Paige VanZant knew she was going to shock the world when the announcement was made that she was leaving the UFC and signing a deal to join Bare Knuckle Fighting Championships.
While her exit from the UFC wasn’t all that surprising given her concerns over the pay scale in the promotion, the fact that the 26-year-old flyweight, who doubles as a model in her spare time, would make the decision to compete in a sport where getting really bloody is just part of the deal.
Despite a study conducted in coordination with the Association of Ringside Physicians that actually showed fighters competing in bare-knuckle boxing are concussed less often while also receiving fewer broken hands than their counterparts in mixed martial arts or boxing, the aesthetics surrounding the aftermath of a typical contest in a BKFC bout is a much tougher pill to swallow.
There’s one particularly grisly image from BKFC veteran Jason Knight after a fight that VanZant was tagged in repeatedly over social media once she signed with the promotion. As much as she appreciates the concern, VanZant promises that she’s going into her debut fight at BKFC Knucklemania on Feb. 5 with realistic expectations of what’s probably going to happen.
“I think the hard thing is the regular fan, not necessarily educated in martial arts or educated in the medical field. They see blood and immediately see it as a terrible injury,” VanZant said when speaking to MMA Fighting. “Whereas for me, I would much rather be cut open than break my arm or break my knuckle or tear my shoulder or tear my knee.
“Those are all things that take a very long time to heal whereas a laceration, I got cut in my face in one fight — one you can barely tell, and two I heard statistically that scars make you more attractive. It’s not a big deal. Those heal and you just continue on. Faces heal really well, your body heals itself really well.”
VanZant’s eyes are wide open coming into her first fight with BKFC but signing with the promotion had nothing to do with proving her toughness after she was often painted as a pretty face first rather than a legitimate mixed martial artist during her UFC career.
She’ll never apologize for taking advantages of the opportunities that have been presented to her like a previous stint on ABC’s Dancing with the Stars or a photo spread in a recent Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition.
Much like those examples, VanZant just saw BKFC as the best possible move for her career right now and she’s anxious to get to work.
“I feel like for me, this wasn’t about proving anything,” VanZant explained. “This is truly just about going out there and having fun. That’s what it was at the beginning of my MMA, beginning of my UFC career. There wasn’t anybody I had to prove wrong. I was just going out there to try this because I didn’t know how long fighting was going to last for me. I was so young and so new to this sport.
“So here, it’s kind of the same thing. I’m just going to go out there and have fun and I’m doing something that I’m passionate about. I’m doing it because I love it and nothing else matters.”
To be clear, VanZant definitely had the option to continue fighting in MMA because as soon as her contract with the UFC expired, she immediately had suitors ready to offer her a deal.
The most attractive option came from Bellator MMA after the ViacomCBS-owned promotion attempted to sign VanZant to the roster where she would join her husband Austin Vanderford, who currently competes there as a welterweight.
In the end, VanZant opted to sign with BKFC, although she admits it wasn’t an easy decision given her feelings towards Bellator.
“There was a few different things and you mentioned a few of them — the money, the passion part of it,” VanZant said about why she signed with BKFC. “It wasn’t just one thing that led me towards signing with BKFC. Of course, Bellator, when I was nearing the end of my UFC career, I did kind of anticipate that I would be signing with Bellator. I love the way that they treat my husband.
“They’re an amazing promotion and they came with a really awesome offer. It was hard to turn that down, especially knowing that I was walking away from my husband and I fighting for the same promotion, which is just so cool. For me, there was so many different factors.”
According to VanZant, the positives working with BKFC far outweighed any potential negatives.
“Yeah, one, the pay was great, they came with a really good offer,” VanZant said. “There was other pieces of my career, like I do really love striking and this is a moment in my career where I can just focus on striking, which is so much fun. My arm, I’ve broken my arm three times and every time I broke it was an MMA injury, not striking or boxing injury or I guess it was a striking injury, just not straight boxing. Like someone throwing a flying knee at me, I don’t have to worry about that now. It’s like this moment where I can be so passionate and not have to worry about re-injuring myself. I can just go out there and compete.
“The passion part of it. I did know that people were going to expect me to sign with Bellator. Everyone know like ‘oh Paige is going to Bellator,’ it was kind of this obvious thing and I am like I am going to shock the world and I am so excited about it.”
Because BKFC has so much invested in VanZant, there was no doubt her debut was going to be treated as such and the result is the Knucklemania pay-per-view with the former UFC star serving as the main event.
There were talks for a number of potential opponents for her first fight but ultimately the promotion settled on Britain Hart, who is a three-fight BKFC veteran coming off a TKO win while previously battling to a split decision with Bec Rawlings as well.
In other words, VanZant isn’t getting an opponent she’s expected to walk through and that absolutely mattered to her.
“Honestly, I’m really excited about this matchup,” VanZant said. “It was going back and forth between who my opponent was going to be. BKFC wasn’t really sure, there was a lot of talk about who it would be. I’m really excited with the person they settled with, especially for the debut. I’m going into her world, something she’s already competed at. She’s fought for the title. She fought a split decision with Bec Rawlings, who we all know is extremely talented. People should know this Britain chick, she’s no joke absolutely.
“I think that’s what makes me rise to the occasion more. I know I have to take this so seriously because I know how tough she is. That’s the thing, I’m coming to fight the best of the best and I’m super excited that I get to go into her world and take over. I think it’s going to be the perfect debut for me.”