UFC 251: With Free Agency Looming, Paige VanZant Says Ball Is In UFC’s Court

Paige VanZant has been a big part of the build-up to Fight Island. But the talk hasn’t necessarily been about her fight. And that’s unfortunate.

Still yet to hit her athletic prime, VanZant (8-4) has been with the UFC since 2014. She has headlined cards, found cross-over success on Dancing with the Stars and Chopped, and generally been a great ambassador for the sport.

She’s also modeled, appeared in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition, and admitted that she makes more money off her Instagram account than from fighting for the UFC. And she’s entrenched in a contract dispute with the promotion, it seems, heading into the final fight of her UFC deal.

Which has many overlooking a very important fight with Amanda Ribas, who is 3-0 since joining the promotion. Ribas is moving up to flyweight here. VanZant is coming off a win from January 2019, after which she required more surgery on a nagging broken arm.

“It’s definitely a big fight. It’s a pivotal moment in my career. There’s a lot of interesting factors. There’s a lot going on, I think on top of it being just an important fight for me, coming back from breaking my arm again,” VanZant said at the UFC 251 media day.

“I’m coming back after a win, I’m coming back really excited to show all my hard work, everything I’ve worked on,” she stated. There’s no ignoring the elephant in the room, however. “But of course being the last fight on my UFC contract, it’s a big deal to go out there and show how talented I am.”

There’s been talk of VanZant walking away from the sport. She quickly dismissed that notion. “It’s silly I still get asked that. I’ve said that for years. I’m only 26 years old. I plan on fighting for five plus years. It could be ten, I don’t know.”

“Me and my husband [Austin Vanderford] are both professional fighters, both professional athletes. And this is our full-time job,” she added. “I’ve never once given an inkling that I was stepping away from fighting.”

Asked to describe her career ahead of her final UFC fight, VanZant was quick to counter that she didn’t know for certain that it would be. “I had six amazing years in the UFC, and I don’t know that it’s over. This is the last fight on my contract, I don’t know what the future holds. A lot of it is, the ball’s in the UFC’s court.”

VanZant’s star power is enough that the entire media day was put on hold for two hours, while she caught up on sleep. According to VanZant, she’d sent the UFC her availability, but the media day schedule had already been set. So after five consecutive media scrums Wednesday morning, a two-hour break was announced. VanZant later appeared — via cell phone from her hotel room.

Which makes you wonder if the UFC doesn’t value her a little more than they might let on.

Asked by Cageside Press if she was maybe considering a move beyond fighting, perhaps in acting or modeling, VanZant stuck to the fight business. “I definitely don’t have any other options as of right now,” she said. Of course, when it comes to other promotions, “it’s in our UFC contract that we can’t negotiate with outside promotions while we’re with the UFC. So I haven’t contacted anybody or been contacted by anybody.”

It seems she’d like to be contacted, however. “That’s why I want to be a free agent. Because I want to be able have those conversations, I want to know what my value is,” explained VanZant. “And I don’t know what it is, until you’re a free agent. You can have one person tell you, ‘this is you’re worth’ and then you have what you feel you’re worth, inside of you. But it’s just about gaining information and knowledge, and I’ve never had that opportunity in my career. So it is an exciting time.”

Lest you write her off as a primadonna, fighter known commonly by her initials, PVZ, added that “I’m not asking to be paid more than any other UFC fighter. That’s not my goal. I don’t think my value’s higher than anybody in the UFC. I believe that we’re all valued higher.”

At the same time, she clarified that “I am going to fight for myself. It is at the end of the day a career, and I need to be able to support my family moving forward. Injuries can take you out of fighting at any moment, and I’ve had a big wake-up call. I’ve broken my arm three times, and had to be taken away from fighting for a long period of time. There isn’t much more to look into about it. I just want to be paid more, and that’s it.”

UFC 251 takes place this Saturday, July 11 on Fight Island (Yas Island) in Abu Dhabi. The main card airs live on PPV.