, generally considered the world’s best professional boxer, and two-time Olympic gold medalist Claressa Shields in preparation for Holm.
This bothers Holm not at all.
“That actually makes me feel good that she felt she needed to reach out everywhere else,” Holm said. “Because I didn’t have to do that. I had confidence in my team and in the coaches that I have with me every day.”
In her interactions with Cyborg this week, Holm has been coldly polite.
The two had become friendly, if not friends, while shooting scenes for a movie called “Fight Valley” in 2015. But Holm became annoyed when Cyborg falsely suggested Holm wasn’t being drug-tested by the United States Anti-Drug Agency as often as Cyborg was.
That little dust-up, Holm said, might make victory a bit sweeter. But that kind of motivation, she added, isn’t something she needs.
“I’ve never felt so friendly with someone that I didn’t want to beat them, even in practice,” she said. “Even with some of my best friends (at Albuquerque’s Jackson-Wink MMA), or even people that I consider to be like family, I still want to hit them more than they hit me.”
Holm has never denied that she has nerves before the fight and has always said fear of losing is one of her greatest motivations.
Of the task before her tonight, she said, “I’m comfortable with the fact that it’s uncomfortable. There’s a lot of nerves and anxiety.
“… But you just have to let it be.”
Holm weighed in Friday at 144 pounds, one pound under the featherweight limit. Cyborg, who in the past has struggled to make weight, hit 145 on the nose.
Albuquerque’s Carlos Condit (30-10), making his return to MMA after a 16-month hiatus, weighed 170.5 pounds — an allowable half-pound over the welterweight limit — for his comeback fight on the main card against Denver’s Neil Magny (19-6), who also weighed 170.5.
“Honestly, I don’t make any predictions,” Condit said. “I feel good. I feel like I’ve prepared well, and now I just have to get out there and fight to the best of my abilities and do what I do.
“In the past, when I do that, I come out on top and get my hand raised.”