When Holly Holm returns in May, it will have been almost 19 months since her last appearance in the UFC.
Following a dominant win over Irene Aldana in October 2020, the one-time UFC bantamweight champion appeared on the cusp of title contention yet again but then the bottom fell out on her after she was diagnosed with hydronephrosis — a disorder that causes swelling in the kidneys, which can lead to severe pain, nausea, fever and urinary issues.
After she recovered, Holm struggled to find an opponent at 135 pounds so she booked a fight at featherweight but then that also fell apart following a knee injury that occurred in the final days of her training camp.
“I was so close to getting there. It’s like one thing after another,” Holm told MMA Fighting. “It’s one of those times you have to sit back and say ‘OK, this is where my journey’s been’ and you make the most of it and just move forward from here. There’s nothing I can really do about it. We’re just going forward now.”
“I had to have surgery. It was a piece of bone fragment floating around up there. They had to clean up a few things but I did have to have surgery. But we’re up and we’re cranking and we’re pushing forward.”
With a layoff dating back to 2020 when it appeared she was getting back in the hunt for a title shot, Holm has now been facing questions about her future in the sport amid so many setbacks.
While she understands that being out of sight and out of mind puts her at a disadvantage, Holm can’t help but feel stunned when she’s asked if her career is already over.
“I’m definitely super frustrated, especially when people are like ‘are you retired?’” Holm said. “I’m like no! Not retired! But I can see them maybe thinking that because they haven’t seen me fight. I want to show them what I’ve got and especially because my last fight, I got to show even more of my game from what had been seen before. I get excited cause I want to show more and show more and I keep running into these barriers. It’s definitely frustrating.
“I feel myself getting anxiety sometimes cause it’s like you feel like you want to go and you can. You feel like you’ve got to go and you want to go and you cant. Then you start overthinking things. I’ve learned I just have to take it day-by-day or I’m going to worry myself doing nothing. Not even moving forward. I always want to move forward so I try to stay as positive as I can.”
During her time off, Holm also celebrated her 40th birthday and that’s usually a significant number because combat sports athletes rarely get better as they get older.
While shining examples like Glover Teixeira and Randy Couture exist when it comes to fighters past 40 becoming UFC champions, the list is rather short compared to those who were never able to climb back up to the top of the mountain past 40.
In her case, Holm doesn’t even factor age into her decision making because she legitimately put on one of her strongest performances to date with the win over Aldana and she’s expecting similar results for her next fight in May against Ketlen Vieira.
“I know people that at 25 aren’t as healthy as people at 40,” Holm said. “I think it’s all how you take care of your body. Yes, I’ve been beating up my body for a while and I’ve had a few injuries here and there. My kidney thing, that’s not even an injury. That’s just another wrench to throw on the engine. But what’s awesome, I didn’t realize how much I was dealing with before that was fixed. Now that’s great.
“I’ve been dealing with that for fights over and over so some of that stuff is actually helping me be healthier and be better at 40.”
In anticipation of her return, Holm has done her best to just put the past behind her and not allow illness and injury to define her ongoing training camp as she seeks to reestablish the momentum she started to build with her last two wins.
Holm confesses that the time away from fighting has been unbelievable aggravating but it’s also not going to do her any good to allow those feelings to fester inside of her.
“Nobody wants [to drop out of a fight] but sometimes that’s just the name of the game,” Holm said. “That’s what we do. I have to make the best of it. I have to keep moving forward and there’s really no choice. It’s like this is what we’re dealing with and we’ve got to go forward.
“Sometimes it’s super frustrating. Absolutely. But you can sit there and pout about it or you can be positive about it and keep going forward.”
In the immediate future, Holm is only thinking about Vieira and a chance to secure another UFC title fight opportunity with a win.
Looking further down the road, Holm hopes to defy all odds when it comes to the years she has remaining in the sport because she expects to fight until there’s no more fight left in her — no matter the cost.
“I definitely want to go until the wheels fall off,” Holm said. “Things might hurt. People are like ‘you’re going to have arthritis, you’re going to have this, you’re going to have that.’ Yeah probably but I’d rather have a healthy heart and lungs and memories with me than just my knees don’t hurt.
“At the end of my life I know my body’s probably going to hurt pretty bad but that’s all right. Because I love the memories I have. I love the passion I’ve felt in life. I love that I’ve given myself a chance to really get out there and do things and I still love it. Having this much time off makes me realize how much I still love it. It’s like I crave to fight. I want it really badly.”