By Greg Beacham, Associated Press
LAS VEGAS (AP) — Holly Holm didn't fight in a mixed martial arts cage until she was already a 29-year-old boxing champion of three weight classes. She had both a head start and a huge deficit in her quest to master a second sport in her athletic midlife.
Even eight years later, Holm is aware of the unique challenges of her chosen path. She knows she'll probably never face a boxer as good as her in the cage, but she also knows she might never catch up to some of her younger opponents in grappling, jiu-jitsu or the myriad intricacies of the transitions between disciplines.
So instead of setting a mundane goal to be the greatest fighter in MMA history, Holm looks at her second career as a chance to do as many unique things as possible.
"I always want to do something that hasn't been done before," Holm said Thursday while preparing for her showdown with bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes at UFC 239 on Saturday night.
"No female in the UFC has won the belt, lost it and then come back to get it again," she said. "That's something I can do this week. This is something for my legacy. I want to win no matter what, but I love to have a challenge in front of me like that."
Holm (12-4) already had one of the greatest nights in MMA history. She knows her career is likely to be defined by her world-shocking victory over Ronda Rousey in November 2015, making her a UFC champion in her 10th pro fight and transforming her into an international celebrity.
Although she lost the bantamweight title in her next bout, her place in the sport was already secure. A victory over Nunes (17-4), arguably the most talented and accomplished woman in MMA history, would be even more impressive than that win over Rousey, whose inadequacies were exposed again by Nunes a year later.
But Holm points out an interesting curve in this path: The world was shocked when Holm beat Rousey senseless, but the world now believes Holm can do anything, even after losing four of her past six fights. That's a different kind of expectation, and she is doing her best to bear up under it.
"I was the underdog that shocked everybody before," Holm said with a laugh. "But now there's the pressure from having that reputation as somebody who can shock you as an underdog."
Holm meets Nunes in the penultimate bout of a stacked card at T-Mobile Arena for the UFC's traditional International Fight Week pay-per-view show. Jon Jones, Holm's teammate in Albuquerque, faces Brazil's Thiago Santos in the main event of a show also featuring veteran stars Luke Rockhold, Jorge Masvidal, Ben Askren, Diego Sanchez, Michael Chiesa, Gilbert Melendez and Claudia Gadelha.
Holm and Jones often work out at the same time at Jackson Wink MMA Academy, and Holm pays attention to her tremendously talented, sometimes self-sabotaging co-worker. Even at 37, Holm is still eager to learn new ways to improve.
"Jon will come in and spar, but then he'll take somebody aside and just drill one move, one technique over and over and over again," Holm said. "His focus and endurance is inspiring. He can do that for hours, and I've tried to have the same focus."
Nunes has held the bantamweight title for three years since she took it from Miesha Tate, who had taken it from Holm. Nunes added the 145-pound featherweight belt last December with her sensational 51-second battering of long-reigning champ Cris "Cyborg" Justino, who beat Holm by decision in December 2017.
Holm's loss to Cyborg was her fourth in five fights, but she rebounded with a win last year. Holm is talented enough and famous enough to get this title shot despite her recent setbacks in bouts mostly decided by narrow margins.
"I'm a completely different fighter today," Holm said of her progress since beating Rousey. "I've always been on a fast track in this sport. I've had great coaches that are helping me catch up since I left boxing. It's a different feeling now when I go out there."
Nunes is a solid favorite in their bout, but the numbers mean nothing to Holm or her fans. Holm is eager to test Nunes' formidable boxing skills — and if she gets another historic knockout and upset victory, Holm will add it to her unique list of accomplishments in this singular fighting life.
"It's the high that gets you by," Holm said. "Wanting a victory is like a drug. It keeps you going."