A lot has been made of Paige VanZant’s looks over her MMA career. With an Instagram following that’s hit over 2.5 million followers, she’s one of the sport’s most recognizable talents. Much of that coming from an appearance and outgoing energy that runs well against the grain of what people think of when they visualize a professional fighter. And unfortunately, for many viewers, that presentation seems to overshadow the fact that throughout her career, fighting is clearly something she’s taken very seriously.
The former UFC strawweight makes her bare-knuckle boxing debut this weekend against Britain Hart at BKFC: Knucklemania. VanZant signed a four-fight deal with the promotion last August, one that’s that is said to be worth well over $1,000,000 — plus incentives.
It’s the kind of purse and opportunity that has brought a fresh wave of criticism, most of which seems to fall at VanZant’s doorstep.
As something like MMA’s ‘Barbie and Ken’ VanZant, along with former UFC fighter Sage Northcutt, quickly gained status as overnight sensations in the world’s largest MMA promotion. A potential new generation of stars that had clearly bolstered excitement from executives based on their charm and good looks, as much (or more) than their technical skill and athletic ability. And even as both Sage and Paige have moved on from their Octagon careers, that attitude from the business side of MMA has followed. BKFC and ONE Championship almost certainly see these fighters as investments, not simply for their skill, but for the total presentation they bring.
While that’s clearly a business priority, even many fans who might otherwise critique the UFC for not paying fighters their worth, act like VanZant and Northcutt cashing in on their popularity is some kind of affront. Just 20-years-old, and one fight into her UFC career, ‘12 Gauge’ was one of the few fighters to receive an individual Reebok sponsorship deal. Northcutt signed a similar deal a few months after his loss to Bryan Barbarena in 2016.
Regardless of whether either fighter landed those deals because of their looks, or the “it factor” as Dana White suggested back in 2015, what fault is that of theirs? If there were a criticism to be leveled, aim it at Reebok, who had the money to throw around. Neither fighter appeared to ever bank more than double digits in show money from the UFC alone. But, advertisers saw them, and their dollars followed.
VanZant may be something of an exhibitionist, and put together a pretty corny self-styled Reebok promo, but it’s the companies that are buying what she’s selling. If there’s any money to be made off the fight game, it’s in every fighter’s interest to get it. And the growing number of fighters with OnlyFans pages shows VanZant is hardly alone in that realization. As viewers, we should be happy to see fighters getting some extra cash out of their careers.
Instead, with her move to BKFC has seemed to kick up much of the classic backlash, from those who seem to feel she’s playing out some extended con and should leave combat sports for other pastures. But, if one thing has been clear from VanZant’s time in the UFC, it’s that she has always been an incredibly tough competitor with huge amounts of heart.
In her six-year stint in the Octagon, VanZant fought through plenty of punishment and damage against some of the sport’s best fighters. She went five brutal rounds with future champion Rose Namajunas. She broke her arm mid-way through a fight with Jessica Rose-Clark, but battled to see the final bell. And even picked up a surprising victory over longtime veteran Felice Herrig among her five UFC wins. VanZant has always showed up to fight, so her frustration is understandable when fans and media tend to put their focus on her looks and lifestyle.
In a sport where the vast majority of fighters never find the big paydays and the fame they’ve hoped for out of MMA, I say good on VanZant for knowing her worth. Good on her for building up her self-image to a point that BKFC offered her a seven-figure deal. Good on her for not giving in to the critics and continuing to do what she loves. Win or lose, she’s always shown up prepared to give herself to fighting and the damage and difficulty that entails. That deserves as much respect as anyone else.
You can watch VanZant’s first BKFC fight this Friday, February 5th, for $19.99 on Fite TV.