Felice Herrig admits that she couldn’t get the smile off her face long after her posting her first win in the UFC over Lisa Ellis last December. It was the culmination of a process that began on season 20 of The Ultimate Fighter, but one truly started when she first studied kickboxing 12 years ago.
“It’s really hard to say it felt any different, because when you’ve been fighting for so long and you’ve fought on big shows and small shows, a fight’s a fight,” she said of her UFC debut. “But I did have a big grin on my face for a while afterwards, knowing that ‘wow, I actually got an official win in the UFC.’ The accomplishment level felt a lot different, especially because you know that when you’re in the UFC you’re at that top level and you know you’re in a position to where you fought for so long, and you know that this is what you fought for.”
Herrig, ranked eighth in the UFCs strawweight division, may be a new face to those who only saw her on TUF. It almost makes the 30-year-old laugh, as she says “I did it before it was cool. I did it because I loved it. I did it because I wanted to test myself. I never did it because I was like ‘oh well, I can get famous this way.’”
She got famous anyway, and while her presence on social media and often provocative photos have earned her plenty of attention, hardcore fight fans know that Herrig is no marketing project. She paid her dues on the pro kickboxing circuit long before women’s MMA was the hottest thing in the sport, compiling a 23-5 record. In 2009, she turned pro in MMA, fighting the likes of Carla Esparza, Jessica Rakoczy, Heather Jo Clark and Tecia Torres along the way. Yet by early 2014, the Illinois native wondered if she had reached her ceiling in the sport – not athletically, but in terms of it being a viable way to make a living.
“I was at a position where I was burned out, and I think that’s a position some of the veterans get to once they’re in the UFC,” she said. “I was burned out before I got the opportunity to be on The Ultimate Fighter and I actually didn’t want to fight anymore. And then I ended up having to dig deep and reevaluate myself and my training and it lit a fire under my ass. I changed things to a more professional level and once I saw that I was hitting that next level, it re-motivated me and got me excited again to where I really felt that I was evolving again. Before I thought I was as good as I was gonna get, so all I had to do was just keep training hard.”
She was so motivated that when the first strawweight fighters signed to the UFC received a paycheck from the company to cover the time while they waited to appear on TUF 20, Herrig spent all of it on her training camp for the show.
“I put it in a separate account and then I put it into my training, I put it into my nutritionist, I saw a sports psychologist, I flew in Olympic wrestlers and boxers and kickboxers and I did everything I could that you wouldn’t have money to do before. I wanted to feel like I was in the best position to know that I gave it my all.”
> READ: The Downes Side - UFN New Jersey 2015 Predictions
Herrig felt it going into the house, confident that she would emerge as the UFC’s first strawweight champion, and while that didn’t happen, with the crown eventually going to her former rival and current best friend Esparza, the “Lil’ Bulldog” maintained what she had picked up over the previous months and carried it into her fight – and win – against Ellis.
Next up for Herrig is an intriguing UFC on FOX main card matchup against Paige VanZant. If you don’t know who VanZant is, welcome out from the cave you’ve been in for the last few months. In short, she’s young, charismatic, and fans and media love her. Oh yeah, she can fight too, but with just five pro fights, is she ready – literally – for prime time?
“I feel like whoever was gonna fight her was going to derail her hype train,” Herrig said of VanZant. “No offense, I know she got a lot of hype because she beat Kailin Curran, but Kailin Curran had just turned pro the year before. She (Curran) wasn’t in the house, she wasn’t a contender, and I think the casual fan doesn’t know that. Somebody had to fight her (VanZant), so I was like ‘I’ll be happy to stop that hype train.’ But at the same time, I’m not underestimating her, I’m not taking her lightly. I’ve been training my ass off just the same. Every opponent I fight, I give them the respect of training my ass off and giving them the best me I have.”
A week after the Ellis fight last December, Herrig was back in the gym and getting ready for a fight she didn’t even have yet.
“I knew I wanted to fight soon,” she laughed, and she got her wish. In a lot of ways, VanZant is the “big” name coming into this fight at Prudential Center, but in others, it’s almost as if this was the stage Herrig was destined for. And she knows it.
“Oh yeah, I feel like there’s no better person for me to showcase my skills on than Paige,” she said. “People are like ‘oh, main card, is that more pressure?’ No, when you’re in there, a fight’s a fight. I’ve been on the big stage and I’m at a point now where none of that stuff really fazes me. I’ve got like 50 fights now, but I do believe that I deserve to be there. I’ve worked really hard for a really long time, so I want to showcase my skills, I want people to see me fight and see what I’m all about.”
So what is Felice Herrig about? First and foremost, she’s a fighter. Second, she’s a fighter. That’s all you really need to know.
“I had to really work and train my ass off to get to the point where I’m at now and really dig deep and say I’ve earned it,” she said. “I think a lot of people now who just kind of walked into it, they didn’t have to pave the way or deal with as much as the generation before did. They didn’t have to make as many sacrifices. They kind of came in at the right time. I know I had to dig deep, and make it to where it’s a passion and not just a hobby, and I think that plays into a fight to where you’re not going to fold when times get tough. You’re not just gonna give up.”
> Check out the full UFC Fight Night: Machida vs. Rockhold fight card