Over the weekend, up-and-coming UFC fighter and reality TV competition favorite Paige VanZant raised some eyebrows on social media by posting a risqué video undressing down to her undies to promote Reebok’s new black and white line of sports bras and panties. It wasn’t the kind of thing that would generally attract attention, but it seemed a bit off brand for the typically squeaky clean VanZant. It also ended up angering a number of other fighters who weren’t happy with Paige cashing in on her looks and selling sex rather than her fighting ability.
Paige and her team quickly deleted the video, but nothing ever disappears from the internet once it’s appeared there and the conversation didn’t stop even after the Tweet was gone. So I thought it might be a good idea to look beyond Paige’s harmless attempt to promote one of her sponsors and try to explain the anger underlying this latest explosion at one of the UFC’s chosen stars.
For a long time, the UFC did a convincing job of making the organization seem like a true meritocracy. The best fighters made the best money and got the best opportunities, like a shot at the title in their respective divisions. It wasn’t actually like that under the surface, but nowadays fighters pine for the days when the promotion at least paid lip service to those ideals. Nowadays you have growing lines of contenders being passed over for superfights, champions turning down tougher opponents because they don’t ‘move the needle’ enough, and promising athletes overlooked in favor of marketable faces … like Paige VanZant.
Let’s be clear here: no one is saying Paige doesn’t deserve to be in the UFC. At this point her two losses in the UFC have come to top title contenders in her division. But she’s definitely gotten advantages other up and coming UFC fighters only dream of. Following her debut with the promotion, Paige has been featured on the main card of every event she’s fought on, headlining two of them. While most fighters are stuck getting a locked in pittance from Reebok via the UFC’s uniform deal, Paige signed a lucrative deal with the clothing company (again, after only one UFC victory) that has her making way more than the rest of her division.
From the outside, this seems perfectly normal. She’s more popular, so of course she gets the spotlight and the sponsors and the fame that comes with that. But to the other fighters in the women’s strawweight division and across the UFC in general, it’s a chicken or egg situation. Is Paige just naturally more popular and therefore draws more attention? Or has the UFC given her more attention which has earned her that fame?
For a company that makes the majority of its money of a select few star fighters, the UFC generally acts pretty Darwinistic when it comes to its names. Being Paige VanZant, Dancing With The Stars runner up, didn’t save Paige from getting matched up against divisional badasses like Rose Namajunas and Michelle Waterson. But it did result in way more media attention from the promotion leading into those fights. Meanwhile, Angela ‘Overkill’ Hill — one of the most vocal fighters that responded negatively to Paige’s sexy Reebok video — has a hard time earning more than an occasional retweet from an official UFC Twitter account.
It’d be easy to argue that Hill could be marketed just as successfully as VanZant, if in a different manner to a different market. She’s brash, outspoken, funny, and an active participant in MMA, gaming, and cosplay circles. She’s also a fierce competitor in the cage. Yet the UFC hasn’t bothered to single her out as worthy of a bigger promotional push.
That’s nothing personal, the UFC has something like 500 fighters on the roster. They all can’t get a push like Paige VanZant. But surely more can, and this is where the frustration sets in: the UFC is the promoter. They’re supposed to promote the fights and the fighters. Yet too often they seem to overlook many of the best fighters and personalities on their roster, concentrating solely on their own brand and on the occasional Paige VanZant that could appeal to blue chip sponsors like Colgate or Metro PCS.
It’s no surprise that morale on the UFC roster is currently so low. At least before the Reebok deal, fighters could go out and chase down their own sponsors, often making more money off that than their fight purses. For years UFC president Dana White shot down complaints from the press about fighters making $7000 to show and $7000 to win by pointing out sponsorship opportunities in the six figure range. But with the Reebok deal came the end of outside sponsors. No more sponsors on fight night clothing. No more banner over the side of the cage during Bruce Buffer’s announcements. You couldn’t even wear sponsor logos on fight week.
Now fighters are more reliant on the UFC than ever to select them as one of the few to get a proper promotional push, and overall the UFC is failing them in this regard. It’s a colossal oversight that’s led to a growing number of names at the top of the company leaving for Bellator, where sponsorship is still allowed and the company tries its best with limited resources to make every name on their roster stand out.
So in a lot of ways, the response to Paige VanZant’s sultry Reebok tweet doesn’t have as much to do with anger towards Paige as it does anger with the whole system that has given Paige the resources and opportunities to thrive while ignoring many of the other fighters on the roster. And it’s hard to say that emotion isn’t justified, it’s just being directed at the wrong person.