LOS ANGELES » Paige VanZant was too young to fight professionally when she first took up mixed martial arts. When a small-time promotion offered her the chance to walk around the cage holding a numbered card above her head, she took it even though she really wanted to be inside throwing punches.
"The only reason I did it was to get as close to the action as I could," VanZant said of her brief stint as a ring card girl in Reno, Nevada. "And there were free tickets to the fights."
Several years of hard work later, the 21-year-old strawweight is on the verge of MMA stardom. Heading into just her second UFC fight, VanZant already has a personal endorsement deal with Reebok and a spot on the main network-television card for her bout against Felice Herrig this weekend in New Jersey.
Many of her 115-pound rivals believe VanZant gets special treatment because of her striking good looks. Herrig has repeatedly called her "a one-hit wonder" heading into their bout.
VanZant responds with a mixture of diplomacy and contempt that suggests she has been disrespected before.
"I don’t underestimate my opponents in any way, so I hope she doesn’t underestimate me," VanZant said. "These are people that I don’t really ever think about, so I’m not going to take it personally."
MMA can be a brutal sport, but VanZant (4-1) knew about pain before she ever stepped into a fight gym. When she was 14 years old, she tried a new tuck-and-roll trick in dance class and broke her tailbone on the hardwood floor.
"It’s unreal pain," she said. "For the next two years, I couldn’t sit through an entire movie without it hurting."
Pain doesn’t appear to scare VanZant, though. She competed in all sorts of athletics growing up, even joining a high school cheerleading squad for one year in Oregon.
But VanZant attended three high schools before leaving at 16 to attend college for two years while training in MMA. She says vicious bullying related to her looks contributed to her decision to leave high school and eventually led her into her new profession.
"High school was pretty rough for me," she said. "I really want to be a voice for young girls that have been bullied. I want to say that you don’t have to play the victim. You can play the survivor and the fighter."
When VanZant’s family moved to Reno, her MMA-loving father coaxed her into a grappling class, and she took to it quickly. She picked up boxing and began to pursue fighting as a career after working as a ring card girl for Shark Fights and a handful of other promotions.
"I’ve always been this athletic kind of fireball," VanZant said. "I’ve always been a feistier person, so fighting just made sense. I fell into it, but it perfectly fit me. It fit who I was."
She was 18 when she won her first professional bout in Texas. She stepped up to the all-women Invicta promotion in January 2013, losing a decision to contender Tecia Torres.
But VanZant had established herself as a 115-pound fighter to watch. She likely would have been included last year when the UFC established a strawweight division and put its new fighters on its long-running reality show, but VanZant wasn’t old enough to live in the reality-show house.
She missed out on the television exposure, but got a UFC contract anyway. In her debut last November, she stopped Kailin Curran in the third round and won the Fight of the Night bonus — a remarkable achievement for a debut fighter high on the undercard.
VanZant also found continuity in her training after several years of changing gyms all around the West. With her Reebok deal freeing her financially to train wherever she wanted, she landed in Sacramento with Team Alpha Male, the fighting collective headed by longtime UFC star Urijah Faber, bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw and lightweight contender Chad Mendes.
While VanZant still takes modeling work related to Reebok and elsewhere, she is focused on the possibilities inside the cage. If she manages to beat Herrig, her career is likely to skyrocket, with even the chance of a title shot against Joanna Jedrzejczyk not far away.
"There wasn’t something in school that I really wanted to do," VanZant said. "When I found fighting, it just kind of made sense, and things took off from there. I had to sacrifice school. I had to sacrifice a lot of friends. I had to move a lot, which has been a pain, but I’m finally at a camp where I feel comfortable and everything is looking positive."