Holly Holm has already shocked the sports world with one upset victory over a seemingly unbeatable mixed martial arts champion. She sees no reason she couldn’t do it again when she faces Cris “Cyborg” Justino in the main event of UFC 219 on Saturday night. Just over two years after Holm (11-3) won the UFC bantamweight title with a jaw-dropping stoppage of Ronda Rousey, Holm is a big underdog when she steps into the T-Mobile Arena cage in Las Vegas to take her shot at Justino (18-1) for the featherweight belt.
Justino seems unbeatable. The Brazilian hasn’t lost since her MMA debut in 2005, and she has honed a physical, pounding style that no fighters have solved — or even survived to the bell in any fight since 2008. But Rousey seemed equally unbeatable when she entered the cage with Holm in Australia — and the whole world saw what happened when Holm kicked Rousey in the head.
“I think there are similarities with the feeling of it,” said Holm, who also had her share of impressive wins as a professional boxer before entering MMA. “I think that because I’ve done it more than once now, in boxing and (more prominently) with Ronda, to be the underdog and come in, I think that people think, ‘Oh, OK, well, Holly is capable of doing some things.’ But I feel like there’s more of a curiosity behind it. Not necessarily just thinking I can’t do it, but kind of, ‘Hmm, I wonder if she’s going to do it this time.'”
The UFC is hoping that plenty of people are wondering what will happen when the promotion wraps up an eventful 2017 with its traditional end-of-the-year show in its hometown.
The UFC 219 card also includes the long-awaited return of lightweight contender Khabib Nurmagomedov (24-0), who hasn’t fought all year and has been in the cage only three times since April 2014. The Dagestan-born Russian, who missed weight for a much-anticipated bout with new lightweight champion Tony Ferguson in March, will take on Brazil’s Edson Barboza.
The pay-per-view portion of the card begins with the return of popular welterweight Carlos Condit, who will take on durable veteran Neil Magny. Justino has won eight straight fights by stoppage, most in brutal fashion. Only her use of performance-enhancing drugs has slowed Justino’s dominance of her division and the women’s sport in general, particularly since she finally joined the UFC last year.
“I think Holly is a great fighter for me, because she’s a big name, too,” Justino said. “She has a lot of fights, a lot of experience. I think it would be a great fight.” While Justino would be the favorite in any bout, Holm is intriguing because of her highs and her lows. She stopped Rousey with that vicious head kick and earned instant fame beyond her sport, but then she followed up with three consecutive defeats, including a lackluster decision loss to Germaine de Randamie in February for the inaugural women’s UFC featherweight title.
When de Randamie gave up the belt rather than fight Justino in her first defense, Justino claimed the strap with a win over Tonya Evinger in July. Holm ended her skid with a stoppage of Bethe Correia in June and then booked her second shot at the featherweight title. While Holm could make MMA history with a win over Justino to claim a belt in her second weight class, this fight also presents a chance for Justino to beat the most famous female fighter aside from Rousey, whose career appears to be over one year after her comeback loss to Amanda Nunes.
Holm and Justino are both accomplished strikers with polished punching skills, so it won’t be a surprise if this bout is contested on the feet. Holm’s style appears to give her a chance against Justino, who hasn’t faced many strikers with Holm’s ability. And while Holm is the underdog, she is determined to enjoy her chance to become a two-belt champion.
“It’s not just any fight card in Vegas,” Holm said. “It’s the last fight card of the year, and it’s a busy time in Vegas. I feel like there’s going to be a lot of energy, and my whole thought is just to take all that energy in and just live in it and be in the moment.”