Paige VanZant failed to cut it in UFC before bare knuckle switch

Paige VanZant is the former tomboy who grew up hunting and riding dirt bikes… her legion of fans were shocked after she swapped UFC for bare knuckle fighting but the model and TV star could never quite cut it among the MMA elite

  • Paige VanZant surprised fans by joining Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship 
  • The 26-year-old wants to prove she is not just a pretty face in the fighting game  
  • VanZant grew up as a tomboy, nicknamed ’12 Gauge’ with a love of shooting
  • She took up fighting after being bullied at school and vowed to defend herself
  • Eventually she soared in popularity with 2.7million followers on Instagram 
  • Ultimately VanZant failed to emerge as one of the top female UFC fighters  

Paige VanZant has always strived to challenge herself throughout her life and career. 

Now one of the biggest female fight stars on the planet, she has soared in popularity and her grown her brand far beyond the Octagon.

A modelling career, an army of 2.7million followers on Instagram and making her mark on TV in one of the biggest talent shows in the US. She’s even released an autobiography to shed some light on what has been a remarkable journey at the age of just 26. 

But on the UFC stage itself, she has failed to push through and claim a place at the top of the sport. Leaving MMA with a record of 8-5, her decision to pursue a career in bare knuckle fighting still raised some eyebrows. It begs the question – for someone who seems to have a comfortable career, why trade it in for one of the most barbaric sports? 

Paige VanZant is one of the most popular female fighters with 2.7m Instagram followers but she has failed to cut it among the UFC elite 

She has proven a hit on social media by posting workout pictures and videos with husband and Bellator fighter Austin Vanderford

But the 26-year-old surprised her fans by signing a deal with the Bare Knuckle Championship

VanZant faces cuts, bruises and a bloody nose when she enters the ring for the first time in November after signing a four-fight deal, something that doesn’t phase her in the slightest. 

‘This is a sport where people probably have the highest rate of getting cut open and having long-term scars is definitely something that I’m not even worried about for me,’ she told ESPN. 

‘It’s just the love of competition and I’m really excited to go out there and show off in such an amazing sport.’ 

Her loss to Amanda Ribas at UFC 251, the fifth defeat of her professional career, left her reeling and prompted president Dana White to say she should consider ‘free agency’. Many expected her to join her husband and fellow fighter Austin Vanderford by signing with Bellator, another MMA fighting championship.

Known for posting racing photos on social media, VanZant wants to prove she is not just a pretty face by showing her worth in the brutal sport

The competition leaves fighters with plenty of cuts during skin on skin action without gloves 

The promotion offered her a deal but she declined. VanZant has never taken the easy route and prefers to follow her own path. 

Born as Paige Sletton in Oregon on the West Coast of the US, she was seen as a tom boy growing up – picking up a passion for fishing, dirt bikes. And as her grandparents managed a gun club, she quickly developed a love for shooting – her dad even nicknamed her 12 gauge.

Often visiting her grandparents’ 20-acre farm meant there was plenty of space to enjoy the outdoors and she admits she loved ‘playing in the mud and getting dirty’.

VanZant grew up a tomboy – riding dirt bikes around her grandparents’ farm and was nicknamed ’12 Gauge’ due to her love of shooting 

She was inspired to take up fighting after being bullied at school and vowed to defend herself

At school, she was regularly bullied by groups of girls – but it was this experience which shaped her into a fighter. It was ‘bad enough that I had to run into the bathroom, and I’d eat my lunch on the toilet,’ she admits in her book Rise: Surviving the Fight of My Life.

She changed her last name to VanZant and vowed to forge a career in MMA in order to defend herself after years of being taunted. 

In 2012 she turned professional after winning an amateur fight at the age of 18 before getting a major break a year later when she was signed by the UFC – joining the newly-formed Strawweight division. 

She enjoyed an impressive start to her career – racking up a 6-1 record before a crushing to loss Rose Namajunas in 2015 brought her back down to earth. She was forced to submit after a choke in the fifth and final round – earning fans’ respect for her resilient display and reluctance to give in. 

She turned professional in 2012 before being signed by UFC the following year – but despite an impressive start she was unable to rack up a consistent record 

Only one more win arrived in her next two fights. She delivered a KO of Bec Rawlings but later suffered a technical submission loss to Michelle Waterson. Struggling to get a foothold in her fighting career, she began to look elsewhere – and Dancing With The Stars came calling in 2016. Her parents owned a dance studio and she had considered a career in the industry before falling in love with fighting – so this was a chance she took on with both hands. 

The show raised her profile massively as she reached the final, finishing second, and raking in an eyewatering sum of money – more than all of her UFC fights combined. 

Contestants on the show have been known to pocket around $295,000 (£225,000), and VanZant has not held back in voicing her desire for a pay rise after being stuck on the same UFC contract since joining in 2013.

‘So I make $46,000 [to show] and (another) $46,000 [to win],’ VanZant said last month. ‘I’m not going to hide that because everyone knows.

‘I can make way more money than that just promoting brands on Instagram, and that should say something.

She claims she made more as a contestant on Dancing With The Stars in 2016 than she did in her entire UFC career combined. She reached the final of the show and came second 

VanZant has also become a success from sponsored Instagram posts as well as modelling shoots with Nike and Sports Illustrated

‘Why would I step away from all the amazing success that I have? I made more money on Dancing With The Stars than I have in my entire UFC career combined – every fight, every win, every bonus.’

Indeed, Instagram is another place that has elevated her status to greater heights.

VanZant can often be found uploading photos alongside husband Austin, showing off their close bond with workout routines, but is better known for posting racy snaps on the social media platform, posing in bikini photos and showing off modelling shoots after working with Nike and Sports Illustrated.

But now this former tomboy believes a perception that she is simply ‘a pretty face’ has to change. Not only will her move to bare knuckle fighting land her around $1million (£764,000) – granting her wish to be paid a more respectable figure – it should also eliminate any idea she is a soft touch. 

The former tomboy has been outspoken in her desire for a higher salary and is set to rake in a lucrative sum after joining BKFC

‘I feel like I still have this stigma in MMA that I’m just a pretty face, and what a way to prove to people that’s not the way I see myself at all,’ she said.

Since returning to the ring after her stint on TV, a submission victory over Rachael Ostovich last year was sandwiched in between defeats by Jessica Rose-Clark and Ribas last month – losing in the first round at Fight Island.

White took a dig at VanZant for coming up so short despite voicing concerns about her salary and ‘fighting inconsistently’. Admitting it was an ‘uncomfortable situation’ after his comments about her taking up free agency, she has now opted to pursue a new path with the BKFC.

Her crushing first-round loss to Amanda Ribas at UFC 251’s Fight Island left her reeling and she has now opted to take her career in a new direction

Fighters from the bare knuckle game will be the first to tell you it’s far less dangerous than UFC or boxing, with bouts less likely to go on for 12 bruising rounds and therefore allowing for a quicker recovery after a stoppage. Fewer punches are also thrown to avoid injury to the wrists.

However, there is no doubting the brutality of the sport. In the UK, the BBBofC believes bare knuckle fighting breaks the law. 

While ’12 Gauge’ has shown she never backs down from a challenge – she could be in for some tough and bruising encounters. 

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