Yesterday, when Paige VanZant smoked Bec Rawlings with a switch kick (sorry Bec) then finished her off with hammer fists, you could almost hear the UFC collective breathe a sigh of relief. They obviously have a lot of belief in her. Not just as a fighter but in her ability to expand their reach and popularity.
The UFC isn’t stupid. They know that in sports, fans relate to stars. They also know that fans want authenticity. They won’t accept someone who may look the part, but can’t deliver the goods. The NFL, NBA, PGA and even pro soccer and volleyball associations know that their teams and leagues thrive via star recognition and marketability. It’s easier for fans to associate with and follow a particular individual than and entire sports league. The more stars you have, the greater your popularity and success.
Unfortunately for the UFC, one of the very things that make is so appealing is also what can hold it back, at least on the women’s side. There are so many variables within the octagon that even your most superior fighters can quickly and suddenly suffer defeat. Not a bad thing when you have plenty of divisions with scores of great fighters like on the men’s side. But on the women’s side, where there are limited fighters, divisions, and champions at any time, this can be a problem.
The UFC hung its hat on Ronda Rousey during her incredible run. The organization thrived and popularity grew. When she was stopped by Holly Holm, it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Holm then inherited the throne as the new women’s face, at least until Rousey came back. But when Holm got choked to sleep by Miesha Tate, someone who had lost twice to Rousey, the star power approach was heading in the wrong direction. Tate, as highly respected as she was, could have built herself into the new legitimate women’s star, but she lost in her first title defense.
With the title changing hands so fast and unexpectedly, it created a bit of a lost opportunity to keep growing the women’s side of the sport. Last season’s Ultimate Fighter show set the stage for new stars to shine. Claudia Gadelha, one of the shows coaches was not only extremely talented, but also personable and likable. She was poised to make a run for the new female face of the UFC, if only she could rest the title from arch nemesis and current Strawweight champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk. Jedrzejczyk retained her crown, besting Gadelha for the second time in a close fight. Her credentials as a fighter would seemingly put JJ in line for a big following. But since she conducted herself so poorly and so much like a bully as the opposing coach on TUF, she has a long way to go before she will be universally embraced.
And so the UFC women’s division is left without that one big, have-to-watch, star that a young sport arguably needs. There are certainly some contenders out there, talented young fighters with loads of potential. But the criteria for the women’s star is a big pair of gloves to fill. She needs to be talented enough to inspire and be respected by the other fighters and fans, both male and female. She can’t simply be the best of the worst. She needs to be legit in her skills and dedication. She also needs to represent that she is a female fighter. Male fighters can be axe murders or body snatchers and get bonus points for it. Female fighter must walk the fine line between being themselves and what/who society deems that they should be, at least in terms of garnering popularity. It’s not necessarily right or desirable, but it is a reality. The UFC is well aware of this. They know that their audience will be largely male. They don’t necessarily want their women fighter to be ring girls, but they are aware that if they look like someone’s kid sister or co worker or female friend, someone who can be related to, then accepting and cheering for them will be a lot more likely. Fighting skills notwithstanding, the MMA world will more quickly embrace a “preachers daughter” like Holm or a “cupcake” like Tate than say, a Cristine Cyborg.
Enter Paige VanZant. Highly touted from the beginning as a great athlete and potential star, she earned some respect beating up former TUF star Felice Herring, among others. When VanZant lost to a superior Rose Namajunas, she said and did all the right things. She said she needed to improve and that she had a lot of things to learn. Then she went and put in the work to get better. Losing teaches you more so than winning that you need to get better. She also didn’t shy from the spotlight as she appeared in the popular TV show “Dancing With The Stars”. But even with this growing media success, she remained true as a fighter, even turning down a role in the new Kickboxer movie so as to focus on her training camp work.
All this would have meant nothing if she didn’t perform and win in the Octagon. There’s simply no place to hid once the lights come on and the bell rings. VanZant backed up the smiles with improved skills and style, and is now one of the top women at finishing fights in the UFC’s Strawweight division. The UFC could not be more pleased. She will need to continue to work hard and do well in the ring. She doesn’t need to win every fight, but she certainly needs to win most of them to become “the one”. It is more of an opportunity than a burden as VanZant is legit and truly loves the sport of MMA. Her passion will carry her forward. And as far as the women’s division in concerned, the UFC is hoping and banking that it is a mutual journey to the top.