Paige VanZant's star power still shining after loss

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Paige VanZant didn't want to tap. Not in her backyard, not in the first round, not on national television.

So as Michelle Waterson locked in a rear-naked choke hold tight, VanZant fought and fought until she could fight no more. It wasn't until VanZant's face started to change color and she was on the verge of passing out that referee John McCarthy stepped in and waved off the fight.

I took a break to do 'Dancing with the Stars' and I came back and I knocked somebody out. I'm very good at balancing my outside factors. I know how to balance my schedule. I have the best team in the world. I'm very smart. I could have done anything I wanted to, and I chose to fight, and I'm going to continue to balance my schedule.
Paige VanZant

It wasn't the storybook finish to her main event she had been hoping for, but that doesn't mean there won't be plenty of storybook finishes for her in the near future.

Saturday's result doesn't change the fact that VanZant is a star. She is a celebrity that is no longer defined by wins and losses in the Octagon. Her brand wasn't really going to get a major boost with a first-round win over Waterson, and it's not really going to take much of a hit after her first-round loss either.

That is why VanZant needs to consider her future in the UFC after just her 10th professional mixed martial arts fight.

At 22 years old, VanZant isn't necessarily at a crossroads, but she has reached a point where she no longer needs to step into the UFC's unforgiving and unpredictable cage to continue her rise as a celebrity. It's a ride she can now continue to make in the safer and scripted confines of the WWE.

There has been an ever-growing blurring of the lines between the UFC and WWE recently, with Brock Lesnar fighting for both companies this summer, CM Punk making his UFC debut in September, two years after leaving the WWE, and the constant war of words between Conor McGregor and WWE wrestlers, past and present.

It's no secret that VanZant is a wrestling fan and wants to join the WWE at some point. She has never shied away from the question, even when it was brought up before Saturday's fight.

Jeff Chiu/AP

Michelle Waterson defeated Paige VanZant via rear-naked choke at UFC Fight Night in Sacramento.

"It seems like I get asked that a lot, so it seems like the people want me to do it," VanZant said. "I would love to. It's an amazing organization. After this, I'll decide what I'm doing and where I'm going, and if other opportunities arise, I'll go for those ... I have so many positive opportunities in front of me right now."

That should come as no surprise. VanZant was the runner-up on "Dancing with the Stars" earlier this year, has been fielding prospective movie roles for the past year, including a starring role alongside Jean-Claude Van Damme, which she turned down to train for a fight, and is a favorite of TMZ videographers when she's in public. After her second loss in her last three fights on Saturday, both of which she main evented, she refused to blame outside factors or interests.

"I was meant for the spotlight, and I'm going to be in the spotlight," she said. "I will be back, and I'm going to have the belt one day. I'm 22 years old, and I have a long time. I'll be back."

While VanZant continues to have lofty aspirations for her UFC career, she frequently references her many opportunities outside the Octagon, including the WWE, and she's more than willing to give those a chance.

"The opportunities are endless," VanZant said. "I have a lot of big things outside of fighting, and I'm going to pursue those for a little while."

Adam Taylor/ABC/Getty Images

UFC strawweight Paige VanZant gained popularity outside MMA by participating in ABC's Dancing with the Stars.

There's no doubt the WWE is interested. The company reached out to VanZant's representatives last summer with an eye toward having her at their annual SummerSlam pay-per-view event. The deal never materialized, but VanZant said that she is still interested.

Jim Ross, who recruited and signed many of WWE's current stars, from Lesnar to John Cena, when he was the head of WWE talent relations, believes VanZant could be the next big WWE star whenever she decides to make the transition, envisioning her as a cross between Ronda Rousey and WWE Hall of Famer Trish Stratus.

"Paige has the uncoachable 'it' factor," Ross told ESPN on Saturday. "It's the same as I saw in Dwayne Johnson, John Cena and Brock Lesnar. She even has marketable initials: PVZ. Based on what I've seen, I'd consider Paige a blue-chipper when she's ready.

"If her skill set would match up with her hype and rep, I'd book her making some sort of water cooler talk impact in a perfect TV storm. Wearing gloves wouldn't limit her sex appeal, and it fits who the public knows her to be. I'd intro her with huge fanfare, cover her contract signing, training and document her entire journey. Build a long arching anticipation for her debut, which would be at an important destination. There are lots of right ways to introduce a potential star within the sports-entertainment genre."

Paige has the uncoachable 'it' factor. It's the same as I saw in Dwayne Johnson, John Cena and Brock Lesnar. She even has marketable initials: PVZ. Based on what I've seen, I'd consider Paige a blue-chipper when she's ready.
Jim Ross

This isn't simply about VanZant joining the WWE because she can't cut it among the top fighters in her weight class. This is about growing her brand and thinking about her career, long-term. WWE stars aren't just wrestlers anymore. "The Rock" is probably the hottest name in Hollywood right now, and Cena is hosting the ESPYS, "Saturday Night Live" and appearing in major movies and television shows.

VanZant may not be totally willing to leave the UFC for the WWE yet, but that shouldn't prevent her from being a part-time performer until she is ready to make the jump full-time. It's the kind of partnership between UFC and WWE that would benefit both promotions. All UFC president Dana White has to do is look at Lesnar's blockbuster pay-per-view numbers and the fact that Punk attracted about 450,000 pay-per-view buys for his first professional MMA fight to see what a little rub from the WWE can do for his fighters and events.

"I'd assume she could do both, but I'm not sure how successful she'd be at either while splitting her focus," Ross said. "The skills required to be a successful, pro grappler are varied and need months of diligent training under the watchful eye of top coaches. WWE has that covered. I'd suggest that she fulfill her UFC commitments and try and live her MMA dreams before committing to WWE, unless it was for a one-off, high-profile cameo at a major event like WrestleMania."

VanZant said she's more than capable of doing more than one thing at a time and said she wasn't exactly sure when she would fight again, saying it could be a couple months or six months or even longer. In the meantime, she will pursue all those opportunities she has in front of her.

"I took a break to do 'Dancing with the Stars,' and I came back and I knocked somebody out," VanZant said. "I'm very good at balancing my outside factors. I know how to balance my schedule. I have the best team in the world. I'm very smart. I could have done anything I wanted to, and I chose to fight, and I'm going to continue to balance my schedule ... I have a lot of passions in the world, and I'm not going to limit myself to one thing."

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