When Felice Herrig injured her knee in early 2019, she knew it was bad.
The veteran strawweight was starting training camp for an eventual showdown against Yan Xiaonan at UFC 238 in Chicago when she jumped into wrestling drills like she would during any other practice.
The only difference was Herrig wearing boxing shoes because she had been suffering from a bout of turf toe and she wanted to protect herself from further injury. At the time, she believed boxing shoes were similar enough to wrestling shoes that it didn’t make that much of a difference.
Through numerous practices and past training sessions, the boxing shoes worked out just fine. Until they didn’t.
“With boxing shoes there’s a little bit more grip on the side and that’s what I was wearing and I was just drilling double leg takedowns but when I cut the corner, that extra little grip kept my foot from traveling with my body. That’s actually how the accident happened,” Herrig told MMA Fighting ahead of her return at UFC 252 this Saturday.
A visit to the doctor soon revealed the severity of her injury — Herrig had torn the ACL in her right knee.
As it turned out, the former muay Thai stylist-turned-mixed martial artist had suffered far more than just a torn ACL when it came time to do the surgery to repair the damage done.
“A lot of it comes down to some ACL injuries are more serious than others,” Herrig explained. “For me, I had an ACL tear, meniscus, LCL, MCL, PCL, sprains and then they took from my hamstring for the tendon but then they also did a microfracture, which I would not suggest that to anybody.
“The microfracture is what gave me all the problems and pain and complications.”
Microfracture surgery involves a small sharp pick that’s used to create a series of holes in the bone at the base of the cartilage injury. The holes then allow blood to flow into the injured area to form a clot and over time the clot turns into fibrocartilage. That fibrocartilage fills in the previously injured area.
It was a popular surgical technique used with a lot of athletes several years ago but the long term effectiveness of microfracture surgery have ended with mixed results. Former No. 1 NFL draft pick Jadaveon Clowney underwent microfracture surgery after suffering a knee injury in his professional debut in 2014. Since returning, Clowney has found plenty of success in his career including being named to two Pro Bowls.
Sadly for basketball greats like Penny Hardaway and Chris Webber, the microfracture surgery never allowed them to play the same way again.
According to Herrig, 35, she was assured that the microfracture surgery would aid in her recovery but over time, she began to wonder if the risk was worth the reward considering the kind of pain and agony she was suffering while trying to nurse herself back to health.
Add to that, Herrig was initially told that typical recovery time for ACL surgery is between six and nine months but when her rehabilitation kept hitting obstacles, she began to get discouraged about a timeline to return to fighting.
“When the doctors and the therapists tell you six to nine months [to recover] but then the therapy world, there’s so many opinions, I don’t want to say they don’t know what they’re doing but everybody is so by the book that when there’s actual problems or complications, they don’t really have any answers for you,” Herrig explained. “I could never get any answers for so many problems I had, even from my doctor. Like what’s going on?
“You want to know answers but the only people who can tell you don’t have any answers for you so you’re kind of in this limbo.”
Even when she’s not in the middle of a training camp or preparing for a fight, Herrig is a physically active person and that was taken away from her after the knee surgery.
She did her best to keep a positive mindset about her recovery but as more and more time passed, Herrig started to wonder if she’d ever get better again.
“Everything for me was just so difficult to do,” Herrig said. “I was doing my therapy and my rehab and all I heard was ‘make sure you stay on top of your physical therapy and do your rehab.’ I was doing everything right and in my mind, when you get that time table of six to nine months, you’re not thinking of a possibility where it could be any longer.
“At the six month mark, I just accepted it and tried to stay positive but then I kind of went through an emotional roller coaster. That six month mark came up and nobody could tell me why I was having all this pain and why I wasn’t progressing at an advanced rate like I usually do because I’m a super healthy person.”
The struggles in her rehabilitation then started to eat away at her mind as she began contemplating worst case scenarios rather than focusing on a light at the end of the tunnel.
“I knew I was nowhere near being healthy, I started kind of spiraling, getting really depressed and sad,” Herrig said. “I would feel great, and I would feel like I was turning a corner and then everything would get worse.”
As she continued to go through the recovery process, Herrig was forced to find new ways to occupy her time since fighting wasn’t an option.
“I spent so much time with friends, family, loved ones,” Herrig said. “I did more yoga and I drew a lot more. My dad’s an amazing artist and I just did it more as therapy.”
Herrig’s passion for art had already been re-ignited now that she actually had the spare time to do it but spending hours alongside her father was the real gift she treasured.
“He stopped drawing around the time my brother died,” Herrig revealed. “But my dad has that raw talent, he’s been drawing since he was three and that was his true gift in life. No one understood why he didn’t do it anymore.
“So during the whole COVID thing, I bought a house in December and that was another fun thing I did. It’s pretty big and I just asked my dad if he wanted to come over one day and draw with me.”
Almost like it was meant to be, Herrig was then approached by a publisher who asked if she was interested in developing a children’s book. It was actually a project she had contemplated previously but the opportunity couldn’t have happened at a better time with Herrig still sidelined by her injury and her father falling in love with art again.
That’s when she asked her dad if he would like to do the illustrations for the book as she penned the story. Not only did it give them a chance to work together but Herrig used the children’s book as an outlet to begin inspiring herself again as well.
“I had this idea because my nickname is ‘The Lil’ Bulldog’ and it would make a perfect cartoon character,” Herrig said.
“The story I ended up writing was about a little bulldog who gets injured and she’s really sad that she can’t do what she loves. The story is about her never giving up and trying new things. So a lot of what the little bulldog does in the story are things I did for real and at the end she’s back doing what she loves and there’s a little thought bubble saying ‘I’m so glad I never gave up.’”
Writing the children’s book not only gave Herrig something to keep her mind off the knee injury she was still rehabilitating but it allowed her to gain some perspective on her future.
“I don’t want to say I was at peace if I could never fight again, because I never want that, but I was going through so much inner turmoil with the injury, feeling like I was getting better and not getting better that I saw it as something that me and my dad could continue to do. It was a good little distraction,” Herrig said.
“Fighters don’t think about it that much until you’ve been doing it as long as I have and you start getting older. You think about what you want to do when you’re done fighting but you never really have to think about it. I’ve had to really think about it. I haven’t been able to fight in two years and then with having so many problems with my knee, I was like ‘am I ever going to be able to fight again?’. It’s scary. Like what am I going to do? When I started doing the book with my dad, I’m not saying that’s what I want to do for the rest of my life but at the same time it’s fun.”
Thanks to the boost she received from working on the children’s book with her dad and additional help from the UFC Performance Institute in her rehabilitation, Herrig began turning the corner to where she started to feel like herself again.
Nothing came easy but Herrig began to realize just how much the injury and subsequent surgery served as a test of her own mental toughness while giving her a new level of appreciation for the career she nearly had taken away.
“It made me grateful and it made me have a different outlook and perspective on fighting,” Herrig said. “It is just a sport and sometimes maybe I think I took it too seriously in a way that it stressed me out than have fun with it. When you start out, you’re super hungry, you have your whole career in front of you, everything is fun, it’s a journey but then as time goes on, it becomes more work.
“Now I’ve learned to embraced some of the things that I didn’t like as much because I realized I did like those things. When you have everything you’ve worked for taken away from you, it sucks. I’m just grateful to be back in there. I’ve always put so much stress on myself. I’m just thankful to be there. Not many people even have the opportunity to fight in the UFC. I’ve been through a lot and I’m just grateful.”
After months upon months of physical therapy, Herrig was finally cleared to return to action and she couldn’t wait to book her next fight.
She faces Virna Jandiroba on the UFC 252 prelims and her first fight back really is like a fresh start. Not only will she be competing for the first time since 2018 but Herrig will be performing with a new voice in her corner after teaming up with veteran coach Mike Valle at his gym in Chicago.
Valle has worked with a slew of top fighters over the years including featherweight contender Yair Rodriguez, Julianna Pena and many more. Training with Valle requires a little extra driving on Herrig’s part because his gym is an hour away from her home but the ends have absolutely justified the means.
“Mike just wants what’s best for you,” Herrig said. “I really believe that. He didn’t poach me. He doesn’t talk bad about [former head coach] Jeff [Curran]. He said whatever you need, I’m there.”
For his part, Valle says he experienced real chemistry coaching Herrig as soon as she arrived at his gym and he’s definitely excited to see the work they’ve done together pay off this weekend.
“She’s awesome. I love her,” Valle told MMA Fighting when speaking about Herrig. “I’ve always seen her fight and always had interest in her. Now that she showed up, she’s so coachable. She’s great. She’s very smart. She’s a true professional.
“Out of camp, she’s always in shape. She takes care of her body. She does everything right to put herself in the right situations. She’s awesome.”
If all goes well on Saturday night, Herrig hopes this really is a new beginning because she’s found a whole new appreciation for fighting after so much time off and she wants to do a lot of it.
“In an ideal world, I’d fight again the next week,” Herrig said with a laugh. “I’d fight as much as possible. With fighting, for so long, anybody who was an MMA pioneer made sh*t money for so long and didn’t even have the opportunity to be in the UFC. Now I’m in the UFC, I’m making good money, I kind of want to just make a sh*t ton of money.
“I don’t want to be out again for two years. It’s not that I need money. I want money. I don’t want to stress out about what I’m going to do when I’m done fighting.”
Of course, Herrig is thinking about the future when she makes ambitious plans for a busier fight schedule but she might also have to clear her calendar for a few more appearances when it comes to her children’s book.
Just days before she’s set to return to action at UFC 252, Herrig’s book was released.
“The Lil Bulldog: Lemons into Lemonade” is available now and it doesn’t appear that this will be the last book she authors before it’s all said and done.
“Right now, I have written down like five different story ideas,” Herrig said about future books in the series. “It’s taking a bad situation and turning it into something good. It’s cool because ‘The Lil’ Bulldog’ really is me.”