UFC 223’s top bill on the undercard is a strawweight crossroads duel between two action heroines who come from very different worlds.
Chicago’s braid-toting, instabanging comeback queen Felice “Lil Bulldog” Herrig stands in one corner, while Poland’s second favorite MMA daughter, small dog connoisseur and consonant-hoarder Karolina Kowalkiewicz stands in one of the other seven.
What makes this fight of interest is the relative trajectories of each combatant. One is on the rising come-back trail from a prior effort in the Octagon that ended up with less than ideal results. The other is on the come-down from the heady lights of title shot fame, still trying to find her appropriate place in the division.
Felice Herrig may not look it, but she’s a true fight veteran, with a storied record of 14 happy face emojis and 6 sad and or angry face emojis, and a spot on season 20 of The Ultimate Fighter. Prior to her MMA career she also kick-boxed, which is of course just like MMA but with fewer hugs.
Herrig wears her heart on her sleeve and doesn’t mind saying how she feels. She’s dealt with a few demons in the past, and if you watch her post-fight interviews she doesn’t try to hide them. After losing a unanimous decision to the then streaking Paige VanZant, Herrig took a year off to strengthen her mental biceps and the work is currently reaping dividends. She’s on a four fight win-streak, snatching the O from the records of unbeaten fighters Alexa Grasso and Justine Kish, and most recently squeaking out a narrow split decision win over Cortney Casey.
Yeah sure, but how does she win?
Moving right along. Herrig’s game is solid. She’s got solid striking, solid grappling and a solid ground game. In other words, she must eat a lot of fiber for such solid solidity. She outboxed Grasso and squeezed the literal sh*t out of Kish. Everything about her skill-set is well-rounded; built upon, yes, a solid foundation after many years in the business.
Her opponent is a cemented top-five strawweight with a win over the current champ. On the surface, it appears as though Herrig and Karolina are evenly matched on the feet. You could argue that their striking technique and skill are very similar, with the Pole (not an actual pole) perhaps possessing the faster hands. To counter her opponent’s tendency to strike in quick flurries, Herrig may have to disrupt that rhythm with leg kicks, teeps, or a strong and constant jab. Her overhand right and left hook have won fights for her in recent times, but she does have a tendency to duck her head as she enters combinations, which opens her up to uppercuts.
Herrig will tell you until your ears bleed that she’s just as much a striker as she is a grappler, but where she really wins this contest is down on the floor, making good use of her hugs, specifically her strangling neck-hugs. Herrig is a python on the ground, and should the fight head to the basement she will have a strong advantage. If she can’t utilize her huggy-strangle, she may find her herself out-pointed by a busier, more aggressive opponent, and her win-streak broken.
The Pajama Model
Seriously, Karolina Kowalkiewicz looks like somebody who might model tasteful women’s nightwear in those catalogs you always get in your letterbox, even when you’ve put a passive-aggressive sign on it saying, ‘No catalogs of women wearing tasteful nightwear, please. Thank you.’
As mentioned above, Karolina is like a grapevine; she punches in bunches. She marches forward kicking and punching and spinning and yelling a lot and when she’s in the clinch she throws knees and spinning elbows and is far more powerful than her nightwear model exterior might suggest. This approach rocketed her straight to a title shot after just three fights, where she was out punch-bunched by the best bunch-puncher in the game. Say that eight times fast. Her conquests, aside from old mate Rose ‘New champ, who dis’ Namajunas, mostly include middling fighters, however, with her second loss coming to the tough-as-nails Brazilian, Claudia Gadelha.
How does she win?
The Gadelha fight showed the largest hole in her game; her lie-down (as opposed to her stand-up). When the fight went to the ground against Rose, one could argue that it was her size and strength advantage that prevailed, but one wonders if they were to run it back a second time, whether the outcome would be the same.
Herrig may not be as powerful as somebody like Jessica Andrade or Gadelha, but she is slick and skilled, she transitions well and chains her submissions together like an actual chain. Karolina must stay away from that chain at all costs. She wins this fight by doing what she does best, and that’s throwing arms and legs in a constant barrage of offense for 15 minutes straight without getting tired. She’s got to bully Herrig about, perhaps push her up against the cage where she can use her muscle and work her elbows and knees.
Like most 115lbs fighters, Karolina doesn’t possess hard power shots; her lethality comes with volume. She wins simply by out-landing her opponents and never backing off, and it’s that relentless aggression that is arguably her biggest advantage over Herrig in the stand-up.
This one is another classic stylistic contest, pitting a wily veteran who’s seen it all, up against a relative newcomer with a lot of raw talent who hasn’t gained a whole lot of pro experience at the top level of the sport. The winner will likely shuffle up the queue of contenders to stand behind Andrade, who is currently acting as a gatekeeper to the strawweight throne.
With Herrig and Karolina, it’s hugs against grapes. Pick your poison.