Holly Holm Teaches Ronda Rousey The Art of War
We’re dumb. That’s the message you should take from Holly Holm’s upset over Ronda Rousey on Saturday. As fans, as analysts, as journalists — we’re all dumb.
Sun Tzu was smart. He wrote a book some 2500 years ago that to this day is still quoted for its depth of wisdom as it relates to combat.
Greg Jackson, Holm’s coach, is a favorite quoter of Sun Tzu and other philosophers. He is smart. We are dumb.
Few can honestly say they saw this coming. Many can say they predicted the range and terms on which the fight would be fought: Rousey would aggressively look to close distance passed Holm’s preferred outrange and make it a clinch battle. Any close follower of sports will tell you that from the strengths and weaknesses of two opponents you can determine where the terms of the competition will be fought. As Sun Tzu would say, ‘That general is skillful in attack whose opponent does not know what to defend; and he is skillful in defense whose opponent does not know what to attack.’
But one can say they saw Holm shucking Rousey off time after time? Who can say they saw Holm taking Rousey down? Who can say they saw Holm escaping Rousey in a grappling exchange that went to ground?
It’s the how. It’s the why. The fight was determinism. It was fight philosophy.
Because we’re dumb.
Sun Tzu: Do not repeat the tactics which have gained you one victory, but let your methods be regulated by the infinite variety of circumstances.
We can’t be sure when Rousey discovered she hit harder than other women or when she realized she had a pretty good chin, but whenever she did, that was the day the seed for this loss was planted. When a fighter realizes they can hit harder than their opponent and take a punch to give one, it’s only natural they become more aggressive. They throw more punches. They ignore good defence. They move away from what made them great.
This is commonly called ‘the puncher’s path’. If a fighter does not evolve to compensate for this change in style, it often leaves more holes than it fills.
Great boxers like George Foreman went down that path. Though his athleticism waned, his power remained. He developed a cross-guard and paired it with an active jab to compensate so he could remain stationary, force opponents to throw too much and then return with power.
MMA fighters have also gone down this path, too. Most often, it was their demise such as with Sean Sherk or Matt Hughes. A current example is Conor McGregor. With the realization of his own power and ability to take it against nearly every featherweight, McGregor has grown to be a pressure fighter when before he was an aggressive counterstriker. The difference is that he has put tools into his arsenal that allow him to fight on those terms far more often than not, especially in his kicking game.
Based on her performance Saturday, Rousey has not shown this same evolution. Who knows? Maybe her lack of meaningful minutes has actually been to her detriment. When you can funnel your fights into a Vine, you don’t exactly see fighting any other way. Take George St. Pierre: after losing to Matt Serra, he became more conservative and as a result, earned battle-tested minutes (holding the UFC record for minutes fought). During the run that made his legacy, he spent more time in danger.
Holm’s performance exemplifies these two principles, experience and evolution. Her long record (and generally conservative style) allowed her several hundred minutes of live combat. Her experience was a factor that very few people focused their time on in the lead-up to the fight but proved incredibly valuable to her in the cage. She was calm, stuck to her plan and rarely looked rattled (even at the weigh-ins).
Rousey on the other hand has stuck to the same strategy every fight: pressure in a straight line, distract with punches, secure the clinch and take the opponent down. She never deviated from this. All the best analyst’s out there — such as Jack Slack of Fightland, Patrick Wyman on Bleacher Report and Connor Reubusch for Sherdog, amongst others — rightly estimated exploiting Rousey’s inability to cut the cage then punishing her for it would eventually make her bullrushing look like wasted energy. If they could point this out this fairly obvious flaw, it is amazing Rousey’s team was unable to adapt.
Sun Tzu: To secure ourselves against defeat lies in our own hands, but the opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy themself.
Holm’s performance was beautiful on many levels. One of them was that she beat Rousey using Rousey’s own path to victory.
One of the criticisms working against Rousey has been the level of competition. This is partially due to the fact many of her opponents do not have terribly advanced overall skills and partially to their lack of specific athletic traits that could aid them in avoiding Ronda’s strengths. However, the main factor was that they all played into her game.
Miesha Tate stood in front of her and tried to grapple. She lost. Sara McMann tried exclusively to grapple. She lost. Alexis Davis stood directly in front of Rousey and traded. She lost. Bethe Correira was dragged into a brawl. She lost. Cat Zingano was the worst offender, sprinting across the cage directly into the clinch. She lost fast.
All of these fighters made massive errors, presenting Rousey with the path to defeat them. Holm did the opposite. She baited Rousey into making the errors.
This was a factor many saw potential for — that Rousey might be forced to chase after Holm — but the argument was mostly written off as a formality en route to Rousey dominating once she got hold of Holm.
Except all it took was for Holm to shrug off one clinch and escape a grappling exchange on the ground in another to sap Rousey’s will (also, responding to being wobbled by Rousey by doing the unexpected — countering a judo throw by attempting a takedown, ‘...we can prevent the enemy from engaging us…all we need do is to throw something odd and unaccountable in his way.’). To compensate for her lack of success where she has always seen so much, Rousey began to press, winging wild punches off balance. Thus, as we saw, Rousey threw a punch so wild and off balance she fell to one knee.
Holm masterfully capitalized on her vast ringcraft superiority to force the fight into the spots she wanted. This even allowed her to simply stiff-arm and shove a weakened Rousey away in the second round. Holm took the fight where she was strong and Rousey would become gradually weaker.
Sun Tzu: If your opponent is of choleric temper, seek to irritate them. Pretend to be weak, that they may grow arrogant.
Rousey has always been of fiery temperament. Many have used this as a sticking point to criticize her, rightfully or wrongfully, because it makes her appear to be arrogant and not a nice person (nice? She’s a fighter, people). What no one has managed to do is take that temper and work it. Correira tried, but what she did was only stoke the fire that she tried to meet with her own.
It has never been clear that Rousey could be irritated — until the weigh-ins. Whether it was planned or not, Holm played the long con brilliantly. Maintaining a calm, non-combative rhetoric throughout the lead up to this fight, it wasn’t until the very last moment she would look into Rousey’s face that Holm applied just the right pressure. As the two came face-to-face for the weigh-ins, she placed her fist on ROusey’s jaw. Predictably, Rousey tried to stand her ground and Holm pushed her away with the fist. Rousey immediately tried to step forward, mouthing something to Holm.
When Joe Rogan interviewed her moments later, her voice trembled, her words came out in a stream of consciousness. At one point, she even blurted out, ‘She did!’ when the crowd swelled, as if to convince herself. Her voice than hardened, instinctively, before turning angry. She looked downright rattled.
Holm had not poked Rousey — she had stuck something inside. It showed on fight-night as Rousey looked particularly perturbed. She refused to tap gloves. She then sprinted, winging punches throughout the fight like she was certain her will was all it would take to down Holm.
Rousey’s temper failed her. Holm’s temperament did not.
Sun Tzu: As a general rule, those who are waging war should get rid of all the domestic troubles before proceeding to attack the external foe.
Rousey’s star was ascending like a rocket. Wherever the UFC was, you saw Rousey. With her parents promotion pushing her constantly and then her own team doing the same in other public arenas, Rousey was putting herself out there.
Then came the controversies. As I documented last week she opened herself to criticism at a number of turns. Her coach obliged, as well.
It couldn’t have helped her having such a healthy schedule. It’s one thing to load your calendar with media obligations and entirely another to compound that with personal issues. The latter eventually makes its way into the former.
It’s not for observers to know whether these things affected her or not, but the odds are better than the odds were for this fight.
Pundits are now taking their turns suggesting what is best for Rousey's comeback. Many have called for Rousey to leave Glendale and her coach, Edwin Tarverdyan (his comments to ESPN after the fight? “I wouldn't say in the striking game (Holm) was getting the best of Ronda…”).
Don’t bet on it. Rousey appears fiercely loyal to Tarverdyan for whatever reason and furthermore, seems short for this sport anyways. She has spoken openly about retiring sooner rather than later so to switch camps now would appear as betrayal to her.
When (not if) they rematch, Rousey only need to make a few adjustments to put Holm on the back foot. Holm's performance in the grappling exchanges is what ultimatly saved her from defeat. That's a tough to bet on happening agaib.
In the end, this is no longer Rousey’s world. Holm’s performance was one for the ages. She did what few thought could be achieved. She brought down the Rousey empire. She certainly shocked the world — and took it for herself.
‘But a kingdom that has once been destroyed can never come again into being.’
Rhys Dowbiggin @Rdowb @NPBroadcaster