Meet UFC’s next major crossover star: Paige VanZant
When you finish as runner-up on “Dancing with the Stars” and follow that up by pulling off a switch kick-to-the-head knockout (which is in the running for “Knockout of the Year”) in your next UFC fight, you definitely have major star power.
This is the life of UFC strawweight star Paige VanZant, who has morphed into a star in 2016, with major crossover appeal like Ronda Rousey. When VanZant squares off with former Invicta atomweight champion Michelle Waterson in their five-round main event at “UFC on FOX 22” this Saturday, she’ll be looking to put an exclamation point on the biggest year of her young career.
“I feel that a win on Saturday over Michelle will definitely solidify that I’ve had a very successful 2016,” VanZant said. “Each fight, you definitely bring in a different mindset every time you enter the Octagon and, this time, I want to have fun, put on a show for the people and Sacramento and make the fight my own.”
Van Zant returns to the Octagon, having won five of her last six fights, with three of them coming via knockout or submission, the most finishes in UFC history in the developing 115-pound division. Despite being only the No. 7 ranked strawweight in the world, many fans and observers want the rising VanZant to fight for the belt currently around the waist of longtime reigning champion Joanna Jędrzejczyk, should she get past Waterson.
Combine this with Hollywood directors and producers constantly knocking on her door and the “Team Alpha Male” product has a lot of options after her fight this weekend. At the same time, those options produced a lot of distractions ahead of the bout. Despite the outside pressures, along with main-eventing in her hometown, VanZant is rolling with the punches while displaying the narrow mindset, which has her on the cusp of major stardom.
“Right now, my head is focused on this fight and the opponent that’s in front me,” VanZant said. “I will take any fight the UFC offers me in the division because I’m not scared to fight anyone at the top of the division but it’s all about what the UFC wants, as I’m not in the business of calling people out.”
Although she doesn’t have a specific timetable, Van Zant is focused on becoming a champion one day, even if it’s not in the 115-pound division. With the UFC opening the 145-pound women’s division next year, many UFC journalists, including me, feel a 125-pound division for women will be the next on the agenda.
If a flyweight women’s division were to open, fighters who are currently fighting at bantamweight and strawweight would have more options to make more high-profile fights. Put VanZant down as one of the many women eager to fight at flyweight, should the division ever become a realistic option.
“People like the see good fights and, if the 125-pound division ever opens up, I’m definitely down to fight in it,” VanZant said. “I’d never move up past 125 pounds but I actually think it’s more of a fit for me, since I walk around bigger than what people realize. But, at the end of the day, I have business to take care of this weekend and in the 115-pound division and that’s were my focus is at. Not future fights or opportunities Hollywood might present to me because Michelle is a great opponent and I need my best to beat her.”
No matter if you like VanZant for her solid fighting skills or her star power, one thing is for certain: She’s must-see television and you don’t know what she’s going to pull off next.
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