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Title talk could soon be hard to avoid for Paige VanZant

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Throughout her UFC journey, Paige VanZant has talked about taking things slow. And it makes sense. At just 21 years old, VanZant is both young in the game and one of the few strawweights with the potential to become a legitimate crossover star. The road from prospect to contender can be a fragile one, and considering the unabashed brutality of the division's queen Joanna Jedrzejczyk, there's no doubt that the patient route should be the most lucrative route for a fighter like VanZant.

But that's the funny thing about taking it slow: the higher you aim, the harder it is to stop that crawl from breaking into a full-out sprint. For VanZant, that crawl broke into a full-out sprint this past October, when Rose Namajunas replaced the injured Joanne Calderwood at UFC Fight Night 80, and suddenly the young super-prospect found herself matched up against the division's No. 3 ranked fighter. Once that happened, VanZant realized a date with Jedrzejczyk could be approaching sooner than many first expected.

"I'm young in this sport. I'm a new athlete," VanZant said. "I've always been an athlete, but as far as competing in MMA, I only had one amateur fight and then I went straight into pro. So I don't know, I listen to the UFC, I listen to my manager, and I let the cards unfold. Right now this is a perfect fight for me, and I'm going to focus on my fight. But obviously after beating someone ranked No. 3, there's not very many people above them to get to the champ."

As she heads into the Dec. 10 bout, VanZant is ostensibly the betting favorite -- a curious position considering her place in the division compared to Namajunas. But the glow of the hype train's headlights can play funny tricks on oddsmakers, and Namajunas sees parallels to the role VanZant now finds herself filling, because it wasn't long ago that Namajunas filled the exact same space.

A year ago, following a prodigious 3-0 run with three submission finishes on The Ultimate Fighter, Namajunas stormed into the division's inaugural UFC title fight amongst talk that she was the strawweight coming of Ronda Rousey. The talk grew louder and louder as fight week approached, only to end in heartbreak as Namajunas was soundly outclassed by Carla Esparza. The hype around Namajunas died down to a more reasonable pitch after that, and while VanZant has yet to reach that crossroads in her career, Namajunas has already emerged out the other side and is better for it.

"I'm always starting fresh, I'm always trying to stay in the moment," Namajunas said. "When I get stuck in the past, or I get too far anxious in the future, there's where things kind of get slippery and I start to overthink things, and I just stop being honest with myself. So I've got to always just stay present. Regardless of whatever I've done in the past, I've just got to learn from it.

"Every dog has his day," Namajunas added. "Obviously nobody saw (Ronda) Ronda losing that fight (at UFC 193). I shouldn't say ‘nobody,' but most people thought she was going to just steamroll through Holly (Holm). It just goes to show that anything can happen."

Even a weight class away, the specter of Ronda Rousey's unconscious body falling lifeless to the canvas still looms as a reminder of how fickle the hype game can be. Right now, VanZant is the one with the blue-ship sponsorship and the promotional push. She is the blonde girl next door, who until Nov. 15, drew comparisons to Rousey by those looking for a lazy hot take. And similar to Conor McGregor, VanZant is now the one using Rousey's example as motivation to avoid the same derailing fate.

"You always know anything can happen, and everyone is beatable," VanZant said. "There's always somebody out there that's working harder than you, that's better at something, so you always have to remember that. There's always somebody who wants to beat you and thinks they can win. So as an athlete, you should know that.

"Look at how dominant [Rousey] was as an athlete, all of the success she had, in and outside of the Octagon. It's an honor to be compared to her still, but I definitely want to create my own footsteps. We're very different people and very different athletes. We fight different, and we're different outside of the Octagon as well. So I definitely want to create my own footprint, my own path, and my own image in the UFC."

For VanZant, and in many ways Namajunas as well, that footprint begins in earnest on Dec. 10. With their headlining spot kicking off the UFC's biggest ever three-day stretch, a win for either woman would easily be the biggest of their careers. And for better or worse, it could also shut down VanZant's talk of ‘taking it slow' for good.

"I'm excited about this match-up," VanZant said. "I'm excited to beat someone in the top-five and just continue to move up in the rankings. It's a great fight for me and I'm excited for it.

"I just plan on beating Rose on Dec. 10, and then whatever the UFC calls me with after that, I'm going to be ready for."