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Paige VanZant: Rachael Ostovich fight is chance to remind fans ‘why I belong’ in UFC

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

What have you done for me lately? That might as well be an unofficial credo for fans in the fickle world of mixed martial arts.

With UFC events nearly every week and a cascade of other promotions on television and streaming services, it’s easy to forget moments that happened last month, let alone last year. And the latter is what Paige VanZant is working with right now.

VanZant has not fought since January 2018, a unanimous decision loss to Jessica-Rose Clark that aired on FS1 — a channel that doesn’t even carry UFC fights anymore. The popular strawweight-turned-flyweight suffered a broken arm in that bout and, after setbacks, it took her almost a year to recover.

An amazing 2016, which featured VanZant reaching the finals of “Dancing With The Stars,” and her highlight reel jumping kick knockout of Bec Rawlings, seems like an eternity ago. So it’s a good thing that VanZant believes she has just the right platform to jog everyone’s memory — the first-ever UFC card under the new ESPN distribution deal.

On Saturday night, VanZant fights Rachael Ostovich on the main card of UFC on ESPN+ in Brooklyn. A victory would put “12 Gauge” in position once again to be one of the faces of the future for the UFC. She is still just 24 years old.

“This one is more important, I feel, than any fight,” VanZant told MMA Fighting. “This one is as just as important as my very first fight in the UFC ever. I need to show everybody who I am and why I belong in the UFC. I feel like fighting is a career where athletes are easily forgotten. If you’re not in front of the crowds, then people don’t remember your name. I’ve been out for a year and I still have those fans who have stuck by me. But I need to show everybody and the new fans of the UFC why I belong there. I feel like this is the fight I have to prove myself with. And of course it couldn’t be at a more exciting time, being the first ESPN card, being able to fight in New York.”

VanZant (7-4) had a frustrating 2018. After the loss to Clark, her third defeat in four fights, the arm fracture lingered far longer than she thought it would. VanZant surmises that she likely returned to training too soon after the initial surgery, leading to the necessity of another operation back in July. She describes the whole ordeal as “devastating.” It was supposed to be the year that VanZant thrived moving up to flyweight and improved under the coaches at her new Gracie Barra Portland gym. But it didn’t go down like that.

On the other hand, her months away from the Octagon gave her time to reflect (not to mention, get married to Bellator fighter Austin Vanderford). There was a time when VanZant was trying to juggle gigs in the entertainment world, like the aforementioned “Dancing With The Stars.” But not being able to fight, she said, was a reminder of just how much she loved MMA. It also gave her a reason to go back to her foundation and tidy up some technical things she admits she might not have been good at previously.

“I’ve had a year to slow down and just focus on the basics, a year to focus on technique,” VanZant said. “That’s something that maybe I needed to learn and go back to. Go back to the basics and have a little bit of patience. It’s exciting that it’s really coming to fruition and we’re back on track. I’m hoping to fight this fight and get back right in there and fight again.”

VanZant agreed to the bout long before she was cleared to fight due to the arm injury. She even signed the bout agreement, she said, before doctors gave her the OK just last month. VanZant was that eager for the situation — everything from the opponent to the significance of the event to the location.

“I knew this was my card — I was meant to fight on the first ESPN card,” VanZant said. “It’s monumental. It’s huge. ESPN is the biggest sports network in the world. When you think of sports, you think of ESPN. I want to be the face of ESPN and I hope that me fighting on this card will help solidify and help prove that I belong on this network. It’s huge. And on top of that, fighting in New York is a dream of mine.”

The went through some starts and stops. Ostovich was the alleged victim of domestic violence in November and her husband is currently facing a felony assault charge. VanZant, who has been in abusive relationships in the past, admitted to crying she heard what Ostovich was going through. And she was impressed by Ostovich’s resolve when Ostovich said she wanted to fight despite everything going on in her personal life.

Not lost on VanZant is the marketing potential for the bout. She and Ostovich have attracted their fair share of fans of the opposite sex.

“It’s an exciting fight for me,” VanZant said. “She has such a big name within the UFC. I think that obviously this is a fight a lot of male fans really like. I’m excited that me and her can go out there and put on a show. I have met her in person and she’s a super, super nice person. So I’m excited we get to share an Octagon together and try to rip each other’s heads off.”

After a disappointing 2018, VanZant has just the right scenario to start off this year in a huge way. It’s up to her now to make good and she knows it.

“There are so many amazing factors behind it,” VanZant said. “But more than anything, it’s just this fight is for me and I need to go fight for myself.”