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Weighing the Options of Paige VanZant

Fightland Blog

By Tom Taylor

Photo by Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC

In December of 2015, a 21-year-old Paige VanZant headlined her first UFC card opposite former strawweight title challenger Rose Namajunas. Though VanZant displayed plenty of heart in this fight, she ultimately tapped to a rear-naked choke in the fifth round. It was a clear case of too much, too soon for the young prospect.

In 2016, VanZant rebounded from this loss in the biggest way possible. This is not a reference to her waltzing her way to runner-up status on Dancing with the Stars, but to her knocking out Bec Rawlings with a flying switch-kick in August. With this emphatic win, we once again had a reason to believe that VanZant really could be the next big thing. While nobody was rushing to pit her against Joanna Jedrzejczyk or Claudia Gadelha, she’d reaffirmed her potential.

Riding high off this knockout defeat of Rawlings, VanZant was then given another crack at main event duty, this time against former Invicta atomweight champ Michelle Waterson atop last weekend’s UFC on Fox 22. As anyone who watched the card knows, VanZant once again succumbed to a rear-naked choke—and this time in the first round rather than the fifth.

So, here we are at the end of 2016, asking the same questions about Paige VanZant as we were at the end of 2015. Is she really the talented prospect we’ve been led to believe she is, or have we been fooled by the sorcery of the UFC’s marketing department? Well, her next fight should give us a much better sense of what she’s all about, one way or the other. Which brings us to another question…

With her hype-train once again stalled, who does VanZant fight next? Well, given her station in the middle of the strawweight top-15, and her proven knack for exciting fights, it should come as no surprise that she’s got plenty of interesting options at her fingertips.

Photo by Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

One exciting matchup possibility for VanZant is Ukrainian contender Maryna Moroz. This matchup is a particularly logical one given that VanZant and Moroz are now tied—yes tied—at ninth-place in the strawweight rankings. Another exciting possibility for VanZant at this juncture would be rising Mexican prospect Alexa Grasso. Granted, Grasso is currently scheduled for a February fight with Felice Herrig. If she passes this test, however, she’ll be ready for a big step up the strawweight ladder, and VanZant would represent just that. Furthermore, given Grasso and VanZant’s statuses as two of the brightest prospects in the strawweight division, their prospective showdown would probably generate a good deal of fan attention. It’d be good business for the UFC.

The problem with VanZant’s taking on Moroz or Grasso, however, is that both fighters are riding win-streaks. Moroz has won her last two, having recently decisioned Cristina Stanciu and Danielle Taylor. Provided Grasso gets passed Herrig—which is admittedly not a certainty—she’ll be a perfect 10-0. Given that the UFC’s matchmaking team tends to pit winners against winners, and fighters riding losses against other fighters riding losses, this makes Moroz and a victorious Grasso unlikely candidates for VanZant’s next opponent.

When the strawweight talent pool is reduced to fighters riding losses, one fighter stands out amongst the rest: Scotland’s Joanne Calderwood. Like VanZant, Calderwood is coming off a first-round submission loss, having tapped to a Jessica Andrade guillotine choke in August. Furthermore, Calderwood and VanZant were actually supposed to meet last December, until Calderwood was forced out of the fight and replaced by Namajunas. So, there’s some pretext to this potential showdown too. Perhaps most intriguingly of all, however, is the way these two fighters match up on paper. Both are known for their fan-friendly fighting styles, and as such, it’s hard to imagine their fight being a bad one. Really, this seems to be the fight to make for both women at this stage. Let’s hope Sean Shelby reads Fightland.

The moral of all this option weighing, of course, is simply that this loss does not imply the end of the road for VanZant. She’s got plenty of interesting options with which to bounce back, and at just 22 years old, plenty of time to do it. If her comments at the UFC on Fox 22 post-fight press conference are any indication, she’s well aware of these facts.

“I was meant for the spotlight and I’m gonna continue to be in the spotlight,” she said. “And I will be back, and I’m gonna have the belt one day. I’m 22 years old. I have a long time.” 

In December of 2015, a 21-year-old Paige VanZant headlined her first UFC card opposite former strawweight title challenger Rose Namajunas. Though VanZant displayed plenty of heart in this fight, she ultimately tapped to a rear-naked choke in the fifth round. It was a clear case of too much, too soon for the young prospect.

In 2016, VanZant rebounded from this loss in the biggest way possible. This is not a reference to her waltzing her way to runner-up status on Dancing with the Stars, but to her knocking out Bec Rawlings with a flying switch-kick in August. With this emphatic win, we once again had a reason to believe that VanZant really could be the next big thing. While nobody was rushing to pit her against Joanna Jedrzejczyk or Claudia Gadelha, she’d reaffirmed her potential.

Riding high off this knockout defeat of Rawlings, VanZant was then given another crack at main event duty, this time against former Invicta atomweight champ Michelle Waterson atop last weekend’s UFC on Fox 22. As anyone who watched the card knows, VanZant once again succumbed to a rear-naked choke—and this time in the first round rather than the fifth.

So, here we are at the end of 2016, asking the same questions about Paige VanZant as we were at the end of 2015. Is she really the talented prospect we’ve been led to believe she is, or have we been fooled by the sorcery of the UFC’s marketing department? Well, her next fight should give us a much better sense of what she’s all about, one way or the other. Which brings us to another question…

With her hype-train once again stalled, who does VanZant fight next? Well, given her station in the middle of the strawweight top-15, and her proven knack for exciting fights, it should come as no surprise that she’s got plenty of interesting options at her fingertips.

One exciting matchup possibility for VanZant is Ukrainian contender Maryna Moroz. This matchup is a particularly logical one given that VanZant and Moroz are now tied—yes tied—at ninth-place in the strawweight rankings. Another exciting possibility for VanZant at this juncture would be rising Mexican prospect Alexa Grasso. Granted, Grasso is currently scheduled for a February fight with Felice Herrig. If she passes this test, however, she’ll be ready for a big step up the strawweight ladder, and VanZant would represent just that. Furthermore, given Grasso and VanZant’s statuses as two of the brightest prospects in the strawweight division, their prospective showdown would probably generate a good deal of fan attention. It’d be good business for the UFC.

The problem with VanZant’s taking on Moroz or Grasso, however, is that both fighters are riding win-streaks. Moroz has won her last two, having recently decisioned Cristina Stanciu and Danielle Taylor. Provided Grasso gets passed Herrig—which is admittedly not a certainty—she’ll be a perfect 10-0. Given that the UFC’s matchmaking team tends to pit winners against winners, and fighters riding losses against other fighters riding losses, this makes Moroz and a victorious Grasso unlikely candidates for VanZant’s next opponent.

When the strawweight talent pool is reduced to fighters riding losses, one fighter stands out amongst the rest: Scotland’s Joanne Calderwood. Like VanZant, Calderwood is coming off a first-round submission loss, having tapped to a Jessica Andrade guillotine choke in August. Furthermore, Calderwood and VanZant were actually supposed to meet last December, until Calderwood was forced out of the fight and replaced by Namajunas. So, there’s some pretext to this potential showdown too. Perhaps most intriguingly of all, however, is the way these two fighters match up on paper. Both are known for their fan-friendly fighting styles, and as such, it’s hard to imagine their fight being a bad one. Really, this seems to be the fight to make for both women at this stage. Let’s hope Sean Shelby reads Fightland.

The moral of all this option weighing, of course, is simply that this loss does not imply the end of the road for VanZant. She’s got plenty of interesting options with which to bounce back, and at just 22 years old, plenty of time to do it. If her comments at the UFC on Fox 22 post-fight press conference are any indication, she’s well aware of these facts.

“I was meant for the spotlight and I’m gonna continue to be in the spotlight,” she said. “And I will be back, and I’m gonna have the belt one day. I’m 22 years old. I have a long time.” 

 

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