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Paige VanZant avoiding Maycee Barber fight is not a good look

Kevin Iole
Combat columnist
Paige VanZant prepares to enter the Octagon prior to her women's flyweight bout against Rachael Ostovich at the Barclays Center on Jan. 19, 2019. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

The biggest open secret in MMA is that Paige VanZant is going to leave the UFC and sign with Bellator once she fights out the final bout on her contract. That bout became all but official this week when VanZant agreed to fight Amanda Ribas on March 14 in Brasilia, Brazil.

Once that fight is complete, VanZant will be a free agent and able to sign with the promotion of her choosing. That figures to be Bellator, where her husband, Austin Vanderford, has gone 3-0 since joining the promotion in February.

Ribas is 8-1 and coming off a big victory over Mackenzie Dern, so she is a solid opponent.

She is not, however, the correct opponent, the one that VanZant should have faced.

The fight she should have taken, the fight that would have generated the most interest, the fight that had the potential to send her on her way with a significant victory under her belt, was against Maycee Barber.

Barber has been calling out VanZant almost from the day she earned a contract on “Dana White’s Contender Series” and joined the UFC. After impressively stopping Gillian Robertson in Boston, Barber called out VanZant.

VanZant’s response to the call-out may have been the worst response in recent UFC history. She went to Instagram, where on Oct. 23 she essentially called out everyone in both the flyweight and strawweight divisions and wrote, “I respect every female fighter tagged in this post. With that said, it would be an honor to share the cage with any of you ladies at 115 or 125.”

There was one obvious omission:

Maycee Barber, of course.

She apparently intended to teach Barber a lesson. VanZant is the bigger star by virtue of not only having been in the UFC longer but having appeared on “Dancing with the Stars,” as well as making numerous other television appearances.

VanZant has 2.3 million followers on Instagram and 328,500 on Twitter, numbers that dwarf Barber’s social media presence. Barber has 125,000 followers on Instagram and 20,200 on Twitter.

The fight game is not a social-media contest, though. VanZant certainly earned the larger paycheck, not only with her UFC accomplishments but just as much if not more for the popularity she’s gained beyond the cage. 

VanZant’s toughness is without question. Anyone who doubts that only had to see her fight against Rose Namajunas in 2015, when she was mauled badly but wouldn’t quit until getting choked out in the fifth round while covered in her own blood.

But she’s created the distinct impression that she’s ducking Barber, which is the one impression fighters most want to avoid.

She implied in her Instagram post that Barber was disrespectful and that she thus wouldn’t give her the opportunity. 

VanZant opened her post by writing, “Lesson of the day: RESPECT. One of the first lessons we learn in martial arts is respect. I respect those who have dedicated themselves to this profession and given it their everything to achieve greatness through showcasing their skill.”

No. 10 ranked UFC flyweight Maycee Barber (L) is undefeated in her MMA career and has repeatedly called out Paige VanZant. (Photo by Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Barber has clearly respected the profession and has developed an inordinate amount of skill in a short period of time. She won’t turn 22 until May, but she’s already 8-0 in MMA and 3-0 in the UFC. She has finished seven of her eight bouts, including all of her UFC fights. 

Barber is already ranked 10th at flyweight, ahead of Alexis Davis, Montana De La Rosa, Antonina Shevchenko, Mara Romera Barella and, at No. 15, one Paige VanZant.

That seems to me, at least, that Barber is giving it everything she has to achieve greatness through showcasing her skill.

Barber would have been a great opponent for VanZant because VanZant would have been able to turn all of the trash talking Barber has supposedly done against her by beating her. More practically, she would have beaten a much higher-ranked opponent. Ribas is ranked 15th at strawweight.

VanZant’s move, which she undoubtedly thought was clever, simply creates a bad impression. MMA has become known for its fighters regularly seeking out tough challenges. 

VanZant may try to say that she sought out a tough challenge by noting that in her post that she included Valentina Shevchenko, Joanna Jedrzejczyk and Tatiana Suarez among those she tagged.

None of those, though, was a realistic option for her, given her own ranking and that her January win over Rachel Ostovich not only snapped a two-fight losing streak, it was her first win since a knockout of Bec Rawlings in 2016.

VanZant has said she makes more money from her Instagram posts than she does from fighting, and that’s outstanding if it is true. The goal of nearly every fighter should be to use the visibility and the notoriety the sport provides to make money and create opportunities for oneself outside the cage.

But if you plan to continue to fight and beg on social media about getting a fight as frequently as VanZant does, you need to take on the obvious challenges, particularly the ones that would make a good event. 

I don’t believe for a minute that VanZant is afraid of Barber; that’s almost too ludicrous a notion to consider. But she’s using some pretty flawed logic to turn the bout down, and all she achieved in doing it is hurting her own brand.

That is never going to make her new fans.

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