Holly Holm is free and clear -- and feels ready to shock the world again

Helwani says Holm has more to lose at UFC 239 (1:43)

On Ariel & The Bad Guy on ESPN+, Ariel Helwani says if Holly Holm loses at UFC 239, he doesn't expect her to get another title shot, but it won't be an "indictment on her career." (1:43)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- Holly Holm pauses for a second and takes a breath. Her mind drifts back to one of the biggest moments in UFC history and the celebration that followed. She tries to finish her sentence, but her voice cracks as she gets choked up.

The last two months of 2015 were emotional for Holm. On Nov. 15, she did the unthinkable and knocked out the previously undefeated -- née unbeatable -- Ronda Rousey at UFC 193 in Melbourne, Australia. Then she was whisked away on a media tour. She drove around with actor Jamie Foxx, got monstrous ovations at NBA games and bought a new wardrobe for all her public appearances.

A 20,000-person parade filled the streets of downtown Albuquerque -- Holm's hometown -- on Dec. 7, 2015, to celebrate her winning the UFC women's bantamweight title.

Some cities have professional sports teams; Albuquerque has Holm. Albuquerque International Sunport showcases a wall with Holm in her UFC fight kit with a smile on her face and the American flag over her shoulders.

"I feel like I owe them something rather than them doing another thing for me," Holm said of the post-victory parade. "I felt like everybody in Albuquerque had already supported my whole life. If they were gonna do something more, it was like, 'No, you guys don't understand -- I thank you.' I didn't feel deserving of it, I guess. I just didn't think that way."

Holm is a former three-division boxing champion, defending those titles a total of 18 times. She's a former two-time Ring magazine fighter of the year and regarded as one of the top female boxers of all time. In mixed martial arts, she has been a perennial contender in two divisions, is a former bantamweight champion and came within a close judges' decision (and some after-the-bell punches) of winning the featherweight belt.

Out of all the combat accolades, that head kick to Rousey is what forever changed Holm's life. She went from local hero to international celebrity. From the parade to the media opportunities, there was one thing she repeated: The win over Rousey was phenomenal, but it was something to build upon -- not something that would define her.

So far, however, it has. That victory is currently her legacy, but that legacy isn't cemented just yet. Holm has an opportunity to change that -- and it comes Saturday night.

Holm's personal and professional life changed dramatically after her victory over Ronda. She lost three straight fights -- to Miesha Tate, Valentina Shevchenko and Germaine de Randamie. Outside of the cage, the public nature of her success and the challenge to maintain privacy impacted her marriage. After a year of separation this past February, she finalized a divorce with Jeff Kirkpatrick following a seven-year marriage.

Those around her say she is a different, freer Holm going into this fight against Amanda Nunes at UFC 239 on Saturday in Las Vegas.

"Black and white," Holm's longtime coach Mike Winkeljohn said, comparing Holm now to where she was before. "Holly is a much happier person right now, and it's opened her up in training. Now, she can actually focus on fights, instead of worrying about things outside of the fights.

"That's a hard thing that people don't understand until you're in the fight game. It takes 100% of your thought process, of your time. It's all-consuming and you can't think of anything else. And if you do, you lose.

"And she's back."

Holm is adamant her personal struggles had nothing to do with her losses. She is not looking for excuses. There isn't a fighter alive, she said, who doesn't go into a contest without something happening in their lives.

"If I didn't perform, it was my fault," Holm said. "Even if I had other things going on, I should have been able to compartmentalize and no matter what -- even through my marriage -- I never felt unhappy in life.

"I know there's challenges with people in a relationship when they are a fighter or in the public eye, things like that. Now that I don't have to worry about that, I just do what I want."

Holm's efforts to reduce the exposure of her personal life have been replaced by a care-free attitude when it comes to social media. She started focusing more on Instagram, an account she has had since 2014 but had been posting on only sporadically. Last September, Holm and teammate Michelle Waterson, a good friend, did the Ciara "Level Up Challenge" dance and posted the video on Waterson's Instagram. It currently has more than 1 million views. Holm went on her own account and posted a second dance video in April. It has nearly 900,000 views.

"I want to shock the world twice. I'm going in with full belief I'm beating Nunes. And then I want to defend it and I want to keep winning." Holly Holm

"A lot of people are like, 'Wow, we see you've changed' or 'You're doing more' or 'You're doing this,'" Holm said. "A lot of people actually tell me that about my Instagram and I never thought about it. The thing is, this is who I've been the whole time. ... I guess I just opened the book a little more."

Can something as lighthearted as the desire to post funny videos manifest itself in training and a high-level prizefight? Maybe not directly. But the feeling of freedom that allows Holm to make those decisions unencumbered could.

"I have such a big fight coming up and I've kind of just looked at in a little different light than I have in the past," Holm said. "Yes, I still have a lot of anxiety for it. I still have a lot of stresses and things. You want to win. It's pressure."

That pressure to win is augmented by the fact a fighter's career doesn't last forever. To step into the cage against one of the world's most dangerous strikers is a risk at any stage, but at 37, that motivation needs to be substantial.

"I turned pro at 20. I'm 37. I have to be able to enjoy this journey, or else what am I doing?" Holm said. "Am I wasting 17 years of my life just being stressed out and not enjoying what I'm really experiencing?"

The topic of Holm's age comes up often, but she doesn't see an end to her career on the horizon. Holm said she thought early that she'd fight until 25 years old, maybe 30. Then, when she turned 30, she thought 35.

Now? Maybe 40 or beyond. She's still learning and improving.

In boxing, Holm was a three-division champion over an 11-year professional career. During that time, though she was training at JacksonWink MMA, Holm didn't do any wrestling or grappling. She didn't start working on those parts of her game until she transitioned into MMA as a 30-year-old. Though that left Holm somewhat behind the curve, she now feels confident enough to have used it almost exclusively in her last fight -- a unanimous decision win over Megan Anderson at UFC 225 in June 2018. After some tribulation standing up against the bigger and longer Anderson early, Holm used wrestling to take Anderson off her feet and grappling to keep her controlled on the ground for most of the rest of the bout.

"The best Holly is in front of us," Greg Jackson, one of her coaches, said. "She probably has five or six more good years ahead of her. She's just getting good at it now."

Since defeating Rousey, Holm is 2-4 in the UFC. She moved up in weight and lost to the legendary Cris Cyborg and to de Randamie, the latter in a disputed decision. The blemishes on Holm's record bother her. Holm has been finished only once in that stretch, a fifth-round submission loss to Tate in a fight she was winning. The title loss to Tate came in Holm's first defense after beating Rousey.

"There was no fight [among] any of my fights since the belt that I just literally got my ass handed to me," Holm said. "For me, it's like I've come short, I've come short, I've come short. But I don't feel like I can't compete with these girls anymore, that's the difference. ... I know I'm still fully capable of beating any girl in this division."

Holm knows her legacy is on the line against Nunes, who is coming off a knockout of Cyborg. It was Cyborg's first loss in 13 years, since her pro debut. Nunes, a -350 favorite heading into Saturday, is now the champion in both the bantamweight and featherweight divisions. Nunes seems unbeatable. Holm has heard all that before.

"I want to shock the world twice," Holm said. "I'm going in with full belief I'm beating Nunes. And then I want to defend it and I want to keep winning. I want to retire on top, not on bottom. I don't want to retire because I feel like I have nothing left. I want to retire because I feel like I did what I needed to do and that I'm content with it."

As it stands now, how Holm will forever be remembered in MMA is unclear. What Tate values in Holm is her willingness to "take on all the biggest challenges out there." Holm fought Tate four months after beating Rousey, and she didn't have to. In fact, the UFC wanted her to sit out until a Rousey rematch.

"She will always be remembered that way," Tate said. "And she exemplifies what it means to truly believe in yourself and that losing does not define you, but rather, like winning, is all just part of the journey."

At JacksonWink MMA, Holm's place is forever set as a mentor and leader. Waterson said a Holm nod of approval is constant affirmation for the younger members of the team. No one has ever questioned her work ethic.

"I always joke around that any time I'm tired or this or that or complaining, I always think to myself, 'What would Holly do?'" Waterson said. "And then I get my ass up to go train."

Holm will forever be tied to Rousey. There's no way around it. But Holm is still in the UFC, still competing for titles. Rousey left MMA after getting knocked out by Nunes in 2016 and joined the WWE in 2018.

"To be the person that beat Ronda Rousey isn't the person," Jackson said. "That's still Ronda Rousey's legacy. It would be nice to be the person that also won again."

Holm isn't just fighting Nunes either. She's fighting time and history. Her goal is to still be considered the best women's MMA fighter of all time. Rousey once held that distinction, then Cyborg. Now most will say it's Nunes. Holm says she believes it can still be her.

"That's why this fight has so much on it," Holm said. "I know what's on the plate. And being the fact that I'm 37, they wouldn't be saying some of the things they would be saying if I was 27. Being 37, they're gonna say if I lose, 'Oh you should retire.' If I win, 'Oh my gosh, we knew you could do it again.' It's one or the other."

And if she does it, if she stuns the public again? It might be cause for another Albuquerque parade. Holm knows the people there, the ones closest to her will be living and dying with every punch and kick at UFC 239.

"If I lose, we all hurt," Holm said. "If I win, we're all on a drug-free [high]. And people don't understand that. It is a high that you're constantly seeking. And that's success."