Holly Holm was a very successful professional boxer. From 2002 to 2013 she racked up a career record of 33 wins with only two losses and three draws. She even secured a rematch against Anne Sophie Mathis, the heavy handed boxer who handed her the more brutal of her two defeats, and smartly outboxed her to avenge the loss. She has, arguably, benefited from an underdeveloped talent pool in the sport of women’s boxing, a few favorable decisions, and a schedule that rarely saw her leave her hometown of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Nonetheless, she won far more than she lost against the best her division had to offer. She was a very successful boxer.
She was not, however, a knockout artist. Of Holm’s 39 victories, only nine came by way of knockout. Of those, only three came against opponents with winning records. And of those three, one was a freak injury that, not being caused by a foul, gave Holm the win. “The Preacher’s Daughter” was never a puncher, and her record proves that.
Now that Holm has moved to MMA, however, things are different. In boxing her knockout ratio was a mere 24%, but in MMA she’s stopped all but one of her seven opponents, giving her an impressive knockout ratio of 86%. So what’s changed?
As it turns out, not much.
THE PIECES OF POWER
Before we assess Holm’s mixed martial arts game, it would behoove us to understand the mechanics of a powerful punch. To keep things simple, we’ll look at the most fundamental so-called power punch: the cross. Here it is as thrown by Joe Louis, one of the most efficient and effective punchers of all time.
Louis’ mechanics are near perfect, and his punch contains the three fundamental elements of power: weight transfer, rotation, and balance.
When Louis measures his opponent with his jab, he shuffles his feet into range, keeping his right foot, which drives the weight transfer for the right hand, under his body. When he feels close enough, he throws his weight from right to left, and from back to front. His left heel hits the canvas as his right heel lifts.
With the heel lift comes a twist, as if Louis were putting out a cigarette with the ball of his right foot. This twist opens up his hips, allowing him to rotate his entire core from hips to shoulders, and tightly linking the action of the arm and upper back with the shift of weight taking place downstairs. The fact that Louis carries his upper body at an angle to his opponent gives his right arm a greater distance to travel, which means more time to build up velocity and a greater range of rotation, allowing his upper body to fully match the turning of his hips.
Finally, Joe’s body stays close to his rear foot, if not completely over it, even as he drives his weight forward. This ensures that he is not only balanced enough to follow up with a second punch or move out of range, as the circumstances require, but that he can pull his weight back at the last second, completing the full rotation of his upper body and sending his right hand through the target.
Granted, Louis was always a natural puncher, but his trainer Jack Blackburn imbued him with nearly flawless punching mechanics. Weight transfer, rotation, balance. All the pieces are in place, and the result is a knockout.
Now let’s take a look at Holly Holm’s cross.
To a certain degree, Holm’s straight left lacks every single element of a truly powerful punch. First, weight transfer. Holm’s weight certainly ends on the lead foot, just like that of Joe Louis, but her problem is that it starts there as well. Holm’s starting position has her standing leaned forward, her head leaned over her right knee and her left foot planted far from her torso. She still drives off of that foot, but since it doesn’t bear the bulk of her weight to begin with, there is little weight transfer to speak of.
Second, rotation. Holm carries her upper body mostly square, so that her right shoulder isn’t much closer to her opponent than her left. Consequently, there is little rotating left to do.
Finally, balance. Because Holm’s weight starts forward, any attempt to throw it in the direction of the opponent forces her to catch herself to keep from falling over. This means her left foot, which starts too far away to add any meaningful power, ends up dragging forward. With only one foot on the ground when the punch makes contact with the target, Holm cannot pull her weight back and follow through.
This combination of malfunctioning parts results in what boxers call “pushing punches.” Holm’s body moves like that of a person attempting to move a heavy object by leaning into it. She punches as if she is trying to shove her opponent out of the way rather than knock her head off. Holm is not an effective puncher, and she never has been. Which brings us back to our initial question.
How did Holm go from pure point-fighter to knockout artist? A quick perusal of her MMA record should provide the necessary clues.
Aside from that win over Katie Merrill, who found herself on the wrong end of a perfectly placed right hook to the solar plexus, one word defines every one of Holm’s knockout wins: kick.
As it turns out, Holm is a much more dangerous kickboxer than she is a boxer.
You see, Holly’s punches aren’t just ineffective; they’re also relatively easy to see coming.
Here, Holm lunges in from long range, feinting her left and trying for a shift right to the body. In addition to her weight distribution, her tendency to lean into her punches is a direct byproduct of learning to throw punches from too far away. Rather than moving her feet closer to the opponent before throwing the punch, Holm learned to fling her upper body into the pocket to gain those extra few inches of reach.
Of course, her opponent, Belinda Laraquente, has no trouble simply backpedaling away from the assault. Without a consistent jab, and a reliance on bouncy outside movement, Holm often struggled to measure her punches, and relied on a high work rate to win the majority of her 24 career decisions.
This high activity, along with sheer will, defined Holm’s career as a prizefighter. Holly’s two greatest attributes in the ring were her seemingly endless stamina, and her innate fighting instinct–no one ever managed to hit Holm without having to immediately contend with a rush of counter punches. One look at Holm-Mathis I (and it’s not a fight you want to see twice) and you quickly understand why Holm was so hard to beat even with her ineffectual punches. She knew when to throw them, and how to fight back.
Still, not much has changed in that department since Holm’s move to MMA.
One of the fighters in this GIF is measuring with her lead hand, and it isn’t the professional boxer. Holm’s tendency to commit herself to punches at long range hasn’t changed, and even against a much lesser breed of striker she finds herself throwing often without landing, and doing little damage even when she does.
The kicks are her secret weapon.
Holm’s opponent, Allanna Jones, reacts to Holm’s hands as she had done all night. Similar to the previous example, she takes a short step to keep Holm from leaning in and landing a punch, and pulls her head back. She sees Holm’s hands just fine–the only problem is that Holm’s hands aren’t the threat.
So far, Holm has built her MMA career on this switch-up, pushing opponents back with the the threat of her left hand, and whipping the left kick up from beneath. With their eyes focused on her hands–she is a professional boxer, after all–her opponents never see the kick until it’s too late. Its upward arc allows the strike to travel beneath the opponent’s field of vision until it’s simply too late.
Holm spent 11 years as a boxer fighting women who saw her punches coming a mile away. Volume was her answer then, and she used activity to cover up the flaws in her technique. Opponents could stop 9 punches from landing, but if every tenth punch landed she was going to throw those ten punches over and over until the final bell rang. Nowadays, her opponents in MMA still see the punches coming, and she still struggles to throw a knockout punch, but she has more options–a greater number of tools with which to adapt and solve the problem. Whether to the liver or the head, Holm’s left kick possesses the threat that her left hand has always lacked: the ability to travel unseen, and strike unexpectedly.
These days, Holm spends a lot of time in the cage trying to make herself look more threatening than she is. Posturing and feinting, shouting with every punch, and throwing long combinations. It’s all part of the plan, a ruse to get the opponent thinking about her hands and backing up. The first woman to beat Holm will be one who takes the counterintuitive approach, and meets the professional boxer’s hands head-on. A double threat works best when both attacks are threatening: from Mirko Cro Cop to Anthony Pettis to Conor McGregor, a fighter who wants to set up kicks with punches needs power in both.
This weekend Holm makes her UFC debut against Raquel Pennington. WIth a solid clinch game and passable boxing of her own, Pennington is something of a Ronda Rousey-lite–an early test to see how Holm fares against an opponent with the skills to stand her ground, exchange punches, and meet Holm as she flings herself into the tie-ups as she so often did in her boxing days. Holm should get the win, but it almost certainly won’t be with boxing alone.
And that’s really the point of all this: Holly Holm is not a bad fighter. For all her technical faults, she was a very successful boxer, and she’s been very successful in mixed martial arts. But she’s not quite “as advertised” either, and it pays to know what to expect when a pro boxer comes in looking to kick your head off your shoulders.
For more analysis, check out Heavy Hands, the only podcast dedicated to the finer points of face-punching.
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