UFC on Fox 15: Paige VanZant Makes the Most of Her Time in Prime Time

We said—and I include myself herethat she didn’t deserve the things she was getting.

We said she received too much, too soon. She landed an exclusive Reebok deal before the champion in her division. She was lauded by Dana White and promoted and put on Fox network television, the largest platform available to the UFC.

She received all of this, we said, because of her looks. Because, as White said, she has “it.”

Perhaps that’s true. Perhaps she was signed by Reebok and put on Fox and pushed so heavily because she is attractive, and because she is young, and because she is a fresh face for a UFC in need of new stars. All of those things may be true.

But here is another truth: Placed in that position, with the power of network television behind her, Paige VanZant made the most of her opportunity.

At UFC on Fox 15, VanZant, 21, battered her veteran opponent Felice Herrig from pillar to post, in the parlance of an old-time wrestling announcer. Per an unofficial count from FightMetric’s Michael Carroll, VanZant landed 228 strikes; Herrig landed just 39. Rarely has there been such a disparity between two opponents, but it was reflected when the judges handed in their scorecards for the bout. VanZant was given two 30-26 scorecards alongside a 30-27 for a lopsided decision win.

There was no way to look at VanZant’s performance and consider it anything but dominant. With the spotlight on her, she built on her November UFC debut win over Kailin Curran, and she did it against a fighter with 10 bouts and many years more experience in the fight game.

“I was the underdog, I was supposed to lose. It’s a huge victory for me, and I’m still in shock. I had God in my corner and an amazing camp,” VanZant said after the fight. “I’m nowhere near peaked, and I’ve got a lot of work to do. I’m here for the fun of it, and I’m so thankful. I can’t believe I made it through that fight. It only goes up from here.”

As I wrote earlier this week, there is a good chance VanZant will now be considered for a strawweight title shot. Yes, she has just two fights in the UFC and six fights in her career. But that is par for the course in the strawweight division. And who is a better option? There is Jessica Penne. There are others ahead of VanZant in the pecking order.

But few of them can match the potential of her star power, and it’s easy to imagine White and company right now with dollar signs dancing in front of their eyes, as they peer into a future where both of their women’s divisions are headlined by marketable fighters.

And if she loses to champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk, who cares? She’s only 21. She’ll have plenty of opportunities in the future, and beating VanZant will help turn Jedrzejczyk into a bigger star.

It is easy to get caught up in the glare of fame and money and all of the things that still fall under the “potential” header for VanZant. But caution must be urged, for she is not yet a finished product. Not even close.

In beating Herrig, VanZant showed, once again, that her biggest weakness is her constant and frenetic motion. It was overwhelming for Herrig. It will not be overwhelming for Jedrzejczyk and others at the top of the division. VanZant fights in a fashion that is best described as out of control, a whirling dervish of energy and missed opportunities and mistakes. It was enough to batter Herrig, but smart fighters will counter VanZant and use her many mistakes against her.

But, again, he is just 21. She has a long way to go. If her next opponent is Jedrzejczyk, that’s OK. I’d prefer to see her develop naturally, facing progressively tougher fighters before she makes her way to the championship picture. I think that’s the proper way to go.

But I also understand the nature of the fight business, which is that it’s equally (or perhaps more so) about the business than the fight. And if VanZant is given a title opportunity because the UFC thinks she’ll draw more eyeballs than Penne or another contender will, that is fine, too.

We’ll all say she isn’t deserving and that she’s only there because of her looks, and we might be a little bit right.

But eventually, we’ll all be dead wrong.

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