Next Ronda Rousey? Paige VanZant is perfectly happy avoiding that label

Kevin Iole
Yahoo Sports

LAS VEGAS – There probably aren't a lot of mixed martial arts fighters who once were cheerleaders. Nor are there a lot of them, particularly women, who learned grappling by wrestling with their father.

But Paige VanZant has never been one to run with the crowd.

The strawweight, who defeated Kailin Curran on Nov. 22 in Austin, Texas, in a Fight of the Night bout in the UFC debut for both women, has gotten to the pinnacle of her sport by being an individual and blazing her own path.

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She's not interested in being the next Ronda Rousey, though that tag is often pinned to her, as it is to many promising female fighters.

Paige VanZant is the youngest female fighter in the UFC. (Bill Larkin/CVP Portraits)
Paige VanZant is the youngest female fighter in the UFC. (Bill Larkin/CVP Portraits)

"I have so much respect for Ronda and how talented she is and how great of a fighter she is and what she has done for every woman who wants to be a fighter," the 20-year-old VanZant said. "But I don't want to be the next anybody. I want to be the first Paige VanZant."

A one-time dancer and cheerleader, being a professional fighter was the last thing she ever thought of becoming until a life change forced her hand.

Her eyes were opened when she moved with her family from sleepy, idyllic Dayton, Ore., to the Reno suburb of Sparks, Nev. After her freshman year at Newberg High School in Oregon, she transferred to Reed High School in Sparks.

It was, to say the least, a culture shock.

"I moved to Reno when my dad lost his job," VanZant said. "I guess it was fortunate for me because it helped me to discover MMA. I went to a rather, well, I don't want to say ghetto, but it was a kind of school I wasn't used to. I grew up in a very, very small town and [Reed High School] was 4,000 kids and it was a scary place."

She felt the need to protect herself and wound up at Ken Shamrock's "The Lion's Den," gym in Reno. She had no idea who Shamrock was or his connection to MMA history, but her father, Steve, a former wrestler, certainly did.

"He was a big fan of Ken's, to say the least," a giggling VanZant said of her father.

Because of her father's love for MMA, she had little difficulty getting her immediate family's approval for her new career. The same couldn't be said of her extended family.

When her grandfather heard of the idea, he was aghast. And even now, as VanZant is 4-1 and a leading contender in the UFC, he hasn't warmed up to it so much.

Grandpa is well beyond the UFC's 18-to-34-year-old demographic and can't wrap his head around the fact that his pretty, petite granddaughter is a cage fighter.

"The only person [in my family] I still have to convince that I should be fighting is my grandpa," she said. "He's still very much against it. He's old-fashioned, though."

But if she can get her grandfather in touch with UFC president Dana White or Invicta's Shannon Knapp, perhaps he'd change his mind and give her his blessing.

White and Knapp rave about her talent and believe she has legitimate star potential.

"She's a really talented, tough girl," White said. "She's a legitimate athlete. There are people who are searching for her because of her looks, but if you can't fight, people don't care. I heard for a long time about Georges St-Pierre and his looks. There are a lot of women who became fans of Georges St-Pierre's because of his looks, but he became such a big star because he was a real, legitimate, high-end fighter.

"Paige has the look, and that's good, but she is, without question, a fighter. That fight with Curran was awesome and she showed her toughness in that."

There are some who have dismissed VanZant because of her looks. She doesn't have the gnarled nose and cauliflower ears that identify many fighters, and her appearance is more in line with the stereotyped thinking of what a cheerleader might look like.

VanZant was a cheerleader, but said she was injured far more often while on the cheer team than she has been as a fighter.

And statistics back her up. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, cheerleading accounts for 65 percent of all catastrophic injuries to girls in high school sports and 71 percent of all catastrophic injuries to women in collegiate sports.

Knapp praised VanZant for her toughness and said that all she needs is experience to become a high-level contender.

Not all prospects make it, as any heartbroken baseball general manager who is relying on a hotshot 20-year-old to save his franchise can attest.

But Knapp likes what she sees of VanZant.

Paige VanZant kicks Kailin Curran during their women's strawweight bout at a UFC Fight Night event. (Getty)
Paige VanZant kicks Kailin Curran during their women's strawweight bout at a UFC Fight Night event. (Getty)

"She's really good and one of the things we ID'd in her early on is that she is extremely tough," Knapp said, putting particular emphasis on extremely. "She has a switch that goes on and she's pretty fearless in there.

"She is incredibly marketable and has all the components to become [a star], but she's so gritty and tough. Either you have it or you don't, and she does, for sure."

VanZant wants to give MMA a good 10 years and then retire to have a family when she's 30.

She said one of the attractions when she began to train was the large number of guys at the gym, and said she gets a kick out of her superiority now that she's a pro.

"I grew up with all guy neighbors, and being able to beat guys up now is really exciting," she says, before breaking into a laugh.

Beating guys up won't do much for her career. But if she can beat the best of the 115-pound women out there, she's going to make a lot of money.

Rousey has parlayed Mike Tyson-level dominance, a quick wit and her appearance into a lucrative career. She's one of, if not the biggest, star in the UFC.

VanZant has all the ingredients to do the same thing.

"You can already tell there is a lot of interest in her and that people want to see her fight," White said. "If she puts the time in and she keeps improving, she has a chance to blow up [and become a] huge [star]."

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