To borrow a phrase from the world of professional wrestling, Paige VanZant is over. Very over. Last Saturday night at UFC on Fox 15, she got one of the loudest responses of the night (the others would be the entrance of Jacare Souza, and the Machida/Rockhold fight, though interestingly enough, Rockhold was booed until he began clearly dominating, at which point the USA! USA! chants erupted). More interestingly, she got one of the most consistent crowd responses of the night. Fans were captivated by her bout. It was edge of your seat stuff. And the crowd involvement grew louder as the fight went on. Though Gian Villante vs. Corey Anderson took home Fight of the Night honors — and it was, without question, a solid bout as well — VanZant vs. Herrig might be seen as the people’s choice for the award. For those in attendance, VanZant vs. Herrig was the fight that really woke the crowd up. Not just simple “ooohs” any time there was a striking exchange or raucous cheers at a finish, but constant engagement.

It wasn’t that Felice Herrig, VanZant’s much more seasoned foe, was all that hated. Though played up as the “bad girl” a little heading into the fight, in reality, there wasn’t all that much bad blood between the two. As much as the media tried to play up their “heated” confrontations at the UFC media day staredown and weigh-ins, there was no Jones-Cormier situation to be found. In fact, VanZant went on to credit Herrig as an idol following the bout, which she won handily.

The win launched VanZant into the top ten in the UFC women’s strawweight division and makes her one of the few fighters with two wins in what is the youngest division in the promotion. Which poses a unique problem: how do you book her at a pace that will allow her to continue to develop as a fighter without throwing her to the lions in her next bout?

The reality is that Paige VanZant won at UFC on Fox 15 via sheer heart and an impressive work rate. Technically, there are flaws in her game — though back with Team Alpha Male, she’s in the right camp to iron them out. Still, there’s work to be done, and that work will take time. At the same time, fans want to see Paige, and she no doubt wants to stay active.

So there’s a need to find balance. It’s unlikely that the UFC’s youngest star gets paired up with someone outside the top ten, but in terms of a title shot, well, as much as Paige would like to surpass Jon Jones as the youngest ever fighter to become champion, a title shot shouldn’t yet be in the conversation. That doesn’t exactly squash the popular fighter’s dreams, as Jones won the strap at 23 years, 8 months of age. Paige herself is just 21. There’s plenty of time.

The UFC simply needs to allow her development to happen naturally. There’s no doubt temptation to cash in on her popularity, and cash in now. After all, the allure of having another Ronda Rousey in the company is huge, and elevates the youngest division in the fold to a level that probably makes it more visible than the struggling men’s flyweight division, and possibly the men’s bantamweights as well. Arguably, more casual MMA fans know Paige VanZant than Demetrious Johnson, and while part of that can be blamed on poor marketing and the inability to relay to fans just how good the flyweights are, it also speaks to VanZant as a draw. The fact is, she’s already being asked about fighting Ronda Rousey (by reporters clearly unaware of how weight classes work), and is possibly one of the top ten most recognizable fighters in the promotion — after just two fights in the UFC.

The argument skeptics will make is that her popularity is based on beauty, not talent. The fact remains, however, that so far, she has been winning fights. Winning them decisively. And winning is what silences critics.

So where should the UFC go with her? VanZant jumped five spots in the UFC’s rankings following UFC on Fox 15, landing at seventh in the division. Following her win over Herrig, Dana White surmised that she might land somewhere around eighth or ninth and referred to her as being “in the danger zone.” That’s a very apt observation. Ahead of her are the likes of Joanna Jedrzejczyk as champion, Rose Namajunas, former champ Carla Esparza, and Tecia Torres, who already holds a win over VanZant — the young fighter’s only loss to date.

How much danger she should be in, however, is the question. Some may take that as protecting a fighter or showing favoritism. Torres came out this week as one of those, stating that “I don’t think ‘Daddy Dana’ would give her a title shot, because he doesn’t want to see her die” in an interview with MMA Fighting, in which she joins those who feel VanZant’s popularity is about her looks (she goes on to claim that Herrig lost the bout, rather than VanZant having won it, despite the ridiculously lopsided number of strikes between the two: 199 to 44, per the UFC).

The truth is somewhere in between. The UFC has every right to protect their investment, and VanZant does need to develop. What exactly is gained by throwing her to the wolves? Manager Mike Roberts has acknowledged this, saying the VanZant camp is aiming at a fall return, giving her time to train further. Torres may think of this as playing favorites, but it’s the best option for an upcoming fighter. Paige, at the very least, has earned the right to dictate the pace at which she fights and is making a wise decision by coming back slow.  Yet when she does come back, booking her won’t be any easier. Torres may be trying to land a match with the rising star with her comments, but is that a rematch VanZant is ready for? What about the winner of Aisling Daly vs. Randa Markos, or someone like Joanne Calderwood?

None of those names can be seen as easy outs, but as much as VanZant should get time to develop, White is right — she’s in the danger zone, and there really aren’t any easy outs. Still, having a fighter like VanZant is a “problem” any promotion would love to have.

About The Author

Senior Staff Writer

Covering the sport of MMA from Ontario, Canada, Jay Anderson has been writing for various publications covering sports, technology, and pop culture since 2001. Jay holds an Honours Bachelor of Arts degree in English from the University of Guelph, and a Certificate in Leadership Skills from Humber College under the Ontario Management Development Program. When not slaving at the keyboard, he can be found in the company of his dog, a good book, or getting lost in the woods.

  • Juchi

    Given that Torres is fighting in June, either Randa Markos or Joanne Calderwood seem like excellent choices. Hopefully it can be scheduled near Torres’ fight so that the victor can face either the victor of the Torres fight or whichever of the aforementioned fighters didn’t get a fight. All in all, though, it appears Paige has no shortage of potentially exciting near term fights before she takes on the top 5.