Photo: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports
By Paul Fontaine, WrestlingObserver.com
About a year ago when UFC was casting for its 115-pound women focused season of The Ultimate Fighter, one of the people they were hoping to build around was a girl with the looks of a model, an engaging personality, and a promising 3-1 record. There was a problem: she was only 20 years old and there would be alcohol in the TUF house. However, that woman -- Paige VanZant -- was signed and made her UFC debut last November on Fight Pass rather than on the televised prelims on Fox Sports 1 - a decision that was criticized by many.
Going in, you could justify that decision by saying both she and her opponent Kailin Curran were making their UFC debuts. Outside of hardcore fans, no one had ever heard of PVZ and if for whatever reason she didn’t put in a good performance, it would minimize her exposure and you could feature her in a more prominent fight afterward. Well, she and Curran had the Fight of the Night, but UFC still chose not to even air highlights of the fight during the FS1 broadcast and repeated several video packages instead. Nevertheless, there was tremendous buzz around VanZant.
Two days after the fight, VanZant was the seventh most searched topic on the Internet with over 100,000 queries.
People took notice. With just one UFC fight on her resume, VanZant became only the second fighter not to have ever held a title to be signed to a separate deal with UFC’s new corporate sponsor Reebok. And in just her second fight, she was scheduled for a fight on FOX, not in the prelims, but the main card, almost unprecedented for someone at her level. And this was not just a “fight on the card"; she and opponent Felice Herrig were front and center on the fight poster.
The two went back and forth with each other on Twitter and outside of the main event, this was the most anticipated fight Saturday night. Once again, VanZant didn’t disappoint. She dominated her more experienced opponent, getting stronger as the fight went on. According to FightMetric.com, she landed 199 strikes in three rounds and came close to finishing on several occasions. She was in tears before the fight ended and post-fight, cutting the kind of promo that made it impossible not to like her.
Photo: Daily Mail (UK)
But where does she go from here?
Her division is the least established in UFC. It’s possibly passed the flyweight division in terms of overall interest, but the men’s 125 lb division is far deeper and has a champion that most consider to be one of the three best pound for pound fighters in the world. But he’s not a draw, not even close. VanZant clearly is. In addition to the increased Internet traffic surrounding her, the preliminary ratings for Saturday show a marked increase over last April’s FOX show. That card was also helped by a female draw, Miesha Tate, as well as one of the UFC’s better established TV draws in Donald Cerrone both fighting on the undercard in addition to a heavyweight #1 contender’s fight. So, it was similar to this show -- only with more established draws.
Some say that it’s too soon to even be thinking about a title fight for PVZ as she’s only 21 and six fights into her career. Other fighters “deserve” the shot more. "She’s all hype." This all sounds very similar to the arguments against Ronda Rousey getting a title shot in Strikeforce in 2012. Granted, Rousey was more dominant than VanZant has been, but VanZant has more obvious star potential far beyond the world of MMA. And who knows how long she’ll stay in the sport as people are starting to notice her. You’d have to think she’ll have no shortage of offers coming her way in the near future.
I say strike while the iron is hot.
You really don’t know how she’d fare against Joanna Jedrzejczyk in a strawweight title fight, but I do know that fight would sell. At the very least, it could headline a Fox show and could possibly main event a PPV -- something you can’t say for any other female fighters outside of Rousey and possibly Tate. If she stays in the sport, VanZant has the chance to transcend the sport perhaps even more than Rousey has...as long as she keeps winning. If she does win the title, you’ve got another champion that you can headline a major show with and I can’t see anyone else in that division with that potential right now.