LAS VEGAS — Doubt is nothing new for Holly Holm.
Just two years ago, Holm marched out to a record-breaking crowd in Melbourne and accomplished a feat few in the sport thought possible, dismantling former bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey to forever silence the queen of the UFC and enshrine “The Preacher’s Daughter” among the fight game’s list of all-time applecart upsetters. Now, Holm is looking to one-up her own reputation on Saturday when she challenges the other side of the WMMA coin, UFC women’s featherweight champion Cris Cyborg, in the main event of UFC 219.
This time around, Holm enters fight week with the world acutely aware of her abilities as an ender of legends. And that knowledge is reflected in the betting odds. For the first time since Cyborg’s historic 2009 meeting with Gina Carano, the champion many believe to be the greatest female fighter in history is less than a five-to-one favorite to come out on top. That may not sound like much, but when your history is littered with outlandish betting lines like -3500 and -2225, a line hovering around -400 speaks volumes about the belief oddsmakers have in Holm.
And they’re not alone.
Several fighters on UFC 219’s main card believe the matchup is closer than anticipated.
“I definitely think it’s an even matchup,” said Dan Hooker, who meets Marc Diakiese on Saturday. “I don’t think it’s going to be any form of blowout. I think it’s not going to be a fight for the fans necessarily. I think the first round will be very slow, I think Holly’s going to move a lot, cut a lot of angles and wait for Cris to make mistakes. I have it 50-50. If I was a betting man, odds-wise, I’d go Holly.”
Unsurprisingly, Holm’s teammate at Jackson-WinkleJohn, former interim welterweight champion Carlos Condit, agrees.
Condit pointed to Holm’s world-class footwork and defensive capabilities which outshine any of Cyborg’s recent foes as a path to victory for his longtime friend.
“First off, I’ve known Holly for a very long time, since we were both probably teenagers, and this was the most focused, the most motivated that I’ve ever seen her,” said Condit, who returns from a 16-month layoff to fight Neil Magny at UFC 219. “And that’s saying a lot, because she’s a very, very focused, motivated fighter. But style-wise, I think this is a good matchup for her.
“She’s great at countering, she’s got great movement. Cyborg is able to bully people and really out-muscle them, but Holly is an athlete. Of anybody that Cyborg has ever fought, I think Holly is probably the strongest and most athletic.”
Still, that’s not to say that sentiment was unanimous. Far from it.
Carla Esparza, herself a former UFC champion, acknowledged the chance Holm has to make history repeat, but just couldn’t get over the vast physical disadvantages Holm will be forced to overcome against the much larger Cyborg.
“Holly has surprised people before, beating someone who seemed unbeatable,” said Esparza, who fights Cynthia Calvillo on UFC 219’s pay-per-view card. “I think she’s an amazing fighter. The only problem I see potentially is — obviously Cris is an amazing, dominant champion as well, but the only problem I see is maybe like a size and strength advantage with Cris. I think the way that Cris struggles to get to 145, or has struggled in the past to get to 145, is how Holly struggles to get to 135. I don’t think Cris could make 135 unless you chopped her leg off.
“Stylistically, Holly is really a counter-striker and obviously has that big knockout potential, so we’ll see. But I’m leaning towards Cris just because of the size and strength advantage.”
Edson Barboza, who fights in Saturday’s co-main event against lightweight contender Khabib Nurmagomedov, echoed the belief that ultimately Cyborg will simply overwhelm Holm with her size and pressure, just as she’s done to 18 other women in the past.
“I feel like it’s a good fight for Cris,” said Barboza. “She’s a striker too, and everybody knows, if you stand in front of Cris, the fight’s over. I think Saturday night is going to be the same thing as all of the other girls: Cris wins the fight.”
Either way, the stakes for Saturday night are exceedingly high.
Another stunning Holm upset would push her name to the forefront of the conversation for the greatest female fighters to ever compete in combat sports, while another destruction at the hands of Cyborg would cement the Brazilian as an unstoppable figure unlike any we’ve seen in mixed martial arts.
And when it comes down to it, count Calvillo among those who believe the former is possible, but the latter is likely inevitable.
“Cris is very dominant, and Holly is an amazing athlete, an amazing martial artist. She’s been doing for years as well. You cannot count her out at all,” said Calvillo. “She shocked the world when she knocked out Ronda Rousey. Everybody thought that Ronda was going to run through her, so you can’t count out Holly Holm. I’m a big fan of both of them, but I think this is Cyborg’s fight. It’s Cris. Cyborg is Cyborg. She’s a 145er. I feel like Holly Holm has a weight cut at 145 too, but she’d be a more dominant champion at 135 than 145.
“And Cyborg, she’s really the queen of the featherweights.”