Bloodbath Barbie, or Paige VanZant as she’s sometimes known, makes her octagon return this weekend at UFC Fight Night 124 against Australian Jessica-Rose Clark. It comes after a lengthy hiatus, her last bout against strawweight mainstay Michelle Waterson ending in her dropping the ball in the first round via a zip-tight rear naked choke. Her year-and-a-bit layoff has seen her go through a few changes, most notably her move away from Team Alpha male and back to her home in Oregon to train alongside Chael Sonnen, as well as a jump up ten pounds to the brand new women’s flyweight division.
A new prospect
VanZant hit the ground running back in November of 2014 when she entered the UFC, notching up a plucky third round TKO against Kailan Curran. That was in a time when the women’s strawweight bracket was new, when a lot of people sat up and took notice of this bubbling blonde teenager with the perma-smile and the shiny new Reebok sponsorship deal. Her future looked bright, blinding, almost, and it appeared the UFC brass thought so too, promoting her in the hope that she might become a miniature Ronda Rousey, given her meteoric trajectory. And then, of course, the Reebok overlords seized control of the UFC and suddenly that sponsorship deal wasn’t so very cool anymore. But that’s a tale for another time.
VanZant’s hype certainly wasn’t just fluffy packaging, either. Her next few fights ended in solid wins, a decision against Felice Herrig, and a third round submission of Alex Chambers. Swiftly did this all-American girl-next-door steal the show, claiming a main-event slot in just her eighth pro fight, and fourth for the UFC. But instead of facing Joanne Calderwood, she would wind up in the path a hungry and mean Rose Namajunas.
A bumpy ride
Image search Paige VanZant and you’ll find plenty of iconic memes, with her showing off her impressive grill on one side, and her face covered in blood on the other. The ship of her scrappy, unpolished fighting style foundered upon the razor rocks of Namajunas’ superior skill and poise, and she would lose the contest by submission after a grueling, bloody four and half rounds. The hype train ran off the tracks, and that shiny smile put itself to bed. The young upstart with the sassy attitude had been humbled. It was time to hang up the gloves and put on the sequins, the world (or the bit of it that paid attention) getting to see an entirely different side of VanZant as she became a runner-up on the show Dancing with the Stars.
A triumphant return
Having purged that silliness from her system, VanZant returned to the cage and sent an emphatic message to the rest of the division by switch-kicking her way to glorious glory against Bec Rawlings. Knock-outs are few and far between in the strawweight division, where most of the competitors are so small that they have to be tied down in strong winds, so it’s little wonder that VanZant’s highlight reel will hereafter consist mostly of slow-mo replays of the kick from every conceivable angle. And fair play; it was a fantastic shot.
As mentioned, she would go on to drop her next fight to Waterson, and follow it up with a period away from the spotlight to regroup. Barring a near miss with Jessica Eye at UFC 216, cancelling that fight due to a slew of weird injuries (what in seven hells was she doing to get pink-eye and ringworm and a back injury all at the same time?), she’s back, slightly better fed but still hungry for the glory that slipped through her fingers last time.
While she may appear to consist solely of sparkles and glitter and unicorns and cupcakes and kisses and tutus and other such girlish carry-on, with the type of smile to make a dentist weep, VanZant is as vicious and relentless as an annoyed wasp, and has the finishing prowess to go with it. Not to count her opponent Clark out, as she’s also a tough competitor, VanZant does come up trumps in octagon experience, and has the striking pedigree and the determination to add a much-needed second scene to her highlight reel. The question will be how she will handle the ring-rust that comes with a layoff, not to mention the added weight at 125lbs. With the long overdue plugging of the gap between the 115 and 135lbs categories, she’ll no doubt have her sparkly eye fixed on that brand new belt.