Ideally, Holly Holm would have fought at least two times in 2021 and she’d already be staring at a title shot or possibly even have a UFC championship belt back around her waist.
None of that happened, however, after Holm suffered through a brutal year that saw her drop out of both of her scheduled bouts including a showdown against Julianna Pena back in May. After she tangled with hydronephrosis — a kidney affliction — earlier in the year, Holm then dealt with a knee injury that knocked her out of a featherweight fight against Norma Dumont in October.
Now with Pena cemented as champion after her shocking upset win over Amanda Nunes at UFC 269, Holm is stuck contemplating the what ifs while trying to stay focused on a return to action in 2022.
“I’m super frustrated,” Holm said when speaking to MMA Fighting. “I definitely am on the mend. I hope to be back in there, back training and get back in there. I’m feeling a little better. I had to take care of some things. It’s super frustrating, especially when I see people fighting, especially [Nunes vs. Pena] but all the time.
“Any time I watch the fights, it’s so frustrating cause I want to get in there so badly. I don’t want to embrace not being able to fight but I’ve been very fortunate to have a career where I’ve been pretty active. This last year’s had some stuff that’s been kind of from left field. I’m handling it. I’m going to keep pushing forward. I’m not going to let it break me and I want to be back in there very soon.”
According to Holm, the issues with her knee aren’t anything that will require surgery but it still kept her from competing in October and she’s not quite ready to set a deadline for when she can fight again.
“It’s not anything like ACL or anything real big,” Holm explained. “It’s minor stuff like scope (arthroscopic) stuff. It’s definitely not like a huge recovery.
“It is one of those things, I expect to be back training in a month. I’m already being slightly active on it now. I just don’t want to false promise. I’m taking it day by day but I do feel like I’ll be back in full training soon.”
Knowing she had Pena as an opponent earlier this year made watching her fight with Nunes that much harder, although Holm absolutely gives credit where credit is due.
Holm saw Pena take the fight to Nunes in a way that no one has been able to do for the past seven years while “The Lioness” was running roughshod through two divisions in the UFC.
“Congratulations to her. She performed,” Holm said about Pena. “She went in there and did what she had to do. You don’t really know what’s behind the scenes, what’s really going on. I think Nunes probably wasn’t on her best fight game but there’s no excuses. A lot of people fear Pena’s scrambles and she’s got takedowns and she’s got submissions and she’s kind of a dog. She’s scrappy and that’s what people fear about her. You have to fear everything with every fighter you get in there with.
“Pena started changing the fight with her jab. It started to take a toll on Nunes and I think that’s kind of where a lot of the fight started to change. I don’t know what’s going on in a fighter’s mind but that was my take on it. I think it kind of caught Nunes off guard. I don’t think she was expecting that. Once Pena started landing, she kept on it. So good on her for going in there and performing.”
Of course Holm can also recognize the mistakes that Nunes made during the fight — particularly an ugly second round where she just started swinging wild punches with Pena while her conditioning absolutely failed her.
Pena took full advantage by weathering the storm and then hurting Nunes again and again with her accurate, straight punches before eventually finishing the fight with a submission on the ground.
“[Nunes] kind of just stood in front of Pena and they were just exchanging,” Holm said. “I think she was just kind of ‘maybe I can catch her and knock her out, maybe I can get her’ and that’s happened to me in a fight before and it got me knocked out. I got hit a couple times hard and I thought well I’m going to hit her hard, too. Lost all of my focus.
“Who knows what really happened in the fighter’s mind. Only they know. I’ve fought a lot of people before and it’s like ‘oh they weren’t themselves that night.’ It’s like no, I didn’t let them be themselves, I took them out of their game plan. There’s credit on both sides that way. You can’t say Nunes didn’t show up. Well, Pena performed. You can’t take that away from Pena.”
In the aftermath, Pena welcomed an immediate rematch considering the long, dominant reign that Nunes had atop the division. Nunes then accepted, although there’s still no exact date set when they will meet again.
Because timing is everything, and nothing is set in stone until the fighters set foot in the cage, Holm knows there could be a scenario where she would actually get the chance to face Pena in her next fight considering they were already matched up before.
Add to that, Holm has won her last two fights in a row including a lopsided win over Irene Aldana, who many had already crowned as a future contender in the division.
Now Holm has to learn to exist in the unknown as she awaits the opportunity to compete again next year once she’s healthy again.
“It’s honestly, that’s a very feasible thing [that Pena could be next],” Holm said. “You never know what’s going to happen. Are they going to say let’s rematch right away? There’s been times a fighter will say ‘I need a little more time before a rematch’ or ‘I need this, I need that.’ So you never know what’s going to happen.
“So yeah it’s super frustrating. I want to be right back in there. I want to be able to say hey, I’m ready to fight whoever, whenever. I’m real close to that. It’s super frustrating for sure.”
Assuming she doesn’t draw Pena as her next opponent, Holm just wants to face whoever will get her back to that end goal so she can have the chance to become champion again.
“I feel like anything can happen,” Holm said. “It could be any of those names. Anywhere from Pena down to Miesha [Tate], [Ketlen] Vieira, Aspen [Ladd], I feel like anything can happen. I just want to be ready for any of it.
“I have to just train and fight and earn my spot. I just hope that happens.”