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Paige VanZant juggles stardom entering UFC headlining role

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Paige VanZant likes to prove people wrong (4:02)

Scheduled to headline UFC Fight Night in Sacramento, Paige VanZant seeks to succeed both as an entertainer and a fighter worthy of respect in the sport. (4:02)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- This is Urijah Faber's town.

For as long as there has been a fight scene in Sactown, it has revolved around Faber. He is "The California Kid," and his "California Love" walkout song is so iconic that UFC president Dana White refuses to let him come out to anything else.

On Saturday, Faber will make one last walk in his hometown. He fights Brad Pickett at UFC Fight Night inside Golden 1 Center, in what Faber has said will be the final appearance of his career.

It's a chance for the city to celebrate and say goodbye to its favorite fighter. It's also not the main event.

"If we were to go back to 2006 and someone told me, 'Oh, a 115-pound girl is going to headline your last fight,' I'd be like, 'Yeah right,'" Faber said with a laugh. "It's a shifting of the times."

Few represent that "shifting of the times" better than Paige VanZant.

It's VanZant (7-2) who is scheduled to headline Saturday's event, against fellow strawweight Michelle Waterson. VanZant is 22, attractive, well-spoken and marketable.

In this sport, some would argue that's more important than boxing and takedown defense.

It's also something that tends to make some think VanZant isn't long for fighting. Since she appeared (and did very well) on "Dancing With the Stars" this year, VanZant says that question has followed her a lot.

"The biggest [question] I get is, 'Oh, did Hollywood steal you after 'Dancing With the Stars?'" VanZant said. "Nobody asked Antonio Brown or Von Miller if they were going back to the NFL [after being on DWTS].

"Maybe it's a stereotypical thing, because I'm a girl in something I don't necessarily belong in? I'll take it as a complement. I do belong in Hollywood, but I also belong in the UFC."

Perhaps there'd be fewer questions about VanZant's longevity in the sport if fans were more aware of where she came from.

Her earliest memories of fighting involve backyard boxing with "neighborhood boys." After being a target of bullying when she was young, VanZant began training mixed martial arts as a teenager in Reno, Nevada.

Her father, Steve, remembers one male member of the gym in particular, who was determined not to look bad against a female. There were many evenings in which VanZant would hold back tears long enough to exit the gym, then break down during the ride home.

"Every time she took a beating, we'd have a little conversation on the way home," her father said. "I'd say, 'Are you OK?' And she'd go, 'No, he beat the crap out of me.' What else could I say? I'd say, 'Yep, he sure did.'

"There were a few people who wanted to show her who the boss was -- and they did -- but she kept coming back."

VanZant took her first professional fight in 2012 as an 18-year-old college student. After that experience, VanZant and her parents agreed she should dedicate her entire focus to fighting, even though women were not even fighting in the UFC yet.

Stories like that make VanZant and her family laugh at the notion that her time in MMA will be short-lived.

"I needed the money from my first fight for school books," VanZant said. "I made $2,000, paid for my college books, and then decided I wanted to pursue a fighting career.

"That was around the time Dana White said women would never be in the UFC. I kind of knew he was going to change his mind, but I didn't know it would be so fast. I took my first fight when I was 18 and signed with the UFC by the time I was 19."

All that said: VanZant is a fighter, but that's never a guarantee she'll always be a cage fighter.

There are attractive opportunities away from fighting. She turned down a role in a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie to focus on this fight and her manager, Mike Roberts, says he regularly fields similar offers.

Projects with Netflix. Reality show pitches. Public appearances. Even at this moment, VanZant is working on an autobiography.

VanZant has proven she's not afraid of a tough fight -- a one-sided five-round loss to Rose Namajunas last year showcased that -- but she also says she'll continue to pursue other career paths.

Is it possible to do both as a young, developing talent? That unknown only adds to VanZant's appeal.

"She's still very green," UFC president Dana White said. "This next fight is a challenge for her. We saw what happened when Paige stepped up too far and it didn't work out well for her at all [last December] against Rose Namajunas.

"To jump right back in there and get her head straight again, what she did is prove she's a real fighter. I don't worry about her walking away from fighting because if you walk away from fighting, you shouldn't be here anyway."