For the first time in Holly Holm's MMA career, she is accepting fights with no clear path to a UFC championship.
From the moment Holm crossed over from boxing in 2011, it was almost certain she would sign with the UFC and fight for a title. And over the past five years, even after she won the women's bantamweight belt and then lost it in her first defense and through the high and lows that followed, there was always some narrative around a UFC title that included Holm. She was part of the inaugural 145-pound title fight in 2017, and then challenged Cris "Cyborg" Justino for the belt that same year. She faced Amanda Nunes for the bantamweight strap in 2019.
As Holm approaches her 39th birthday on Oct. 17, however, there is no title narrative with her name attached. She was knocked out by Nunes in the first round in July 2019, and although she remains highly ranked, there is no clear path for her to again challenge Nunes (who holds both the 135- and 145-pound belts) any time soon. It's not the end of the world for Holm, but it's a foreign position for her, in her 18th year as a pro fighter.
It's made for a different buildup to Saturday's UFC Fight Night main event between Holm (13-5, 6-5 in the UFC) and Irene Aldana (12-5, 5-3 UFC), which will take place on "Fight Island" in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, and air on ESPN (10:30 p.m. ET main card, prelims on ESPN+ at 7:30 p.m.). Rather than looking at this matchup in terms of what it will do for Holm's career, there's arguably more intrigue with Aldana, who is 5-1 in her past six.
Aldana, 33, experienced some growing pains in the UFC but lately has looked every bit a title challenger -- something the UFC is in desperate need of for its dominant two-weight champion, Nunes. Aldana began her UFC career 0-2 in 2016 and 2017, which diminished some of her shine as a prospect. But the run she's been on since, particularly a first-round knockout of Ketlen Vieira in December, has restored that high ceiling of potential.
"She believes in herself," Holm said. "She's pretty mentally strong. I don't think any of this -- Fight Island, her first main event -- is going to faze her. She's coming off a big win against an opponent who was undefeated when they fought. It just shows not only her skill set but her mental game."
Of course, Holm has shown a similar "mental game" over the course of her career. And during this chapter of her career, in which a path to the title is uncertain, Holm has repeatedly said it's made no difference because her main goal has been and always will be "to win." And no one is doubting we will see a motivated version of Holm on Saturday.
By the numbers
5: UFC main event appearances by Holm. This weekend will be her sixth, tying Ronda Rousey for the most by a female fighter in the promotion's history.
6.16: Significant strikes landed per minute by Aldana, by far the highest rate among active bantamweight women and second most in division history, behind Leslie Smith's 7.69.
5: Years it has been since Holm has had consecutive victories. She is coming off a January win over Raquel Pennington.
63.4: Percentage of her opponents' strike attempts that Aldana evades, the third-best defense among active bantamweight women. Holm ranks fifth, at 62.5%. At No. 1 is Germaine de Randamie (66.5%), who faces Julianna Peña on Saturday's main card.
3: Postfight performance bonuses awarded to both Holm and Aldana. Only one active female bantamweight has more: champion Amanda Nunes, with four.
Sources: ESPN Stats & Information research and UFC Stats
A look back ...
Five vs. five
Holly Holm's most recent results
Win: Raquel Pennington (UD, Jan. 18, 2020; watch on ESPN+)
Loss: Amanda Nunes (TKO1, July 6, 2019; watch on ESPN+)
Win: Megan Anderson (UD, June 9, 2018)
Loss: Cris Cyborg (UD, Dec. 30, 2017; watch on ESPN+)
Win: Bethe Correia (KO3, June 17, 2017; watch on ESPN+)
Irene Aldana's most recent results
Win: Ketlen Vieira (KO1, Dec. 14, 2019; watch on ESPN+)
Win: Vanessa Melo (UD, Sept. 21, 2019; watch on ESPN+)
Loss: Raquel Pennington (SD, July 20, 2019; watch on ESPN+)
Win: Bethe Correia (SUB3, May 11, 2019; watch on ESPN+)
Win: Lucie Pudilová (SD, Sept. 8, 2018)
Another historic night for women
Three weeks after Angela Hill became the first Black American woman to headline one of its events, the UFC is once again making women's history. Saturday's main event will be the first featuring a woman born in Mexico, and it will be the first female main event to be held in the United Arab Emirates.
ESPN's Hallie Grossman addressed these milestones with both main event fighters as well as UFC president Dana White.
Irene Aldana on being the first woman born in Mexico in a main event: "This is awesome. This is a great opportunity for me to represent Mexico, to represent my country. ... I'm so proud ... being a Mexican, to be a woman and to show that women can also be doing great things like this and we can also be strong, we can also be technical. We can also achieve great things."
Holly Holm on being in the first female main event in Abu Dhabi: "I'm always excited to be part of something that is basically a little bit of history. This is the first headlining female fight over here. I take a lot of pride in that. I feel very honored to be in that position. So I want to go out there and do my best and show people why this opportunity has been handed to me."
White on the UFC making history with women: "I don't even think like that anymore because it's all just completely changed. The women are looked at completely different. And when you talk about equality, of course they're the main event because these two deserve to be a main event. Those two deserved to be a main event when they fought, and financially, everything is equal here in the UFC. Ronda Rousey was the highest-paid athlete in the UFC for a very long time."
And the winner is ...
In each of Holm's past five fights, it felt like there was a clear favorite going in. She was supposed to win in matchups against Bethe Correia, Megan Anderson and Raquel Pennington, and she did. She was supposed to have a hard time with Cris "Cyborg" Justino and Amanda Nunes, and she did. This one feels like a pure pick 'em. We know the rangy, high-volume kickboxing style Holm will bring to the table, but how it will match up against Aldana's more traditional boxing style is a mystery. It feels strange to suggest Aldana will hold an advantage at a boxing range, since Holm is a former boxing champion, but in MMA, Holm has always been best at a longer range. I could see this being a 25-minute standup fight, with a lot of close rounds that come down to one or two finer details. Holm has won and lost fights like that. I'll predict she wins it this time. Holm by decision.
Saturday's fight card
ESPN/ESPN Deportes/ESPN+, 10:30 p.m. ET
Holly Holm vs. Irene Aldana | Women's bantamweight
Yorgan De Castro vs. Carlos Felipe | Heavyweight
Germaine de Randamie vs. Julianna Peña | Women's bantamweight
Kyler Phillips vs. Cameron Else | Men's bantamweight
Dequan Townsend vs. Dusko Todorovic | Middleweight
ESPN+, 7:30 p.m. ET
Carlos Condit vs. Court McGee | Welterweight
Charles Jourdain vs. Josh Culibao | Men's featherweight
Jordan Williams vs. Nassourdine Imavov | Middleweight
Loma Lookboonmee vs. Jinh Yu Frey | Strawweight
Casey Kenney vs. Alateng Heili | Men's bantamweight
Jessin Ayari vs. Luigi Vendramini | Lightweight
How to watch the fights
Watch the fights on ESPN+. If you don't have ESPN+, get it here.
There's also FightCenter, which offers live updates for every UFC card.
Five more things to know (from ESPN Stats & Information)
1. Holly Holm, Irene Aldana, Germaine de Randamie and Julianna Peña all have five wins in the UFC women's bantamweight division. Whichever of those fighters win their fights on Saturday will tie Ronda Rousey and Sara McMann for the third most wins in division history. The all-time leaders are Amanda Nunes (11) and Raquel Pennington (8).
2. English bantamweight Cameron Else, who makes his UFC debut as a 3-to-1 underdog against Kyler Phillips, has scored all 10 of his career wins by stoppage -- six submissions (all by choke) and four knockouts. He enters the fight with Phillips on a six-fight win streak.
3. After winning a contract on Dana White's Contender Series last season, 9-0 middleweight Dusko Todorovic makes his UFC debut against Dequan Townsend. Todorovic will be the fifth fighter born in Serbia to fight in the UFC.
4. Former interim welterweight champion Carlos Condit will be fighting for the 17th time in the UFC when he faces Court McGee. Condit has lost five consecutive fights, leaving him one shy of Hector Lombard for the second-longest losing streak in UFC history. Phil Baroni and Elvis Sinosic also lost six UFC fights in a row, but both had other fights in between the UFC bouts.
5. Featherweight Charles "Air" Jourdain is the biggest favorite on the card at -450, according to Caesars Sportsbook, despite a 1-2 UFC record. Featherweights with odds of 4-to-1 or better are 60-10-1 (.845) in the UFC.
ESPN's Jeff Wagenheim contributed to this fight card preview.