Pre-Fight Thoughts: Cris Cyborg -vs- Holly Holm
Capping off a strange year from the UFC is a strong pay-per-view main card that seems woefully underpromoted. The main event features two of the best talents that women's MMA has to offer, competing for the 145-pound title. A dominant champion, touting a list of brutal finishes, seeks to retain their title against multi-sport champion Holly Holm. You'd be forgiven if you thought that sounded familiar — like when Holm challenged and utterly demolished Ronda Rousey 2 years ago.
Aside from some surface-level similarities — mainly the record of dominant finishes and the aura of invincibiltiy — Rousey and Cyborg are two distinctly different fighters. Where the latter, at the time she faced Holm, was the queen of the bantamweight divison and had yet to be pushed too hard in any of her bouts; Cyborg is a seasoned, tenured veteran of over a decade. Ronda, with her charisma and the right marketing at the right time, rode the surge of popularity in MMA to legitimate mainstream fame.
Conversely, Cris Cyborg has always had an adversarial relationship with much of the MMA world. A lot of fans see fit to disregard Cyborg's achievements, citing a failed drug test in 2011 and her muscular build. Even UFC president Dana White, and commentator Joe Rogan, have seen fit to mock Cyborg, insinuating that she might even be a man. In spite of all this, Cyborg has stayed the course, logging fights in Invicta FC — and even taking muay thai bouts in Lion Fight — before finally being called up by the UFC. (Zuffa was paying a portion of her purse during her stint in Invicta, which included capturing the promotion's 145-pound title.)
In a way, this fight is a battle between two women the UFC has reluctantly found itself promoting. Holly Holm's destruction of Ronda Rousey was covertly downplayed as much as possible, with footage of the finishing head-kick not even appearing on broadcasts until Rousey's second loss, at the end of 2016. Holm was not heavily promoted, and then dropped her title in an upset loss to Miesha Tate in her first title defence. From there, Holm lost underwhelming fights with Valentina Shevchenko, and Germaine de Randamie. Holm was able to turn things around with a KO win over Bethe Correia, but I would consider that a nominal level of success.
The fate of the 145-pound title has been a sad tale; the year initially kicked off with the title being inaugurated with the aforementioned Holm / de Randamie fight. The fight itself was a low-action, frustrating affair, which de Randamie won by a slim margin. The only reason that fight even happened, from what I can discern, is Cris Cyborg was not able to fight until March and the UFC did not want to wait. So, they got a really bad fight to christen the title, and then — to make matters even worse — Germaine de Randamie refused to defend the title and was eventually stripped. Cyborg then fought Invicta FC bantamweight champion Tonya Evinger for the vacant 145-pound title and won via TKO. So, after a weird detour, the women's bantamweight title ended up with its rightful owner.
Personally, I felt Cyborg's career merited being awarded the title — just as Ronda was when she came to the UFC from Strikeforce, or Jose Aldo after the WEC was folded into the organisation. Regardless, the true face of women's featherweight is holding the title, and facing her stiffest challenge yet. Prior to this fight, every Cyborg bout looked like a brutal mismatch — and thus far have all played out exactly as such. In this fight, Holly Holm does present some unique challenges for Cyborg. Likewise, Cris poses serious problems for the former boxing and MMA champ.
In all of her fights, Cyborg has had a significant size advantage over her opponents, and that remains the case here. Holm is probably the biggest opponent Cris has had, but I don't think Holm has anywhere near the raw strength she does. Holm is also the most accomplished striker that Cyborg has faced, although, again, I think the champion has an edge in that department as well. As noted by other MMA analysts, Cyborg is an exceptionally dangerous aggressive counter-striker. Contrast with Holm, a strict outside counter-fighter, and the match-up looks grim for the challenger.
Holm's best — and perhaps only — chance to win is to frustrate Cyborg, force her to commit tactical errors and then blast her with a massive head-kick. I've seen no indication that Holm wields power in her hands sufficient to hurt or finish Cyborg, and her movement-heavy approach rarely leaves her feet planted — to deliver maximum power. Holm prioritises defence, and seemingly rote combinations; I expect Cris to remain calm, wait for Holm to fall into predictable patterns, amd then begin accumulating damage en route to a finish.
It seems superficially wrong to just write off Holm's chances here, but I firmly believe that Cris Cyborg is the worst possible match-up for her. Cyborg has shown a lot of growth as a fighter over the years. Long gone are the days where Cyborg would just crutch on her size and strength and barrage overmatched opponents with flurries of strikes. For years, now, Cris has fought very patient, measured fights; allowing her opponents to fall prey to the panic of being stalked by a violent murderess, and dropping them with counter-shots when they anxiously try and assert themselves. Cris knows how nervous she makes her opponents and capitalises on that with ruthless efficacy.
My prediction for this fight is that it takes 2, maybe 3 rounds for Cyborg to analyse Holm's movements and patterns before adapting, closing off any route to escape and violently dispatching her. Holm's only avenue to victory is landing a kill-shot head-kick, whereas Cyborg is advantaged everywhere: close quarters, the clinch, and on the ground. Holm needs Cyborg to fight as haphazardly as Ronda Rousey did in their fight, and even then I don't know what it would take to actually stop Cyborg — no one in MMA has come remotely close to standing up with her. Is there a chance Holly Holm wins this, and shocks the world again? Absolutely. Is that chance much greater-than zero? No, not really.
I am expecting a vintage Cris Cyborg win: violent and one-sided. While she will always have her detractors, Cris Cyborg is clearly the most dangerous woman on the planet and UFC 219 is her chance to prove this to the world. Holly Holm aims to play spoiler for a second time in her career. However this ends, I expect quite the spectacle.
Published: December 30th, 2017.