Paige VanZant eager to test free agency, but focus is on UFC 251 bout

Paige VanZant competed on ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars” in 2016. It was huge crossover exposure for someone who was, at the time, a top MMA prospect.

VanZant said Tuesday she made more money on that show than she has in her eight UFC fights combined. Soon, she will attempt to cash in on her notoriety and fighting skill as a free agent. But first, she has one fight remaining on her UFC contract.

VanZant will face Amanda Ribas at UFC 251 on July 11 in Abu Dhabi.

“I want to prove myself,” VanZant told ESPN. “I want to prove how good I am. I know how hard I’ve worked. So, no, the pressure isn’t higher, and I do truly feel my value doesn’t change, whether I win or lose. I still have set myself up for success, and I will still forever be Paige VanZant, but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to go out there and fight to die. This fight matters more to me than any fight in my entire life. I’m willing to put it all out there.”

Stars’ criticism of the UFC for its pay scale has increased the past few months. UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones and welterweight contender Jorge Masvidal have been vocal on social media about wanting their fair share of compensation. Former UFC bantamweight champion Henry Cejudo retired and vacated his title, leaving the door open if the money and opportunity were right for a return.

VanZant, 26, has been discussing her pay for some time. In August, she remarked that she could make more money posting photos on Instagram than she could by fighting. She has more than 2.5 million followers. VanZant said Tuesday that her fight contract is the same one she signed when she was 22 years old and going into a December 2015 main event bout with Rose Namajunas. VanZant said she makes $46,000 as a base fight purse, with a $46,000 win bonus attached to that. She believes she can land more in free agency.

“I just feel like a regular extension isn’t what I want, and I want to prove my worth and my value — and I want a brand-new contract,” said VanZant, who is repped by Malki Kawa and Abe Kawa of First Round Management. “And I’m really excited to get that opportunity and really test the free agency because how do you know what your value is unless you can go test it amongst all the other sharks?”

VanZant (8-4) has had an up-and-down few years. She returned from “Dancing with the Stars” with a highlight-reel, jumping-kick knockout of Bec Rawlings. At the time, it seemed like the sky was the limit for “12 Gauge.”

But VanZant lost to Michelle Waterson in her next fight, then moved up to flyweight (125 pounds) because of the tough weight cuts at strawweight (115 pounds). VanZant broke her arm in her flyweight debut against Jessica-Rose Clark in January 2018, a unanimous decision loss. The arm has hampered her ever since, and she has needed multiple surgeries to correct it. VanZant’s most recent fight was a second-round submission win over Rachael Ostovich at UFC Brooklyn on Jan. 19, 2019.

With a victory over Ribas, who is a top prospect like VanZant once was, VanZant would go into free agency on a two-fight winning streak. It’s a crucial bout in her career and a chance to make good financially on all that popularity and potential. VanZant, who has not ruled out re-signing with the UFC, said she is so focused on the Ribas fight that she has neglected her social media and sponsors to concentrate on training.

“I haven’t posted anything on Instagram,” she said. “Nothing matters to me except for this fight, and it’s a clean slate for me. I’m just excited to go out there and prove my value to absolutely everybody. And I think that fighting is how I do that.”