There’s been a lot of debate lately about who should be considered a real pioneer in women’s MMA. It was sparked by the signing of Ronda Rousey to the UFC and her installation as the organization’s first female fighter and first female champion.

Rousey’s signing was precipitated by her incredible popularity during her tenure of the Strikeforce women’s bantamweight belt. She has achieved more mainstream media coverage than any other female fighter ever, and more than most male fighters too.

But peers like Miesha Tate have bridled against the praise being heaped on Rousey, saying that other female fighters – presumably themselves – are being overlooked in terms of what they have done to push their sport.

According to Brian Butler of Suckerpunch Management, they aren’t the only ones being overlooked. He says that Felice Herrig, who fights for Bellator tomorrow night, deserves serious credit for being one of the first fighters to bring a real blue-chip sponsor to a sport dominated by supplement and t-shirt companies.

“Alienware computers is a brand under the Fortune 500 company DELL. Suckerpunch managed to bring them into the MMA space as a “tester” project but they were still very hesitant. After three-quarters of a test budget Alienware decided to pull the plug, stating they weren’t seeing much response,” he explains.

“Three months later Alienware tweets back to one of Felice Herrig ‘s random tweets, to which Felice sassily replies “I can’t talk to you anymore, I have a new boyfriend and his name is Mac!” Well within two minutes Alienware replied ‘We’re trying to get you back little lady!’

“Within 10 minutes I had a voice mail and email from Dell Headquarters asking about coming back into the MMA fold because they noticed a definite spike in their social media when they engaged with Felice. So theoretically Felice Herrig was a catalyst for Alienware sponsoring so many UFC fighters such as Pat Barry, Amir Sadollah, Michael Bisping, Brad Pickett, Max Holloway, Pat Curran or any of the fighters you now see representing them in the cage.”

According to Butler, Herrig has by far one of the strongest social media presences of any fighter he has ever worked with.

“Felice is somewhat controversial because of the amount of social media she does. But because of the amount of social media she does she is also one of the most sponsored WMMA athletes in the sport. And I guess that can mean that because she is one of the most heavily sponsored WMMA athletes in the sport she has a lot of haters that are jealous of her and are always gunning for her,” he reflects.

“Felice is a magnet for sponsors because she knows how to work every angle she has and she is a legit fighter. She can also walk into any room and captivate an audience with her personality, she has very good energy. But while she plays a little on the bubbly side she is very smart with marketing, branding and getting her sponsors tied to her personal brand.”

According to Butler, Herrig’s work ethic in and out of the ring is down to an upbringing that experienced plenty of lows among the highs. Herrig was one of four children and grew up in a very poor family. Money was tight to the extent that while she excelled at sports in school, the only ones she partook of were the ones that didn’t require the purchase of equipment.

“She excelled at track and was invited to compete in state championships but could not afford the dues to go. After not being able to go to the next level in track due to financial issues she tried gymnastics. Again she quickly got noticed but again she got to the point where she was asked to travel and compete and again the financial issues held her back,” Butler reveals.

“She used to go door to door and collect donations so she could go to summer camp with her friends. At the age of 16 she got a job at Outback Steakhouse and at a beauty salon and worked those two jobs all the way up until about a year and a half ago. During this time she went to a kickboxing gym and took an introductory class. Within a week she was signed up for her first fight.

“She got invited to be on the reality show Fight Girls and that was the first time she had actually done Muay Thai. She went on to win that show and ever since then people categorize her as a Thai fighter. Soon after that she was invited to join Chuck Norris’s World Combat League for the St, Louis Enforcers and was the smallest and youngest girl in the league but held her own against some of the very best strikers in the world.”

Herrig is currently ranked number two in the world in her weight class by the International Kickboxing Federation. When she started looking into MMA, her kickboxing ranking meant that she was only offered pro fights right off the bat and that led to some early losses. According to Butler she “lost her first two fights by controversial split decisions because she had zero ground game. But if you watch all of Felice’s fights that she has lost (minus Esparza) you would see that they were all very bad calls.”

Over the past twelve months Herrig has broken into the top ten in her weight class and her professional MMA record now stands at 7-4. She had been due to rematch Michele Gutierrez at Bellator 84 on Friday but Gutierrez pulled out in controversial circumstances last week. Herrig has accused her of faking a broken hand in order to mask her failure to get anywhere near the fighting weight.