When Paige VanZant finished the final fight on her UFC contract, she was excited to test free agency really for the first time in her career.
VanZant inked her first UFC deal when she was just 19 years old, so she was never really offered the opportunity to test the free market to find out her true value in combat sports. Barely a month after her most recent fight, she shocked the world when making the decision to sign an exclusive contract with upstart promotion Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship where she will put her MMA gloves aside and compete in one of the fastest growing yet brutal competitions in the world.
According to VanZant, she was familiar with the BKFC, but it was play-by-play man Sean Wheelock, who had previously worked with her during a commentary gig, that introduced her to the idea of signing with the promotion.
“I had no idea they’d be such a big player in the game,” VanZant told MMA Fighting. “Once I heard, talking with my husband, I was like I think I want to sign with them. We were still in that negotiation process, I really hadn’t heard their final offer. It was more than just what I feel like they were offering me financially.
“It was the opportunity I was excited about. I’ve been a fan of their sport and it’s something that I’m really going to be able to show off my striking. If you look at my MMA career, my biggest downfall has been my jiu-jitsu and my striking has been my passion. I’m so excited to show that off.”
VanZant’s manager Malki Kawa explained that her free agency brought a lot of offers from promotions all over the world. But in a similar situation as VanZant, he was informed that the BKFC was making a serious push to bring her into their organization.
“I represent Thiago Alves and that was actually another deal I had done through one of [the BKFC] matchmakers in Dean Toole, who owns Island Fights in Pensacola and I know Dean Toole very, very well,” Kawa explained. “He called me and said ‘hey you should probably listen to this bare-knuckle boxing offer for Paige’ and I said ‘listen, this is not going to be a simple deal, it’s not going to be we’ll fight for [$100,000 and $100,000] and he was like ‘dude, just listen to the deal.’
“Eventually, I got on the phone with [BKFC president David Feldman] and David says it was easy working with me. I’m just going to say it was easy to work with David. He’s a promoter who gets it, he understands it. I appreciated it from the get go cause there was really no nonsense.”
Kawa added that the financial incentives are obviously great for VanZant’s bank account but the deal with the BKFC will also go beyond just fighting inside the ring.
There are plans to use VanZant in almost every aspect of the BKFC’s business including commentary and broadcast work not to mention her exclusivity only applies to certain combat sports activities, which means she would be available for other outside endeavors.
“It’s a multi-million dollar deal and we’re not even talking the sprinkles and the cherries that go on top of the sundae,” Kawa teased. “Dave made a very strong offer. It’s a four-fight deal so it’s not anything crazy. It’s a four-fight deal and Dave and I sat and planned out these four fights on how they should look, when they should be, over the course of the next 16 to 18 months and I think that if everything goes the way that we expect it to go between the three of us, Paige, Dave and myself, multi-million will turn even bigger than that.
“Here’s the thing, I’ll be honest with you, me and Dave came to a lot of agreements on this contract and one of them is that she’s going to bare-knuckle box, I said absolutely just as she would have signed with Bellator or ONE or the UFC, it would be an exclusive agreement. The one thing that Dave did allow us to do was anything outside of MMA or boxing, which includes pro wrestling or grappling, any of that other stuff.”
With a number of high profile free agents previously signed to his roster, Feldman saw real value in adding VanZant to the BKFC family, and while money had to be a driving factor in the deal, he preferred to think of it as an investment rather than just throwing some extra zeroes on a check to get her to sign.
“Paige is getting paid very, very well but she’s also getting more opportunities here or more opportunities to grow her personality really,” Feldman said. “With that Paige is really helping us, she has a tremendous following and she gets it. She really gets it. What needs to be done to take this to the next level.
“That’s why I think it’s a great partnership cause we’re both going to do what’s needed to be done to grow each other.”
In addition to fighting, VanZant is truly excited that BKFC plans to promote and showcase her talents in ways that perhaps the UFC never did.
“I feel like for a long time I wanted a promotion to know yes, I’m a fighter first and foremost and my end goal is to be successful in fighting but at the same time there’s so many other things that I am talented at and have a lot more to bring to the table,” VanZant explained. “That’s something that they offered me.
“They’re letting me come out and commentate. They’re letting me be a part of the organization, more than just an athlete for them. That’s something for so long that I’ve kind of been complimented on that I am talented inside the cage and when the cage door closes I’m there to fight but I can offer so much more to the table through past experiences.”
With contracts signed and finalized, VanZant is currently preparing for her BKFC debut, which will likely take place in November or December.
Along with her husband, Bellator welterweight Austin Vanderford, VanZant recently relocated full time to south Florida where she has started training full time at the main American Top Team academy in Coconut Creek. There she’s been gaining valuable insight into bare-knuckle boxing from UFC veteran Thiago Alves, who will be making his own BKFC debut in September.
Perhaps the biggest question for VanZant after signing with the BKFC is her knowledge about the well-known brutality that comes along with bare-knuckle boxing matches. While there’s never been a serious injury in any BKFC match, the physicality of the sport is undeniable, especially when seeing the aftermath worn on the faces of some of the top fighters in the promotion.
“Honestly for me, it was never even a thought,” VanZant said. “Everyone is talking about one specific fight that was totally brutal and obviously looked very violent but at the same time, I’m in a position, yeah I understand people think I’m cute but I’m a fighter and an athlete first and foremost.
“For me, in the UFC, I broke my arm and had to have surgery three times. That was a longterm injury that came from being kneed in the arm, from being kicked in the arm, from spinning backfists, those are all things I don’t even have to worry about anymore.”
When she’s not fighting, VanZant has made a lucrative career outside the cage or ring with a notable appearance on ABC’s Dancing with the Stars as well as a recent modeling gig as part of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition.
She still plans on pursuing those opportunities as well but VanZant isn’t too worried that her face will suddenly look different just because she’s involved in bare-knuckle boxing matches.
“A cut on your face always heals,” VanZant said. “I’ve been cut open before and people still think I’m pretty, and it hasn’t hurt my career yet. For me, it comes down to just being an athlete and this is the promotion that sparked my passion. Obviously, we did have huge players in the game. We had really big offers all over the place. But the offer that excited me and the promotion that excited me was this one. Because it’s something that’s new, it’s exciting. I’m excited to have that passion and fire back in me as an athlete.
“My family was nervous about anywhere I went so it’s truly whatever I wanted to do and it wasn’t a thought for me to get cut open. I feel like at this point, I’ll be paid well enough I can have plastic surgery. I have a plastic surgeon on speed dial and I can send him a text and say hey, you’ve got to fix me up.”
More than anything, VanZant is ready to prove herself in the ring and that her worth to the BKFC will go far beyond the number of Instagram followers providing likes on her photos.
“There is that stigma ‘well she’s just a pretty face’ but that’s not how I see myself at all,” VanZant said. “I see myself as a competitor and I see myself as a true, really good striker and an athlete. I think what better way to show that off.”