Paige VanZant makes strong 'Dancing' debut


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Paige VanZant may not be in the strawweight title mix right now, but the 21-year-old fighter is already one of the top contenders on Season 22 of ABC’s Dancing with the Stars.

VanZant, whose parents owned a dance studio and grew up dancing, is partnered with pro Mark Ballas, a two-time winner and seven-time podium finisher, and the two became one of the betting favorites when the cast was announced and was the first competitor introduced in the show’s opening number.

The UFC star has shared the cage with some tough competition to start her career, and the challengers are equally stiff on the dance floor. Some of the notable names looking to keep VanZant and Ballas from the title include NFL’ers Antonio Brown and Von Miller, actresses Kim Fields, Jodie Sweetin and Mischa Barton and Wayna Morris from UFC VP of Public Relations Dave Sholler’s favorite band, Boyz II Men.

Historically, athletes have done well on the show, with eight first-place finishes in the first 21 seasons. But you have to go back to the Spring 2014 competition to find the last time someone from the sporting world took home top spot, when American figure skater Meryl Davis won alongside Maksim Chmerkovskiy.

Team Pow Right in the Kisser were the second pair to hit the floor, dancing the Fox Trot, with VanZant looking stunning in an flowing orange two-piece and Ballas rocking a jacket that looked like your grandmother’s old curtains, which host Tom Bergeron joked about once the duo was done.

And there didn’t appear to be any opening night jitters for VanZant, as she and Ballas cruised through the number without any missteps. A natural performer. VanZant was fluid and full of smiles during the routine and, as she often does following her fights, “12 Gauge” got a little misty eyed after the performance, but the reactions from the judges left no reason for tears.

“I wasn’t expecting you to be so light on your feet,” said Bruno Tonioli, who praised her natural lines, touching on control and timing as the areas for VanZant to work on.

“I disagree with Bruno,” responded Carrie Ann Inaba. “I want to see you let go a little more,” calling her a “goldmine,” which can only be taken as a positive.

Returning judge Len Goodman, who took last season off, kept it concise: “I thought you did a fantastic job.”

And then - unlike most of her UFC fights – it was time to go to the judges, where all three gave VanZant and Ballas a score of 7/10 for their debut effort.

That lands them in a multi-team tie for fourth behind a trio of teams that collected 23s from the Carrie Ann, Len and Bruno.

But it’s not the judges that decide who moves on from week-to-week; that comes down to the number of callers who cast their votes after each episode. The departing team is announced at the beginning of each new episode, so tune in next Monday to see if Paige and Mark – Team Pow Right in the Kisser – live to dance again.

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