UFC 251: A Tale of Two Favorites in VanZant vs. Ribas

Amanda Ribas of Brazil and Paige VanZant face off during the UFC 251
ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - JULY 10: (L-R) Opponents Amanda Ribas of Brazil and Paige VanZant face off during the UFC 251 official weigh-in inside Flash Forum at UFC Fight Island on July 10, 2020 on Yas Island Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

Paige VanZant has turned into a successful brand while with the UFC, but can she get the desired result against the latest rising star in the promotion in Amanda Ribas at UFC 251?

Perhaps the MMA world is sleeping on just how motivated Paige VanZant is going into Fight Island.  Coming off the best performance of her career against Rachel Ostovich, “12 Gauge” is looking to set up the next chapter of her career to be just as big as the first.  VanZant has already revolutionized what is possible for fighters through proper branding on social media.  Despite fighting sparingly over the past several years, VanZant has parlayed her popularity into high profile appearances on Dancing with the Stars, the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, and writing her own autobiography.  The UFC took notice from the beginning, putting her in high profile bouts starting from her second fight in the company.

The shadow of free agency looms heavily over VanZant.  Her lack of activity due to injuries and 2-2 record over the last several years does not scream immediate title challenger.  Even now, she is coming off her third year-long layoff in as many years going into Fight Island.  Her public profile, however, is unquestionable.  With 2.5 million Instagram followers, she has more than current champions Stipe Miocic, Kamaru Usman, Amanda Nunes, and former champion Max Holloway.  Undoubtedly, the UFC flyweight division is more fun with her in it.  That said, she would also provide an immediate impact to promotions such as Bellator or ONE Championship were she to leave in free agency.  An impressive showing on the biggest stage of her career on Fight Island would be the final step toward maximizing her value regardless of where she goes.

Whether by coincidence or otherwise, VanZant has been matched with a fighter whose own rise is reminiscent of hers.  Amanda Ribas made her UFC debut last June where she stopped Ultimate Fighter veteran Emily Whitmere in the second fight of the night that took place on the early prelims.  In her second appearance, she was promoted to the main card where she removed popular Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu ace Mackenzie Dern from the ranks of the unbeaten.  The victory led to the UFC booking Ribas against VanZant this past March.  While VanZant had to withdraw due to injury, Ribas went on to defeat Randa Markos in an empty arena in Brasilia.

Now just a year into her time with the UFC, Ribas has the opportunity to break into the rankings behind a strong performance over VanZant.  Furthermore, she carries the experience of fighting in an empty venue already and having kept an active schedule whereas her opponent will have had to clear ring rust in training.  At just 26 years old and riding back-to-back wins over two fan favorites, not to mention the exposure of being a part of the much publicized Fight Island event, her stock has the potential to skyrocket on Saturday night.

Stylistically, VanZant should look to slow down Ribas against the fence and work to take her down from the clinch.  Ribas’ multifaceted attack makes her a dangerous threat, but VanZant has proven to have a dangerous game from the top position and should look to keep the fight on the mat.  Ribas by comparison should look to keep the fight in the middle of the Octagon and work her striking from mid-range where her higher output figures to pose the most problems for VanZant.

The elephant in the room in terms of her free agency is the fact that VanZant’s husband is currently signed with Bellator and the prospect of competing on the same card is enticing.  While the UFC flyweight division seems to be focused on Valentina Shevchenko and the prospect of Weili Zhang moving up in weight, VanZant would enter Bellator on the short list (if not an immediate title shot) against current champion Ilima-Lei Macfarlane.  Ribas, especially coming off a victory, would set herself up for a high profile match-up later this year.