The UFC 219 main event on December 30th serves as host to one of the most crucial women's bouts in UFC history. Cris Cyborg, the UFC Women's Featherweight champion, looks to continue her more than 12-year undefeated run, while Holly Holm attempts to capture UFC gold once more with another stunning upset.
With the Ronda Rousey era in the UFC long gone, Cyborg (18-1 MMA, 3-0 UFC) and Holm (11-3 MMA, 4-3 UFC) are the two most high-profile female fighters in the sport. Only one can leave UFC 219 with the 145-pound belt, though, and it will be decided when the pair clash in Saturday's pay-per-view headliner at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.
For Holm, the scenery around the upcoming fight is rather familiar. She's the challenger to a dominant champion who has had little in the way of meaningful tests. Holm is a large underdog to Cyborg, but this was the same tale as prior to UFC 193 in November 2015 when she faced Rousey. That night won't soon be forgotten in MMA lore, because "The Preacher's Daughter" shocked the world and sent Rousey's career into a tailspin with a brutal head-kick knockout.
The knowledge that she's capable of pulling off the unthinkable gives Holm complete confidence she can do it again. She's not relying on the past, though, because she knows Cyborg is a different, and likely more difficult, obstacle to conquer.
"It's its own fight, it's its own journey," Holm tells Rolling Stone. "I can't be living in 2015. This is a new fight, this is a new opponent and a totally different style and a totally different challenge. A lot of people, how they look at the fight, how they view the fight – those are some similar emotions and similar things. But this is its own fight."
Holm may not be using her victory over Rousey as a driving force going into UFC 219, but the champion Cyborg certainly is. For years, Cyborg was locked in a feud with "Rowdy," but the matchup never came to fruition. Now she has the chance to beat the woman who beat the woman, and she knows that's a boost for her career.
Cyborg spent many years fighting in lesser organizations before finally getting a platform in the UFC. She won the vacant Women's Featherweight belt with a third-round TKO of Tonya Evinger at UFC 214 in July, extending her unbeaten streak to a remarkable 19 consecutive fights. The Brazilian has had an incredible run, but she's never fought anyone with accomplishments on the level of former boxing and UFC champ Holm.
"Holly is the girl who beat Ronda Rousey," Cyborg says. "A lot of fans want to see if I can beat her. Ronda never gave me the chance to fight her. Maybe when I fight Holly and beat her, people may say, 'She’s the girl who could beat Ronda and was the type to beat Holly.' Maybe people are going to think like that."
Holm has made it clear since she beat Rousey that she doesn't want to go down as a one-hit wonder. She's had mixed results since that fight, though, going 1-3 in the past two years. Even with some spotty performances, Holm is still a significant threat to anyone she shares the Octagon with, and that includes Cyborg.
Not many people are willing to fight Cyborg, but Holm was up for the challenge. She held the belt at 135 pounds, but moves up a weight class with a chance at history. Holm can become the first female fighter to win UFC titles in two weight classes, and join a short-list of fighters to do it in the UFC overall that includes Conor McGregor, Georges St-Pierre, B.J. Penn and Randy Couture.
Holm's greatest motivation is to create a lasting legacy in the sport. She doesn't view UFC 219 as her defining moment, but she's aware what's on the line and how it will enhance her place in the history books.
"I want to do something that nobody else has done," Holm says. "One of my biggest things coming to MMA from boxing was to be able to hold world titles in both boxing and MMA because no male or female had done that yet. I was able to do that. To be able to get multiple world titles in MMA after boxing would be huge. Nobody's done that before and it's a dream of mine to accomplish that. A win with this would definitely be a huge thing for my legacy and for my career. But that would just define it right now. Even with a win, I would still want to push forward and be succeeding after this fight."
If Holm wants to make history, she'll have to buck the trend of opponents who have been steamrolled by Cyborg. The champion hasn't lost since her professional debut in May 2005, and has knocked out her opponent in 16 of her 18 career wins. Cyborg is a force far greater than Rousey was in her prime, mainly because she's a threat both on the feet and the ground.
UFC 219 could mark Cyborg's true coming out party. She headlines a UFC pay-per-view for the first time, and it remains to be seen what type of buy rate she brings in. Cyborg boxing coach, Jason Parillo, believes his pupil has the potential to be one of the biggest stars in the entire sport. He envisions a dominant performance that will serve as an eye-opener to anyone still with doubts about Cyborg's ability.
"A lot of people know who Cris is," Parillo says. "She's a big draw as it is, but she's a bigger draw than anybody even knows, because we haven't had her on this big promotion until the past few fights. Cris is just on another level than these girls. I really, truly believe she is. I know Holly has all the experience in the world and is very smart and an intelligent fighter, but Cris is a different animal."
If she's not there already, Cyborg believes another stellar performance at UFC 219 would put her at the forefront of the conversation when it comes to the greatest female fighters of all time. Holm could steal that narrative for herself, though, and go down as the person who crafted upsets of Cyborg and Rousey.
"If Holm wins this weekend, how can you argue that she's not the greatest fighter of all-time?" says UFC President Dana White. "Then for Cris Cyborg obviously to win this fight, it's a big fight for her. I think for her, Holm, it's her first real, true test."
Holm knows what she can do and has shown it to the world first-hand. A win is never guaranteed, but Holm feels she's the best opponent Cyborg has ever had, and that alone makes the fight unique.
"I do feel that I am her toughest opponent to date," Holm says. "Just in a all-around way. There might be one fighter who had a little better ground game, or one fighter that had maybe a different clinch game. But as far as the caliber of fighter and experience and stuff like that, I do feel I'm somebody that she hasn't face before and that's why this fight is going to be different."
The destructive force that is Cyborg doesn't plan on letting it be different, though. It's taken her many years to reach her current pinnacle, and after so much adversity and hard work, Cyborg doesn't plan on letting it slip through her fingers now.
"Most fights in my fights I won by KO," Cyborg says. "I have power in my hands. I believe in my hands. For sure, if I find the opportunity, then I see the clean time to do KO, I’m going to do my best. Let's just see what’s going to happen."