Starting out in MMA as a trained dancer-turned-fighter, Paige VanZant had a lot to learn.
“When I went into the UFC, I was just tough,” VanZant said. “And now I’m turning into a fighter.”
VanZant steps back into the Octagon Saturday night in Vancouver to take on Bec Rawlings on FOX. She’s only been in camp for a few weeks on the heels of a spectacular run on ABC’s Dancing With the Stars, but “12 Gauge” missed the violence. She had to get back inside the Octagon.
The last time VanZant was in a fight, very little went her way, resulting in a submission loss against Rose Namajunas. The night wasn’t a total waste – VanZant’s ability to absorb punishment and keep going was the huge takeaway from the night.
Becoming a fighter is an unforgiving process.
“Looking back at the fight, everything went wrong,” VanZant said. “I have no excuses, though. I just had to try and pull myself together. I got rocked early in the first and it’s hard to recover after that. I’m just trying to figure out where I am and what round it is. It was a big test for me and I’m ready to move on.”
After competing in three fights in eight months in 2015, VanZant, 22, hasn’t been back inside the Octagon since the loss to Namajunas. Obsessed with competition, VanZant turned her attention to the dancing arena, where she starred as a child. She finished second in a very hotly contested final showdown, but VanZant may have emerged as the most popular celebrity and breakthrough personality on that season of Dancing with the Stars.
VanZant said she was made for the spotlight. UFC president Dana White thinks she has something special that people are drawn to.
Out of the spotlight, VanZant is the same positive, humble person that fans have come to know and appreciate.
“She’s a wonderful girl. She was born with the ‘it factor,’” said Owen Carr, VanZant’s striking coach. “She’s a great speaker and she’s so family-oriented. She’s so personable – the perfect lady.”
Carr, who learned how to teach striking under the guidance of Rafael Cordeiro, was absent from VanZant’s corner in her last fight. He watched from home and suffered through the fight, thinking he could have helped. He said that VanZant’s boxing has made improvements in this camp alone, but that it’s her complete arsenal as an MMA striker that makes her a bad matchup for Rawlings.
“She’s a complete MMA striker; in boxing it’s just two hands,” Carr said. “We have elbows, knees, kicks and there’s a whole other element of striking when you have eight weapons instead of just two.”
VanZant is expecting a war against Rawlings. Both fighters bring the aggression and leave nothing in the Octagon, which should leave fans happy on fight night.
What makes VanZant exciting is also what makes her vulnerable at times. Her charge-forward, in-your-face style leaves her open to damage and she knows it. Her team has been helping her work on the holes in her defense, and she’s always trying to find the right balance.
“I’m an aggressive fighter. I go out there to really put on a fight. I don’t go out there to just float through three rounds and see what happens at the end of it,” VanZant said. “I want to try and finish it in the first round, in the first minute. It’s something I’m definitely working on. I gotta definitely try to hold off a little bit and not fire the gun so quickly.”
The process of becoming a fighter is still in the early stages for VanZant. She’s learning and adding to her game every day in practice and with each fight.
Losses hurt but the experience gained is what leads to growth. VanZant is becoming a fighter and embracing the spotlight that’s illuminated her since her debut. It will only get brighter, but she’s confident in her abilities.
VanZant is putting everything she has into becoming a fighter.
“Not a lot of people know what it’s like to lose a fight,” VanZant said. “It is hard and it sucks and it’s emotional. If I wasn’t sad or if I wasn’t emotional, then I didn’t want it bad enough.
“I put my whole heart out there and I do that in every single fight I have. That’s why I am so emotional, because I put my heart into everything I do.”
Matt Parrino is a digital producer and writer for UFC.com. Follow him on Twitter at @MattParrinoUFC