Sports

Paige VanZant becomes a Sacramento favorite and UFC headliner

MMA fighter Paige VanZant and fans have a dance off

At a public workout in December 2016 at Golden 1 Center, mixed martial arts star Paige VanZant invited fans to keep up with her moves.
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At a public workout in December 2016 at Golden 1 Center, mixed martial arts star Paige VanZant invited fans to keep up with her moves.

Paige VanZant had to prove herself. She knew the members of Team Alpha Male wouldn’t fully accept her unless she could somehow show she belonged. The 19-year-old who arrived three years ago from Reno was filled with grandiose dreams of UFC greatness. But she needed a plan. She needed a team.

During her first sparring session at Ultimate Fitness in midtown, she faced off with a young Brazilian boy known to be an accomplished kickboxer. Sparring turned to an actual fight. VanZant didn’t back down. She earned a spot on one of mixed martial arts’ most respected teams that day and, three years later, has earned her place as the headliner of Saturday’s UFC Fight Night on Fox 22 card at Golden 1 Center.

VanZant (7-2, 4-1 UFC) faces Michelle Waterson (13-4, 1-0 UFC) in a strawweight battle.

“Those two went at it like a war,” said Team Alpha Male leader Urijah Faber, who is fighting for the last time Saturday against Brad Pickett. “He pissed her off and she pissed him off and I look over and she’s dropping knees on his head. We had to break it up, and I knew then that, all right, she’s not here to play.”

Faber admitted he was initially concerned that VanZant may have had ulterior motives for training with his team, such as using MMA and the team to springboard into movies and modeling. But VanZant convinced Faber that she was for real.

“I remember sitting down with her and trying to get to the bottom of what she was really going after with this,” Faber said. “I asked her, ‘Do you want to get into acting?’ I was trying to gauge her, and she said, ‘I want to be world champion.’ 

VanZant is currently ranked No. 7 in the UFC’s strawweight (115 pounds) division and is coming off an impressive TKO victory in August over Bec Rawlings. VanZant used a vicious switch foot attack to land her left foot onto Rawlings’ face. The unorthodox strike earned her a $50,000 performance-of-the-night bonus.

Waterson is a former Invicta FC Atomweight champion. She hasn’t fought since July 2015, when she submitted Angela Magana with a rear-naked choke.

Waterson’s right hand has been broken three times and has a metal plate and six screws implanted to hold the bones together.

“My hand feels sturdy now with the plate in,” Waterson said. “The human skull is meant to protect the brain, and when you hit the human skull with little strawweight bones like mine, then they break.”

Waterson said she’s prepared more for this fight than any other in her career. And even though she has a lot more experience than the Sacramento transplant, she said, nothing will come easily Saturday.

“It’s true, she’s green,” Waterson said. “I have lots more years of experience than she does. But because I say she’s green doesn’t mean I’m taking her lightly.”

Waterson said her high-altitude training in Albuquerque, N.M., will also be an advantage and VanZant will not get comfortable in the octagon.

“We scouted her and we’ve seen lots of different styles (from her),” Waterson said. “We’ve seen her outside game and her rush in and we’re ready for her. She has to be worried about me everywhere. I feel like I’m more well-rounded than her in every aspect of the game.

VanZant said she continues to evolve as a fighter and Waterson, or UFC fans, haven’t yet seen her best. But they will Saturday, she promised.

“I don’t think it’s going all five rounds, that’s for sure,” VanZant said. “I’m excited about this matchup, especially coming after my last victory. It’s a big step for me. It’s the right step and I’m happy I get to do it right here in Sacramento.”

VanZant said she loves her adopted hometown and looks forward to headlining a UFC show before a national audience, but especially for Sacramento-area MMA fans who she said have embraced her as if she were born here.

“I’m very integrated in this community,” VanZant said. “I’ve been here since I was 19. Those are the vital years where you really grow up and find yourself. I was a teenager and now I’m 22. I feel like I belong here now. Sacramento has accepted me as their own. All of my UFC fights have been out of Team Alpha Male and I couldn’t have done that without Sacramento, so I hope they come out and support and show us lots of love. “

VanZant said it will be a little bittersweet seeing Faber in his farewell fight. But she also said she’ll get to glean more of her mentor’s knowledge back in the gym now that he’s retiring.

“I had gone to a few other gyms and I was looked past; I was pushed aside and I was put in the kids’ classes,” VanZant recalled. “I was 18 years old and already a professional. I wasn’t taken seriously. It took me three or four months to prove myself and then he accepted me on Team Alpha Male, and since then he’s really been the biggest contributor to my career. He’s helped with my success.”

Both VanZant and Faber wear their hair in tight braids in the octagon to keep it out their faces. The braids have become somewhat of a tradition and trademark for both fighters. So, the question becomes, “Who looks better in braids?”

“Paige looks better in anything,” Faber said. “But I can rock them pretty well, too.”

Mark Billingsley covers the UFC and mixed martial arts for The Bee. Reach him at editorwriter@att.net or @editorwriter001.

UFC Fight Night on Fox 22

Saturday: Golden 1 Center

Prelims: 12:30 p.m., UFC.TV; 2 p.m., FS1

Main card: 5 p.m., Ch. 40

Main event: Paige VanZant vs. Michelle Waterson

Co-main event: Urijah Faber vs. Brad Pickett

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