Already No. 1 in boxing, Holly Holm is about to make her Bellator debut
ALBUQUERQUE, NM — Among the dozens of gym bags piled along the wrestling mats at Jackson/Winkeljohn's MMA last Monday, a one-of-a-kind tote stood out from all the other black nylon carryalls. It was a yellow-and-black leopard print, trimmed with hot pink fabric. "This is my first duffle bag I made," says Holly Holm, the bag's owner and designer as she showed off her perfect stitching along the zipper.
"I could spend all day between Hobby Lobby, Target and Lowe's," says the amateur craftswoman and professional boxer-turned-mixed martial artists. Holm has made everything from an original headboard for a guest bed, to monogrammed throw pillows, to a particularly creative gift for famed striking coach Mike Winklejohn -- a leg protector designed to thwart her kicks in training sessions that she fashioned out of Velcro, sewing supplies and discarded wrestling pads.
"I noticed some companies have picked them up," says Winklejohn of the kick pads, now mass-produced. "She should have patented it."
That Holm, 31, shows a crafty, creative side outside of the boxing ring comes as no surprise to any spectator who has watched her fight inside of it. Holm, the world's No. 1-rated female boxer with a 32-2-3 record, strings together some of the sport's most inventive punch combinations with the same dexterity she shows when stitching together, say, the burlap table runners she keeps threatening to sell on the craft site, Etsy, but gives away as gifts instead.
The 18-time, three division world champion boxer will now ply her creativity to the cage, where she'll make her third mixed martial arts appearance on tonight's Bellator card (airing on Spike, 10pm/9CT) against Katie Merrill of Brighton, Mass. (1-0-0). The fight will take place at the Santa Ana Star Casino in Rio Rancho, New Mex., a 45- minute drive from Holm's hometown of Bosque Farms.
Holm's Bellator debut in the bantamweight division marks her 36th out of 39 fights to occur within the confines of her home state. The boxer's home-based performances largely explain why a fighter like Ronda Rousey has experienced fame best described as a phenomena while Holm's remains more of an enigma.
Holm, like Rousey, possesses the trinity of marketability for female athletes: bona fides in her sport, universal beauty, and unquestionable intelligence. An argument could be made that Holm could indeed be more marketable than Rousey. While her MMA counterpart is brazen and oftentimes biting in her assertions, Holm is polite and pensive in her analysis -- and more palatable to a general audience still adjusting to the idea of female fighters. Holm also achieves a rarity in the female sportscape: She manages to exude femininity but not sexuality.
Even though Holm might not be recognized widely, she is adored deeply, by both the New Mexico fanbase and its abundant promoters on the Native American reservations around the state who pay her four times as much money as promotions in Las Vegas or California have offered.
"We've tried going other places but they don't want to pay," she says. "There's a big misconception that I won't go anywhere else... A lot of people say, 'Why don't you leave?' And I say, 'Ask yourself this: 'How come they're coming here?' Obviously, they're getting paid or getting an opportunity they didn't have at home. And who would, in any job, leave to make a quarter of what they're going to make [at home]? Who would do that? Who? Nobody."
Holm has entrusted New Mexico-based promoter Lenny Fresquez to direct her career, with lots of input from Winkeljohn.
Winkeljohn, the trainer best known for his work with the likes of UFC light heavyweight champion Jon "Bones" Jones among others, takes a special interest in Holm's career. Mainly because he discovered her. Roughly 15 years ago, Holm, the daughter of an Albuquerque preacher, accompanied a high school soccer teammate to an aerobic kickboxing class. The instructor? None other than kickboxing and Muay Thai world champion Winkeljohn. As she exited her weekly workouts at the gym, she couldn't help but notice the sparring sessions and kickboxing competitions in which some of her classmates competed.
"I thought, 'I want to try that one time,'" says Holm. "I just want to see what it's like to get in there one time and just go, to beat each other in the face and just let it go."
"I had my first fight and I was hooked," she says.
In her first sparring session, Winkeljohn watched as Holm's partner landed a power punch to the novice's nose. "The very first time she sparred, she got knocked pretty hard and she came back hard," he says. "So I knew she had the heart in her."
Winkeljohn then took the high school soccer player under his wing, pushing her through conditioning workouts. He noticed, though, that his newest pupil was, "cruising on her natural athletic ability. She needed somebody who was a jerk to her to push her and it made a big difference."
Now, years after he played the role of the jerk, Winkeljohn says she's one of the best-conditioned athletes in the world. That combination of conditioning plus an innate, refined understanding of angles propelled her to notable wins against Christy Martin in 2005 and a unanimous decision win last June against IBF female, WBF female, and WBAN welterweight champion Sophie Mathis. She also boasts victories in each of her two mixed martial arts appearances, and the respect of the other Jackson/Winklejohn fighters.
"She understands the footwork and angles probably better than any of my guys," says Winklejohn, who notes that the likes of Jones will ask for Holm's advice.
And the advice is reciprocal, Holm says, claiming she's often asking for as much advice from her teammates as she's giving. "Defensively, [MMA] is harder but offensively, it's more fun. You have more weapons," she says. "I feel more natural at wrestling than I do at actual jujitsu. Jujitsu is the hardest part."
Her championship history in the boxing ring has led to plenty of internet message board chatter about Holm being a potential opponent for the queen bee of mixed martial arts, Rousey. Holm dismisses the talk for now, noting she's just completed her third MMA training camp. Winkeljohn is more succinct. "She's not ready for Ronda yet," he says. "The key word is yet."
In the meantime, the boxer is fielding competitive offers from the all-female MMA circuit, Invicta, and NBC's newest promotion, the World Series of Fighting, while she waits to see how her boxing challengers line up. "There are different pressures in both [sports] for me," she says. "In boxing, I feel like people have a high expectation of me because I've been so successful to this date. In MMA, I feel like people also have expectations because they've seen the success in boxing."
No matter her fight league or her sport, the fighter who quilted together her own workout bag, will have no problem creating something original with her career --even a brand-new path to two-sport stardom.