While Ronda Rousey was widely being proclaimed to be the best female fighter of all time, there was a fighter, often overlooked, who few casual fans even knew existed.
She never had aspirations to be a movie star. She never seemed to ask for anything, in fact, other than to be appreciated and accepted for what she accomplished.
Cris “Cyborg” Justino Venâncio, nee Santos, won the Strikeforce featherweight belt in 2009 and has not lost an MMA fight since. All of her fights were atrociously one sided. Cursed with a lack of competition and with a visage and demeanor unlikely to attract offers to dance with any stars, she simply chose to do the only thing she could over the last eight years. She worked tirelessly to constantly improve. Regardless of lackluster competition, she continued to become an ever more efficient weapon of destruction.
Not satisfied with simply dominating MMA, she also competed against the best she could find in kickboxing and jiu-jitsu. If she didn’t win against the best, she never seemed to be far behind.
And yet, how long can she maintain her position as the most terrifying female fighter alive? How credible is her position when many of those she fought simply didn’t deserve to be in the ring with her? No matter how great you are, beating tomato cans won’t cement your position history. And a champion, even fighting below his or her pay grade, can only look invincible for so long. Eventually, cracks must begin to appear. I mean, they have to. Right?
The problem is, they haven’t. She still has her terrifying power. She still is willing to let it loose in terrifying bursts; but just the same, she has gained control. She still pulls the trigger but has better timing, better precision, better control.
Want to jab her from the outside? Expect a ruthless, effortlessly timed cross counter. Want to try to outwork her in the pocket? Hopefully you have life insurance. Maybe you are so deluded you think you can outwork her in the clinch, her bread and butter. I hope you enjoy relentless knees and elbows. Perhaps you can take her down, but then you are dealing with a skilled and powerful brown belt, and she will take a piece of you home if you are lucky, or hit a sweep, mount you and beat you into next week if you aren’t.
And so here we are: the million-dollar question.
Is there a chink in the armor? A small thermal exhaust port? Is there any route to victory for “The Preacher’s Daughter”?
Winning against “Cyborg” is similar to threading a needle while balancing a unicycle on a treadmill; you don’t really have to do anything wrong to lose, you just have to not be entirely perfect in every area and every moment. So first, let’s take a look at Holm’s game plan.
Holm is at her best fighting at distance. A southpaw, she uses the extra space created against orthodox fighters to control the distance. While the typical southpaw fighter prefers to put their lead foot outside of their opponent’s, setting up the rear straight, Holm will often retreat along the inside angle, forcing her opponent to turn and chase her. When they do, Holm causes them to overextend and, out of position, they find themselves easy marks for the straight left down the center line.
If they try to take the “strong” side, with their lead foot on the outside of Holm’s, she’ll maintain her distance by landing a side or hook kick, which they have essentially lined up for her, and then step back out.
The issue is that while this is a sound defensive strategy, her offensive strategy largely lacks the same amount of thought.
Against Germaine De Randamie, Holm often charged on the outside angle like a traditional karateka, shifting with her steps and firing off left and right straights like pistons with her head straight up and hoping to land a kick to finish the combination. Against a flat-footed fighter like De Randamie, though, this was handing counters to her on a silver platter.
Holm cannot risk being caught in the middle of a transition, off balance, by a “Cyborg” counter. Unfortunately, a slow paced fight also benefits the stronger woman.
Justino, even the more reserved version of herself that appeared against Tonya Evinger in her last fight, wants to work. She can counter and is happy to, but if the opportunity isn’t there she’ll happily bring the fight to her oft-over-matched victims.
Holm’s greatest chance here is to force “Cyborg” to lead. Even working behind the jab here is a dangerous strategy. Circling to either side to create angles for kicks is likely the best option for putting volume down at a safe distance, which will help put the impetus on the terrifying brawler to lead. Attacking the legs and body will slow her down in the later rounds, but Holm should be careful not to let her kicks slide up the thigh and be caught. Attacking the calf and kicking upwards with the lead leg into the thigh are strong techniques for this, as are side kicks to the knee that can set up head kicks later on and take weight off her opponent’s lead leg.
If Holm is able to outpoint “Cyborg” early, it will make a huge difference as the fight continues. Forcing “Cyborg” to be aggressive and brawl is key here. As she comes forward, she can be countered. As she tries to finish, she can tire herself out.
Unlike Evinger, if Holm is trapped against the cage she will circle out, taking a few shots while doing so, instead of trying to shell up and survive what is clearly a bad spot. That may be what Holm has that no other Cyborg victim has had: real fight IQ. She is going to do whatever puts her in position to win, even if it means losing a battle in the short term.
If Holm can play matador here, she has a real shot. When she finds herself pressured against the cage, her lateral movement is key. When stuck in the clinch, she needs to work out quickly, even if it mans eating an elbow on the break. She needs to use that extra cushion of space afforded by their opposite stances to keep this battle a fencing match and not an ugly scrap on the inside.
If she can win the kicking battle, she can win the positional battle. If she wins there and is able to draw Cyborg out of position and capitalize, she can put doubt in the woman undefeated since her first pro fight. Perhaps, as Cyborg becomes desperate, a single kick will land like a lumberjack’s ax and fell the mighty warrior like a pine tree.
Of course, this is all hypothetical and will mean nothing if Cyborg ragdolls Holm to the ground and submits or drubs her unconscious. All we can ask for, really, is that someone, finally, will at least be able to put up a fight against the baddest woman fighter on the planet — that, at the end of this, Cyborg will finally receive the recognition she’s long deserved, or that Holly Holm will be the first to fight the perfect match against a woman who seemed invincible, again.
UFC 219: Cyborg vs. Holm takes place Saturday, Dec. 30 at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada.
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