Paige VanZant Has One Last Chance to Secure UFC Stardom

Steven Rondina@srondinaFeatured ColumnistJanuary 18, 2019

SACRAMENTO, CA - DECEMBER 17:  Paige VanZant prepares to enter the Octagon during the UFC Fight Night event inside the Golden 1 Center Arena on December 17, 2016 in Sacramento, California. (Photo by Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Paige VanZant has worn a lot of different hats during her four years in the UFC.

Depending on the week, she's worked as a brand ambassador, spokesmodel, social media influencer or public relations vanguard for the promotion. For the most part, she's done a decent job in all those different roles (albeit with a few forgivable gaffes along the way).

The actual fighting part of her time with the UFC, though? That hasn't gone nearly as smoothly, and that puts her in an incredibly awkward position heading into UFC on ESPN+.

The fact that VanZant is in any kind of dire straits likely comes as a surprise to casual fans.

VanZant exploded to the forefront of the MMA world when she debuted in the UFC in 2011 with a drubbing of Kailin Curran, and she followed that up with solid wins over cherrypicked opponents.

Since then, she has been defined by her appearances outside the cage, sneaking in a fight or two when she isn't on Dancing with the Stars or Chopped.

But while it rarely comes up, 12-Gauge has struggled mightily in recent years, going 1-3 over her last four fights.

Two of those losses came via nasty stoppage, while the other came from a completely unheralded opponent.

Her sole win? A TKO from something of a flukish flying kick on Bec Rawlings, who has since been released from the UFC and currently works as a roving bare-knuckle boxer (seriously).

The unfortunate redeeming factor to that stretch has been a proven ability to endure a sustained lopsided beating.

Despite that, the UFC still leans on the 24-year-old fairly heavily as a promotional asset.

Just this week, VanZant was featured on Good Morning America, discussing her relationship with her husband and shining a light on Saturday's event.

It's worth noting is that VanZant was tasked with this high-profile job—not flyweight champion Henry Cejudo, not bantamweight champion TJ Dillashaw and not fan favorite Donald Cerrone.

That kind of spotlight would certainly imply that VanZant is a top star in the UFC...but that's becoming increasingly difficult to reconcile with her standing in the promotion.

Though VanZant received a headliner's welcome on network television, she isn't main-eventing UFC on ESPN+. She isn't in the co-main event or even in one of the featured preliminary-card bouts.

No, VanZant will return to the cage in the second fight of the main card, snuggled in between Joseph Benavidez vs. Dustin Ortiz and Glover Teixeira vs. Karl Roberson.

In reality, UFC Brooklyn is headlined by Henry Cejudo vs. TJ Dillashaw.
In reality, UFC Brooklyn is headlined by Henry Cejudo vs. TJ Dillashaw.Michael Owens/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

In pro wrestling parlance, VanZant's fight would be referred to as a "cooldown match," a less-than-exciting tilt strategically placed between two hotter contests in order to keep fans from getting emotionally burnt out.

The stakes are low, the action likely won't be especially hot, and there's little reason to pay close attention to how it pans out on a micro level.

While VanZant might have seemed like a big deal Wednesday, on Saturday night, she'll be the same kind of bit player as Alonzo Menifield, Gregor Gillespie or Geoff Neal.

It's an unfortunate circumstance for VanZant and the UFC alike. It wasn't all that long ago that VanZant was a bona fide draw for the promotion, popping one of the biggest ratings in company history for her bout opposite Michelle Waterson.

The company would no doubt enjoy having her topping cards and staying relevant, but it's tough to maintain the illusion of a legitimate sport with a potentially subpar talent getting top billing.

VanZant faces Rachael Ostovich on Saturday.
VanZant faces Rachael Ostovich on Saturday.Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

The best way to fix this, naturally, would be to rebuild VanZant's in-cage legitimacy, and UFC is trying to do exactly that with the pairing of VanZant and Rachael Ostovich.

Though Ostovich isn't a slouch, she's the ideal draw for a fighter with VanZant's skill set. She'll likely be able to keep up in the grappling department, but as the fight wears on, the difference in terms of cardio and striking will make its presence felt. Theoretically, that should make for a convincing win for VanZant.

If things don't break in her favor, however, there will be consequences.

Though VanZant's losses have all come with an asterisk—be it having the misfortune of facing elite-level talent on the come-up or suffering a fight-changing injury—there is no room for error when it comes to Saturday night.

Ostovich owns a 4-4 professional record, and she doesn't possess any particularly deadly tools. This fight was made for the express purpose of letting VanZant look good, and if she can't take advantage of that opportunity, it stands as a damning indictment of where she stands as an MMA talent.

She isn't staring at a release from the promotion with an unimpressive performance, but VanZant's novelty lies in a seemingly innocuous young woman being a steely cagefighter. Take the latter half of that away and she becomes much, much less interesting.

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