The whole of Paige VanZant’s UFC career has taken place under the microscope.
From the time she burst onto the scene with a third-round submission win over Kailin Curran in November 2014, the now 24-year-old has been subjected to greater scrutiny and criticism than most athletes on the UFC roster.
Pushed as a potential star and placed into showcase opportunities almost immediately, many within the MMA community, including some of her contemporaries, bristled at every mention of the young fighter’s name. When she succeeded, her triumphs were instantly picked apart and when she failed, a surprising number of people rejoiced, reveling in seeing the highly marketable and still developing fighter falter.
VanZant’s bubbly personality and telegenic looks allowed her to quickly garner opportunities away from the cage, including a spot on Season 22 of Dancing with the Stars, but taking a brief hiatus from competing in the Octagon to salsa, jive and samba next to Mark Ballas en route to a runner-up finish prompted critics to question her commitment to fighting.
Despite a highlight reel knockout in her return, VanZant’s subsequent losses to Michelle Waterson and Jessica-Rose Clark only brought greater scrutiny and further questions about her future inside the cage.
“I would say that my focus never goes away from fighting,” said VanZant, who returns to action this weekend in Brooklyn against Rachael Ostovich. “I always train no matter what I’m doing; I’ve just had these outside opportunities presented to me and I’m never going to say no to something that I want to be a part of.
“At the same time, this last year has been strictly focused on healing and getting back into the Octagon. I’ve done a few small things here and there, but the focus has been on being able to fight again.”
VanZant suffered a broken arm last January in her fight with Clark, incurring the injury when her forearm connected with the Australian’s head during a second-round spinning backfist attempt. She soldiered on, but lost the fight by unanimous decision before undergoing a surgical procedure to reset the break.
While she knew the injury would leave her sidelined for a number of months, her expectation was to return to action before the year was out, but things didn’t go as planned.
Six months after the initial surgery and recovery period, VanZant’s arm still had not healed, and the Portland-based fighter was forced to go under the knife again, wiping out any hopes of making a second appearance in the Octagon in 2018.
“The hardest thing for me was having to go through and get that second surgery,” explained VanZant, who carries a 7-4 record into Saturday’s main card pairing with Ostovich on ESPN+. “I was so ready to have surgery, have my arm get fixed and get right back into the Octagon, so to have to go through the healing process and the surgical process twice was very defeating.
“Not knowing if I would have healing problems after the second surgery (was stressful as well) because no doctor could figure out why I didn’t heal the first time,” she added. “Not knowing if, ‘Hey, maybe my arm will never heal’ was really, really hard to deal with, but I kept myself in the gym because even though my body couldn’t be present, I wanted my mind to be present, so I stayed in the gym the whole time and just had a lot of positive feedback from my family to keep me strong.”
Now, after a year on the shelf and entering on a two-fight skid, the recently married VanZant is acutely aware of the pressure she’s under to perform this weekend, but she’s taking it all in stride and opting to focus exclusively on finally being able to step back into the Octagon and do what she loves.
“I definitely have a huge sense of urgency to fight again,” she said. “This was my main focus for the last year, so it feels awesome that it’s actually happening.
“I feel the pressure that is on me and I’m putting a lot of pressure on myself to perform. I put more pressure on myself than anyone else could and that’s one thing I’m definitely trying to work on. My husband is trying to work on it with me — being a little bit lighter on myself and not putting so much pressure on myself — but at the same time, that pressure does drive me to succeed and helps me know that I can continue to grow and get better.
“I couldn’t be more excited and I’m really treating this like it’s my first fight ever,” VanZant added. “I’m back doing what I love.”
Thinking back to the way she approached her first few fights has given her an extra push throughout the build up to Saturday’s first UFC offering of 2019, and after several years of trying to be perfect inside the Octagon, VanZant is ready to get back to having fun this weekend.
“I went into my first fight thinking, ‘This could literally be the only time I get to fight in the UFC’ and I needed to just enjoy every moment of it,” she said of her debut win over Curran a little more than four years ago. “So every second that I could, I took it in and enjoyed the process.
“Things can get so stressful, but I need to remember this is for fun. Yeah it’s my job, but I do this because I love it and it needs to not be work for me. I need to just go out there and perform and I think taking that pressure off myself to be perfect is going to help me perform to the best of my ability.”
As for what she expects once she crosses the threshold into the Octagon and the cage door closes behind her, the returning star forecasts an explosive affair that people won’t want to miss.
“This is definitely going to be a war,” predicted VanZant. “Two people who like to bang it out and slug it out, so I think you’re definitely going to see some fireworks. It’s something you’re definitely going to want to tune in for on Saturday night.”