Women’s mixed martial arts has taken another step into mainstream popularity with Paige VanZant’s participation in ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars.”
An Ultimate Fighting Championship strawweight, the photogenic VanZant (6-2) was dealt her first UFC loss in December by Rose Namajunas, but her gritty showing before tapping out in the final round gained her a new amount of respect.
VanZant will be the third UFC fighter and first woman from the organization to compete on the show, following former light-heavyweight champions Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture. The UFC has not yet scheduled VanZant's next fight.
The 21st season of “Dancing With the Stars” premieres March 21 and will also feature current and former NFL stars Antonio Brown, Doug Flutie and reigning Super Bowl MVP Von Miller.
“I’m really excited that they picked me to be on the show and it’s an honor that they reached out to me,” VanZant told the Los Angeles Times. “I kind of grew up in the [dance] studio because my mom owned [one] and I danced since I was little. I’m excited to see if I still have a little of that dance side left.”
No other active UFC fighter has participated on the show.
“To shed light on women fighters in general, and show we are so much more than just what we show in the cage ... we are not these violent animals. We’re people and we have so many other talents than just beating each other up,” VanZant said.
UFC President Dana White once proclaimed women would never compete in the octagon, but the crossover appeal of former bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey has fueled fan interest in other fighters, including Rousey’s bantamweight rivals Holly Holm and new champion Miesha Tate.
Current strawweight champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk will defend her belt in July against Claudia Gadelha, and they’re boosting their profiles by coaching in the UFC’s reality television series, “The Ultimate Fighter.”
VanZant said “Dancing With the Stars” provides her another avenue to continue her mission to inspire young girls.
“I think the reason people love women’s MMA is because it’s something they haven’t seen before,” VanZant said. “It’s new, it’s exciting, it’s different and I think that’s why it has gained such a rise in popularity among girls in the last few years.
“I’m excited to show that woman can be strong and be feminine at the same time. People like watching me fight because I don’t look like the typical fighter and people can relate to that. ... [They’re] really surprised to see that women fighters are so technical and we leave everything out there.
“We go out to win. ... Women are more emotional than men, [but] I think that’s definitely been an advantage for us.”