VanZant-Herrig bout showcases distinct paths to UFC success

For years, Felice Herrig assiduously cultivated her own brand. From her braids to her outspokenness to her unique and colorful ring attire to her sponsors, Herrig crafted a distinct image.

While most of her peers concerned themselves with improving their striking or their jiu-jitsu and worried about a lack of recognition, Herrig was busily attending to the business side of the game, as well.

Paige VanZant, left, and Felice Herrig pose before being on a radio show on Wednesday. (Getty)
Paige VanZant, left, and Felice Herrig pose before being on a radio show on Wednesday. (Getty)

Most of her work was done in the shadows, however, as it came during a period in women's MMA history in which the sport received little or no attention except from the hardest of hardcore mixed martial arts fans.

Women weren't competing in the UFC when Herrig debuted as a pro on Feb. 21, 2009, and those who did fight did so for the love of the sport, because there wasn't much pay or upward mobility.

Ronda Rousey came along and changed all that, and now fighting is a viable career opportunity for many women. They can fight now not only to indulge their passion, but as a way to earn real money.

And one who is doing just that is 21-year-old Paige VanZant. VanZant, who faces Herrig in a three-round strawweight bout on the main card of a Fox-televised card from the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., on Saturday, wasn't quite 15 years old when Herrig turned pro.

Already, though, VanZant's become one of the UFC's most popular fighters. She is one of just six UFC fighters to earn endorsements from Reebok, joining Rousey, the women's bantamweight champion, light heavyweight champion Jon "Bones" Jones, former lightweight champion Anthony "Showtime" Pettis, former welterweight champion Johny Hendricks and featherweight contender Conor McGregor.

It wasn't lost on many of her peers that VanZant is, by far, the least experienced and well known of the fighters whom Reebok chose to sponsor.

Rousey, Jones and McGregor are, in some order, the UFC's biggest draws. Pettis and Hendricks are ex-champions.

VanZant, though, is just 1-0 in the UFC, with that win coming over another woman, Kailin Curran, who was making her UFC debut.

It's led to a lot of criticism and what appears to be jealousy, but VanZant is hardly bothered.

"I understand their frustration," she said. "But I don't concern myself with anyone else. I understand if someone is frustrated, but I am worried about me and I feel blessed by the opportunities I've been given."

Paige VanZant kicks Kailin Curran during VanZant's first UFC win. (Getty)
Paige VanZant kicks Kailin Curran during VanZant's first UFC win. (Getty)

Asked her thoughts about Reebok choosing to align with VanZant, Herrig said curtly: "I don't care, honestly, who sponsors her or what she has. I've built my own brand and I have my own sponsors. I do my thing and I'm most concerned with getting ready to fight."

VanZant has gone out of her way to try to say the right things. She praised Herrig as "an amazing fighter" and said she feels the fight is the perfect match for her.

The influence that Urijah Faber, the UFC featherweight who has become her mentor, has had on VanZant is obvious. Faber's positive, can-do attitude has clearly trickled down.

She trained for the Herrig fight with Faber and his Team Alpha Male teammates in Sacramento, Calif., and used Faber as a sounding board whenever possible.

Faber is not only one of the best fighters in his class, but he's one of the UFC's most popular stars and has become an astute businessman.

VanZant is only starting out and the ability for her to learn and work with someone like Faber has been essential.

"Urijah has been a huge person for me to be able to talk to and get guidance from," she said. "Faber's done everything for me. He's an amazing coach and he's been helping me throughout the entire camp on the mental side, the physical side, as well as the technique.

"To have that sort of guidance from a guy like Urijah, who has been around so long and who knows what I'm going through has been invaluable. He's easy for me to talk to and he's made a huge difference."

VanZant is now where Herrig spent years preparing to be, capturing much of the spotlight that Herrig had worked so hard to obtain.

Herrig knows she can reclaim some of that by showing her experience in the cage and impressively winning the fight.

Felice Herrig elbows Lisa Ellis in their strawweight fight in December 2014. (Getty Images)
Felice Herrig elbows Lisa Ellis in their strawweight fight in December 2014. (Getty Images)

"I don't underestimate her at all," Herrig said of VanZant. "But I do believe I'm better than she is in every area and that I'll be able to impose my will upon her. If I want the fight on the feet, that's where it's going to be. If I want to wrestle, we'll wrestle. If I want to take it to the ground, I will do that."

There is an old saying in combat sports: "Just because you beat the man, it doesn't make you the man."

And so it's far from a certainty that a Herrig win would knock VanZant off her pedestal. But because Herrig has invested so much in her marketing, an impressive win would likely help boost her image among major sponsors.

VanZant, though, is already a darling of the media and has the fan and sponsor support. She can talk of things like surpassing Jones to become the youngest champion in UFC history and no one scoffs.

But VanZant also takes pains to point out that while she's grateful for her sponsors and the attention she receives – she's No. 53 in AskMen.com's list of the 99 most outstanding women in 2015 – nothing has been given to her.

"It's unreal how many opportunities I've gotten and watching all of these blessings unfold," she said. "I'm not going to apologize for anything because I've worked hard to get what I have. I am blessed, and I am thankful for it, but I've earned what I've gotten. And I plan to continue to earn it."

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