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Paige VanZant’s ESPN debut in January marks fresh start for fighter

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Paige VanZant
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

The night of Aug. 27, 2016 looked like it was going to be Paige VanZant’s coming out party.

Competing on the main card of a UFC show being broadcast on Fox, VanZant recorded a stunning head kick knockout of veteran Bec Rawlings, an outcome that at least in the moment appeared to validate the hype surrounding the then-22 year old and create a highlight that would surely be an indelible part of her reel going forward.

However, that would be the last time VanZant tasted victory inside the Octagon to date.

In her next fight, VanZant was submitted in a little over three minutes by top contender Michelle Waterson, and her move up to the 125-pound division this past January was spoiled when she dropped a unanimous decision to Jessica-Rose Clark.

Make no mistake, VanZant, now 24, has thrived outside of the cage. The star qualities that have convinced UFC officials to give her a firm promotional push have also led to opportunities in other media. Prior to the Rawlings win, VanZant had a successful run on Dancing with the Stars, finishing as the runner-up, and later coming out on top in a celebrity edition of Chopped.

She also became a published author, writing an autobiography about her personal struggles growing up in Oregon and her journey to the UFC.

Now VanZant has been booked to be one of the UFC fighters to compete on an upcoming ESPN card when the promotion makes its debut on the sports network this January. Though VanZant has not confirmed the report that her opponent is Rachael Ostovich, she is looking forward to making history with “The Worldwide Leader in Sports”. It’s an opportunity that came about at just the right time as she is nearing full recovery from a pair of arm surgeries.

“The UFC came to me and asked when I would be able to fight again,” VanZant told MMA Fighting via e-mail. “I was fortunate enough that it coincided with the first-ever ESPN card. I can’t wait to be a part of such a ground-breaking moment in the UFC. It’s a true honor.”

Though VanZant has been keeping busy, it was not her plan to sit out of competition for a year. With her first surgery failing to correct the issues with her broken arm, VanZant was forced to go under the knife again in July.

“It was super devastating being told that I had to go in for surgery a second time,” said VanZant. “I felt very defeated because I had to go through the healing process all over again. It was like the first six months was a total waste. I have been very careful after this surgery making sure I’m doing everything perfectly with recovery and getting back into the cage at 100 percent.”

Fortunately for VanZant, she was given the okay to accept the ESPN booking and expects to have a completely clean bill of health by October.

By then, VanZant will be married. Her wedding to fellow fighter Austin Vanderford is set to take place at the end of the month and though the two agreed that they’d be open to Vanderford accepting a UFC booking coming off of the heels of a Contender Series win that did not earn him a contract, it looks as though they’re in the clear for now.

That milestone will likely be documented in some fashion by VanZant, who is known for her social media savvy. She describes herself as an “open book” and has documented much of her recovery from injury — which she notes has been greatly aided by Hyperice, a company specializing in recovery and movement technology — both in short clips and through her own YouTube channel.

That level of candor is commonplace for VanZant, who has been under a microscope since making her professional debut six years ago. It has been an extraordinarily eventful journey, one that VanZant couldn’t have foreseen when she started fighting and one she is grateful for.

“I can’t wait to be on the next reality TV show that comes my way and I plan on putting out more books in the future,” VanZant said of the opportunities that have come her way both because of and outside of fighting. “On top of that I truly believe if I never found fighting I would have never found my future husband. Which I am so blessed to have him in my life he is so wonderful. It makes things so special that we share a career together. We support each other’s endeavors and try to be positive influences in each others lives.”

The question remains whether VanZant can find another in-cage moment like the one she had back in August 2016. At 7-4 with losses in three of her last four fights, her record does not resemble that of a contender and it’s fair to say that her results are not commensurate with her level of notoriety.

But a new year means another chance for VanZant to get back on track and prove that what was once a hobby for her remains more than just a side gig.

“When I began fighting I did it strictly for fun,” said VanZant. “I had no idea that fighting could take me this far or it would consume my life the way that it has.”