The trouble with winning

Outside of Holly Holm, her family, and her lauded team at Jackson-Winklejohn MMA, there are very few people that could say they saw Rousey's first loss coming.

he shock at her dismantling by a fairly unheralded fighter was universal. But before we get to Holm, let's summarise Rousey's path to the peak of women's MMA. 

As a successful Olympic judoka, Rousey not only showcased impeccable grappling technique, but also an indomitable mental edge that seems to have been inherited from her mother Ann Maria, and drilled in to her from an early age by indeed, her mother. Rousey has previously spoken about how even as a child she had perfected the arm bar, her method of victory in her first 8 bouts, because her mom would 'jump' her as if she were being attacked, to check her daughters readiness. 

Her mom cuts a commanding figure, oft seen stood wearing her judo gi, with a voice to boot that demands respect. Many might question this kind of parenting, but clearly it initiated success. It's not hard to imagine that many who're successful in the octagon might have a 'pushy' parent driving them forward, or if not, a wrestling coach or some similar figure. 

With such excellent grappling technique, Rousey was more than ready for women's MMA at its level of quality in 2011, when she entered her first fight. She was decimating opponents with techniques they simply had no knowledge of. By this point she had joined her now-infamous coach Edmond Tarverdyan, who over the years has focused on improving Rousey's stand-up abilities, assumedly because improving her grappling is nonsensical when there was and is no other grappler on her level in the sport. However, frankly it isn't foolish to say that she may well have won her 12 fights prior to Holm with no training beyond judo whatsoever. 

Even women with lauded wrestling and stand-up skills, like long-time rival Miesha Tate, could not stop the judo hip toss into arm-bar combination. If you can't stop the throw, you lose to Rousey. It's as simple as that. Calling Rousey a one trick pony sounds disrespectful, but it's somewhat true. It's just that it was for a long time an unstoppable trick. 

To potentially simplify men's MMA, you could break its history down into three stages. Stage one was around the time of the beginning of the UFC, when most competitors were skilled in a single art, be it boxing, or wrestling, or jiu-jitsu (Or even sumo, if you've watched some of the freak-show fights over in Pride in Japan). The second stage was when fighters realised they had to become well-rounded to dominate. A champion like Frankie Edgar would be a typical example, who emulated great stand-up, grappling, and cardio. I believe men's MMA is entering a third stage, whereby fighters who want to dominate need to move beyond simply mastering all the necessary martial arts, and need to improve their overall movement, creativity and mental acumen to reach the top. Jon Jones and Conor McGregor may be future leaders in this regard.

Women's MMA, having not existed for nearly as long as the men's, nor with as many competitors, has evolved somewhat slower. It would appear that Holm has ushered in the second era, by defeating the 'one trick' of Rousey and exemplifying good defensive grappling as well as quality stand-up. Rousey had her way with opponents who were one-dimensional and to some degree Holm actually tricked us as an audience into believing that she, too, was a one-dimensional fighter. No-one was denying Holm's kickboxing acumen. It was just that no-one thought that the fight would stay on the feet for more than a minute. Holm had other plans, however, and was able to throw Rousey off of her when the dreaded hip-toss was attempted. 

Fascinatingly, in a turn of incredible foresight and game planning, Holm's coach Mike Winklejohn has all but admitted that Holm held back in her previous two underwhelming UFC fights, so that her true power and ability would be hidden from Rousey once they did fight. 

All this being said, we were all surprised when Rousey entered the Holm fight perfectly willing to stand and trade with this lauded kickboxer. Why would she be so confident in her abilities on the feet? Well, her coach Tarverdyan had basically helped convince her she's a world class striker, which she unfortunately is not. 

Further, the UFC getting her to fight the fairly clueless striker in Bethe Correia previously didn't help, because that KO win solidified Rousey's belief that she's a great striker. But that fight was essentially meaningless. Correia was greatly undersized and gave up a huge reach. She was a pretty solid definition of a 'can to be crushed'.

And so it was that Rousey entered the Holm fight having had yes-men tell her she could strike with anyone in the world- her self-confidence flying sky high. This is the problem with winning. Or perhaps more pertinently, with not losing. Fighters who lose can learn a great deal. Ask Raphael Dos Anjos, once nothing more than a journeyman, now lightweight champ. Ask Conor McGregor what it was like to be submitted inside the first minute. And although McGregor probably wouldn't admit it, it will have made him work his ground game to death.

But Rousey never needed to go to a typical MMA gym to be pushed, to be beaten up, to be worked on a daily basis, as she had the recipe for victory already in her hands from her old judo days. This isn't to say Rousey doesn't train hard, and every day to boot. But at her camp she is the boss, she is the focus. Now-champion Luke Rockhold often talks about grinding wrestling camps at the famed AKA gym with Daniel Cormier and Cain Velasquez where he isn't thought of as a top contender, merely another guy in the gym. 

If Rousey wants to challenge Holm again, it is my contention that she needs to embrace a form of training with more humility. She says she doesn't ever bring in a game-plan for specific fights- this is in of itself an arrogant attitude. Before it obviously wasn't necessary, but now it is. Now there is a fighter good enough that Rousey needs to train specifically for, and game-plan specifically for. The UFC hype machine will not be stopped, and the rematch will happen sooner rather than later. 

Unfortunately for Rousey, however, her connection to Edmund seems to go beyond just coach/student- they are close friends, and Rousey has already said that she won't be changing camps. As the old cliché goes, it was Einstein that said the definition of insanity is doing something over and over and expecting a different result. Another champ unwilling to change his style was Renan Barao, and he because of this he suffered just as much in his 2nd fight with now champ TJ Dillashaw as he did in their first. 

If I were to armchair game-plan for Rousey, I would quite ironically tell Rousey to embrace her one-dimensional style. Use your one strong faculty. Grapple hard. Stick to that girl like glue. Don't let it ever get rangy. Holm was tested in the grappling, but she wasn't seriously tested. A great wrestler knows it isn't the first takedown attempt that wins the fight; it's the fourth, the fifth, the sixth. Test Holm where she is weakest. Embrace the grind, as is Daniel Cormier's mantra. It's a tough ask, as we saw Holm enter the cage bigger than Rousey, but it's certainly a more sensible game-plan than boxing a kickboxer.

The Rousey legacy is impossible to understate. Not only is women's MMA now completely accepted as part of the sport, but her exciting (and bite-sized in length) victories have brought in casual fans from around the globe. To the classic 'casual' fan who only enjoyed stand-up and would complain that grappling was 'two men just hugging each other', we purists could point to Rousey, the grappling extraordinaire. She dragged the sport into the mainstream, and gave the people a choice from the bore-fest that boxing often is.

Rousey has been the queen of the 1st stage of women's MMA, but if she refuses to learn from her first loss, then we shall see Holm continue to sit on top of the mountain of the 2nd era. 

Laurie Williams

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