Even if Holly Holm and Yana Santos were BFFs, not just former teammates and training partners with a healthy respect for each other, they’d still be in each other’s way.
In the game of musical chairs/whack-a-mole that is the UFC women’s bantamweight division behind champion Amanda Nunes, neither Holm nor Santos can afford to lose on Saturday when they face off on a UFC Fight Night card in San Antonio, Texas.
There’s not much Albuquerque’s Holm (14-6) hasn’t seen in a combat-sports career that began more than two decades ago, but fighting a former teammate will be a new experience. Santos, then campaigning as Yana Kunitskaya, trained with Holm at Jackson-Wink MMA in 2016-18.
Theirs was a mutually beneficial relationship.
“She was a great training partner when I had a fight,” Holm said, “and I was a great training partner for her when she had a fight.”
In separate phone interviews on Wednesday, the two fighters agreed that their relationship never progressed to personal friendship during Santos’ relatively brief stay in Albuquerque.
“We never really went and sat down for dinner or anything like that,” Holm said. “There were times when we’d go outside the gym for a run, but most of our relationship, most of our friendship, was in the gym.”
Santos remembers Holm as a willing, able and generous training partner.
“It wasn’t like friends,” she said. “… (But) I respect her so much.”
A lot has happened to Santos (14-6) since she left Albuquerque and Jackson-Wink after a loss to Cris Cyborg in March 2018. She’s now married to fellow MMA fighter Thiago “Marreta” Santos and is the mother of a 10-month-old daughter, Alisa.
Santos also has an 8-year-old son from a previous relationship in her native Russia. She trains in Florida at American Top Team.
Neither fighter, considering the brevity of Santos’ stay in Albuquerque and the some five years that have passed since, sees their past work together in the gym as a potentially decisive factor on Saturday.
“It was a long time ago, and we’ve both grown as fighters,” Santos said, “and I don’t think either of us is going to have an advantage (in that respect).”
Even so, Holm said, “We’ve definitely felt each other’s strengths and weaknesses. I know she’s probably thinking about certain things that she felt she had advantages on, and the same for myself.
“But we’ll see how that all pans out in the actual fight.”
Saturday’s winner will be one step closer to a title shot, since both are among the UFC’s top six bantamweight contenders.
Regarding all six, there are pluses and minuses.
• Julianna Pena, the No. 1 contender, upset Nunes to take the title in December 2021 but wasn’t competitive in losing a rematch last July. She has not faced any of the other top contenders.
• Raquel Pennington, No. 2, has a recent victory over No. 4 Ketlen Vieira but has lost twice to Holm and once to Nunes.
• Holm, No. 3, lost by disputed decision to Vieira in her most recent fight and has lost to Nunes by first-round TKO. But she’s 3-0 vs. Pennington and No. 5 Irene Aldana.
• Vieira has the victory over Holm but has lost to Aldana, Pennington and Santos.
• Aldana has beaten Vieira and Santos but lost decisively to Holm.
• Santos, who beat Vieira in February 2021 but lost to Aldana five months later, said she believes Aldana has earned a title shot. But she quickly added she wouldn’t turn one down if it were offered.
That couldn’t happen, of course, unless she defeats Holm.
“I’m just so grateful for this opportunity, for this fight,” Santos said. “If (a title shot) would come I would be happy with it, but I’m just focused on the fight Saturday.”
Holm, 41, has signed a contract extension with the UFC for six more fights, with the stated goal of regaining the bantamweight title she won against Ronda Rousey in November 2015 and lost to Miesha Tate the following March.
In that pursuit, the loss to Vieira by split decision still rankles. Had she gotten the decision she believes she deserved, she’d undoubtedly be the No. 1 contender right now.
She echoed Santos, however, in that there can be no looking back or looking forward on Saturday.
“You never know what’s going to happen,” Holm said. “… So I just think about the fight that’s in front of me.”