How Should the UFC Handle the Rise of Paige VanZant?

The UFC held a successful card on Saturday night that was televised live on Fox. Broadcast television is a huge deal for the UFC and whenever these Fox cards come along the company does not hold out on the talent and big time match ups. The main card featured a middleweight main event with Lyoto Machida, a proven main event fighter and former champion, and Luke Rockhold who is a standout star in the making. It was a main event worthy of a Fox broadcast but it was the main card’s opening act that showed the brilliance of the UFC.

The main card opened up with a women’s straw-weight grudge match between Felice Herrig and Paige VanZant. The fight was filled with exciting moments and it was VanZant who earned the victory and stole the show with her tenacity and go for broke fighting style.

Leading up to the fight Herrig had called out VanZant as being nothing more than a hype machine being backed by the UFC. VanZant has only two fights inside the UFC yet she already has an individual deal with Reebok so it is clear whom the UFC wants as the face of this division. Other notable fighters who have such deals are Jon Jones, Ronda Rousey, and Conor McGregor. While it may be fair to criticize the UFC on their blatant favoritism but what cannot be criticize is VanZant’s ability inside the octagon.

VanZant dominated Herrig who is a veteran in terms of women’s mixed martial arts with 16 professional fights. Many expected their fight to be competitive but not as one-sided as it turned out to be. This means that the talent is there and it just needs time to blossom further. Unfortunately with the UFC hype machine already behind her VanZant will have to prepare herself for all the criticism that comes along with it. Just ask Conor McGregor.

McGregor’s rise to notoriety was out of need from the UFC. McGregor is charismatic and a talented fighter but if the featherweight division was as deep as the lightweight division he may still be waiting for a title shot. Champion Jose Aldo had run through the division like a sickle through a cornfield. He was already starting to run through the division twice over before McGregor came storming through the door. What also helped McGregor’s case was that the featherweight division is lacking in the charisma department. Frankie Edgar, Chad Mendes, Ricardo Lamas all leave a lot to the imagination when on the microphone. Charisma goes a very long way in the fight game. VanZant has plenty of it as well and like McGregor, she is in a division where that is lacking.

The UFC introduced the women’s straw-weight division by having 16 women compete in a season of the Ultimate Fighter where the winner of the show would be crowned the first ever champion. It seemed like a great way to have the MMA community familiarize themselves with the new division and more importantly with the women that would be competing in it. But now with the magic of hindsight that may not have been the UFC’s best idea.

During the show commercials began to promote not the fights or actual tournament but the ongoing drama happening inside the house. Fighters like Bec Rawlings, Angela Magana, Felice Herrig, and even Carla Esparza came across as bullies. Just go on to the comment section of any social media post by those fighters and you will see that they are still getting scorn from the fans because of their actions on the show. The drama was so thick that Fox Sports had Karen Bryant host a Jersey Shore style reunion show after it was a wrap just to further milk the drama.

VanZant may be the division’s saving grace. After her win on Saturday, VanZant said all the right things in the post fight press conference. She acknowledged her lack of experience in the sport but also gave credit to her fight camp, Team Alpha Male, “I still have a lot to work on. I’m very young in this sport. Every single fight I’m gonna change. I’m not technically the best yet, but I’m at the perfect camp for that.”

Herrig has a reputation among fans as being the bully from TUF and that fact that she kept calling out VanZant about being nothing but hype did not help her cause at all. VanZant played her cards perfectly leading up to the fight by not engaging in the smack talk with Herrig, “I understand that some competitors have to get in that mindset. Some people have to get in that mindset that you have to hate your opponent,” she said. “This is what I love to do. I don’t have to hate the person I’m fighting.”

As of right now in the public’s eye it is tough and scrappy VanZant going up against the bitter fighters from TUF who like to bully people. Who do you thing the general public is going to root for on that one? And in all fairness many of the fighters on TUF have been critical of the editing of the show and feel they were portrayed in a negative light. With reality television being the way it is that may be the case but the damage is already done.

Looking ahead to VanZant’s obstacles inside of the octagon the UFC may be cautious in her push to the top of the division. VanZant is 5-1 in her career and after Saturday she is now currently ranked 7th in the division. She has the likes of Tecia Torres (5-0), Jessica Penne (12-3), Claudia Gadelha (12-1), Carla Esparza (11-3), and of course the champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk (9-0) standing in her way of a title shot. Joanna J. may also hold the key to VanZant’s push in the division.

It was not long ago that Joanna was the star of UFC 185. She dominated Carla Esparza with her great standup and finished the fight to win the straw-weight championship. Leading up to the title fight Joanna was confident and not shy about sharing how she thought the fight would end. She was by far the star of that card. The UFC could choose to ride Joanna’s reign especially with them making their debut in Poland recently, Joanna is a native of Poland. The UFC is also holding many more events in Europe and it would help to have a champion from that continent on a future card. The UFC has made big bucks with Alexander Gustafsson and Michael Bisping in Europe why not have Joanna get her big pay day as well.

While it may be tempting for the UFC to thrust VanZant into the limelight there is just no need for the rush at the moment. The straw-weight division is not being called upon to carry any pay-per-view events or headline free fight cards so why not let VanZant and the rest of the division play out naturally. Then again the UFC is always about the bottom dollar and president Dana White sees big dollar signs when staring at VanZant as evident by his post fight comments, “She’s got that thing that I always talk about that you can’t teach. Everybody in my dressing room tonight wanted to meet her. We brought her back there, and she’s got that thing.”

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