Paige VanZant, the UFC flyweight, author, and reality TV star appeared at the Web Summit for a series of talks on women in sport, the importance of social media branding, mindfulness, and how to win friends and influence people.
“I didn’t find MMA until I was 15. I didn’t do it to be a fighter”, VanZant happily admitted. Up until that point, dancing was her passion but a training session with the ex-WWE cult hero Ken Shamrock at his gym in Reno, Nevada changed everything.
Almost immediately VanZant’s raw potential and talent for fighting became clear. It was not until she turned 18 that the self-proclaimed tomboy fully committed to the craft. After just one amateur bout, she turned professional and, as she put it, “kept winning”.
The UFC quickly took notice of the precocious grappler and, aged just 19, she was signed.
On her debut in the organisation, she defeated Kailin Curran by TKO following a flurry of punches, winning the Fight of the Night award in the process.
As her career in the UFC blossomed she also did this to the Australian fighter Bec Rawlings:
But the 24-year-old, who recently married fellow mixed martial artist Austin Vanderford, has been through a lot of hardship in her life.
As a teenager VanZant was relentlessly bullied in high school and sexually assaulted at a house party, prompting a downward spiral into an extremely dark place. She thankfully recovered.
Earlier this year, the fighter released her acclaimed tell-all autobiography ‘Rise: Surviving the Fight of My Life’ chronicling her incredible path.
Outside of her brief and sporadically impressive career in the cage so far, she has wholeheartedly embraced publicity, appearing in the television cooking show Chopped and reconnecting with her love of dancing by coming second in the American version of Dancing with the Stars. She is fast becoming a star of many avenues.
Little wonder then that VanZant is such a role model for her array of fans on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, not to mention the relatively new YouTube channel she has launched. She is acutely aware of the power of her brand.
Spoke with @ufc star @paigevanzant about her most memorable individual moment in the cage so far, her pick of opponent if she only had one fight left & her thoughts on @TheNotoriousMMA v @TeamKhabib. Full interview to follow... Cheers to @ShaunaKiely for the help. #WebSummit #UFC pic.twitter.com/BdDYOvM5EB
— Colm Boohig (@ColmBoohig) November 8, 2018
Speaking of inspiration, what about the next generation of females who might be interested in going down the MMA route?
The biggest setback for women in training is that they’ll have the curiosity and desire to train but it is a little bit daunting… Some women might not be comfortable wrestling and grappling with sweaty men but you need to know if you have the curiosity to go try a class. It’s a much more peaceful, accepting environment than a lot of people would understand.
My teammates are the calmest most polite, gentle people I will ever meet because I feel like you get all of your aggression out in the gym.
When asked for her take on the Conor McGregor and Khabib Nurmagomedov result, VanZant felt the outcome was almost inevitable, “I figured if it got finished in the first round, Conor would win by knockout. If it went past the first or second round, I saw Khabib winning, just statistically on Conor’s last fights and Khabib being such a high-level wrestler.”
And regarding the phenomenon of McGregor himself, VanZant has admiration in abundance for the Dubliner who she sees as a genius self-promoter, if not a fallible fighter:
With Conor, people have either mixed feelings; they either love him or they hate him and that’s why he’s a genius. He made himself notorious… There are a lot of UFC fighters who have way more wins than him but he was so intelligent, he was able to brand himself the way he did. He made the media work for him rather than him work for the media.
VanZant is set for a return to the UFC cage in January against Rachael Ostovich, just over a year to the day since her last fight.
On that occasion, she lost via unanimous decision on her flyweight division debut against Jessica-Rose Clark in a performance she quite brutally assessed as embarrassing.
More significant was the broken arm she suffered after landing a spinning backfist early on.
VanZant had surgery on the injury which saw a plate and screws inserted but it had no impact, meaning that she essentially continued to have a broken arm for the next six months until follow-up surgery was organised.
The second time around, a larger plate, running from her elbow to her wrist, was inserted to replace the initial one, while a bone graft from her hip was used to fill in the remaining cracks.
It sounds horrific but the difficult journey appears to be reaching its justified destination. VanZant’s comeback is well on course.
— FOX Sports: UFC (@UFCONFOX) January 15, 2018
She will be seeking redemption after her lengthy layoff.
Despite already achieving stunning victories in the UFC against the likes of Alex Chambers, Bec Rawlings and Felice Herrig, VanZant has actually lost three of her last four fights and has only competed twice in total since December 2016 following previous absences through injury.
If pent-up aggression on the sidelines is anything to go by, it may be a long night for Ostovich come January courtesy of a lady who the UFC president Dana White described as having that “it factor”.
No doubt, fans will be tuning in.