Paige VanZant will be starting down a new path in her career as she steps into action for the first time under the BKFC banner on Friday. Arguably one of the most popular and scrutinized fighters in the history of the UFC, VanZant will looks to reinvigorate her career just seven months since parting ways with the company.
VanZant (8-5 in MMA) signed a lucrative deal last August to become the face of BKFC where she'll look to bring plenty of eyeballs to the fledgling promotion in the headlining bout of Friday's "Knucklemania" pay-per-view card (9 p.m. ET) from Lakeland, Florida.
BKFC's decision to save VanZant's debut for Super Bowl weekend just down the road from where the Kansas City Chiefs and Tampa Bay Buccaneers will face off this weekend is no coincidence. Because of that, there's no shortage of pressure on VanZant, a former "Dancing With The Stars" cast member, to not only win but look great doing so.
VanZant, who turned down multiple offers from MMA promotions during her short run as a sought after free agent, will take on Britain Hart (1-2 in BKFC, 4-4-3 in boxing), a 30-year-old native of Utah.
"I'm in the absolute prime of my career. Not a lot of people have left the UFC in their prime," VanZant told "Morning Kombat" last month. "Being 26, I do feel like this moment in BKFC is only going to make my career longer. It's going to give me more years to keep competing because although people see it as a barbaric sport, there was a study put out that bare knuckle boxing is actually longterm less dangerous than MMA.
"You get less concussions, less broken hands, less longterm injuries. I think it's just going to elongate my career and show what I can do in boxing and get my resume that much better."
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VanZant said she remains open about returning to UFC one day, where she debuted in 2014 and quickly rose to prominence as a potential heir to the throne of Ronda Rousey from the standpoint of becoming a crossover star. Injuries and questions about her commitment followed after a 3-0 start within the Octagon led her to a mark of just 2-4 over her final six fights.
PVZ surprised many by not joining her husband, unbeaten middleweight Austin Vanderford, under the Bellator MMA banner. Although VanZant admits she largely signed with BKFC because the financial offer was too much to resist, getting the chance to prove her toughness to her critics -- despite the initial concerns of those closest to her -- remains a large part of her motivation.
"I think that for a long time people consistently asked when I'm going to quit or when Hollywood is going to take me," VanZant said. "I have had a lot of success outside of fighting but I think people don't realize that I'm a fighter first. That's what I do and that's my identity. I absolutely love it. I am going to continue to take activities outside of fighting. That doesn't mean they will take me out of fighting, it just means that I get to do other opportunities that other people don't get to do. It's exciting."
To help in her transition from MMA to bare knuckle fighting, VanZant recently moved her camp to American Top Team in south Florida and has worked closely with Thiago Alves, a 27-fight veteran of the UFC who won his BKFC debut last September by edging Julian Lane via split decision.
"[Alves] got to feel it out and feel the differences between BKFC and MMA," VanZant said. "Obviously, it's extremely boxing heavy and that's what my training is. We are focusing on the striking side of it, which I was known for anyway. There are a few elements that you try and adjust for the bare knuckle. Other than that, I'm just trusting my coaches, trusting the process and looking for what they think I need to do for training."
VanZant isn't worried about whether her knuckles are conditioned for this type of combat nor what her face might look like afterwards, even if she defeats Hart. She has slowly learned the nuances for success within BKFC, which include throwing more strategic punches with less power to preserve the condition of your knuckles in order to set up knockout shots without breaking your hands.
Attempting to predict whether VanZant's athleticism and competent history as an MMA striker will be more than enough to handle someone like Hart remains somewhat difficult given the unique aspects to the bare knuckle game.
Hart fought to a split-decision loss in 2018 to UFC veteran Bec Rawlings in her highest profile BKFC bout to date. Two fights later, Hart finally secured her first BKFC win when she stopped Randine Ellkholm in November before calling out VanZant in the postfight interview.
"I'm here to rise up to this and take advantage of this opportunity," Hart said during Wednesday's final press conference. "I was never handed anything. Getting into the ring in BKFC is not something everyone can do. Regardless of who is in front of me, it's about what I'm going to do to win and has nothing to do with them. Anyone who wants to sit there and calls me a mediocre boxer has another thing coming to them."
The connection to Rawlings (8-9 in MMA, 3-0 in BKFC) should be taken note of considering VanZant scored her most electrifying UFC win by knocking Rawlings out with a jumping switch kick in 2016 to produce a highlight that instantly went viral. Given their history and Rawlings' unbeaten mark thus far in BKFC, it's very likely a PVZ win on Friday could lead to a rematch in the bare knuckle realm.
But for now, VanZant remains focused on Hart while looking to confidently enter a dangerous new chapter of her fighting career filled with the potential of high risk and (hopefully) high reward. VanZant expects the emotions to be strong, similar to her final UFC fight last fall when she openly wept during her walk to the Octagon before being submitted by Amanda Ribas in just over two minutes.
"I knew that was my last UFC fight and knew that was an end of an era for me," VanZant said. "I knew other organizations were going to be coming in with offers that I would not be able to turn down and it was sad. I have been part of the UFC for a really long time and that was my identity for a while. If I'm not a UFC fighter, who am I? It was hard but also bittersweet because I knew once that fight was over that I was going to get paid and I did. I'm very happy with that."
Also fighting on this card is former UFC veteran Chris Leben, who has become one of the faces of Bare Knuckle FC. Leben boasts a 2-1 record as a heavyweight and is set to face off with Quentin Henry. His lone loss came in his most recent outing against Dakota Cochrane by decision in June 2019.
- Paige VanZant vs. Britain Hart, women's featherweights
- Johnny Bedford vs. Dat Nguyen, bantamweight title
- Chris Leben vs. Quentin Henry, heavyweights
- Date: Feb. 5 | Location: Jenkins Arena -- Lakeland, Florida
- Start time: 9 p.m. ET
- TV: PPV ($39.99) | Stream: FITE TV ($39.99)
Watching tape of Hart produces equal levels of good and bad as to how she might fare against VanZant.
On the plus side, Hart is plenty scrappy and showed a quick and accurate jab against Rawlings. She also had success at times forcing the clinch and implementing dirty boxing strategies -- legal under BKFC's unique rule set -- that include using one arm to apply a headlock while punching with the other. The bad news is that Hart has been less than stellar as a pro boxer where two of her four wins have come against fighters with a combined record of 0-7.
VanZant will need to acclimate herself quickly to the new discipline but should have advantages from the standpoint of experience having faced much higher level strikers throughout her UFC run to have enough technique to control the fight. PVZ has also shown plenty of toughness, including gutting out a bloody loss to future UFC champion Rose Namajunas in 2015, which tends to assume she'll be comfortable regardless of how brutal the fight gets.
Pick: VanZant via UD5