When Holly Holm’s left shin connected with Ronda Rousey’s jaw at UFC 193 last November, it did more than inaugurate a new bantamweight champion. Rousey’s mystique, the aura of invincibility she had built through a dozen professional victories inside the distance, came crashing down to the canvas along with her unconscious body.
The next year wasn’t kind to the now-former champion. She told Ellen DeGeneres that she considered suicide in the aftermath of the loss, and a once-promising career in entertainment slowed to a halt. Rousey’s appeal to a mass audience, as it turns out, was built on that aura of invincibility. Without it, where does she stand? Can she regain her mystique against Amanda Nunes at UFC 207 on Friday?
If Holm’s win over Rousey had been a fluke knockout or a contentious decision, that would be one thing, but what was remarkable about the fight was how ineffectual Rousey looked. Holm exposed deep flaws and weaknesses within Rousey’s game, things that had been present before but never exploited, and made the formerly dominant champion seem lost and devoid of answers.
The game plan Holm employed to beat Rousey wasn’t rocket science. I talked to Holm’s coaches, Greg Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn, a couple of weeks after the fight last year; they emphasized how basic it was, a simple stick-and-move approach that involved staying away from the fence, avoiding the clinch and punishing Rousey whenever she got close.
This plan exploited Rousey’s temperament and her weaknesses. At heart, Rousey is an aggressive swarmer who wants to get in her opponent’s face, land punches, slide into the clinch where she can work her slick takedowns, and then find her trademark armbar on the ground. The fence is her ally, because it prevents her opponent from escaping. Once there, Rousey can pin her opponent in place in the clinch to land strikes or work takedowns, or alternatively, she can flurry with punches.
Everything about this game is predicated on forward movement, physicality, and intimidation. Rousey is bigger, stronger, faster, and more athletic than her opponents, and these physical gifts combine with Rousey’s aura of invincibility to overwhelm her foes early in the fight.
What Rousey lacks is a measured, technical pressure game that can force her opponent backward without exposing her to unnecessary danger. Her footwork is mediocre at best, and she doesn’t attack the space into which her opponent will try to escape as Rousey attacks. She’s a bad defensive fighter who doesn’t move her head, and when she gets hit, it frustrates her and pushes her into fits of uncontrolled aggression that limit her pressure to maddened bull-rushes.
Let’s take a look at what Rousey does in the cage and how she matches up with newly crowned champion Nunes.
Here’s an example of Rousey’s troubles against Holm:
Rousey is attempting to pressure Holm toward the fence, pumping her jab as she steps forward to cover her aggressive movement. In a vacuum, this would look pretty good, but look at where her lead foot is: inside Holm’s, conceding the dominant outside angle to her southpaw opponent. This shortens the path for Holm’s left hand and lengthens the path for Rousey’s right, and giving up the outside angle so easily is a sign of underdeveloped footwork.
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This whole series, Rousey’s head never moves off the center line, so it’s a simple matter for Holm to use the angle, plant her feet, and fling a straight left right into Rousey’s face. When Rousey pauses, momentarily stunned by the blow, Holm circles back into the safety of open space. This whole sequence of pressure has been for nothing, and she has to start over from scratch.
Here’s another example from that fight:
Rousey has managed to push Holm back toward the fence, but not so far back that it affects the challenger’s stance or takes away her escape angles. The moment Rousey stops in front of her, Holm fires off a straight left that misses, then a second one that connects cleanly as she steps back into the center of the Octagon. Once again, Rousey’s pressure has led to nothing productive, and she has to restart the process of forcing Holm to the fence.
The failure of footwork is clear again here. Holm’s lead foot is outside Rousey’s, giving her the dominant angle, and Rousey’s turn to address Holm after she throws is slow and sloppy. Even after being hit, she could throw a left hook to catch Holm as she circles out and attack the space into which Holm wants to move, but Rousey doesn’t pull the trigger. As before, her head stays on the center line the whole time: All Holm has to do is anticipate where her head will be and throw.
While these issues blossomed into full-blown disasters in the Holm fight, they were present before as well. Check out this entry from her Aug. 2015 fight with Bethe Correia:
Rousey steps in with a winging right hand that falls short, and Correia responds with a counter right that clips Rousey on the chin. Unfortunately for Correia, Rousey is close enough to use that right hand as an opportunity to grab hold of her head with a collar tie, and she blasts Correia with a hard uppercut. Correia tries to escape, but Rousey is strong enough to hold her in place with one hand and plants two more uppercuts on Correia’s chin as she shoves her toward the fence. Correia lands one of her own, but eats another uppercut and then a knee in response. The sequence ends with Rousey briefly trying for a trip, but Correia drops her hips down to prevent Rousey from getting the leverage she needs.
Once Rousey got a hold of Correia, the challenger was in trouble. In the split second before that, though, Rousey was vulnerable. She entered with a winging punch with her head right on the center line, and if Correia had cut an angle and then thrown the counter, or stepped back as she threw, Rousey wouldn’t have been close enough to grab her. It didn’t help that Correia was giving up two inches in height and a great deal of physicality, which is why Rousey could so easily manhandle her on the inside.
In that sequence, Correia couldn’t exploit Rousey’s arm’s-length reaching for that collar tie. She took advantage of Rousey’s recklessness here, though:
Rousey rushes in with a wild right hand that falls short, her feet wildly out of position, and manages to grab a single-collar tie. Correia breaks the tie and lands a sharp right hand as she backpedals out of danger.
That was bad pressure. There was no reason for Rousey to launch herself forward like that, leaving an opening big enough for even a barely competent counterpuncher to exploit. There was no reason to hang on to that collar tie, either, since it gave Correia a clean opportunity to land over the top of her outstretched arm. Once again, Rousey’s head was on the center line the whole time.
Rousey’s reckless forward movement and defensive flaws are huge problems in open space, where her opponents can move around her at will. The former champion needs the fence to mitigate these flaws, and when she has it, she can do tremendous amounts of damage:
This is from the Correia fight, and took place just before she planted a flush right hand on the challenger’s jaw to knock her out. Rousey has backed Correia to the fence, and blasts her with a brutal left hook to the body, then goes left-right-left-right-left in quick succession upstairs before finishing with a clinch.
Rousey’s flaws are still present here. Her head is right on the center line, and her feet are essentially square, meaning that she can’t generate much power of her own, and any shot that lands across the plane of her body — a straight right hand, for example — is going to have a devastating effect. Still, with Correia’s back to the fence and her feet parallel, she can’t generate enough power to really hurt Rousey, nor can she escape into open space.
Here’s another example of Rousey’s use of the fence, against Olympic wrestling silver medalist Sara McMann:
Rousey controls McMann with an underhook and head pressure, driving a knee into her solar plexus, then one into her liver, and finally a pair of looping right hands into McMann’s head as they separate. She eats a right hand on the break, but McMann, an inexperienced striker, doesn’t use the opportunity to immediately circle back into open space.
This is why Rousey needs to pressure her opponent to the fence: It doesn’t get rid of her flaws, but it makes them less of an existential issue, and it allows her to do tremendous amounts of damage in a short period of time.
The real questions going into the fight with Nunes at UFC 207 revolve around these issues. Has Rousey learned to pressure more technically, to move her head as she comes in, and to control her emotions when she inevitably gets hit?
Nunes is a devastating puncher, by far the hardest hitter Rousey has faced. While she’s a very different striker than Holm, Nunes still boasts some of the tools that allowed Holm to upset Rousey last November. In particular, her footwork allows her to throw, cut a new angle, and throw again.
Take a look at this example from her title-winning effort against Miesha Tate last July:
Nunes presses into the pocket with a heavy jab that snaps Tate’s head back, then steps back and to her left to present a new angle. As Tate turns to address her, Nunes plants a sharp jab-cross combination on her jaw, comes up short with a left hook, and lands a final right hand. As Tate retreats, Nunes cuts a subtle angle to the right and then follows her toward the fence with short steps.
This is clean, technical punching. Note how she uses the jab to keep the shorter Tate on the end of her longer reach, and how Nunes continually keeps her feet moving under her to both maintain the distance she wants and to find angles from which to land.
If Rousey wants to pressure Nunes, she’ll need to deal with this kind of quick, subtle footwork and ability to throw devastating combinations at close range. We’ve already seen how vulnerable Rousey is to counters and how she throws herself out of position as she comes forward, which was an issue in the Correia fight but her downfall against Holm. Nunes is faster, more athletic, and a bigger puncher than either of those two, and her fundamental footwork might even be better than Holm’s, if not as focused around playing an outside game.
It’s possible that even an unimproved Rousey can weather the champion’s early storm, secure her takedown, and snatch the armbar, but that’s a dangerous formula against someone as dangerous as Nunes. It’s more likely that a Rousey who hasn’t made some strides toward fixing these problems will end her Friday night at UFC 207 staring up at the lights once again.
Patrick Wyman is a mixed martial arts scout who’s earned his PhD. He hosts the Heavy Hands Podcast and contributes analysis to The Post.
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