In 1989, Deion Sanders hit a home run for the New York Yankees and scored a touchdown for the Atlanta Falcons in the same week. It’s a feat that has yet to be duplicated in the world of sports. During his career, Sanders also became the only person to ever play in both a Super Bowl and a World Series. Other athletes such as Jim Thorpe and Bo Jackson have excelled and made significant marks in multiple sports. However, the above individuals are clearly rare exceptions to the rule.

More often than not, an athlete’s digression from his or her original sport ends in something similar to the dismal anti-exploits of a Michael Jordan or a Jose Canseco. Different sports require different types of training, on both a mental and physical level. The adjustments required in making a switch are nothing short of monumental. Still, it’s clear that today’s athletes will continue to pursue the Holy Grail of dual-sport heroism.

Mixed martial arts has seen its share of “crossovers” as high-level athletes migrate to the cage in search of fresh glory. MMA fans have witnessed not only career boxers, grapplers and wrestlers make an entrance into the sport, but football, baseball, hockey and even rugby players. MMA’s most recent crossover prospect is another decorated pugilist, namely Holly Holm. Extending her path of gold from the ring to the cage would certainly land Holm in the history books, but does she have what it takes to rise to the top of a second sport, and one as demanding as mixed martial arts?

Much of Holm’s bio isn’t likely to disturb the sleep of the burgeoning women’s division. “The Preacher’s Daughter” enjoys sewing and baking and has an athletic background in swimming and aerobics. The 5-foot-8 bleached-blond bantamweight really is the daughter of a minister and, if you live in the Albuquerque area, you may have seen her sitting at a Starbucks unassumingly reading her Bible. Not exactly the image we’d expect of someone who could one day be standing across the cage from Ronda Rousey.

To be fair, one might add that Holm is an 18-time world champion boxer across three divisions. She’s twice been named female Fighter of the Year by Ring Magazine. And as for Holm’s aerobics instructor of years gone by, the same man has since taught her a few moves in the realm of combat sports. His name? Mike Winkeljohn. Now we’re getting somewhere, right? Sort of.

On paper, Holm would seem in perfect position to make the transition to MMA, and even to make a full-fledged title run. In fact, she’s already shown an aptitude for the cage, finishing each of three opponents rather handily. Holm surrounded herself with the right people at Jackson-Winkeljohn MMA; she’s chosen an auspicious time to make her move, with women’s MMA on the breakout; and she’s dedicated herself to the sport 100 percent, announcing her retirement from boxing. Holm enters the cage world with supreme conditioning and a striking acumen that may be unparalleled in the women’s division. It all seems so perfect. Too perfect.

Although Holm’s credentials may be indisputable, the reality is that the MMA world is no respecter of outside awards and accolades. You earn your respect in the cage, if ever you do earn respect. Looking at Holm’s cage competition to date, it has clearly been low-to-mid tier with her outsizing her opponents. One could almost consider Holm’s pristine 3-0 mark as an amateur record, something similar to Tom Zbikowski’s unblemished boxing record. And now, as she prepares to jump into the sport with both feet, Holm’s name prominence and the fanfare surrounding her have increased dramatically. The cage has turned from a nice diversion into a pressure cooker filled with expectations. And an important question arises: Will Holm have the chance to develop her game naturally or will she be thrown straight into the shark tank of elite women fighters?

One advantage Holm has is that she’s already training with some of those elite sharks. Working with world-class athletes like Julie Kedzie and Michelle Waterson will certainly help Holm expand and adapt her skills to MMA. However, this is little substitute for the “real-world” experience that only the cage can bring. Taking the right knowledge and equipment into the jungle doesn’t guarantee your survival.

Going forward, there are several fight paths that Holm could take. With multiple offers already on the table, it’s clear that promoters are anxious to cash in on her name value. Holm’s last fight in Bellator went well and CEO Bjorn Rebney has expressed an interest in having her back. However, even as Bellator intends to return to her home state of New Mexico, it’s doubtful we’ll see Holm fight for the promotion again. Bellator has shown little commitment to women’s MMA after having talked the talk on a women’s tournament for over a year now. It’s too bad because such a course might have been one to enable Holm a more gradual entry into the sport.

There’s a strong possibility that the UFC will see Holm’s aura of dollar signs and fast track her toward a title showdown. Fortunately, bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey is tied up with The Ultimate Fighter for a while (I’m not sure Holm would survive the staredown at this point). Still, any sort of fast-tracking doesn’t bode well for the inexperienced Holm and could bring a devastating result. For one thing, Holm’s ground game is still a huge question mark, and should she meet a talented wrestler like Miesha Tate, Holm could quickly find herself exposed and tumbling down the ranks into the depths of the preliminary cards. While this could be good on one hand, the high expectations placed on Holm could see her suffer a huge psychological blow should she succumb to a bad loss right out of the gates.

A better bet is for Holm to (attempt to) maintain a lower profile and work her way up through the ranks of a promotion like Invicta Fighting Championships. The problem is that she’ll be entering a weight division that’s already stacked with talent. Within her first couple fights, Holm is likely to run into one of several upper-tier fighters such as Shayna Bazler, Kaitlyn Young or Leslie Smith. The “Preacher’s Daughter” will need all the fire and brimstone she can muster to make it through a single round with any of these talented ladies. And should she catch one of them and score a knockout, Holm is likely to be thrust right back into the precarious UFC scenario.

A final thing working against Holm is that she’s not used to fighting in enemy territory—or even neutral territory. Nearly all of Holm’s boxing matches were fought in her hometown of Albuquerque with the backing of a spirited crowd. A high-profile curse and the cold indifference of an audience beyond her familiar surroundings could prove a lethal one-two punch, squelching Holm’s quest for new gold. Of course, all of this assumes she has much of a chance in the first place.

To reiterate an earlier point, the world of sports is designed for specialists. While it may be only natural for an athlete to seek new mountains to climb once they’ve achieved a certain level of success, it’s silly (if not arrogant) to believe that such success can be duplicated on a new stage with new rules. And although a boxing ring and an MMA cage may seem like very similar stages, everyone who’s fought in both would likely agree that they are not.

Simply put, boxing and MMA are very different animals—and there’s the rub. The boxing ring can be volatile to be sure, but few things can match the intensity and unpredictability found inside an MMA cage. Cage fighting requires one to think differently, move differently and react differently. Compared to the limited dimension and measured flow of combat typical of boxing, MMA’s multifaceted rough-and-tumble must seem like unbridled anarchy. And if anything, women’s MMA only magnifies the disparity between the sports, with its combatants regularly displaying some of the rawest aggression and fiercest scrambling that sports fans have ever witnessed.

Holly Holm may be striking while the iron’s hot, but one has to wonder if she really knows what she’s getting herself into. Mixed martial artists are of a very special breed, fueled by an irreproducible fortitude which enables them to lay body, heart and soul on the line every time they enter the cage. In a sport that takes no prisoners and offers nowhere to hide, the unprepared meet with a swift and disastrous end. Holm’s stint in the cage, however long it may last, will inevitably confirm these truths, just like the vast majority of other hopeful crossovers of days gone by.

Remember James Toney? Neither does anyone else.

Photo: Holly Holm (Wilson Fox/Sherdog)

About The Author

Robby Collins

Robby Collins considers himself a johnny-come-lately to the sport of MMA. He was introduced to it less than three years ago but has since delved into the sport at all levels. As an aspiring fiction writer, Robby adapted his skills to promote his latest passion and landed with The MMA Corner by way of personal initiative and auspicious timing. Robby has dabbled in karate and wrestling, and is currently learning to kickbox.

  • Tara Coogan

    This is a very insightful piece. Personally as a boxer and recently now into some MMA, I see your point. Holly has great endurance and has demonstrated great leg work and speed boxing. This has served her well in MMA thus far.

    Could she take Rhonda Rousey just now? I don’t think so but Rhonda has her signature armbar hold that has enabled her to win every bout. The strategy to fight Rhonda is to avoid the floor game, thus her armbar, as much as possible.

    With other MMA fighters, Holly prevails on strength, speed and mental skills.