Why Paige VanZant Could Be the Next Darling of the UFC

The beautiful brawler is having a breakout year.
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The beautiful brawler is having a breakout year.

Paige VanZant would seem to be on a bit of a losing streak. 

The last time the UFC strawweight fought, back in December, she walked out of the Octagon looking like she’d been hit in the face by a water balloon filled with blood. Turns out, fellow strawweight Rose Namajunas had hit her, repeatedly, before forcing VanZant to submit in the third round with a rear-naked chokehold.

Then, on Tuesday, VanZant lost again, this time on a stage much bigger than a Thursday night bout streaming on UFC Fight Pass. After beating out 10 other low-level celebrities to make it to the final round of Dancing With the Stars, VanZant finished in second place, losing to model Nyle DiMarco.

And yet, despite the high-profile failures, the woman they call “12 Gauge” is clearly winning. Simply landing on DWTS at all was a victory for the UFC’s eighth ranked strawweight, who could have only been considered a star in the eyes of her parents. Making it to the final episode changed that. People, like movie producer Rob Hickman, have started noticing VanZant.

“Paige is the up-and-coming darling of the UFC and her star quality shines through on camera,” Hickman said in a statement announcing VanZant’s casting in Kickboxer: Retaliation, the sequel to the upcoming Kickboxer: Vengeance, which is a remake of Jean Claude Van Damme’s 1989 classic Kickboxer. VanZant’s character, a young fighter with connections to the underworld, was written specifically for her after producers saw her dancing on ABC.

It’s not hard to figure out why Van Zant’s getting so much attention. The 22-year-old is a pretty face with loads of energy. She’s relentless in the Octagon, with a magnetic personality outside of it—confident, but still a little coy, with an innocent smile that easily wins people over.

Last year, when Reebok signed VanZant to an individual sponsorship, an uncommon move for a fighter as new as she was, UFC head Dana White said there’s just something about her that people love.

“Some people have that ‘it factor’ that you can't teach people, and Paige has it,” he said. White's affinity for VanZant is yet another reason to believe that her star is on the rise. His ability to pump up new UFC stars and turn them into household names is proven, and with Ronda Rousey’s future as a fighter still somewhat up in the air, it’s not hard to imagine VanZant becoming his new muse.

All of the attention doesn't come with a downside though. The dancing, the modeling and the “aw shucks” personality had inspired some haters, none more famous than Rousey herself. 

The former UFC bantamweight champ apparently lashed out at VanZant a few months ago while they both attended a Reebok photo shoot. Rousey said she was angry because VanZant congratulated Holly Holm after the former boxer nearly Rousey at UFC 193, but Rousey is also shrewd enough to see someone coming for her throne, and VanZant’s clearly eyeing it.

Rousey’s disapproval isn’t shared by all over the UFC's female fighters. During VanZant's fight with Namajunas, she earned the respect of the top fighter in her weight class, strawweight champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk. After watching VanZant persist, despite blood gushing out of her head, Jedrzejczyk said, “She’s still young, but she’s very talented and she’s a bad ass. She’s got the character. She still must learn a lot, but she’s a very good fight. In the future for sure she will become a UFC champion.”

To do that, VanZant has to continue fighting, something that always becomes less certain when a fighter starts to land acting gigs. But at least one person with inside knowledge thinks she’ll make her way back to the UFC. Urijah Faber, a member of TK-based Team Alpha Male with VanZant, recently said that even with all the opportunities outside of the cage, “the fight game is where her heart is.”