By Raphael Garcia
One of the biggest stories so far in 2016 has been MMA free agency and the way it’s developing across the sport. As fighters begin to test their market value to organizations outside the UFC, their willingness to take certain steps to preserve that market value will continue to grow. One fighter whose brand value is currently rising is Paige VanZant. However, with the announcement that she’s no longer available to fight on UFC 200, one wonders if the UFC brass are beginning to have concerns about their 22-year old fighter.
Earlier this week it was reported that VanZant was expected to be on July’s major UFC card, UFC 200. Those plans have changed, however, as VanZant has grown into a reality TV star of sorts with her spectacular performances on ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars.” Every week her performances continue to amaze, and she recently earned a perfect score of 30. As the potential of her winning the show comes into focus, it seems as if she’s made the decision to focus on that venture rather than her next opportunity in the Octagon.
“After thinking about it, the show is taking up a lot of her time,” VanZant’s manager Mike Roberts said while speaking with Ariel Helwani of MMA Fighting. “She wants to have time to improve and get better, so we decided to postpone her return to about late August.”
VanZant’s last performance against Rose Namajunas at UFC Fight Night 80 showed there was still a lot of room for improvement to be had for the young prospect if she was to have success against the top-tier fighters in the strawweight division. Namajunas battered VanZant for much of their 25-minute affair before finishing her in the fifth round. Her next bout will be an opportunity to get back on the winning track, and show that she’s closed some of the holes that “Thug Rose” exposed.
But what if she wins “Dancing with the Stars?” Should the UFC be concerned about what’s next for her entertainment career? The answer is a resounding “yes.”
VanZant is far from in a similar situation, but fans should not be surprised if her increased exposure due to “Dancing with the Stars” leads to less time in the Octagon and perhaps the sport of MMA as a whole. Ronda Rousey and Gina Carano both stand out as examples of how attractive the allure of entertainment stardom without the punishment of MMA can become to these fighters.
As interest in Carano as an actress grew before her 2009 fight against “Cyborg” Justino, rumors grew of her leaving the sport. Rousey’s full slate of commitments continues to push back her return to the Octagon, as she now plans to make a late-year comeback to the UFC. But after that occurs, there’s no telling how much longer she will be a part of the roster.
Other examples include Randy Couture and Georges St. Pierre; both grew their brands within the UFC until major opportunities elsewhere came calling. Couture eventually made a return to the cage just to leave again, and the UFC is currently in negotiations with GSP to fight again. However, those negotiations are stalling due to the ability of “Rush” to demand more than the average fighter because of his star power.
The UFC stands to benefit from this development. When she returns to the cage, fans should expect her to be placed into a big fight and if she wins, potentially on the short list of contenders for the strawweight title, whether that position is deserving or not. If she does make the improvements her manager points to, then the UFC benefits from having another big name that mainstream fans will watch, reaching for the highest echelons of the sport – an instant attraction for everyone.
Paige VanZant’s run on “Dancing with the Stars” is a story that the MMA fans should pay close attention to. With each high score, she moves closer to becoming a star that brings more attention to the sport as a whole. That’s a great position for her and for the UFC. That is, if she doesn’t find herself under a bigger and brighter spotlight than the Octagon can contain.
UFC 200: Tate vs. Nunes (formerly UFC 200: Cormier vs. Jones 2, UFC 200: Lesnar vs. Hunt) takes place on July 9, 2016 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada.