Paige VanZant is a well-conditioned, athletic, agile, explosive, physical and durable fighter. In terms of measurables, she is capable of competing with the very best fighters in two weight classes. So, given her unique blend of attributes, how is she not a legitimate contender or a champion?
Some critics have attributed it to tough weight cuts that hindered her at strawweight. In her first foray into the flyweight division, it’s been attributed to the broken arm that limited her ability to fight a balanced fight, much less a busy one. Both perspectives are incorrect.
The problem VanZant is facing has nothing to do with weight cuts, nor does it have a thing to do with her broken arm. Her problems are technical, strategical and situational. These problems have taken PVZ from a role as the face of a division who was winning fights and building her brand, to her current role as another talented but overhyped fighter who has plateaued in some ways and completely regressed in others.
VanZant is not a fully formed fighter. Not even close. However, she is a fighter with an identity. She’s aware of her physical tools, her technical skills and her technical limitations. She is an athletic and physical clinch fighter. She gets into the clinch, where she unloads an array of knees, punches and elbows, while bullying and grinding on her opponent to drain them of their explosiveness, speed, quickness and will to fight.
Watch what VanZant did to Felice Herrig. She didn’t outclass, out-slick or outsmart Herrig. Instead, VanZant bullied, controlled, exhausted and beat up Herrig.
On the ground, PVZ engages in a busy, kinetically frantic and physical scramble-based style that chips up fighters on the ground via ground-and-pound while running them ragged by forcing them to fight to control her. This fighting style put VanZant on a winning streak as she walked through two of the strawweights from The Ultimate Fighter, as well as Kailin Curran. VanZant won six of her first seven outings, with her only loss coming to Tecia Torres outside of the UFC.
There were flaws in VanZant’s game. She had shown an inability to enter or exit clinch range effectively or efficiently. When forced to work in the pocket, VanZant was outworked, out-landed and outclassed, which hindered her ability to gain the clinch. At best, she was forced to reset and start all over to get in position to get to the clinch position. At worst, it created opportunity for her opponents to push her further back from pocket range to long range, which further exposed her lack of craft in regards to footwork, combination striking, feints and variation in strikes.
We can see examples of these issues in her last four fights, three of which she lost. When placed against current UFC strawweight champion Rose Namajunas, former Invicta FC atomweight champ Michelle Waterson, former bantamweight Jessica-Rose “Jessy Jess” Clark and former strawweight Bec Rawlings, VanZant wasn’t allowed to dictate pace and place of the fight because of limitations in her all-round striking, her setups, her footwork, her entries, exits and defense. As a result, any and all attempts at getting the clinch or staying safe were ineffective. In three of the four fights, she was pushed back, outworked, beaten up and out-skilled before being finished twice and losing by decision once.
Part of VanZant’s problem has been her inability to close, maintain and escape range without getting thoroughly beaten up. The second and most damning issue is her inability to recognize that the style she came in to the UFC with is the style that suits her best. It maximizes all of her physical tools and natural tendencies, while minimizing her lack of seasoning and savvy on the feet and the ground. Instead of sticking with that style and slowly addressing holes or limitations, she chose to highlight the holes and limitations in her game by opting to do a very bad Holly Holm impression.
VanZant decided to rely on her athleticism and become a distance fighter who uses an array of kicks and predictable individual and combination punching to win fights. As flawed as Holm is, she has tenure and experience that allows her to navigate the fundamental holes in her style. Holm also has athleticism. Meanwhile, PVZ only has one of these things, which results in her being attacked and countered, exposing her lack of technical or instinctual defensive acumen. On the opposite end, it highlights the rote striking she possesses and a lack of creativity in her offense.
This switch in philosophies has made it even less likely for VanZant to gain the clinch she so desperately needs in order to be effective, which has contributed to her losses. Instead of refining her style to be more efficient, more technical, more layered and deliberate, she has neutered herself and her style in an attempt to use an approach she lacks the reps, seasoning, technical skill and instinctual ability to pull off. Part of that is on her — it’s her career, and if she can’t see that what she is doing is exposing her, then it’s a huge problem — but the other part is on her camp, which has either allowed or encouraged this. Either way, it’s a bad move and a bad look. The fact that they haven’t done enough technique and situational installment to allow her to minimize the deficits of her previous style is just as bad if not worse, because part of this change is likely a reaction to the punishment she has taken in many fights, especially the Namajunas encounter.
The problem with VanZant isn’t that she can’t fight. It isn’t that she doesn’t have the physical tools. The problem is that those tools are the foundation of the style she had succeeded with, instead of being used to support the foundation of skills developed in her. As a result, gaps have not been addressed, which led to her thorough undressing at the hands of Namajunas. Instead of making the technical adjustments to max that style out, she switched streams completely in mid-career and has thoroughly regressed in effectiveness, efficiency and wins.
Is VanZant an elite fighter? Not now. Most likely never. Could she have been one, at least in regards to rankings and wins? Yes. She still could be, too, but it is going to require something of her and her camp. It won’t be a quick fix, and it won’t be addressed through smart matchmaking. It’s going to take work and a dedication to becoming a better, smarter, more efficient, deliberate, and situationally aware fighter. Otherwise, VanZant will be a fighter who wins some and loses some while never quite able to turn the corner or reach the lofty goals set for her via the promotion, her numerous teams or herself.