Perennially ranked near the top of two divisions over the past five years, former UFC women's bantamweight champion Holly Holm is seemingly always one big win away from closing in on another title shot.
Holm (13-5) has both the reputation of always facing the best and a track record of having only lost to the very elite to thank for the fact that she has never fallen too far from the top of the rankings. It also hasn't hurt that, forever riding the fumes off of her monumental 2015 upset of Ronda Rousey, Holm's standing as one of UFC's most beloved and popular fighters has never dissipated.
If there's a downside, however, to the spoils of fame and the realities of high expectations, Holm is no stranger to enduring that side of the coin either.
As she enters the main event of Saturday's UFC Fight Night card in Abu Dhabi against Irene Aldana (12-5), with the idea that a victory could lift her back into contention for yet another crack at the bantamweight title, Holm spoke of the criticism that motivates her to press on less than three weeks out from her 39th birthday.
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"A lot of people at this point in my career have been like, 'Have you thought about retiring? You had the belt and you lost it. You're already 38 and you're old,'" Holm said during Wednesday's virtual media day. "Well, I'm still ranked right at the top for a reason."
Consistently strong performances against championship-level foes, even in defeat, certainly support Holm's claim. Yet the counterpoint from potential critics is just as equally damning.
Ever since she ended Rousey's legendary unbeaten reign via violent head kick in just her third UFC fight, Holm is just 3-5 inside the cage. Her record in title bouts since then is even worse at 0-4, though all five of her UFC defeats have come against current or former champions: Miesha Tate, Valentina Shevchenko, Germaine de Randamie, Cris Cyborg and Amanda Nunes.
Even though Holm has looked good in bounce-back wins against Bethe Correia at bantamweight and Megan Anderson at featherweight over that span, her most recent performance -- a unanimous decision over Raquel Pennington in their January rematch -- was far from inspiring as Holm seemed to do the bare minimum to avoid danger and escape with a win.
Holm's longtime coach, Mike Winkeljohn, has long pointed to his fighter's innate ability to flex her short memory when it comes to defeat -- particularly the devastating kind like her 2019 head-kick knockout loss to Nunes in the first round. It's a notion that Holm agrees might be the secret to her longevity.
"Not just in MMA but in boxing, I have been knocked out and have had to come back," Holm said. "It's probably one of the hardest things to do. You start to have self doubt. 'Am I going to get knocked out again? Am I really that good?' There are all these questions. There are a lot of demons you can battle in your mind.
"I am a firm believer that you can try any motivation you want but if you don't believe in yourself, it doesn't matter. If there is every a time I don't think I can do it, that's the day I should retire."
Considering Nunes had her way with Holm just over a year ago, a victory over Aldana might not outright secure a rematch considering no one is calling for it. But there is the potential scenario regarding whether UFC might decide to ask Nunes, the lone female two-division champion in the promotion's history, to give up her 135-pound title.
Nunes (20-4) is currently enjoying the birth of her daughter, Raegan Ann Nunes, along with longtime partner and UFC strawweight Nina Ansaroff. The 32-year-old fighter is expected to defend her featherweight crown against Anderson in December although "The Lioness" has talked publicly in the past about considering retirement.
There's the idea that giving up the 135-pound title could keep Nunes around longer given the lack of depth at featherweight or the call to defend it as actively. Should Nunes ever vacate, it wouldn't be out of the question to consider the winner of Holm-Aldana getting an opportunity to face another top contender like Aspen Ladd or De Randamie for the vacant title.
Either way, the 32-year-old Aldana is hoping to keep her name attached to any discussion about the future plans of the bantamweight title. The native of Mexico has won four of five bouts since 2017 and is fresh off a viral one-punch knockout of Ketlen Vieira in December.
"I'm sure this fight is taking me one step closer to the belt. I see myself winning this fight and I see myself finishing her," Aldana said. "I hope [Nunes] returns to 135 soon. I don't know what her plans are but I respect her. She has accomplished great things and whatever she decides, I respect her. But if she comes back, it would be a great honor to challenge her."
Holm considers Aldana, who can match her in height with both standing 5-foot-8, as a tough and gritty out with a long reach and well-rounded skill set. As always, Holm welcomes the pressure that comes with being known as somewhat of a celebrity fighter who takes on the toughest challenges and remains motivated by the pursuit.
"Honestly, [losing] gives me heartache because I know that there is a lot of belief in me by a lot of people," Holm said. "There is a pressure that comes with that but it also makes me feel alive. I'd rather have things expected of me and pressure put on me than nobody care or didn't want to watch. I wouldn't have it any other way. It makes me want to do my best and win so that all this belief in me is worth while."
There's a few recognizable names for fans to get excited about on this undercard. One fight that stands out in particular is the potential swan song for Carlos Condit and Court McGee in a preliminary showdown at 170 pounds. Condit, 36, has lost five straight since 2016 and has not fought since 2018. He was expected to return to the Octagon last December against Mickey Gall, but suffered a detached retina in training and was forced to withdraw. McGee, meanwhile, is 35 and just 1-4 since 2017. The UFC veteran is 7-8 with the promotion over the last decade as both men are looking for a win to put a bow on their careers.
- Date: Saturday, Oct. 3
- Location: Flash Forum -- Yas Island, Abu Dhabi
- Start time: 10:30 p.m. ET (Main card) | How to watch: ESPN+
Fight card, odds
- Holly Holm -120 vs. Irene Aldana +100, women's bantamweights
- Yorgan de Castro -240 vs. Carlos Felipe +200, heavyweights
- Germaine de Randamie -150 vs. Julianna Peña +125, women's bantamweights
- Dusko Todorovic -340 vs. Daquan Townsend +270, middleweights
- Kyler Phillips -440 vs. Cameron Else +340, bantamweights
- Court McGee -130 vs. Carlos Condit +110, welterweights
- Charles Jourdain -440 vs. Josh Culibao +340, featherweights
- Jordan Williams -140 vs. Nassourdine Imavov +120, middleweights
- Loma Lookboonmee -150 vs. Jinh Hu Frey +125, women's strawweights
- Casey Kenney -330 vs. Heili Alateng +260, bantamweights
- Jessin Ayari -125 vs. Luigig Vendramini +105, lightweights
Given how rare one-punch knockout power can be in women's MMA outside of Nunes or Jessica Andrade, the oddsmakers rightfully have installed Aldana as an extremely small underdog. The fact that she can wrestle, too, only further illustrates the challenge at hand for the former champion.
Yet despite the accumulation of both age and defeats, Holm has consistently proven herself to be the most elite of gatekeepers for the UFC to measure its potential rising stars against.
If Aldana is more pretender than legitimate title contender, Holm should be able to sniff that out over the five-round distance by using her tried-and-true style of accurate counter striking to control distance from the outside. Yet should Aldana be for real, Holm may very well have her hands full as whispers of her slow decline continue to linger pushing 40.
Although Holm has consistently shown a strong chin, she has been stopped in violent fashion before in both boxing and MMA. Getting inside of Holm's jab will be key for Aldana to have the best chance at showcasing her power, as will taking the fight to the ground where Holm has never been known for doing more than surviving when taken down.
A victory of any kind for Aldana could lift her to immediate title contention given Holm's name, ranking and the lack of top-end depth within the division. A stoppage win, however, could begin the banging of the drum that she's a sneaky threat to Nunes' dominant reign.
But that remains a big if. Aldana has lost in the past when stepping up in class and holds a split-decision defeat in 2019 to Pennington, whom Holm has bested twice.
Either way, Holm remains the measuring stick for anyone aspiring to be more than a footnote in the short history of women's MMA at 135 pounds and above.
Pick: Holm via split decision