Artwork by Gian Galang
Were it not for the whole “women’s fight in a top MMA promotion” aspect of it, Paige VanZant’s defeat at the hands of Rose Namajunas last December could have been the climax of a nineties alternative teen film. VanZant, the conventionally pretty blonde woman, could have been the spoiled popular girl who’d has everything handed to her because of her beauty and charm. The freshly depilated Namajunas, who sacrificed her own pretty blonde hair because it was getting in the way of training, could have been the Heathers-esque weird girl heroine who vanquished her to the delight of bullied kids everywhere.
But in the year since VanZant did little more than survive four and a half rounds before submitting to Namajunas’s rear-naked choke, it’s become clear that 12 Gauge’s real life story has a completely different narrative. On television and in schools, she revealed that she’s been more bullying target than queen bee. And whatever benefits the arguable advantage of her marketability in MMA have proven to be a double-edged sword at best.
Charisma has certainly played at least some role in VanZant’s rapid advancement into the UFC in 2014 and through its ranks ever since. Is it possible that she was hired, as a 20-year-old phenom not even old enough to participate in TUF 20, on her talent and 3-1 record alone? Perhaps. But it’s just as, if not more likely, that her sunny appeal was a boon to a newly-established women’s strawweight division still in search of its own stars. The Reebok endorsement deal that she landed in early 2015 was even more tenuously connected to skill and Octagon performance. Dana White didn’t even bring up her fighting when he defended the signing, instead focusing on her personality, her dancing in an Instagram video, and her general “it factor.”
At worst, though, the opportunities that VanZant has taken in the past two years have been an issue with the industry, not her. If she was hired for appeal as much as talent, she would be far from the first or last to benefit from looks, wit, or anaconda-laden feet in this business. And, in an industry that has few opportunities for fighters, especially female fighters, to safely pursue their craft outside of major promotions (rest and recovery, key components of healthy training, are often the first thing to go when you have to have a day job, after all), can anyone fault her for not turning down the opportunity out of some nebulous idea of whether or not she was ready for it or “deserved” it? In her position, can you honestly say that you’d do anything differently?
The almost unprecedented opportunities that VanZant took in those early days may have been the stuff that many fighters can only dream of—and that Reebok money and attention didn’t exactly sit well with inaugural strawweight champ Carla Esparza—but they also came with their own cost. And if 2015 was about striking and benefiting from mildly Faustian deals, then 2016 has been about learning to live and roll with the fallout.
One of the downsides of finding yourself on the biggest stage in your industry so early in your career—even one as promising as 12 Gauge’s still is—is that most of the growing pains that most fighters will face while still slugging it out in smaller promotions have to happen in front of the world. And you then have to navigate them with all of the speculation that comes with your platform.
Not only was she handed her first UFC loss—and her first loss in almost three years—in late 2015, VanZant also found herself in a division that no longer needed her the way it once had. The depth of talent in the women’s strawweight division means that many athletes are left with fewer fights than they’d like right now, and Joanna Jedrzejczyk’s ascent into a Reebok-sponsored star in her own right means that the champ easily has its talent and charisma requirements taken care of right now.
With free time and perhaps a little need for regrouping on her hands, VanZant then ran with another controversial opportunity that was presented to her: a place on the reality competition show Dancing With The Stars. This, too, came with some awkward growing pains as her efforts to balance entertainment with fighting drew some leery commentary from the fight world (and really, saying that you’re open to taking a fight while filming a reality show as long as you can still have time for a full camp after the show ends is trying to have it both ways). But her results speak for themselves. Not only did she come in second on the show and cultivate a new potential fanbase for her and her sport in the process, she also returned with her best showing yet with a KO against Bec Rawlings in August. She also reportedly backed out of a much-speculated appearance at WWE’s Summerslam to focus on that fight.
Now, as 2016 comes to a close, she finds herself in a position that’s both similar and light years away from where she was a year ago. She’s headlining another December card, this time against former Invicta atomweight champ and ten year MMA veteran Michelle Waterson at UFC on Fox 22 this Saturday in PVZ’s adopted hometown of Sacramento. But those growing pains we’ve witnessed have not been for nothing.
She might still be young enough to be dismissed as “very green” by her next opponent, but she’s also weathered enough to take those claims in stride. She might have interests outside of MMA, but she’s also pretty smart and frank about how she’s learning to balance them against each other. She might have been given a bit of a break in the early days of her UFC career, but she does seem hell bent on proving that she deserves to stay there.
No matter what originally brought VanZant to our attention, she’s made herself someone to watch all on her own.
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