Austin Vanderford, 'Mr. VanZant,' ready to make a name for himself in Bellator debut

Kevin IoleCombat columnist
Austin Vanderford signed with Bellator after not being signed by the UFC despite a victory in “Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series” last summer. (DWTNCS LLC)
Austin Vanderford signed with Bellator after not being signed by the UFC despite a victory in “Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series” last summer. (DWTNCS LLC)

One doesn’t have to meet Austin Vanderford in person to get the idea that he’s an easy-going guy who doesn’t take himself all that seriously.

The unbeaten welterweight, who makes his Bellator debut Friday when he takes on Cody Jones on the main card at Bellator 215 at the Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, Connecticut, deals with the many hecklers with a chuckle.

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Prominent people in all walks of life understand that social media can be very difficult because the anonymity the internet grants allows for all manner of cheap shots with almost no repercussions.

Vanderford takes abuse not because of anything he’s done, but because of his famous wife.

Vanderford is married to UFC flyweight Paige VanZant, who is ranked 15th in her division and became a household name with a second-place finish in ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars.” VanZant has been on all manner of shows since then, including a recent appearance on “Good Morning America.”

VanZant has two million Instagram followers and another 309,000 on Twitter. Vanderford has 62,300 on Instagram and 1,730 on Twitter, so he definitely is in his wife’s shadow.

He just laughs when he’s referred to as “Mr. VanZant” and embraces the taunts.

“I married her for the person she is and I’m proud if they want to talk to me about her and call me, ‘Mr. VanZant,’” he said. “It’s a compliment, if you ask me.”

Austin Vanderford (top) submitted Angelo Trevino in their welterweight fight during “Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series” on July 17, 2018, in Las Vegas. (DWTNCS LLC)
Austin Vanderford (top) submitted Angelo Trevino in their welterweight fight during “Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series” on July 17, 2018, in Las Vegas. (DWTNCS LLC)

Part of his ability to laugh off the slings and arrows he receives on social media is because of his background. He grew up in a fishing family in a small Alaskan town where he graduated high school as part of a class of 15. He’d been fishing since he was 6 years old, working on the family’s boats.

He wrestled in high school — and went on to win an NAIA national championship — but learned not to let much bother him from his earliest days.

“I grew up in a fishing village with older family members and older friends and the living wasn’t tough, but I fished my whole life,” he said. “I’ve worked on boats my whole life. If you didn’t have thick skin doing that stuff, you weren’t going to get very far. So after going through all that, when I hear people say s— on social media and stuff, what else can I do besides laugh?

“You can only hear so many times how big your ears are, or they think they’re burning me by calling me ‘Mr. VanZant.’ All right, we get it. I enjoy it and get a kick out of it, but Paige has to rein me in a little bit sometimes. I like to get into it and interact. We’ve had a couple of weird people take things too far, and Paige just tries to get me to let it go and move on.”

He won a fight in the summer on “Dana White’s Contender Series” and hoped he would be given a UFC contract, but White didn’t select him.

That left him as a free agent and he couldn’t sign soon enough when Bellator came knocking.

He insists he’ll rise to the occasion and that he won’t be awed by the moment.

“As big as getting in the UFC may have been and as big as Bellator is, this is something I’ve been working toward since I was 5 years old and started in wrestling, so I’m used to this and I’m as ready for this as I ever could hope to be,” he said. “My senior year [in college], I went to the national finals and it doesn’t get much bigger than that. And you compete not knowing if you were going to be able to go on afterward or if that would be your last wrestling match, so that adds an element to it.

“I feel comfortable and I feel I belong and I feel I’ve earned my way here. I feel I’m well-equipped with my own experiences in big situations and I believe I’m going to have good success.”

The hardest thing he’s had to deal with in his career was helping VanZant through her recovery from a broken arm that didn’t heal properly and looked as if it may prematurely end her career.

VanZant was devastated going through it, frustrated by not being able to train and fight, and she heard many on social media say he wasn’t a true fighter.

She credited Vanderford with helping push her through her recovery, but he said it was a difficult time for him as well as for her. He got a boost when she submitted Rachael Ostovich in her Jan. 19 comeback fight in Brooklyn.

“I’ve learned the hard way that injures are a huge part of combat sports and there are a lot of ups and downs in it because of that,” Vanderford said. “She had a tough situation to deal with, but honestly, to me, the hardest thing was hearing people question whether she was really a fighter.

“I’ll tell you this: They weren’t in my shoes consoling her day in and day out. She was crying because all she wanted to do was train and she couldn’t do it. There were a lot of tough times then, but it was awesome for me to see her go out and not just fight, but look so good and win. Her being able to come back and fight like she did, boy, that did a lot for the both of us.”

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