UFC strawweight Paige VanZant didn't much mind when her manager called to inform her Joanne Calderwood — VanZant's original opponent for Dec. 10's UFC Fight Night 80 — pulled out of their fight with an injury.
She just wanted to know who was on deck.
"Right away, I was like, ‘Alright, who can we get to replace her?'" VanZant told MMA Fighting. "The hard thing is that, with strawweights, there are not that many of us, so most everyone had fights lined up or they just fought or they’re injured, so right away I was like, ‘Let’s call the UFC and get someone to replace her,’ and my manager called me right back and said, ‘I talked to Dana. Rose [Namajunas] is good.’"
While some fighters might hesitate to restructure their game plans and refocus on a different, higher-ranked opponent, VanZant said there was no deliberation. Namajunas would work just fine.
"No hesitation at all — none whatsoever," VanZant said. "I’m in the best shape I’ve ever been in, this is the best fight camp I’ve ever had, and it’s just the beginning of it. I have no injuries. I’m going in, I’m training harder than ever. I had a short break between fights, and that really helps me stay super, super in-shape. It’s perfect for me to get a fight right away.
"I’m just ready to get back in there and showcase my skills. I’m really excited that I get to fight someone that’s ranked higher than me, and I’m going to move up the rankings."
With Namajunas' higher ranking, though, comes a potentially elevated challenge for VanZant. Whereas Calderwood is a high-level striker possessing limited ground skills, Namajunas has the full package. Her submissions are as lethal as her hands, knees, elbows and shins, and VanZant acknowledges there will be greater challenges.
"[Rose]'s a much different fighter [than Calderwood]," VanZant said. "She is skilled at stand-up, but she also has a high-level ground game. So I just have to prepare for her to be good in every area. I do think she’s a well-rounded fighter, so I’m going to go out there, and I’m going to be able to beat her in every area."
On top of this, the 23-year old Namajunas — not unlike the 21-year-old VanZant — is an incredibly young star in the 115-pound division. It's unlikely either competitor has reached her peak as a fighter, and VanZant wouldn't be surprised if their Dec. 10 encounter isn't their last.
"I definitely plan on seeing her [down the road]," VanZant said. "She’s not going to go anywhere in the UFC. She’s a very talented fighter, [and] I’m a very talented fighter, as well.
"I’m going to go out there and put on the best performance that I can. If I don’t win my fights, then all the attention goes away. I put all the pressure on myself. I have to continue to win fights so I can continue to grow in popularity and continue to be wanted."
To accomplish this, VanZant has been working tirelessly at Team Alpha Male, the esteemed Sacramento fight camp housing the likes of Urijah Faber, Chad Mendes, Joseph Benavidez and Cody Garbrandt. Before arriving in California to hone her skills, VanZant was, by her own admission, "an aggressive fighter with a ton of heart." Now, she's adding some technique and purpose to her whirlwind attack, a development she believes will propel her to the top in due time.
"I’ve been progressing everywhere," she said. "Slowly and surely, they’re [Team Alpha Male's coaches are] turning me into a real fighter with real technique. I just think that’s the area I’m going to grow the most — I’m going to go out there with a little more technique, a little more finesse.
"But I don’t ever want to lose my style. I have heart and I win fights on aggression, and I want to keep that. Not a lot of fighters are born with that. So I want to keep that close to me."
Should VanZant triumph over Namajunas at UFC Fight Night 80, she'll move her record to 7-1, with a 4-0 record under the UFC banner. Title shots have been earned for less in the strawweight division, but VanZant says she can't concern herself with lofty aspirations — not yet, at least. She believes her time will come, but right now, it's all about Namajunas and their upcoming main-event tilt.
"That’s [a title-fight opportunity is] up to the UFC, and that’s up to my coaches and manager," VanZant said. "For me, I only look at the opponent that’s across from me. Nothing else matters. It doesn’t matter who’s in the audience. It doesn’t matter who the belt-holder is. When I’m fighting someone, it’s between me and the person across the cage."