Female MMA 115lb’er Paige VanZant looked set to be making a huge leap in her career as a pro fighter earlier this year when she was announced as a cast member on the upcoming 20th season of The Ultimate Fighter. However, the chance to make an impact on the UFC reality show was taken away from her before filming began as she didn’t meet the required age limit.

“I didn’t know if they made a mistake or not because I did go to the 135 tryouts just to be with teammates and help them out, and I saw one of the stipulations was that you had to be 21,” explained the 20-year-old strawweight. “Then Dana White called me and said I was on the show, and I wasn’t going to second-guess him. I was excited but I knew that it might come up and it was terrible that it did, but I ended up getting a contract out of it anyway – so all-in-all it kind of worked out for me.”

Although she didn’t make it onto the show, Paige was compensated for the UFC’s mix-up by being given a contract to fight for the promotion, presumably after her division is established with the TUF 20 Finale.

VanZant was first introduced to the martial arts world at the age of 15 when her father took her to the Lion’s Den; training facility of mixed martial arts legend and UFC original, Ken Shamrock.

“I ended up falling in love with it and Ken said I had a lot of potential, and I ended up just really liking punching people in the face,” recalled Paige with a laugh. “He was there the whole time, he was our head coach. It was really awesome. I had a few boxing fights before I did MMA and he went to all of them. He was a really big support for the first part of my career and I’m still in touch with his family, so it’s awesome just to say that I got to train from him.”

Although she discovered an affinity for the fighting game once she got stuck into it, the young female fighter revealed in her interview on The MMA Hour that her athletic background is in fact in the world of dancing and cheerleading.

“I danced for about 14 years. I danced for the [Portland Trail Blazers] for a little while and I still teach dance here in Sacramento, so that’s something I always kept with me. I was a cheerleader in high school. So I don’t know, I was just always really aggressive as a kid and I used to backyard box with my brother and all the neighbourhood kids.

“When I started [MMA] I fell in love with it, and it wasn’t something that came naturally to me right away. So I really liked having to work for something, and now that I can see my progress growing it’s a lot of verification that I’ve come very far in the sport that was a little bit harder for me.”

Growing up as an attractive and athletic girl with a bright future (Paige even gained a college scholarship at the age of 16 and went on to complete two years of community college), it might seem strange to some that VanZant gravitated towards combat sports. But the young athlete who now competes under the nickname ’12 gauge’ explained that there is a good reason she moved away from dancing into a more aggressive art.

Paige was bullied as a freshman in high school by the other girls on her cheerleading squad and it was this, she says, that motivated her to try something else – and she is now also a supporter of Redemption Martial Arts‘ Rise Up Against Bullying movement.

“It was a big thing so when I moved I told myself I would never be a cheerleader again; they’re not very nice. I had a lot of trash thrown at me; all sorts of girl stuff. But now I have a lot more confidence because I know if I run into them again it’ll be a little bit different.”

With herself out of the running on TUF 20, VanZant admits it’s disappointing she won’t get the chance to become the inaugural UFC strawweight champ. Now, she hopes to see one of her past opponents take the belt so she can then take her revenge and the championship all in one go.

“I’m giving it to Tecia Torres [to win TUF 20], then I’ll get my rematch and I’ll take it from her,” states the 3-1 115lb talent. “It’d be awesome if my only loss was to the belt holder, and then I get to go back and get my rematch.”

With only 4 pro MMA bouts under her belt and having competed under just one well-known banner (Invicta FC) there are many fans of the sport who have yet to have the pleasure of watching the tough and surprisingly aggressive Paige VanZant compete.

For those unfamiliar with her fighting style, she explains: “I don’t really have a background in any specific martial art so I would just say I’m freestyle. I’m very tough, is the one thing I’ve gotten from everyone [I’ve trained with]. I like my stand-up but luckily I’m at the best ground gym in the world (Team Alpha Male) – they have awesome wrestling.

“I haven’t fought in almost a year and I’m a completely different fighter now. I’m perfecting the gaps that I’ve had in my game and I just can’t wait to get back in the cage and show how much I’ve improved… There’s nothing else I have on my mind right now that I would rather be doing.”