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Paige VanZant reacts to Dana White’s comments, reveals expectations for upcoming free agency

UFC 251: Ribas v VanZant
Paige VanZant
Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC

With tears in her eyes, Paige VanZant walked to the octagon this past weekend at UFC 251 with the knowledge that it might be her last fight in the promotion.

For several months, the 26-year-old flyweight has detailed her plans to test free agency after finishing the final fight on her deal with the UFC. After more than a year and a half away from action due to injury, VanZant finally made her return and the emotion of the moment definitely got to her.

“I just wanted to live in the moment because I didn’t know what the future held,” VanZant told MMA Fighting in her first interview since UFC 251. “I didn’t know if that was my last UFC fight with me being on the last fight on my contract. I don’t know if the UFC’s going to re-sign me.

“It’s still up in the air and we’ll see what happens if I end up going to a different promotion that I feel values me a little bit higher. We just don’t know. It was really emotional.”

Heading into the fight with highly touted prospect Amanda Ribas, VanZant didn’t expect an easy test, but she was still confident in her abilities to pull off the upset.

An early takedown from the Brazilian eventually ended with VanZant caught in an armbar. She immediately attempted an escape but Ribas had no plans of losing the submission and the tap came at 2:21 into the opening round.

It turns out Ribas actually attacked the arm that VanZant has injured several times in the past few years after initially breaking it in a fight against Jessica-Rose Clark in 2018. While VanZant readily admits she’s always a little more cautious with that arm, the end of the fight had nothing to do with her past injuries.

“She had it locked in perfect,” VanZant said. “There was nothing else I could have done. I tried to stack her, I tried to do all the escapes but she had tucked my arm and had my glove behind her. She just did it so perfectly.

“She did it the way a high level black belt would put a submission on. I got caught and there’s absolutely no excuse.”

Prior to the event, VanZant told MMA Fighting that because she was planning to fight out her contract, the showdown with Ribas was essentially a gamble on herself ahead of free agency. Suffering a first-round submission loss obviously wasn’t the plan VanZant had in mind but she also knows that she lost to a high-level opponent with a very bright future ahead of her.

“This is the exact fight the UFC wanted,” VanZant said. “They kind of do this to people when they’re on the last fight on their contract. They give them, like, the perfect style matchup. I went against somebody, she’s 10-1, I’ve almost had layoffs, calculating like three years I’ve only been able to fight once cause I keep getting injured.

“Obviously, it was the very toughest opponent they could give me for my one returning fight I had left. I didn’t play into what the UFC wanted. Of course, I still had confidence going into it. Amanda was so talented. I’m so excited to see where her career goes.”

At the post-fight press conference later that night, UFC President Dana White addressed VanZant’s future after she had spoken openly about issues with her pay and hopes to test the free agency market.

White said that while he liked VanZant, she got “smoked” in her fight and that she should “definitely” test free agency. In response, VanZant admits she didn’t watch the press conference or hear exactly what White said but she’s somewhat disappointed nonetheless.

“Honestly, I didn’t actually see specifically the quote or what he said. I try not to pay attention too much,” VanZant said. “It’s unfortunate because I feel like I have a really good relationship with Dana.

“I feel like I thought we were closer friends and he could text me or call me. Something to have a little bit of compassion, something to communicate with me personally but maybe he will. We just don’t know. I’m sure it’s an uncomfortable situation.”

The one thing VanZant has said repeatedly even when addressing her concerns over pay was that ultimately she still loved being part of the UFC roster not to mention the platform the promotion has given her for the past six years.

“I’ve never spoken negatively about the UFC,” VanZant reiterated. “I’m not bitter about where I am in my career, bitter about the position that the UFC has put me in whatsoever. I just felt like for myself, I wanted to test free agency and that’s not because I dislike the UFC or dislike Dana or anybody.

“I know the way my career has looked the last few years but I also know the talent that I have fought against. The combined record of the people who have beat me is pretty high. Losing to the people I have lost to, I still consider myself one of the best athletes in the world. I know I’m going to be a champion. I know that I’ll come back and keep fighting for many, many years.”

At the end of a typical contract in the UFC or almost any major MMA promotion, fighters will have an exclusive negotiating period where the organization has a chance to re-sign them or match any other deal offered.

If White truly wants VanZant to test free agency, then she is happy to find out her value on the open market.

“Dana’s comments, what I’m hearing you say, he wants me to test free agency then hopefully they just let me go then,” VanZant said. “If that’s how they feel, then they’ll just let me be free.”

From the day she first spoke out about fighter pay, VanZant understood that there was going to be blowback regarding her comments, whether that came from fans, fighters or the promotion. If she hadn’t said a word about her contract before her fight with Ribas this past Saturday, VanZant knows her loss probably wouldn’t have generated as much interest or reaction from the UFC president.

“I feel the narrative has been pushed where I feel like the media almost twists the way that I say things,” VanZant explained. “‘Oh Paige is complaining about pay.’ I just think I want to be paid more. No matter where you work, if you feel you’re undervalued, there should be absolutely no shame in asking for a raise. Especially if you’ve done your time and put your work in. I’ve been in the UFC for six years.

“Transparently, I lost this fight obviously. I made $46,000 this fight. I haven’t fought in 18 months. So I’ve made $46,000 in 18 months being [what] people have said is a UFC star. I just feel like there’s more out there for me. I’ve always said I could do anything I wanted in life. I went to college when I was 16. I’ve done TV work. I’ve auditioned for all kinds of stuff but I want to fight. At the same breath, it has to be worth it. Because I am hurting myself and damaging myself for this sport.”

Just because she plans to see what options are available to her now that she’s entering free agency for the first time since she initially signed with the UFC when she was just 19 years old, VanZant isn’t shutting the door on a return to the promotion.

If the UFC comes back with an offer that makes her happy, VanZant says that is “always an option” but she’s also interested to see what other possibilities are available to her now.

Bellator president Scott Coker already told MMA Fighting earlier this week that he “definitely” wants to have a conversation with her about potentially doing business together. VanZant’s husband Austin Vanderford already competes for Bellator where he currently holds a 3-0 record.

“Honestly for me and that’s something I want to go into negotiations, whoever it’s with, I want to know that they want me to be part of their family,” VanZant said. “I want to work for them.

“I want to open a relationship where I can work — whether that’s working the desk or reporting or doing behind-the-scenes work. I have a passion for camera and TV work as well. So I would love if I could more than just fight for a promotion. I ultimately want to be part of the family.”

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