June 22, 2017

UFC Fight Night 112: It’s About to Get Real -- Felice Herrig vs. Justine Kish

By Schwan Humes

This Sunday night at UFC Fight Night 112, we have a fight between two middling strawweights trying to establish themselves as potential title contenders. On one hand we have Justine Kish, undefeated in six fights. Kish broke into the mixed martial arts mainstream as part of the cast of The Ultimate Fighter 20: A Champion Will Be Crowned. Although she was a tournament favorite, Kish was unable to compete due to an injury. After making her debut at UFC 195 a successful one, and following that up with another victory at UFC Fight Night 102, Kish seems poised to make good on the hype that accompanied her coming into the TUF tournament. But to really be considered legitimate in the division and as a mixed martial artist, she needs a win over a fighter with a name, a fighter with a resume.

That brings us to the focus of this article, former kickboxing champion and 18-fight mixed martial arts veteran Felice “Lil Bulldog” Herrig. Herrig has historically been one of the most well-known fighters in mixed martial arts, largely as a result of her social media presence. She has also been one of the more experienced, active, and all-around skilled fighters in the women’s divisions of MMA. What she hasn’t been is one of the best fighters, as she has often faced and lost to elite female fighters throughout her career. After a particularly crushing loss to Paige VanZant in a very high-profile fight at UFC on FOX 15, Herrig took a break from the sport. A year later she resurfaced, scoring a submission win over athletically gifted but criminally inconsistent Kailin Curran. And then pulled the upset over previously undefeated strawweight and UFC star in the making Alexa Grasso. In the best streak of her career, Herrig looks to build on this momentum with a win over Kish that would firmly cement her as a legitimate contender and someone worthy of facing one of the big names in the division (Rose Namajunas, Michelle Waterson, Claudia Gadelha, Joanna Jedrzejczyk).

This fight is a contest between defined experience and veteran savvy and undeveloped athletic and technical talent. Herrig has never been one of the more physically dominating or powerful fighters; recent losses to VanZant and Tecia Torres have highlighted her physical limitations. What has allowed Herrig to survive, and in some instances thrive as a mixed martial artist, is her extensive amount of combat experience -- she is a 28-fight veteran (and four-time champion) in kickboxing and an 18-fight veteran in mixed martial arts. At a time when fighters with six fights (Kish), ten fights (Grasso, Namajunas, and Cortney Casey), five fights (Cynthia Calvillo) and eight fights (Pearl Gonzalez) litter the entirety of the division, Herrig is an exception, a veteran who has been very active and competing at a high level in multiple organizations, and in multiple combat sports. She is a fighter with an established identity, skillset, and set of tools. And in a division where so many women are trying to define their identities and find their way as fighters, that experience, that familiarity, and that balance makes her very very dangerous against these types of fighters.

Herrig is an all-around fighter, competent in every phase, but not really dominant in any one aspect of mixed martial arts. She is a competent striker who works behind a busy jab, which sets the table for her front kick; both weapons help establish and reestablish distance against aggressive or burst type fighters, limiting their ability to pressure or explode with offense. These two long range tools also set the table for her kick-punch combinations, which she uses to push opponents back and gain clean entries into the clinch. Unlike a VanZant, who can just explode into clinches or a Kowalkiewicz who can just march through return fire into clinches, Herrig has to use deft setups and misdirections that allow her to get into her wheelhouse. The clinch is both Herrig’s safety zone -- the control, positioning, and balance allows her to neutralize the power and athletic advantages opponents have -- and her biggest source of offense on the feet. Her ability to control and rattle off a series of combinations that feature hard knees, short punches, and elbows allow her to break down physical types she can’t ward off at range, as well as wear down those superior athletes who are able to overwhelm her at range.

Where Herrig is most dangerous is in her grappling; she isn’t necessarily great in getting fights to the ground, nor is she some sort of submission machine. What she is, however, is very savvy, measured, self-aware, and intelligent. She has good control from top position and has shown a propensity for transitioning from one dominant position to another. She is also sneaky good with transitions to the back in scrambles, even though scrambles aren’t a strong point of her game. Herrig isn’t great off her back either, but she has enough sense, poise, and patience to stay out of trouble long enough to survive, work out of bad spots, and in some cases work back into advantageous positions.

With only six fights in a six-year career (two in the past year/year and a half) Kish is the definition of untapped potential; she is as talented as she is raw and inexperienced, both in terms of activity and quality of opposition. She hasn’t truly refined her game, nor has she defined her overall identity as a fighter, as much of her time has been spent recovering from injury. The result of this is that a large majority of her development is done through on the job training. In the long term it will help her, as she will develop a familiarity and comfort in her fight game that comes from developing under the bright lights, and eventually it will benefit her cage IQ, as she is being forced to process information and make adjustments under duress. At the moment, however, her physicality, physical strength, and durability are the deciding factors in the success of her fight game, as she is still learning the game of mixed martial arts, using her attributes to keep her in (and in some cases win) her fights, much like Namajunas, VanZant, Karolina Kowalkiewicz, and Randa Markos have.

Kish is a striker by trade; the former WMC champion has legitimate Muay Thai chops often putting together dynamic striking combinations punctuated with hard low kicks. She enjoys applying pressure and overwhelming her opposition with a combination of forward aggression and volume. Kish is somewhat limited defensively, however, and in her last two fights she has taken repeated hard shots as a result of her inability to come in behind a jab, which results in less than clean entries (and exits) that get her hit coming into and going out of exchanges. So far, Kish has chosen to use her offensive pace and range of shots to put her opponents on the defensive, limiting their willingness to counter as she beats them up. Her range striking is busy and effective, but the area where she is both most efficient and punishingly effective is the clinch. There, her size and physical strength rob her opponents of their mobility, activity and energy, while the steady stream of well-placed knees and elbows rob them of their will and ability to force a pace or get to a place where they can take advantage of her defensive lapses.

Although Justine Kish’s reputation is that of a striker, she actually has more submission wins than knockouts. And while Kish is a fighter with an awareness and confidence on the ground to hold her own with better and/or more experienced grapplers, she is not afraid to get into extended exchanges on the ground, not just to survive or control an opponent, but to attack on the ground and look for finishes. Aggression, willingness, and comfort in grappling aren’t the problem, what is a problem is her inconsistency in being able to safely gain and maintain position against opponents with legitimate grappling or wrestling chops. Kish lacks the experience and fight IQ to find the right spots to grapple and the right approach to grappling, as she is a big physical specimen who will often fight off her back hunting for submissions instead of looking to get back to her feet where she has a clear advantage over the majority of fighters in her division. In this way, she is much like fellow strawweight Cortney Casey.

Herrig vs. Kish is a good matchup for a few reasons. First and foremost, Kish is still an unknown quantity in the context of who she is and how good a fighter she is. She hasn’t really faced an opponent with the awareness, balance, and experience to really bring out the best or expose the worst in her. Nina Ansaroff is a creative, athletic, dynamic striker, but one who struggles to put offense together consistently and has defensive lapses alongside her offensive ones, not to mention her somewhat limited grappling chops. Ashley Yoder is tough and scrappy, as well as being very dangerous on the ground in regards to creating scrambles, grabbing subs, defending subs, and controlling position. But she is painfully one-dimensional in her approach to mixed martial arts, and as effective as she is in this one range, her ability to force fights into that range are almost as suspect as her ability to defend or counter on the feet.

On Herrig’s end, this is another chance to show that she has righted the ship and is fully capable of not just winning some and losing some, but establishing a clear line of separation between her and the other strawweights currently occupying the mid-tier level in the division. More importantly, we get to see if Herrig has reinvented herself in regards to her mental game, so that she can beat an opponent who has top shelf potential and physical tools that provide her with advantages over the majority of opponents in the division. As big as the upset over Grasso was, more times than not Herrig has fallen flat in matchups against a certain kind of fighter, the kind that Kish has all the earmarks of being.

This weekend at UFC Fight Night 112, we have a fight between two ascending fighters: one who is trying to establish who and how she is as a fighter, the other has a firmly defined identity, but is looking to reinvent herself and her place in the mixed martial arts lexicon. The winner of this fight moves up, clearly establishing herself as a force to be reckoned with and a fighter who may not be the best, but is clearly much better than the rest. The loser has to go back to the drawing board, as she will once again be pushed to the middle of the pack of fighters, which may mean consistent paydays and opportunities, but not the big paydays or the big opportunities that come from being better than average. For Kish, this isn’t terrible. She is a prospect, and one who has the option of moving up a weight class (making weight has been a problem for her). For Herrig, however, every fight is career-defining or career-threatening, so on Saturday night when the bell rings, it will get violent, but more importantly it will get real.

UFC Fight Night 112: Chiesa vs. Lee takes place June 25, 2017 at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

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