Felice Herrig is headed back to surgery.
The veteran UFC strawweight told MMA Fighting on Tuesday that she’s set to go back under the knife on Oct. 5 with a new physician to repair damage that she says wasn’t previously addressed in a past procedure after she tore her ACL in 2019.
According to Herrig, she experienced issues for months following her initial surgery and the problems persisted throughout her training camp as she prepared for her return to action at UFC 252 in August. Unfortunately, she couldn’t get the answers she needed with her local doctor and physical therapists unable to explain exactly what was happening with her knee.
“That’s the frustrating part,” Herrig explained. “I had so many problems after my surgery. He did a cadaver [ligament] and a microfracture [surgery], which we never talked about. Cause microfractures take even longer to heal and after talking to orthopedic nurses and surgeons, they’re like ‘oh my god you had a microfracture? That’s like our last resort, we only do that if he absolutely have to.’
“Then I found out when I was getting all the papers together to go see this new doctor, we discussed not using a cadaver. We’re supposed to use my hamstring to make the ACL graft because a lot of people reject cadavers. So I found a sheet of paper and my paperwork said I had a donor and it said something like ‘if you want to write a letter to the family thanking them for the cadaver for the foot tendon you got’ and I’m like what the f**k is this?”
Microfracture surgeries were popular with many professional athletes several years ago but the success rate for long term health dropped dramatically, which led to most surgeons avoiding that type of procedure.
On top of that, Herrig says that her doctor eventually explained that her hamstring wasn’t enough to complete the tendon needed to repair the ACL so they used a partial cadaver ligament to finish the surgery.
Going through physical therapy was a painful enough experience, but the 35-year-old fighter based out of Illinois pushed through until she was finally cleared to fight again. She booked her matchup at UFC 252 and began her training camp but the knee never felt completely stable.
“I’m icing it six times a day because I have this sharp shooting pain from my knee practically down to my ankle on my calf,” Herrig said. “At that point, I was taking six ibuprofen a day but I was already like a week out from the fight.
“I was like f**k it, I already trained. I did a 12-week training camp like this, I might as well fight and get paid. Why would I not do the important part?”
Herrig added that she was never able to actually train much grappling at all in the weeks leading up to the fight due to the pain she experienced in her knee.
That put her into some awkward conversations during the typical pre-fight media storm where she’s doing interviews where many of the questions were specific to the type of training needed when facing an opponent like Virna Jandiroba.
“I couldn’t do jiu-jitsu for the entire fight,” Herrig revealed. “I kind of had to lie. I was like most of the camp, I wasn’t feeling too good but then when I got the MRI back and it said you’re good, you can still fight, I felt confident but I really wasn’t. Because I knew that I didn’t feel good.
“Basically for my fight, I did work striking. It wasn’t until like the last week that I could comfortably pivot on my foot and do a head kick. Sparring was scary. I did full on sparring right before the fight and I felt kind of confident but I was also taking ibuprofen everyday just to get through my camp.”
She ultimately lost the fight via first-round armbar but Herrig isn’t making excuses for her performance because she made the decision to fight with full knowledge that she wasn’t competing anywhere near full health.
“I knew I wasn’t 100 percent so I’m just going to do what I can do,” Herrig said. “I did everything I could do. I tried to get my knee better. I wanted to fight. It sucks the way the outcome was.”
In the aftermath of the fight, Herrig continued to suffer from pain in her knee and that’s when she spoke to fellow UFC athlete Carla Esparza, who she counts as one of her closest friends.
Esparza referred her to Dr. Derek Dee, who is the head physician at Dee Sports Orthopedics in Huntington Beach, Calif. After her initial consultation, Herrig was waiting for a follow up appointment when she received an unexpected call from her new doctor.
“Carla said she had a doctor that would do maybe some stem cells on me after the fight to help me with the regeneration of the last bit that needed work,” Herrig explained. “I went there and he was looking at my knee and he was like ‘I feel like we need to tighten up your lateral meniscus and your PCL but I’m going to call your old doctor, I’m going to look at all your post-op reports, look at all your MRI’s and then based on everything, [we’ll make a decision].’
“He called me a week before [a follow up appointment] and he said can we talk? Basically, the lateral meniscus is still torn and then the PCL and the side ligaments are so stretched out. They were so stretched, he said that basically when you have a severe injury like this, if it’s mild, they’ll stretch back but if it’s medium to severe, which mine was, they’re stretched but they never quite go back. So your knee never stays in place, which explains when I was training, I kept getting bone contusions because all the hard training, my knee was never staying stable. Now he’s going to go in and tighten up the lateral meniscus, repair the meniscus and the lateral PCL so basically I fought on a torn meniscus and did an entire training camp on a torn meniscus.”
While she’s doing her best to keep a positive attitude about everything happening, Herrig understands that the surgery planned isn’t nearly as invasive as fixing a torn ACL but her doctor may not know the full extent of what’s needed until she goes back under the knife again.
“From my understanding and they don’t really know until I’m in there, so that’s the scary part because the MRI doesn’t show everything,” Herrig said. “They’re going to repair the meniscus. They’re going to tighten up the lateral meniscus and they’re going to tighten up the PCL.
“So they’re going to tighten them so my knee isn’t moving around as much. So it’s not as invasive. It’s still a three to six month recovery time.”
Herrig admits feeling a lot of anger and frustration over the initial knee surgery that didn’t address all of her issues much less the aftermath where she was constantly complaining about continued pain yet the physicians and therapists could offer her no real answers.
“This is what I wanted the whole time and it’s like how did I not have this?” Herrig said. “If I had a doctor who did it right the first time, I wouldn’t be in this position but even six months down the road, I was saying there’s something wrong, I could have had this surgery and been back right now.
“I just wasted so much time in limbo because nobody could tell me what was wrong. It’s almost a relief. Because now I can actually heal and come back and return at 100 percent instead of just getting through training and being in pain everyday.”
She actually sought out a second opinion at an earlier date with a different physician prior to her fight but because of the COVID-19 pandemic, most doctor’s offices were shut down at the time for anything not deemed an emergency.
Back in January, Herrig did fly out to the UFC Performance Institute for help from the team in Las Vegas and that definitely paid dividends but she says there was only so much they could do given the full extent of her injuries.
“The people that helped me were people from the P.I. but I couldn’t afford to fly out to the P.I. and stay for weeks. I went out there in January and stayed for two weeks but I don’t live in Vegas and I’m not a fighter who’s working so I do I have the money to stay out here? No.
“The people at the P.I. they were probably the most helpful though. They do what they can do within their realm. My therapist for the first eight months, they never worked out my scar tissue and that’s what we thought the original problem was. Because I was having all of these pains and then when I went to the P.I. and they’re like oh my god, do you see this big solid mass of blood, all over my knee because I have all this bad tissue because I had all this scar tissue.”
For now, Herrig is preparing for her surgery on Oct. 5 with plans to stay with Esparza for several weeks afterwards as she recovers. She’s hoping for a positive outcome with the new surgery that will allow her to only sit out for another three to six months but nothing is guaranteed right now.
“The only thing is that’s if they don’t have to do anything to the ACL,” Herrig said bluntly about her timeline to return to action. “If they have to do anything to the ACL, I’m back to square one.”