Chances are if you ever meet UFC strawweight Paige VanZant or catch her in an interview on television, there will be an indelible smile plastered across her face.
There are probably only a handful of occasions when VanZant doesn’t look like the happiest person in the world. One happens to be whenever she’s forced to wake up before 8 a.m. and the rest occur whenever she steps inside the Octagon and transforms from the bubbly cheerleader into the ferocious animal who has won three straight fights in the UFC while becoming the No. 6-ranked strawweight fighter in the world.
"It’s something that’s inside of me and I guess not a lot of people are born with that," VanZant told FOX Sports. "It’s something I was born with. I’ve kind of had that my entire life. I’ve always been a bubbly and energetic and happy person but when I get upset, I get frustrated; when someone makes me mad, I definitely have a temper and I’ve had to deal with having a temper my whole life.
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"But I’ve been able to target it into fighting and it just helps me that I have this amazing outlet and not a lot of people have seen my crazy, mean side."
VanZant is a paradox when it comes to how most people would categorize a mixed martial arts fighter, but that’s also part of her appeal. It’s impossible to ignore certain stereotypes that cover the majority of athletes competing in the UFC today, but VanZant might be the polar opposite of all of them.
VanZant isn’t oblivious to the fact that she’s an anomaly in the sport, but that’s also something she embraces because it’s helped her reach out to a cross-section of fans that may never have watched someone like her fight in the UFC before.
"I’m relatable," VanZant said. "There’s a lot of girls out there that can relate to me. They can look at me and see themselves a little bit. There’s a lot of girls out there that have a tougher side to them. I just think that people are really grown and attracted to that and that’s why people like to see me fight."
Of course, VanZant also understands there are detractors out there who believe she’s only getting promoted because of her good looks. Ignore the fact that she’s won three fights in the UFC, one by TKO, one by submission, and the third that went to decision was just as dominant. Somehow, that translates to preferential treatment because she’s pretty.
Regardless of perception, VanZant isn’t going to change who she is just because a smattering of the public doesn’t like the fact that she’s not what fits the cookie-cutter image of how a fighter is “supposed” to look.
"I do see both sides of it," VanZant said. "There’s always going to be those critics out there that if I looked tougher, then maybe I wouldn’t have the critics out there saying I’m only doing this because I’m cute, but on the other side of it, I am getting a lot of attention and I don’t want to change who I am because certain people don’t agree with it."
The flipside to that argument is that VanZant is reaching a different demographic. She loves that young girls who might not otherwise consider martial arts or combat sports are looking at her as an example they could follow.
While a great many athletes shy away from the label of role model, VanZant embraces it and doesn’t shy away from the influence she might have on the next generation of mixed martial artists.
"I definitely want to be an inspiration or a role model for all the little girls out there or anyone out there that wants to break stereotypes," VanZant said. "I feel like I’m breaking stereotypes with what I’m doing. I’m not the typical fighter and there’s a lot of people out there that won’t do something just because they don’t fit the stereotype.
I definitely want to be an inspiration or a role model for all the little girls out there or anyone out there that wants to break stereotypes.
— Paige VanZant
"Even if they want to do it, they don’t do it because they don’t want to deal with all the repercussions that come with it. So I just want to be an inspiration and just a voice. My biggest thing is do whatever you want. If you want to do something, just do it."
A Superstar in the Making
Ronda Rousey’s rise to fame in the UFC signaled a change in the status quo for what always had been a male-dominated sport. For the first time in MMA history, a woman dominated the media and mainstream landscape in ways that no male fighter had done before.
VanZant very well might follow in Rousey’s footsteps, but her path to stardom happened more organically despite what some might like to say.
VanZant’s debut in the UFC took place in November 2014 when she faced Kailin Curran at UFC Fight Night in Austin, Texas, but she wasn’t touted as the next big thing and she certainly wasn’t getting the lion’s share of attention leading into the card. She was actually the second fight on the entire card — nine bouts before the main event — but VanZant made everyone pay attention by putting on a “Fight of the Night” performance that netted her an extra $50,000.
On Dec. 10 she’ll headline her first show for the UFC in her fourth fight for the promotion, and while that might be overwhelming for most young fighters, VanZant isn’t your average 21-year-old inside or outside the Octagon.
She’s the same girl who started taking college courses at 16, and when she made it to the UFC, VanZant decided to hire a reputable management team to look out for her best interests in all facets of her professional life. There wasn’t anything VanZant was going to leave to chance, and that’s one of the many reasons the people around her believe she’s poised for a lot of success in the future.
"You always want to have somebody around that has your best interests at heart and somebody that genuinely cares about your well-being," VanZant’s manager, Mike Roberts from MMA Inc., told FOX Sports. "She’s very open to listening and understanding why we do something or why we don’t do something. She learns every day. She’s a pleasure to work with on multiple levels."
Following her first fight, VanZant quickly became one of the most talked about fighters on the UFC roster and lately she’s one of the most requested when it comes to interviews and appearances. It would be very easy for the weight of the world to start crushing her, but Roberts says they never give VanZant more than she can handle and that’s why her primary focus always remains training and preparing for her upcoming fight.
"Right now, she’s one of the top people as far as marketing goes, I’d probably say in the entire UFC. She’s got lots of opportunities and lots of requests and wants for her," Roberts said.
"It’s very big and right now we’re trying to monitor it for her and not overwhelm her because she’s so young, but at the same time you’ve got to put yourself out there. It’s tough because there’s so many requests that you want to give her time to train and get better. Her schedule is watched at all times. We’re always talking to her about what she’s comfortable with and what she’s not comfortable with. She’s very professional about everything she does."
There’s an undeniable appeal to what VanZant represents and Roberts says that makes her one of the most marketable athletes on the roster.
"The sky’s the limit for her," Roberts said. "Obviously, she’s got to keep getting better as a fighter and improving what she’s putting in the work to make it happen. She has a unique ability that I think is different from a lot of other people — she connects with everybody.
"Certainly, you’re not going to please everybody and there’s going to be haters, but she connects. She has that connection with people just being the girl next door. She doesn’t get caught up in the stardom at all. She’s just your girl next door and I think people connect with that."
For her part, VanZant is handling everything with grace and class, but she’s certainly cognizant of the pitfalls that surround stardom in this sport. A fighter ultimately is judged by wins and losses, and VanZant never takes her eyes off the prize.
"I’d say I’ve been able to keep things really regular," VanZant said. "I’m still the same person. I’m training hard every day and I’m training harder for this fight than ever before, and I’ll be training harder for the next fight. It is true that every fight I’ve had is the biggest fight of my career. My last four fights are the biggest fights of my career. So in that way, I’m feeling the same amount of pressure as I felt in my last fight and the pressure’s good. I think it’s really good to feel those nerves."
Fighting Comes First
Before she ever fought in the UFC, VanZant was already a performer at heart.
She grew up dancing and cheerleading before eventually taking up modeling as well, and one day VanZant hopes to add even more job titles to her résumé by becoming an actress or possibly a broadcast journalist. There doesn’t appear to be a limit to what she can do, but VanZant also understands her priorities.
"I would love to start going into movies, sports broadcasting, other avenues, but when I have something in front of me, the next goal, I 100 percent focus on it. Right now I have a fight Dec. 10 and I don’t think about anything else. Nothing else happens in my life except what happens on Dec. 10. That’s definitely the only thing that I’m 100-percent focused on," VanZant said.
"When I don’t have a fight coming up or have more time on the side, I would definitely love to venture into the modeling/acting side of things as well."
The team surrounding VanZant follows the exact same philosophy as her opportunities away from fighting start to multiply on almost a daily basis.
Whether it’s a film role or a photo shoot, VanZant is ready to tackle it all, but only after she’s done getting ready to face Rose Namajunas on Dec. 10.
"Right now, our priority is her fighting career," Roberts said. "Everything else that comes with that comes after the fact. We try to always put the fight first, the training first and then work around that at all times. Eventually, there comes a time where it gets a little crazier but right now where she’s at in her life, her primary focus is her fighting and her fighting career in general. Everything else comes after that."
There is definitely a long-term plan in place for VanZant and a master strategy about where she goes before and after this next fight.
Part of the benefit of placing trust in the people around her is that VanZant is able to focus on only training and getting ready for Namajunas while the VanZant machine is grinding gears 24 hours a day, seven days a week to make sure she’s got everything she needs and eventually will have everything she wants.
VanZant even has the benefit of other fighters from the same management roster, like former UFC middleweight Chael Sonnen, looking out for her future.
Sonnen is a veteran who started fighting in the days when UFC paychecks barely had three figures and he ended up becoming one of the biggest pay-per-view draws in the company. Sonnen approached his career with a very specific set of goals and aspirations and that same framework exists for VanZant as she gets ready to headline her first UFC card next week.
"There is a plan in place for Paige and not a lot of fighters have a plan," Sonnen told FOX Sports. "There is a strategic plan in place for Paige and with MMA Inc., we’re very good at networking off of each other. Urijah Faber is a fine example where Urijah brings in a lot of deals and when he does, we all take advantage of them. It doesn’t just go to Urijah, he curls up in the loft and pulls the ladder up behind him. The same thing goes for me. Paige is going to have a career in other things and I’m going to help with that. I’m going to help her with connections that I have and she’s going to have opportunities come her way and they are going to trickle down to Urijah and myself and those are just a couple of names you know.
"I see a lot of fighters stumbling around and making the same mistakes over and over again and I don’t know that I’ve ever seen anyone navigate the MMA world the way that I have. There’s got to be life after the cage. When you’re in one fight, you’ve got to be marketing the next fight. You’ve got to know what you’re doing and you’ve got to have a plan."
All Roads Lead to Dec. 10
For all the pomp and circumstance that surround VanZant’s life leading up to a fight, nothing matters more than beating Namajunas next Thursday night in Las Vegas.
She’s purposefully single-minded because VanZant believes there’s nothing better than winning and no worse feeling than a loss.
"I don’t know what it is but I’ve always had that. I’ve always been very competitive and I’ve always had this desire to win my entire life," VanZant said. "I guess when it comes to being in the cage especially, I just hate losing more than I like to win. The idea of someone beating me just doesn’t sit well. If it’s training or anywhere, I don’t want anyone to have that power over me."
VanZant has nothing but respect for Namajunas and the skills she’ll bring into the Octagon when they meet, but she would like nothing more than to dispatch her the same way she’s done the previous three UFC opponents she’s faced.
While, VanZant’s career will endure more than a few twists and turns, her goal always has remained the same, and that’s to win the next fight that’s in front of her.
In VanZant’s mind, there is no tomorrow without a win on Dec. 10.
"I want to make a huge statement. I want to go out and win the fight in dominant fashion," VanZant said. "I believe I can but besides that, I just want to win. I don’t want to think about what comes after. I don’t want to think about what comes down the road. I just want to think about that night and think about winning."