Paige VanZant envisions herself as a UFC champion someday. | Photo: Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com
SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Outside of Ultimate Fitness on capital city side streets, Paige VanZant leaned against her 2015 white Toyota Tacoma. Sporting Reebok gear from head-to-toe and an Ultimate Fighting Championship lanyard around her neck as she held her keys, the 21-year-old admitted, “I’m still terrible at parking it.”
The midweek 90-degree weather made spaces directly outside the gym coveted. “12 Gauge” pulled in her vehicle slow because she aimed at a tight space with a lot of foot traffic. There were even some bikes cruising through. Chad Mendes rolled by and heckled, “She’s lying.” Her repartee with Team Alpha Male’s established talent is half-little sister, half-anyone-her-age. “He’s a hater,” she said.
In less than a year on the UFC scene, the 5-foot-4 women’s strawweight parlayed two Octagon appearances into a whole new life for herself. VanZant never had designs on becoming a professional prizefighter. However, after a 50-second rear-naked choke win in an amateur bout three years ago, she knew her new lot was to be a champion mixed martial artist. So she drives up cautiously to the high-octane practices at world-class Team Alpha Male at, in her estimation, exactly the right speed.
“I definitely made a lot of sacrifices to, like, get where I am,” she told Sherdog.com. “I wouldn’t change it for the world.”
It sounded like she was parroting older, more experienced fighters -- VanZant gets media handling tips from one of the sport’s biggest stars in former World Extreme Cagefighting champion Urijah Faber. It is true, though. Her previous car was a Honda Civic. Sometimes, following a bank teller shift or teaching dance in Reno, Nev., she would drive to Sacramento and sleep in the car to attend pro practices Faber highlighted for her on his gym’s schedule. Sometimes she would get a hotel. Sometimes her mother accompanied her. Mostly it was a lonely grind trekking three hours from Reno to pursue the uncertainty of being a pro fighter. She would train Thursday through Monday, until it was time to restart her work cycle back in Nevada.
VanZant’s UFC debut on Nov. 22 netted a fateful $50,000 “Fight of the Night” bonus in her fifth pro appearance. Her momentum broadened despite the fact that her arrival in the Octagon occurred behind the UFC’s Fight Pass pay wall subscription service instead of on the organization’s national TV platforms. A Reebok sponsorship deal ushered in her 2015. Reebok’s vote of confidence stood out because she was the only non-champion to receive individualized support.
“I see the fact that Reebok is having mostly champions then me, but if you look at my followers, I have more followers on Instagram than every champion except for Ronda [Rousey],” VanZant said. “I definitely know I deserve to be where I am.”
The current Reebok-dominated UFC sponsorship landscape draws much attention to which fighters secure the apparel brand’s cosign. VanZant’s assessment is blunt. Her demographic understands the power social-capital platforms like Instagram wield, and she is simply being honest about the meritocracy of corporate backing.
While VanZant gripped the top of her truck-bed door, swinging one leg in front of the other like a pendulum dance warm-up, she reflected on the idea that she was not a real fighter until her first UFC fight. It brought her every 21-year-old’s ideal checklist: new job, new car and first real apartment. Truthfully, money was part of the sport’s lure. VanZant’s pro debut in the summer of 2012 originated from a $1,500 offer to fly to Texas to be an opponent for a hometown girl in a regional show’s co-main event.
“On a wing and on a prayer,” she touched down in Texas and, after nine minutes of fighting to the final bell, notched a split decision victory. VanZant was shocked to hear her name called as the winner. Her earnings? “Pretty much all of it went to gas,” she said. It was not that long ago, yet there is a world of difference now that she is in the UFC. Telling your parents you earned $50,000 in one night “is the most amazing feeling ever.”
Being the second fight on the card in her UFC debut, the rookie expected to immediately leave the venue and spend time with family; but the UFC asked her to stay for the post-fight press conference since she was trending on Twitter. However, VanZant did not bring a change of clothes, “which was gross,” but she obliged the UFC and figured out a new outfit in which to meet the media because of an agreement she had with her parents: “Everything I do, I have to do 100 percent.”
“I was talked about a lot after that fight,” VanZant said. She saw her social media presence flooded by new followers. VanZant is not exactly sure how much her profile increased. It is perhaps the one time she has been at a loss regarding social media matters.
“I’m sure the UFC has those statistics,” VanZant said. “I can’t wait to take the next step of winning fights and getting more fans. I was made for the spotlight at a very young age. I’m ready to continue that path.”
DON’T SWEAT THE TECHNIQUE
Less than a month after VanZant’s 21st birthday, she made her second UFC appearance in six months and shut out veteran Felice Herrig on FOX network TV in April, advancing to 2-0 in the Octagon. Thoroughly dominating her well-traveled opponent solidified VanZant’s promise in the sport. She’s not just good for PR; she’s good where it matters, too. She will aim for a three-fight Ultimate Fighting Championship winning streak at UFC 191 on Saturday, when she meets Alex Chambers on the main card at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas.
“I’m excited to get in there and, again, prove myself,” VanZant said.
When VanZant discusses her readiness for whatever is next, she does so with confidence that stems from braving big moves in the past. The Oregon native was severely bullied in high school because she was a blonde freshmen varsity cheerleader -- an outline easy for others to hate without personally getting to know her. She aced auditions to dance for the NBA’s Portland Trailblazers before her Sweet Sixteen. Even with that opportunity, VanZant felt it was too toxic in her hometown, so she utilized a two-year scholarship to transition to college at 16 years old.
VanZant’s family later moved to Reno, where she attended Truckee Meadows Community College. She studied business and culinary arts but still wanted something to be a part of in her new town. Suddenly, she was drilling leg locks in her first-ever martial arts class with UFC hall of famer Ken Shamrock -- the first person to tell her she could have a career in pro fighting. There were no dance teams in Reno, and looking back, she is glad. Otherwise, she might have never found fighting. Shamrock eventually closed his doors, and at 18, VanZant moved with her 1-0 pro record to Las Vegas because she figured that was what she was supposed to do.
“It was hard to be taken seriously [for] one,” she said. “I was so lost. I didn’t know what I was doing being 18 years old in Las Vegas.”
It was then that she heard about another Reno fighter, Veronica Rothenhausler, training at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento. VanZant had been at Wanderei Silva’s gym in Las Vegas, but in Sin City, she “was just lonely.” To Sacramento she went.
All the moving in Reno, around Nevada and battling to make practice in Sacramento tagged VanZant a bit of a gym hopper. Barely three years into her career, she addressed finding stability: “It’s new for me, and I’m testing everything, finding the best camp possible.”
This is the first fight camp she has had where her corners will be the same as last time. It is also the first one that has gone smoothly, according to the six-fight veteran. VanZant believes innately that she is a fighter, and Team Alpha Male is the place she discovers it daily.
“I think that’s something that’s always been in me,” she said. “I think that’s something a lot of Team Alpha Male fighters just happen to have, that desire, that will that you have to win and the stubbornness that you won’t give up. It’s that fighter that’s born inside of you. I think that I’ve always had that my entire life. I’ve always been a fighter. I just get the technique here.”
It is not a common refrain in fighting, but VanZant believes she handles the pressure in combat sports well because she felt it dancing in front of major crowds. She did ballet, jazz dancing and more, and somehow, that has readied her for performing inside the Octagon. A common factor she pointed out that elevated her in both areas is unpredictability. What she strives for in the gym is refining that unpredictability to preserve her unblemished UFC ledger on fight night. Unpredictability is definitively a youthful advantage.
“I need to remind myself and remind people that this is my ride,” she said. “This is my journey. It’s up to me what fights I take. I’m going to take my time. I’m 21 years old. I still have two years to be the youngest belt holder if I wanted to.”
VanZant’s role model is Rousey, the UFC women’s bantamweight champion. She hopes she can be a positive influence on the UFC’s audience and, like Rousey, call her own shots. VanZant wants to be in Hollywood movies like Rousey, too. However, she is not taking any acting classes or seeking agents yet. Right now, it is all about fighting. She just likes to dream big. That is because she imagines her talents can take on many forms in the future -- a platform for her cooking, her own dance studio or even female fight gyms. Like the movies, all that will wait. She intends on building her name to a fever pitch inside the Octagon. A name is not enough, but a title will be. VanZant remains confident that she will know when it is time to take a championship opportunity.
“I will be a champion someday,” VanZant said before she hopped back in her new truck. “I just want to do it on my terms.”
Danny Acosta is a SiriusXM Rush (Channel 93) host and contributor. His writing has been featured on Sherdog.com for nearly a decade. Find him on Twitter and Instagram @acostaislegend.