(This story appears in today’s edition of USA TODAY.)
Paige VanZant says age has been her best friend and biggest enemy over the past year.
The UFC introduced the women’s strawweight division (115 pounds) earlier this year and launched “The Ultimate Fighter 20” to crown an inaugural champion.
VanZant, 20, originally was announced as a cast member on the FOX Sports 1-broadcast show, but later was ruled ineligible because alcohol is allowed in the fighter house on the reality series.
As a result, VanZant (4-1 MMA, 1-0 UFC) had her first UFC appearance delayed to this past weekend’s UFC Fight Night 57 event in Austin, Texas.
With more than 200 UFC debuts this year, VanZant’s first octagon appearance was initially viewed as any other. However, even outside the confines of “TUF 20,” she helped put the division on the map by beating Kailin Curran with a third-round TKO for “Fight of the Night” honors.
Her $50,000 bonus win created a buzz around her name that might have been difficult to capture on a reality show with 15 other women.
“Not being on ‘The Ultimate Fighter’ was a blessing in disguise,” VanZant tells USA TODAY Sports and MMAjunkie. “It would have been an awesome experience, but now that I’ve had my fight and got my win, I wouldn’t have done it any other way.”
VanZant admits she once was frustrated it was her age that kept her off the show, but she now sees the silver lining. She believes the fight-night bonus and recognition from the win was more valuable than the alternative of 12 weeks on reality TV.
“It was perfect,” VanZant says. “I had 18 months of downtime without the show. It allowed me to focus on getting better and focus on my skills.”
VanZant’s finish of Curran was just the second women’s “Fight of the Night” in UFC history. The other was a fight won by women’s bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey, whom VanZant sees as a role model.
“Women’s MMA wouldn’t be as developed as it is right now without Ronda,” VanZant says. “She built the women’s 135(-pound) division so we could have the 115 division. I have to be thankful for her for being such a good role model. It’s been able to open the division for me.”
Jeff Meyers, VanZant’s manager and CEO of MMA Inc., has seen many faces come and go. But with VanZant, he sees a talent he believes is here for the long haul.
“Paige fits right into that caliber of fighter that has crossover potential, not only with her fighting skills, but also star power,” Meyers says. “She’s an excellent fighter, an attractive person, very smart and well-spoken. She’s got a really bright future in the UFC.”
VanZant believes she’ll be right in the mix to challenge for the strawweight title after it’s crowned on Dec. 12 in Las Vegas.
She also believes she could become the Rousey of her division.
“I can be the star of this weight class,” VanZant says. “I have the potential to win every fight the UFC offers me. I want the belt and I definitely have the mindset of a champion.”
This news has been published by title The Plug, ���Fight Night: Francis Ngannou��� (Episode 6): The UFC Star Opens Up
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