Holly Holm: the UFC superstar who acts nothing like one

As Conor McGregor and Nate Diaz screamed and swore and carried on about lions eating the carcasses of gazelles at a press conference for UFC 196 this week, the UFC’s other biggest star looked bored. Holly Holm would have nothing of the men with dirty mouths.

She sat beside McGregor on an interview dais and looked away as he tore into Diaz with a piercing verbal attack, so piercing Diaz was left uncertain what to say. She put a fist on her chin and stared at the crowd. She gazed at her nails. She sighed with a detached annoyance.

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It was Miesha Tate, her opponent in Saturday’s secondary main card bantamweight title fight who seemed to grasp the irony of belligerent men screaming at one another while two women fighters shifted uncomfortably in their seats.

“They are flipping each other off under the table and we’re making friendship bracelets,” Tate said.

But this is the way Holm has been in the days leading up to the fight. She has not shouted at the cameras or raged about tearing apart her opponent. If her picture wasn’t on the promotional posters you would barely know she was one of the sport’s biggest stars.

In less than half an hour last fall Holm went from faceless to the most essential woman in the UFC – which makes her one of the most essential fighters in UFC. And yet for someone who turned the UFC upside down by defeating its biggest female star, Ronda Rousey, she is exceptionally understated. She hasn’t taken over media sessions, shown up late to UFC events or acted like a celebrity in any way.

When asked if it bothered her to be a distant second name in an event that is all about McGregor, she shrugged and said McGregor is a star and deserves top billing. She has praised Tate rather than torn her apart and doesn’t seem too comfortable boasting about herself. She has done everything to show she is a normal 34-year-old woman from Albuquerque who also happens to be one of the most famous MMA fighters in the country.

At a public workout on Wednesday she appeared on a stage with a young girl who seemed overwhelmed to be standing in a small theatre filled with people and television cameras. Holm smiled at the girl and asked if she wanted to learn dance moves. The girl nodded. And so Holm taught her The Sprinkler as the fight fans in the room cheered. That seemed more fun to her than promoting a fight.

She has been vigilant in making as many UFC appearances as she can. She has done media tours and television shows, always greeting her interviewers with a smile and talking excitedly about her new life as an MMA superstar. But she has not carried on in the manner of so many of her opponents, belligerently demanding special treatment.

Whenever she is asked about who she thinks she will fight next, she always says she is not looking past Saturday night. She doesn’t belittle Tate, but instead praises her skill and durability. The meanest thing she has said about Tate is that she doesn’t know if she has been hit as hard before as she might hit her.

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Otherwise, it is as if she is trying to prove she deserves her new standing in the UFC.

“I know people are wondering: ‘What’s really going to happen now, is she the real deal?’” Holm said. “All that pressure I put on myself, that’s what I’m here for.”

Later she added: “I’m constantly improving and I want to keep getting better.”

It’s not the kind of boast you expect from a UFC champion. It’s not the kind of stuff Rousey would say. But the biggest new female name in the UFC is not Rousey. She isn’t going to scream and shout and swear and try to make herself the most exciting person in the room.

So as McGregor sat beside her this week, shouting at Nate Diaz, describing vividly all the ways he would end Diaz’s life, Holm looked away as if disgusted by what she heard. The UFC’s newest superstar who acts anything like one.