Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Miesha Tate vs Holly Holm Breakdown: The Gameplan to Beat Holm

Holly Holm set the Mixed Martial Arts community ablaze with her destruction of Ronda Rousey at UFC 193.  While Holm received her share of adulation, and rightly so, much of the clamor was directed toward the former champion.  Overwhelmingly volatile in nature, critics not only condemned Rousey's attitude and actions, but aimed critiques toward her tactical and strategic abilities as well as her training.  While much of the technical criticism was valid (and indeed, I partook more than a little myself), the popular notion that she chose to strike with Holm - and payed for it - was not.  Rousey spent the entire fight desperately seeking out the clinch and, for the most part, failing to utilize it effectively.  What she payed for on the feet was not a willingness to strike with Holm, it was an inability to exploit Holm's style and capitalize on her tendencies.

While Holm's victory doesn't seem to have passed along Rousey's aura of invincibility entirely, it has caused many to overlook her previous fights. Holm came into the Rousey fight a massive underdog, having been written off by most.  Now as we approach Holm's first title defense against Miesha Tate, she finds herself on the opposite side of the fence, albeit to a significantly lesser degree.  While Holm is the rightful favorite, Tate possesses the right skillset to capitalize on some of the holes in her game that Rousey was unable to find.

The popular sentiment toward this fight is that Tate - the wrestler - can't afford to strike with Holm - the boxer.  After all, we saw how Rousey fared when forced to strike with Holm.  Contrary to that, I'm going to argue that not only can Tate strike with Holm, and even beat her there, but that she can't afford not to.

I'm going to ignore everything that's been said about Holm's "world class boxing" and examine her tendencies within MMA.  I've outlined five key points that I believe will maximize Tate's chances:

1. Intelligent pressure
2. Draw her out
3. Advance behind a jab and lead hook
4. Use takedowns to set up clinch work
5. Hit her on the break

1. Intelligent Pressure

Ronda Rousey and Marion Reneau represent opposite extremes of the "how not to fight Holly Holm" scale.  Reneau backed herself out of her own effective range every time Holm attacked and Rousey failed to implement the "intelligent" part of "intelligent pressure".

Pressure is imperative for a puncher like Tate when facing someone like Holm, who wants little to do with punching range.  This leads us to what might be Holly Holm's most exploitable tendency - she uses her feet excellently on defense, but only her feet and little else.  If you can get Holm in the pocket, you can hit her, and her only reliable defensive response is to maneuver away from the pocket.  She possesses little in the way of head movement and doesn't parry or block punches much in close.

The problem, of course, is maneuvering her into the pocket.  Holm moves very well - she changes direction along the fence, pivots away, and uses the clinch to alleviate pressure.  In order to push Holm to the cage and keep her there, Tate will have to utilize technically sound pressure footwork.

The first and simplest step to effective pressure is moving in diagonals.  Rousey showed the pitfalls of using only linear movement to pressure, but lateral movement alone is also ineffective.  Diagonal movement, moving laterally while simultaneously taking away space, is necessary to force an opponent back and keep them along the cage.  Rousey demonstrated this well in the beginning of her fight with Holm, before eating a hard straight with her head straight up and on the center line that caused her to abandon her diagonal movement.

Holm's fight with Rousey also demonstrated the necessity of taking small steps when pressuring.  Ronda's large, aggressive steps left her weight committed and allowed Holm to counter her or switch directions and step around her with ease.  Careful positioning is much more useful than fast feet when pressuring.  Tate needs to advance patiently with small steps, keeping her feet underneath her and continually adjusting her positioning relative to Holm.

Here Tate uses small steps to keep Carmouche lined up against the cage, but she pivots on her front foot after stepping in to attack, giving Carmouche space to escape out the side.  Pivoting on the lead foot allows you to change your positioning relative to your opponent and take angles - great for a fighter looking to move around their opponent, but moving around your opponent gives them angles of escape.  Pivoting on the back foot allows you to keep your back to the center and maintain your positioning while you track your opponent's movement around the cage.  Watch how Weidman is able to move Machida around the cage while keeping his back to the center of the Octagon by tracking Machida's motion with his lead foot and pivoting on his rear.

Against Rousey, Holm was free to circle and pivot around without anything coming back.  Rousey was unable to limit Holm's lateral movement and punish her for circling.  If Tate wants to keep Holm in front of her, she'll need tools to cut off her lateral movement.  Rousey attacked mostly with the jab and straight - linear attacks that can be avoided by moving laterally.  Strikes that travel in a sweeping arc impede lateral movement and briefly freeze the recipient in place.  Tate has a decent lead switch kick and rear leg kick that she can use to cut off Holm's circling and freeze her long enough to get on top of her with punches or a clinch.  Hooks to the body work well for this purpose too.  Holm likes to take wide, deep pivots with a check hook when her opponent rushes forward;  Tate can advance with punches and throw the leg kick as Holm attempts to pivot away.

Holm likes to move around on the outside looking for openings, so Tate should be able to take the center of the cage.  Feints will be useful for her in getting Holm to react and allowing her to take space away, as will staying in range when Holm attacks, which leads us to...

2. Draw Her Out

Anyone constructing a gameplan to deal with Holly Holm must address the distance.  In fact, my first point was devoted entirely to that.  But pressuring Holm isn't the only way to close the distance and make your way into the pocket, because she will do your work for you.

Holm's offense in her first two UFC fights consisted primarily of shifting punch combinations followed by a kick or clinch.  She used these less often against Rousey because Rousey eliminated the need for her to cover distance, content to rush forward and skewer herself on the counters of Holm.  Holm will lead with a straight or a jab feint and walk herself forward, squaring herself up, while throwing punches from alternating sides.  If her opponent backs up, as Marion Reneau did every time this happened, Holm will slam a kick into them as they retreat.  However, if they stand their ground and counter, Holm will charge straight onto the counter with her feet square, her head up, and her hands already committed.

                                         Holm is wide open for a counter.

Holm charges onto Pennington and eats a counter.

Although Pennington showed the weaknesses in Holm's style against an opponent willing and able to stand their ground, she would often duck into the clinch as Holm rushed forward and limit the effectiveness of her counters.  Fortunately for Tate, she's shown not only the willingness to stand her ground, but the ability to stay within range and fire back without smothering her own punching distance.  Another method of dealing with Holm's rushes is by pivoting away and coming back in with counters, but considering the limitations of Tate's footwork, hitting her as she enters seems more viable.

Tate slips the jab of Eye and returns with her own.  She doesn't take a step back, putting her out of range for counters, nor does she duck forward and smother her own punches.  She rocks back just enough to avoid the jab, before stepping in with her own.  Note also how she lines Eye up with the lead foot as Eye pivots away, putting herself in position to continue the attack.

Holm's rapid-fire straights leave openings for a punch to come over the top and the overhand happens to be Tate's best punch.  She sits down on it and transfers weight into it well and she can use it to cover distance effectively.  Most importantly, she keeps her feet underneath her when she throws it.  Instead of throwing her weight onto her front foot and putting herself off-balance, she'll shuffle forward, feint a takedown, or jab in to get within range and sit down on the overhand with her weight relatively centered.

Pennington ducks into the clinch as Holm rushes forward.  Notice how Holm's hands lower to catch Pennington and prevent the takedown.  Tate can use the threat of the takedown and the overhand to manipulate Holm's hand positioning as she comes in.  Threatening the takedown a couple times will leave Holm coming in with her hands low to catch Tate as she shoots.  Once Holm expects the takedown, Tate can change levels and uncork an overhand.  Mixing up her takedowns and overhands as Holm rushes in will make Tate's attack difficult to predict and may cause Holm to hesitate.

Another important point for Tate is to counter in combinations.  Because of Holm's footwork-heavy defense, she's vulnerable to combinations.  If you launch yourself in, she'll have no problem stepping out and pivoting around you, but it's in tight combinations where her opponent keeps their base stable that her defense tends to fail.  She has a bad habit of running backwards with her head up, flicking out arm-jabs that do nothing but make her head an easier target.

Among other notable improvements in Tate's last fight, she was starting to put together effective counter combinations.  Note how she steps forward with her right leg to line Eye up and continue following her after she pivots off.  She puts herself in danger of being countered, but it also allows her to continue to follow Eye with strikes.  This may be useful against Holm, who tends to disarm herself while running backwards to get out of range.

Many have criticized Rousey for throwing herself so far off-balance every time she throws a strike, but Holm does it too, albeit to a far lesser extent.  Holm momentarily loses her balance nearly every time she misses a straight kick and falls forward, squaring her stance up.  Stepping in behind a straight kick is a great way to close distance, but Holm isn't ready to counter when she plants her feet.  This problem is exacerbated by her habit of throwing them from far out of range and telegraphing them by bouncing and swinging her arms.  This opening presents a perfect opportunity to follow her back with a counter combination, which is how Raquel Pennington dropped her.

                                       Holm throwing herself out of position.

Aside from her shifting rushes, most of Holm's punching is done by pot-shotting with the straight and a lead uppercut.  On both these punches, she tends to throw her weight forward rather than sinking her weight down.  This causes her to end up leaning over her front foot, off-balance, with her head open.

Holm lunges in with the straight and Pennington takes a step back, before attempting to follow her with a left hook.  Pennington steps back and waits for Holm to finish her strike before attempting a counter, but Tate has the head movement to potentially slip the straight and counter with a hook as Holm lunges in.

It is difficult to continue to strike with her weight so heavy on her lead foot and she usually resorts to pulling back out of range.  Due to her weight being committed forward, she has more distance to cover going back.  Pennington had success following her recovery back in with combinations.

In summation, Tate needs to stay in range to counter and hit Holm as she comes in, mix up the overhand and the takedown, counter Holm's potshots with a lead hook, and follow her back with combinations when she leans over her front foot.

3. Advance Behind a Jab and Lead Hook

They key here is in the words "advance behind".  One of the many mistakes Rousey made in her fight with Holm was trying to sting her with the first punch.  Holm likes to maintain a calculated distance between herself and her opponents at all times.  This allows her plenty of time to spot an opponent's rush or lunge and use her footwork to get away.  It also means that any opponent looking to sting Holm with a punch from her distance must either run forward or throw themselves off-balance.

Tate must use her jab to take ground away from Holm and set up her offense.  Holm tries to avoid the pocket at all costs.  When Miesha steps forward with her jab and closes the distance, Holm will either retreat or stand her ground and counter.  If she retreats, Tate can take the space away and cut her off, or follow her back and continue her combination.

Although Holm's fight with Rousey made her counters look great due to Ronda's willingness to run into them, counter-punching is not Holm's specialty.  Here Pennington steps forward with a jab and Holm tries to step outside and counter with a straight, but she misses and eats the jab.  Holm's counter straight works wonders against anyone who tries to run after her, but the flaws are clear when her opponent advances carefully.  Against Rousey, she would catch her as Rousey tried to punch from too far away, but her lack of head movement means that a distance-closing jab is likely to land first.  Likewise, her check hook worked so well against Rousey, who would telegraph her intention to rush before she got anywhere near close enough to hit Holm.  Holm's counters are almost always limited to a single straight or lead hook, so Tate can step in with the jab to draw out Holm's predictable counters and shoot underneath or counter them.

Tate's head movement and comfort in punching distance gives her an advantage in the pocket.  Here, she steps forward with a jab and dips under Eye's counter. 

Pennington covers ground with a lead hook, keeping her feet underneath her and staying in position to hit Holm if she stays in range.  Holm backs up at an angle, disarming herself offensively by taking her feet out of position and flicking out a limp arm jab, and Pennington tags her with a straight.

Once she's established a pattern of stepping into her punching range behind jabs and lead hooks, Tate can begin feinting them to cover distance and draw out Holm's counters.  Here she steps forward, as if to step in with a jab, and takes a hop step to her left while feinting a lead hook, giving her an angle to land her overhand and drawing a counter from Eye, which she then punches over.

Tate steps in with a tight jab that stumbles Eye and follows up by advancing carefully and changing levels, feinting the jab to land an overhand.  This is exactly what she needs to do with her jab against Holm - Tate has a more effective jab than Holm, who mostly uses hers as a feint or throwaway shot to set up her straight.  Advancing carefully, keeping her feet underneath her, and stepping in with the jab and lead hook will put her in punching range, where she can capitalize on Holm's weaknesses.

4. Use Takedowns to Set Up Clinch Work

Now that I've explored the holes in Holm's striking game, I'll take a look at how Tate can impose her grappling on Holm.

Holm has demonstrated fantastic takedown defense so far and given Tate's habit of slow, telegraphed shots from far out of range, she's unlikely to have much success taking Holm down outright.

Tate likes to work in the clinch along the fence.  Implementing a pressure game will facilitate this by keeping Holm around the outside of the Octagon.  I've already gone over timing takedowns as Holm shifts forward, but Tate can also use shots to back Holm up to the fence and secure the clinch.  The advantage of this is that they aren't reliant upon Holm's actions and allow Tate to take the initiative, and they need not be finished.  Tate can press forward, throw a jab or feint, change levels, and push Holm to the cage, where she can then start to work her clinch game.

5. Hit Her on the Break

There also exists a strong possibility that the clinch work won't go Tate's way.  Holm has a strong clinch game, as shown in her last fight when she effectively neutralized Rousey's vaunted clinch.  Holm can strike effectively from the clinch as well.

Holm is vulnerable however, in transitions between different ranges and phases.  She maintains her upright posture in close, leaving her head sticking straight up even as she crossfaces, or pulls down on a collar tie to land a knee.  If Tate feels Holm getting the better of the clinch exchanges, it will be in her best interest to break often and strike on the break.  The nature of Holm's footwork-first defensive system leaves her susceptible to punches in the pocket, and breaking the clinch positions both fighters briefly in the pocket, where Tate can land.  Holm's vulnerability in transitions extends to transitions between the ground and standing as well.

Holm's shifting attacks present another opportunity to land strikes in transitions; Pennington would often duck down when Holm shifted forward and Holm would fall into the clinch.  Even if Tate isn't successful in countering a rush, staying in range will force Holm into the clinch, where Tate can then break and hit her.

Holm getting hit on breaks from the clinch.

Tate striking out of the clinch against Eye.

I'll end with one final tactic that may help Tate defuse Holm's rushes:

As Fightland's Jack Slack terms it, the "nodder" is a dirty method of punishing aggressive rushes by dropping your head, aiming the hard part of it at your opponent's face, and "allowing" them to run into it.  It's likely that Pennington didn't intend this, as she was looking down when Holm rushed forward, but it's there if Tate wants to use it.  As MMA fans know all too well, fighters are generally afforded at least 2 free fouls, so there's little risk to this even if the ref picks up on it.

Holm's fight with Rousey served as a valuable lesson that champions aren't invincible, dominance is fleeting, and all it takes to dethrone an undefeated fighter is one bad matchup.  Is Tate that bad matchup for Holm? Possibly, who knows.  What I do know is that this is a winnable fight for both women.  Once the Octagon door closes, accomplishments, titles, and broad, overreaching characterizations of both fighters' skillsets are left outside and, for twenty-five minutes, all that matters is what a fighter does and how he reacts to her opponent.


  1. Great article. Just found the blog. Can't wait to read more.

  2. This was on point man, hope to see more work from you soon, be it posts here or videos on youtube, big fan here :)

  3. Love your writing and your knowledge. Keep them coming please.