Anyone who’s been watching Dancing With the Stars this season knows UFC fighter Paige VanZant is a natural in the ballroom. Her athleticism, dance background, and connection with partner Mark Ballas made her an early favorite to reach the series finale. Despite a bumpy couple of weeks and lack of name recognition outside the octagon, VanZant has kept going — and it turns out she has the two-time mirror ball champion to thank for the opportunity to appear on the show in the first place.
Ballas told Fox Sports that he pushed Dancing With the Stars producers to cast VanZant — not just this year, but for a few seasons. The popular pro was certain VanZant was on the verge of doing big things at the UFC, and she had the experience with fancy footwork that could help her nail those routines on DWTS. When Paige’s turn finally came, she hoped to be paired with Mark Ballas.
“I had been pushing for Paige for a few seasons. Because I had seen her fight and I thought size-wise it would be good. I know she loves dance, too, so I was like you’ve got to go with this girl in the UFC, she’s going to be one of the next big names. They were like ‘We’re full for this season,’ so I kept grinding it out and finally our casting director called me back and said ‘We’re considering it — can you get in touch?’ and from there everything started.”
VanZant has four fight records on her official UFC bio. She’s won three, including her first outing against Kailin Curran back in November, 2014. During her tenure on Dancing With the Stars, she’s revealed her history as a victim of bullying and how she overcame confidence issues to achieve success. Ballas and VanZant’s stunning Paso Doble was a mixture of dance and MMA-inspired moves, all taking place within a UFC-style enclosure. Judge Carrie Ann Inaba called it “bad a**.”
But Dancing With the Stars is a journey — one that left Ballas and VanZant in the bottom three last week. The fighter told TV Guide that it was a kind of wake-up call that has motivated her to work harder and encourage fan support.
“It felt really scary being at the bottom. I need to continue to remind the fans to vote even when I do get a good score because everything counts. It challenged to me work harder this week.”
Athletes tend to do well on the show, probably because of the amount of physical strength and stamina it takes to get through the grueling rehearsal schedule and weekly live performances. One might think VanZant’s dance background — she studied ballet and hip-hop jazz — helps her keep pace with the other contestants, but the 22-year-old told TV Guide those skills don’t translate into the ballroom, especially when there are judges like Len Goodman, who want to see traditional elements of the dances incorporated into routines.
She also pointed out that, as a UFC competitor, she has to work independently and win. Dancing requires working with a partner toward a common goal.
“A little bit of my dancing is helping, but I’ve never done any ballroom dancing with a partner. Dancing with a partner is different. In fighting you have to work against your opponent and counter what they are doing. With dancing you have to pretty much copy what your partner is doing.”
While she doesn’t have a new fight scheduled at the moment, VanZant is weighing in on some sport controversies. When TMZ asked her about heavyweight boxer Tyson Fury’s December, 2015, comments that were interpreted to be demeaning to women, VanZant said all she can do is continue to work against gender stereotypes.
Dancing With the Stars airs Monday nights at 8 p.m. on ABC.
[Photo by Alex Trautwig/Getty Images]