August 11, 2022

Back at the beginning of her combat sports career, 20-year-old Holly Holm figured she wouldn’t want to still be fighting at 30.

“I pictured myself having kids doing the whole mom thing,” Holm told The Post over the phone on Wednesday. “Not that you can’t be a mom and fight. I just know, for me at the time, I thought, ‘Oh, maybe I want to be more involved as a mom, not be fighting anymore, going into training camps.’ ”

Holm (14-5, eight finishes) couldn’t have imagined at the time she’d be 40 years old, competing at the highest level — let alone in MMA rather than her first sports: boxing and kickboxing. And yet, here she is, set to headline Saturday’s UFC Fight Night (7 p.m. ET, ESPN+) against fellow bantamweight Ketlen Vieira.

Clearly, she adjusted expectations for her career as she went. Racking up welterweight boxing titles left and right by her mid 20s, “there was no way I was gonna retire when I was 30,” she recalls. Thirty came, and 35 became the new “for sure” end point in her mind. Once 35 came: “No way.”

“And I really thought 40 might be closer to the end, but it’s not,” Holm says. “I still feel great, and I feel my last fight is a fight [in which] I showed I’m still evolving. And it’s exciting to me, so I don’t want to stop now.”

Holly Holm
Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

True enough, Holm’s last appearance was an eye opener. Back in October 2020, the former champion who had knocked the 135-pound crown from Ronda Rousey’s head with a high kick knockout earned a dominant five-round decision against Irene Aldana. 

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But that was 19 months ago. Originally to return against Julianna Pena, Holm withdrew due to a cited diagnosis of hydronephrosis, a condition that causes swelling in the kidneys. A return at featherweight was planned against Norma Dumont for last October, but she once again was forced to pull out.

The second withdrawal was due to an issue with her knee, which she downplayed as nothing “extensive.” 

“A lot of people wondered how bad is my knee and things like that,” Holm said. “But I don’t think people realize my biggest injury was when I was 16. And that’s what caused a lot of problems. I’ve been able to go my whole career and people not really know about it. But it kind of caught up a little bit, and so I needed to give it a little extra rest this time. And now, it’s ready to rock and roll.”

When she rocks and rolls this weekend at UFC Apex in Las Vegas, she’ll do so after taking the longest break from competition of her 20-year pro fighting career — boxing from 2000-13, MMA since 2011, with kickboxing sprinkled in.

It wasn’t ideal, being away from what she calls her “passion,” but Holm found several silver linings. She enjoyed the process of remodeling a recently-purchased home, something she believed would have been a challenge in the middle of a fight camp. After knee surgery, she spent two weeks enjoying rare quality time with her mother, watching movies and drinking coffee. A trip to Nashville and some dancing there was a highlight.

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Most noteworthy for fight fans since Holm last competed was her announcement as an upcoming inductee into the International Boxing Hall of Fame, which she considers “one of the biggest compliments” for her work in the ring, an honor that understandably exceeds several others she’s received throughout her career.

“I’m always humbled and blessed with any of them, but there is something different about the Boxing Hall of Fame,” Holm said. “That’s not just statewide; that’s worldwide. It’s the best fighters in the world. It’s not just females; it’s all of them. To be able to have my name recognized among household names like Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson and Floyd Mayweather, it’s very surreal.”

Enshrinement comes next month, but Holm has more pressing business ahead of her as she faces Vieira (12-2, six finishes), who just earned a decision over Miesha Tate — the woman who took Holm’s title from her six years ago. The matchup carries title implications, with the winner seemingly the only viable challenger after champion Pena’s rematch against Amanda Nunes, the all-time great who lost to Pena in December and still reigns as the UFC featherweight titleholder.

Holm understands the stakes, and she sees Vieira as a real test for her in the cage.

“I think that she is, stylistically, one of the toughest bouts for me, outside of fighting for the championship,” Holm said. “There’s only a couple girls in front of me — you know who they are — and I feel like, outside of that, I think Ketlen is really the toughest opponent for me. 

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“I’m really excited, actually, for this challenge. I knew that her and I would eventually meet at some point to fight, so here we are.”

All this, two decades after she figured one probably would be too much. And Holm sees nothing slowing her down in the years to come. Few women have competed at the highest level of MMA into their 40s, although there’s precedent on the men’s side. Randy Couture was the UFC heavyweight champion at 45. Reigning light heavyweight champion Glover Teixeira will make his first title defense next month at age 42.

Can Holm, like them, compete several years into her 40s?

“I just might,” she said.