It did not matter that strawweight debutant Paige Van Zant was left out of The Ultimate Fighter 20 for being too young after all. The 20 year old—and youngest lady in the UFC—115 pound Reno Academy of Combat associate showed fans of mixed martial arts why the Sacramento squad has been setting the tone as far as the lighter divisions go. After being sidelined for over a year due to neck injury, “12 Gauge” VanZant’s debut triumph over Hawaiian Kailin Curran should precipitate observers to stake her as one of the most exciting names within the Urijah Faber, Chad Mendes and T.J. Dillashaw camp.
Beating Kailin Curran is no easy task. Curran’s dominating standup and takedown defense made her one of—if not the most—Pacific Xtreme Combat’s most fearsome athletes. Sadly for her, her game ultimately was no match for Paige VanZant’s unwavering efforts to do damage, but it’s worth noting that Kailin was arguably the more technically sound of the two. Albeit successful, VanZant’s takedown attempts were—until the drop that preceded the technical knockout—mostly evaded or diffused by a cool, levelheaded Kailin Curran. Had it not been for VanZant’s unforgiving fence and clinching moves, the fight may have turned out quite differently. Kailin’s jiu jitsu looked stronger than Paige’s—therein lies Paige’s next challenge.
But Paige outgassed Kailin by a long-shot, and having softened the Hawaiian with her mile-high knees in the clinch as well as her unbelievably effective 90 degree standing ground-and-pound, Paige knocked her around enough that at the very end of the match the referee had no choice but to called it a day. A noble effort from Kailin, but one that couldn’t stand against a spectacular, a methodically deconstructive delivery from Paige—she really picked Kailin apart, one step at a time.
After this fight, without a doubt the strawweight division is stacking up to be as competitive as the bantamweight ranks. Any lingering suspicion that women’s mixed martial arts outside of Ronda and whoever is the latest contender aren’t as technically complex or accomplished as men’s should be alleviated at this point. Kailin and Paige put on a better show than Wiman and Vallie-Flagg’s grinder, and gave fans exchanges worthy of Cub Swanson’s finest moments in his momentous loss to New Jersey’s Frankie Edgar.
Both Kailin and Paige demonstrated great—yet nascent—knowledge of the Octagon’s space and the dynamics of a fight. Both still have a long road, but a highly promising one. Paige, for example might need to test her patience—against a more experienced fighter, she might get caught in an unfortunate counter in one of her furious flurries. And Kailin needs to put her hands up more. Their fight reflected athletes of the highest caliber: Kailin should undoubtedly take this loss as a symbolic victory. She’s incredibly talented and should pose a threat to anyone. If it weren’t for Kailin, Paige would’ve faced anyone else and not received Fight of the Night honors.
In the future it will be good to see Paige run against someone like Claudia Gadelha, whose Brazilian jiu jitsu is some of the best in the world, and who could present a lot of difficulty for Paige moving forward in the division. It will also be interesting to see her go blow-for-blow with someone like the newly signed Seo Hee Ham, whom fans of the sport affectionately call Hamderlei Silva, on account of her explosive and aggressive advances on her opponents. Surely, both of those ladies would give fans of true standup a show to remember.
Ed. Note: In an earlier version of this story, Paige was incorrectly linked to Team Alpha Male.
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