As women's mixed martial arts continues to carve out a larger place on the MMA landscape, more opportunities will arise for female fighters to make their name in the sport.
For many involved in WMMA, the time in the spotlight is a long time coming, as many of the best women athletes in the sport have been competing on the fringes of high-profile events for years, with their work inside the cage overshadowed by their male counterparts.
While women grabbing their share of attention in a male dominated sport is a difficult task in its own right, a handful of female fighters have been able to gain footing on a few of MMA's biggest stages. With the rise of the all-female Invicta FC promotion, the road up-and-coming fighters are going to travel will undoubtedly have less obstacles than what the women who pioneered the sport had to face.
Nevertheless, the fight inside the cage and the battle for visibility beyond, are challenges that remain for the savviest of competitors. And Felice Herrig is constantly looking to further her career in both aspects.
As the ever-present debate in WMMA regarding women fighters and their use of sex appeal to garner attention continues, Herrig's name will undoubtedly hit headlines across the mixed martial arts community, as it has for the past two years.
The Chicagoland-native is a popular target for the negative connotations that surround self-marketing for female fighters, but the sense that "any press is good press", allows the 28-year-old to take things in stride.
Are her sponsor-endorsed photo shoots bordering on the risque side? You bet.
Do they grab fight fans' attention? Absolutely.
But above all the things that come with her career fighting in a realm comprised of both sports and entertainment: the "Lil Bulldog" is eager to prove there is plenty of substance to go with her sex appeal.
"You want the attention to be on your fighting but the other things are good because they draw attention in that direction," Herrig told Bleacher Report. "That has always been my main goal. I want to get people excited to watch me fight and it's more important to be marketable. That is just the way it is. If you can get people interested in wanting to watch you fight because of how you market yourself or your looks, and it draws more people to the sport, then you've done a good job at what you are doing.
"A lot of great things are happening for women's MMA across the board. It's hard to talk about Invicta because it is not the fight promotion I'm currently under, but the fact that they are creating weight divisions is great. In the past, promotions were only concerned about getting certain names on their fight cards and weren't necessarily concerned with matchups or what weight they took place at. I had plenty of fights take place at a catch weight because of it. Or I had a last-minute replacement step in where I had to go up weight.
"Now there is an entire pool of women fighters at my weight and Invicta is building up the divisions. You get to see who is fighting who and there won't really be so many mismatches. Before there were so many mismatches and in some aspects, that hurt WMMA. You would see a girl the promotion was trying to build going against a girl who really doesn't know how to fight. Now there are really great matchups and exciting fights people can really look forward to.
"In the past, a lot of girls never had the chance to be seen," Herrig added. "Unless you were fighting at 145 or 135 on a platform like Strikeforce, there was no way to get your name out there. That is another reason why I've put so much focus on my marketability. I've been trying to get bigger opportunities, and fighting at 115-pounds, those opportunities were few and far between.
"When you are coming up and trying to build your name, fighting at 115-pounds and where there are no major promotions who will put you on T.V., the only thing you can do to push your name is work. You post your fights on YouTube and try to get as many hits on it as possible. You do these things over and over again, in an effort to reach a point where you are known and open the doors for bigger things to happen for you."
The next opportunity Herrig will have to prove her talents inside the cage will come this Thursday night when she mixes it up with Heather Clark at Bellator 94. The Team Curran fighter is eager to let her fighting skills take the forefront and is looking to extend her three-fight win streak against an opponent who has taken to social media to kick up dust in her direction.
While Herrig has no problem with building the buzz leading up to the fight, she also believes Clark may not be ready to deal with what happens when the cage door closes.
"I honestly think [Clark] gives herself a little too much credit for being so awesome," Herrig said. "I'm ranked fifth in my division where she isn't ranked at all. I don't like to underestimate an opponent but I really don't see her posing too much of a threat all around. I'm not saying she is a chump. She has a right hand and she liked to throw it a lot, but I'm definitely more well-rounded than she is.
"Leading up to the fight she has been saying I'm trashy. Why am I trashy? Because I'm marketable and do photo shoots? They are in no way scandalous and I'm in typical sports attire for my sponsors. But then I go look and see that she did the same type of photo shoots but they didn't get the same kind of attention mine get. So now I'm the trashy one? At the same time, she's the one going around running her mouth, but that makes me trashy?
"I don't understand how a photo shoot can put you in a trashy category, especially when it is still tasteful. None of my photo shoots are nude and they are all sponsor related. I wear a sports bra and booty shorts, and if you don't have that marketability factor, sponsors don't necessarily want to put their brand on you.
"I also think because of my looks and that I'm girly, people tend to overlook me as a fighter," Herrig added. "That is who I am and it's real. But people don't see that mean side until they step inside the cage with me. That is when that other side comes out. That is when "The Lil Bulldog" comes out so to speak."
As Herrig's career receives attention for things she does outside of the cage, what matter the most is her ability to show and prove when it matters the most. The next big challenge will come against Clark tomorrow night, and Herrig understands the urgency to keep the momentum rolling as WMMA continues to grab the spotlight.
At the same time, in the aftermath of Bellator 94, Herrig will continue to work towards the next big opportunity in her fighting career. The fight against Clark will come and go, and soon enough down the road, there will be another opponent for her to test her skills against. The time in between will be spent working tirelessly in the gym to improve her skill set, and doing the additional requirements necessary to support herself in the mean time.
"My fighting has never taken second place to what I do in marketing," Herrig said. "People kind of draw their own pictures to what they think is happening with me. They say, 'Maybe Felice should spend less time doing sexy photo shoots and more time training.' Really? I train my ass off. I train non-stop and it doesn't come second to me.
"But in order for me to financially live and train as much as I do, then I have to do the other things for my sponsors because that is how I get paid. I make ten times more money from sponsors than I do from fighting and it is all part of the job.
"People don't understand that our job is not just to fight. We are entertainers as well. A fighter's job is not just to train and then go out there and perform; our job is to entertain as well. I've grasped that concept and that is probably why I'm one of the few fighters who isn't under a UFC contract, and making a lot of money to fight, that can live off of sponsorships alone.
"Fighting speaks volumes but the marketability definitely comes into play," Herrig said. "Now I'm fighting with Bellator and getting that attention helped make promoters want to book me. I had to give promoters a reason to want to put me on their card on top of just being able to fight. You have to get your foot in the door and you have to get their attention to make them invest in you."
Duane Finley is a featured columnist at Bleacher Report. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.
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