Paige VanZant is set to get appear in one major showcase, and she has her eye on another. The UFC’s eighth-ranked strawweight fighter will be among 12 contestants on the next edition of “Dancing With the Stars,” and once that show wraps up — with her as the winner, of course — VanZant is eyeing a spot on the UFC 200 card, the company’s planned extravaganza in July.
“The goal is still UFC 200, I’ve known for a while that’s the one I want to be on,” VanZant recently told Fox Sports. “Perfect timing. If I were to make it to the finals of [the show], I’d still have a six-to-eight-week fight camp, which would be great. … I’m excited to hopefully win on ‘Dancing with the Stars’ and then go fight on UFC 200.”
The lineup is not set for UFC 200, especially after the events of UFC 196, at which Holly Holm and Conor McGregor suffered upset losses. But the UFC tends to make its matchups with an eye toward giving the public what it wants, and after getting some major national exposure on “Dancing,” VanZant may well be in high demand.
The reasons for that have as much to do with VanZant’s striking looks as her striking skills in the Octagon, leading to some criticism of the UFC for looking past the 21-year-old’s inexperience and giving her unwarranted promotion, akin to what’s been done with 20-year-old Sage Northcutt. But at some point, fighters have to, well, fight, and VanZant sports a solid 6-2 record, even coming out of a loss in her most recent bout with some new admiration for her toughness.
Besides, no one could argue that Ronda Rousey has been bad for the UFC’s business, and the two-time model for the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition certainly is taking advantage of her own appeal outside the Octagon. In fact, VanZant has said that she would like to emulate Rousey’s example in getting work in Hollywood.
But first, VanZant remains excited about being just the third UFC fighter to appear on “Dancing,” following Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture, and the first to do it while in the midst of her MMA career.
“There’s never been an active UFC fighter on the show and there’s never been a female UFC fighter on the show,” VanZant told Fox Sports. “I just want to bring a new dimension and I want to be a really good representative of women’s athletes and women’s fighters. Just to show them that we can do so much more than fight, so much more than just being tough.”
Among others, she will be competing against three NFL stars: Broncos linebacker (and Super Bowl MVP) Von Miller, Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown and former quarterback Doug Flutie. “I do know Antonio Brown’s got some moves and [singer Wanya Morris], he’s got a great chance and he’s got a great personality, too,” VanZant said (via Fox Sports). “I think those two guys are my biggest competition.”
VanZant likely does have a very good shot at going deep into the competition, if not all the way. Not only do athletes tend to do well on the show, in part because they are used to long, physically taxing training sessions, but she has an extensive background as a dancer.
After getting bullied as a freshman in high school, VanZant was encouraged by her father to take MMA classes. “I wanted to be able to defend myself,” she told the Sacramento Bee. “And I immediately fell in love with the discipline. It gave me a huge amount of confidence. It just felt like what I was supposed to be doing.”
VanZant insists she is “still a fighter first,” and plans to maintain her MMA training during the show. So her “Dancing” experience could be a win-win: either she loses early, and suffers little disruption to her fighting career, or she goes on a deep run that makes her more of a household name and a draw at UFC events.
Either way, VanZant’s growing fan base can only help give greater prominence to the UFC’s strawweight division, which has a respected champion in Joanna Jędrzejczyk but doesn’t get the publicity of the bantamweights, who feature the likes of Rousey, Holm and Miesha Tate. There will almost certainly be a women’s bantamweight match at UFC 200 — likely with Tate defending her crown against either Rousey or Holm — and it wouldn’t be a shock to see the company add a strawweight fight, as well, if only to capitalize on the burgeoning popularity of a certain rising star.