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UFC Houston: Felice Herrig talks torturous weight cuts, brand building & why this fight holds personal meaning

UFC strawweight veteran Felice Herrig discusses her past weight cutting hell, the importance of building up your brand and why this fight holds extra special meaning.

MMA: UFC Fight Night-Herrig vs Curran Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Before Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey determined that focusing on their fight camps more than PR duties could facilitate a better training experience for their Octagon performances, UFC strawweight fan favorite, Felice Herrig had already figured this out and put it in motion. After an exhausting PR tour for The Ultimate Fighter, combined with a disheartening loss to Paige VanZant, Herrig decided that some changes needed to be made.

Ever the savvy self-marketer, Herrig has been flush with quality, paying sponsors that have helped sustain her career over the years, and they were extraordinarily helpful during her 15-month hiatus following the fight with VanZant. During that time, Felice sought to get herself in a better place both mentally and physically. After years of fighting (both kickboxing and MMA), two reality shows and countless hours spent building her brand, she decided to make some changes for the betterment of her career.

Having battled anxiety and depression for a significant portion of her adult life, a much needed break came at a time when she’d reached her lowest point. She reduced her media obligations dramatically, started counseling and focused on improving her already impressive skillset in the gym. She started eating more healthily, and educated herself on how to cut weight properly for a fighting career rather than for aesthetics.

On July 23, 2016, Herrig would see all her hard work realized when she defeated Hawaiian prospect Kailan Curran in under two minutes via rear-naked choke. Not one to rest on her laurels, Felice decided that she would keep to this new path of career enlightenment.

The breakneck PR/marketing pace she’d once kept is no more. The gym time has increased, and she now has a purple belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu to show for it (under 5th degree black belt Jeff Curran, whose own lineage is from Pedro Sauer).

Another facet of her personal journey involves helping others. Having donated her time and money on numerous occasions toward charitable endeavors, she continued her budding philanthropic efforts this past October when she decided to donate her car to a family in need through her local church, rather than trade it in after she’d decided to get herself a new one.

Herrig wants every aspect of her life to reflect positivity, maturity and good will. In short, she’s set about redefining herself.

Now, just hours ahead of possibly her toughest fight to date, she’s confident that her evolution will net her another big win tonight. Speaking exclusively to Bloody Elbow, she discussed her pending appointment with Mexican prospect, Alexa Grasso, the harrowing experiences she’s had with bad weight cuts, how she maintained financial stability over long layoffs and why this particular fight holds personal meaning for her.

“I never take any fight lightly and I never underestimate anyone. At the same time, I don’t want to overestimate them to the point that I’m fighting scared, because I’ve done that in the past. I used to give my opponents almost too much respect, which made me less confident in my own ability. I’m finally at a good place now, I’m right in the middle. I’m confident, but I realize it’s a fight with a tough opponent, so I have to be ready for everything, and I think I am. I’m very excited about this fight, and I have been since the day they offered it to me.”

When it comes to making the required 116-pound limit for a non-title fight, Felice feels she’s finally getting it right after years of putting her body through torturous, camp-long cuts.

“This is a sport where you have to step on a scale and be a certain number, and I think everyone, male or female, has had questions about how to diet properly, and ‘I’m already training and eating well, so I guess I’ll just eat less’ is a philosophy a lot of us have taken at some point. For me, as soon as my fight was booked, I would just eat less, essentially starting my cut 8-10 weeks out. If I didn’t wake up the next day weighing a pound less, I would eat even less.

It became a vicious cycle, and I did this for years. My entire training camp would be miserable because all I could think about was making weight. I didn’t have the energy to train at the level that I needed to. It got to the point where I was so miserable, I stopped loving my career. I stopped loving the fight game.

Now, I’m eating the right things in good portions, timing them for pre and post workouts—I’m eating for performance and energy. I find that these days, I don’t tend to binge because I’m not starving myself anymore. What’s crazy is that it actually took more discipline to do my weight cuts the wrong way than it does to do them healthfully.

These last two training camps for Curran and Grasso have been such a dramatic change. I’m eating well, I’m strong, and my endurance is through the roof. I feel great.”

The MMA community has witnessed the financial struggle of many a fighter, and just a few weeks ago, it saw Felice’s good friend, Carla Esparza, go through a challenging period herself. Having only fought twice in a 25-month span, Herrig should also feel wallet pain, but thanks to her years of building up a successful brand and netting prominent, established sponsors, as well as being conscious of her budget, she’s felt none of the financial discomfort many fighters face with long layoffs.

“It’s always been about branding for me. When I was fighting in the smaller promotions, I knew I had to do something to supplement my bank account because there’s not much money to be made in the small shows. Even though I’m not allowed to wear my sponsor’s logos in the cage, there are other ways to rep them satisfactorily.

I have five monthly sponsors that pay me to promote their products. I go to events, do photo shoots, promote on social media—basically whatever I can to give them a good return on their investment.

I’m also incredibly fortunate to have a great manager in Brian Butler. We’ve worked together for many years to build up my image enough to gain these big sponsors. If fighting weren’t the vehicle that brought me to them, I could make a living off just my sponsors, but obviously, they go hand in hand, and I am a sponsored fighter.”

This fight is especially important to Herrig as it falls just two days after the 25th anniversary of her younger brother’s death, so her investment in winning is apparent in her emotion-filled words.

“This fight falls just a day after the day my brother died—it will be the 25th anniversary, so it’s a very special fight to me. I’ve always thought of him as my little guardian angel, and I know he’ll be watching over me on Saturday.”

Felice Herrig vs. Alexa Grasso serves as the co-main event of UFC Fight Night 104: Bermudez vs. Jung tonight in Houston, Texas and will be broadcast on FS1.