Felice Herrig is on a tear through the strawweight ranks and Karolina Kowalkiewicz is looking to get another signature win. Which woman will get closer to a title shot at UFC 223?
On Saturday the strawweight title will be on the line as Rose Namajunas faces Joanna Jędrzejczyk in a critical bout. But before the first championship bout of UFC 223, Felice Herrig and Karolina Kowalkiewicz will headline preliminary action as the battle for a spot in the crowded title picture.
Kowalkiewicz’s rapid ascension in 2016 put her in several high profile bouts. But unlike many contenders on an accelerated track, the true limit of her skills still remained largely a mystery. The Pole was still an unknown when she stunned surging contender and future champion Rose Namajunas that summer in a title eliminator.
At the time, champion Joanna Jędrzejczyk had pushed for her fellow countrywoman to be signed to the UFC as earlier in their careers there was interest for a fight to determine who was the best in their native Poland. On that momentum alone, Kowalkiewicz received a title shot in just her fourth UFC bout at the promotion’s highly anticipated debut at Madison Square Garden. It was a gritty performance but ultimately a losing effort as the challenger had no answer for the champion’s speed and precision.
She would go on to split her next pair of fights. Getting throttled in the first round by top-ranked Claudia Gadelha and winning a decision against Jodie Esquibel. Going into the bout with Felice Herrig, there is now more clarity in her career. She is an adept striker but she has yet to display the skills on the ground that suggest she can compete against the elite. Currently, she is ranked fourth in the division with only the top contenders and former title challengers ahead of her. But a loss would put her at 1-3 in her last four fights and would raise question of whether she should still be considered as one of the best in the weight class
For Felice Herrig, “Lil’ Bulldog” has struggled to claw her way back to relevancy in the division after losing critical time away. In 2015, Herrig lost a high profile bout on FOX to then upstart Paige VanZant. Herrig was coming off a stint on The Ultimate Fighter and carried a huge fan following into her UFC career. But after losing handily, Herrig then disappeared. She would not return to action for over a year when she notched a victory over Kailin Curran.
In her absence, the strawweight division boomed in popularity. Fans were introduced to names like Jędrzejczyk, Gadelha, Jessica Andrade, and others. When Herrig returned, she was lost in the shuffle. In 2017, she put on one of the most impressive runs in the division with three victories in a row. Her 4-0 mark is currently the best win-streak in the top 5, and yet she remains perplexingly at only eighth in the rankings. A win over Kowalkiewicz would nearly guarantee a top-five ranking, as well as put her on the short list for a title eliminator in the loaded division.
Stylistically, the bout will come down to the grappling. Herrig has displayed a more diversified attack and her ability to grapple with Curran and Justine Kish demonstrated her dangerous submission game. Kowalkiewicz was controlled easily on the mat in her bout with Gadelha and she needs to avoid spending any time there against Herrig. If Kowalkiewicz can defend the takedown, she has shown excellent counter-striking that she can use to keep “Lil’ Bulldog” at bay. Conversely, Herrig can use the threat of the takedown to make the Pole more hesitant in striking on the feet. Kowalkiewicz may well avoid throwing kicks out of fear of ending up on the mat and Herrig should capitalize on her low output.
For Kowalkiewicz, the victory would be one of the biggest in her UFC career and keep her in the running for bouts against the likes of Tecia Torres, Carla Esparza, and others. For Herrig, there can be no doubt that a top three bout would be next for her if she is able to record her fifth straight victory. Their future path will become clearer after the co-main event is completed, but they will look to send a message before the pay-per-view begins.