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UFC 219: Holly Holm relishes role of underdog

By
Dave Doyle, The Sports Xchange
Holly Holm strikes defending champion Ronda Rousey (left) in the Women's Bantamweight Bout during the UFC 193 Australia event in 2015 at Etihad Stadium in Melbourne. Photo by Joe Castro/EPA
Holly Holm strikes defending champion Ronda Rousey (left) in the Women's Bantamweight Bout during the UFC 193 Australia event in 2015 at Etihad Stadium in Melbourne. Photo by Joe Castro/EPA

Two years ago, Holly Holm pulled off what many consider the biggest upset in the history of mixed martial arts.

The Albuquerque, N.M., native used a head kick to knock out the previously invincible Ronda Rousey and capture the UFC women's bantamweight championship at UFC 193.

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Saturday, she'll have her chance to play spoiler a second time. Holm will go up in weight and challenge Cris "Cyborg" Justino for the UFC women's featherweight championship in the main event of UFC 219 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.

While Justino doesn't have Rousey's crossover superstardom, within the industry, she's largely considered the best women's fighter in the sport's history. And also the most controversial: Saturday's fight is the end result of a string of events that are bizarre, even by MMA's considerable standards.

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Justino (18-1, 1 NC), a San Diego resident by way of Curitiba, Brazil, has not lost a fight since her pro debut in 2005. She's known for a blitzing, hard-hitting style, with 16 of her 18 victories coming via knockout or TKO, nine in the first round.

But she also has a one-year steroid suspension on her record after testing positive following a 2011 bout in California. Last year, she appeared to have a second violation, as she tested for a banned substance in a USADA out-of-competition test, and was provisionally suspended before being controversially granted a retroactive exemption and reinstated.

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The latter controversy happened just as the UFC planned on crowning its first women's champion at 145 pounds. Justino largely competed outside of the UFC most of her career, first holding the featherweight title in the now-defunct Strikeforce promotion and then in the all-women's Invicta FC group. This is partly due to a dearth of talent at 145 and in part because, as a fighter who walks around as high as 170 pounds between fights, the weight cut down to the marquee 135-pound bantamweight class is too much for Justino to do safely.

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With Justino temporarily sidelined, Holm, who had lost the bantamweight title to Miesha Tate in March 2016, instead fought unheralded Germaine de Randamie to determine the first featherweight champ in January. De Randamie won a highly controversial split decision in which she got away with multiple unpenalized fouls, then later vacated the belt rather than defend it against Justino.

So Justino defeated veteran Tonya Evinger to win the vacant title in July at UFC 214, which leads us back to Holm, the only sellable name remaining who is large enough to compete at 145 pounds.

"When I go inside the cage, I never think 'Oh I'm 10 years undefeated,' Justino said. "I never think I'm the champion. I never think that. You know you cannot make any plans. I always leave it in God's hands, everything in my life, and then just do all I can from the cage."

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The 36-year-old Holm (11-3) was a former three-weight-class world boxing champion before making the switch full-time to MMA, so if any opponent is going to have both the technical acumen to counter Justino's striking skills and the poise to stay calm and ride out the inevitable swarm of punches, it's her.

A victory would also help boast Holm's case as the most accomplished women's combat sports competitor of all-time. In addition to her three boxing titles, a Holm victory would make her the first woman in UFC history and fifth fighter overall to hold titles in different weight classes.

"I know that this -- a win with this would definitely, you know, be a huge thing for my legacy and for my career. But it's definitely not something that would be -- that would just define it right now. Even with a win with this, I would still want to push forward and be succeeding after this fight. I know that there've been fights in my career that I've won and that've helped with what I feel is my legacy.

"But each fight is not the defining fight. It's the whole career and every opponent that's gotten me to here and just the whole journey along the way."

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