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Beauty, grit and grace: Paige VanZant is the new face of MMA fighting

Paige VanZant trains with flyweight fighter Albert Tapia at Ultimate Fitness Gym in Sacramento earlier this month.
Paige VanZant trains with flyweight fighter Albert Tapia at Ultimate Fitness Gym in Sacramento earlier this month. mcrisostomo@sacbee.com

A techno-pop version of “California Dreamin’” is pulsing inside the gym as Paige VanZant jabs and grabs at her opponent, a young man with a buzz haircut and a black mouthguard that stretches his lips into an intimidating sneer.

Floating in a sea of testosterone, with 23 men and only one other woman engaging in combat around her, VanZant’s hazel eyes are lasered on her rival on the mat. Suddenly, with stunning quickness, she wraps an arm around his waist and flips him onto the padded blue surface. She straddles him, throwing air punches toward his face. Then she jumps up, on bare feet, wearing a megawatt smile.

“It’s a huge adrenaline rush,” VanZant says about landing a strong punch or taking down an opponent.

VanZant, 21, seems perfectly at home here at Ultimate Fitness, the no-frills midtown Sacramento gym where she is honing her skills as a mixed martial arts fighter with championship aspirations. Outside the gym, she seems just as comfortable showing off her “girl next door” face and chiseled body in promotional events and marketing campaigns from New York to New Orleans.

Life is moving at lightning speed for VanZant, a former child model and tap dancer turned cage fighter.

A combination of beauty, grit and grace have thrust her into the marketing machine around the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the governing body of a modern blood sport in which combatants use boxing, jiu jitsu, wrestling and other disciplines in an effort to batter each other into submission inside an octagonal ring or “cage.” Suddenly, women such as VanZant, bantamweight champ Ronda Rousey and Polish fighter Joanna Jedrzejczyk are front and center.

VanZant, who has the compact build of a gymnast and the shimmery hair of a surfer, is among 57 female fighters on the UFC’s roster. As a member of the strawweight division, which features fighters of 115 pounds or less, she has lost only one of her six pro bouts and recently put a nationally televised beatdown on a heavily favored veteran opponent, Felice Herrig.

She has signed contracts with several major sponsors, most notably Reebok, for which she is paid to wear the company’s logo during fights, training sessions and public appearances. The company has tapped her for its “Tough Is Beautiful” campaign, focusing on elite female athletes who are young, hip and have a large social media following. VanZant, with just a couple of years of fighting under her belt, already has an impressive fan base, including 188,000 Instagram followers and 173,000 “likes” on her Facebook page.

“Paige is a great brand ambassador,” says Mike Lunardeli, Reebok’s director of combat training. “I see her being with us for a long time. She’s the beautiful young girl next door who just happens to fight the toughest women on the planet.”

VanZant also is an avowed Christian who posts Bible verses online and says she wants to be “a light for God through my fighting.” She wears skimpy athletic outfits but wants to be known more for her “ground and pound” and scrambling skills in the Octagon than her looks.

None of these things seem contradictory to VanZant, who grew up in the tiny town of Dayton, Ore., where her mother was a dance teacher and her dad worked at the paper mill. “I don’t see anything wrong or different about what I’m doing,” she says. “I’m just being me.”

Paige has never shied away from the spotlight, says her mother, Rachel. She danced competitively throughout childhood and was the only eighth-grader at her school to earn a spot on the varsity cheerleading squad. On weekends, she and her big brother, Steven, raced dirt bikes, fished and hunted for frogs and salamanders.

“She was a tomboy for sure, very athletic,” Rachel VanZant says. “But she had a girly side, too.”

The girly side

Inside Ultimate Fitness, where the walls are decorated with scowling young men in fighter’s stances, VanZant shows flashes of that “girly” side.

On a recent afternoon, she appears dressed head to toe in Reebok, color-coordinated from her thin pink headband to her flip-flops. She wears a light pink sheen on her lips, and her hair in a bouncy ponytail. She waves to her manager, smiles warmly at visitors, and answers a telephone call from her mom with a cheery “Hey, Mama!”

Rachel VanZant cannot bring herself to watch her daughter fight, though she is proud and supportive of her burgeoning career. “I get very nervous,” she says. “But I’m really happy for her accomplishments.”

It was Paige’s father, Steve, who introduced her to MMA after she became a target of bigger girls who bullied her during her freshman year in high school. “I don’t know why they picked on me,” Paige recalls. “They jumped me. There was a lot of verbal abuse. It was really, really terrible.”

The family moved that year to the Reno area, where she enrolled in a college preparatory program and began practicing MMA at a training facility called the Lion’s Den, founded by legendary UFC fighter Ken Shamrock.

“I wanted to be able to defend myself,” VanZant says. “And I immediately fell in love with the discipline. It gave me a huge amount of confidence. It just felt like what I was supposed to be doing.”

VanZant joined Sacramento’s Team Alpha Male, anchored by former UFC featherweight champ Urijah Faber, in 2012 and began training with urgency at Ultimate Fitness. At age 18, she made her professional MMA debut, which she won by a split decision. The next year, the UFC signed her.

The UFC’s president, Dana White, once argued that the American public would never accept female cage fighters. But after meeting Rousey and watching her skills in the Octagon, he says, he changed his mind. “She’s a badass,” he says. “She woke me up. Mainstream America has embraced these women.” The UFC launched its women’s division in 2012.

Fighters like Rousey and VanZant are at the center of a “powerful movement” around female MMA fighters, White says. “Paige is a pioneer for a lot of girls who probably have always had this inside of them, but there was never a place for them. Until now.”

White says VanZant has that intangible “it” factor and is destined to be a star in the UFC, whose fans are young and 71 percent male. He compares her to Rousey, who he says has made “millions and millions of dollars” in winnings, endorsements and movie roles.

Fellow fighter Owen Carr, 28, who has been fighting professionally since 2007, says VanZant has the natural ability and smarts to be a champion. “She’s got great balance,” he says, watching her train at Ultimate Fitness. “She’s naturally good at fighting. And she’s got what it takes up here,” Carr says, pointing to his head. “Focus and passion.

“She’s also super gorgeous, so she’s going to get a lot of attention.”

That last point has not gone unnoticed by other fighters who have labored longer than VanZant yet have failed to gain the kind of publicity she is receiving. Some question whether she has earned the fanfare, insinuating she is little more than a pretty face.

“It’s kind of crazy ... but that’s what sells,” Tecia Torres, the sole fighter to defeat VanZant, told mmafighting.com in April. “That’s what’s going to make the company money.”

White, the UFC president, says he is not worried about the “haters.”

“It’s going to happen,” he says. “But you know what? They’re talking about her. Everyone’s talking about Paige VanZant.”

VanZant, nicknamed “12 Gauge” by her father for her prowess with a gun, says she will let her record speak for itself. She pays little attention, she insists, to naysayers or fans who gush about her sex appeal.

“I have plenty of fans who really get it, and they’re very supportive of me as a fighter,” she says.

Training and nutrition

Despite the violence of the sport and her mother’s fears, VanZant’s only remarkable injuries have been a bad back strain and some broken knuckles.

She attributes her good health to proper training, nutrition and mental toughness.

When preparing for a fight, she trains three times a day. Though she’s a sucker for burritos and gummy candies and indulges in them on occasion, she generally sticks to a diet that limits salt, sugar, bread and dairy and focuses on fresh vegetables and lean meats. She drinks 2 gallons of water each day. In between formal training sessions, she lifts weights and works Crossfit routines.

As for mental preparation, “I don’t need to get angry at my opponent or want to kill her,” she says. “I just want to win.”

The price for victory can be black eyes, bruises and muscle pulls. But that pain is balanced, she says, by the thrill of connecting a disabling punch or executing a winning takedown. “Some might think it’s barbaric, I guess, but I don’t see it that way,” she says. “This is an art. It’s not just a violent, brutal sport. It’s about technique.”

Before and after her bouts, VanZant is poised and articulate during television interviews. She frequently uses her pulpit to speak out against bullying and encourage women to be strong. “I want to break the stereotypes of who a fighter is supposed to be, and be an inspiration,” she says.

Yet, as much as she seems to thrive under pressure, VanZant gets tied up in knots during the week leading up to a fight. She asks herself if she should pull out. She questions whether she is a worthy opponent. She cries, a lot.

To clear her head and calm her nerves, she says a prayer. “‘God, you put me here for a reason. I have faith in you.’ It gets me out of that negative mindset,” she says.

VanZant had those nagging feelings of doubt before getting into the cage with Herrig a couple of months ago in New Jersey.

But once the bell rang that day, VanZant relaxed. She jammed her knees into her opponent’s body. Herrig fought back with punches. The bout was close for the first of three five-minute rounds, but the underdog VanZant finished strong. She used her considerable strength and athleticism to take down her opponent again and again.

As the final 10 seconds ticked away, VanZant felt tears burning in her eyes as she pinned Herrig to the mat.

“I was just so elated!” she recalls. “I am still a girl, after all, and it was very, very emotional for me.”

At the moment, VanZant is ranked seventh in the world in her weight class. She has fought in Texas, Colorado, Missouri and New Jersey, in some cases in huge arenas before thousands of fans and national television audiences. She earned a $50,000 “Fight of the Night” bonus in her UFC debut. She doesn’t talk about finances, but says she is making enough money to pay her rent and other expenses in Sacramento.

Her next fight likely will occur in the fall. Internet chatter suggests that, if she wins, she soon will contend for a championship.

As her fame surges, VanZant is thinking about the future. She wonders how long she will be able to sustain life as a fighter and what she might do next. She would like to get acting gigs like Rousey, who has appeared in the films “Furious 7” and “Entourage.”

But right now, it’s all about training.

“I’m going to give it everything I have right now,” she says. “I’d love to do it for another five years, and then see what other opportunities might come up.”

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