A little more than a year after her Octagon debut, Paige VanZant will be headlining a UFC Fight Nightcard as part of the promotion’s biggest weekend of the year.
While VanZant’s ascension through the UFC’s strawweight division has been relatively quick, the Team Alpha Male member believes her matchup with Rose Namajunas in Las Vegas on Thursday night is coming at just the right time.
“It was the perfect one for me at the time, and I’m excited to go up and fight someone that ranks higher because that just moves me closer and closer to fighting the champion,” VanZant said during a recent conference call. “So I mean I’m excited about the matchup. It’s perfect for me. And I’m just excited to get in there.”
Thus far, VanZant’s blend of unyielding pressure and wrestling have netted her victories over Kailin Curran, Felice Herrig and Alex Chambers during her promotional tenure. The 21-year-old was originally supposed to face Joanne Calderwood at Thursday’s UFC Fight Pass-streamed event, but an injury to the Scottish striker allowed Namajunas to fill in as a replacement. It is a step up, at least according to UFC.com rankings; Namajunas is No. 3, while Calderwood is No. 9. Neither VanZant nor Namajunas crack the Top 10 in the Sherdog.com poll.
While VanZant is young, both in the traditional sense and in terms of her career, she is well aware of the possibilities that could arise after this fight if all goes as planned. That means not shying away from a potential showdown with reigning 115-pound queen Joanna Jedrzejczyk.
“I’ve always been an athlete, but as far as competing in MMA I only had one amateur fight and then I went straight pro,” she said. “...I listened to the UFC, I listened to my managers and I let the cards unfold.
“And right now this is a perfect fight for me. And I’m going to focus on this fight. But obviously after beating someone ranked No. 3, there’s not very many people above them to get to the champ.”
In Namajunas, VanZant will be facing something of a kindred spirit. During her run on “The Ultimate Fighter 20” Namajunas was the most talked-about fighter on the reality show. That hype came to a halt when she lost to Carla Esparza at the “TUF 20” finale, but the Grudge Training Center product has since rebounded with a victory over Angela Hill at UFC 192 this past October.
“I don’t really seeing her being similar to me in terms of style. Like she’s more of a wrestling based [fighter]and ground-and-pound and stuff like that. So we’re totally two different fighters,” Namajunas said. “But in terms of the position that she was at [and] where I was a year ago, you know, that might be a similarity we could compare.”
Because VanZant has had the full backing of the UFC’s promotional machine, another comparison has arisen, one with grander implications. VanZant has a long way to go to match the accomplishments of ex-bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey, but she has already heard the whispers linking her to perhaps the sport’s most popular athlete.
“That’s an honor to even be compared to Ronda Rousey. Look at how dominant she was as an athlete and all of the success she has and outside of the Octagon,” VanZant said. “It’s an honor to be compared to her still. But I definitely want to create my own success.
“We’re very, very different -- very different athletes. We fight different. And we’re different outside of the Octagon as well,” she continued. “So I definitely wanted to create my own footprint, my own path and my own image in the UFC.”