As a high school freshman in a small town in northwest Oregon, Paige VanZant often went home with tears trickling down her eyes.
She was the victim of bullying. A pack of girls targeted her. They tried to make her life a nightmare. Barely 5-feet tall, she was one of the smallest kids in school, not physically able to defend herself.
VanZant’s mother, Rachel, often visited her daughter at school that freshman year, under the guise of offering her coffee, just to make sure Paige was all right.
“I just told her to be strong and positive and eventually it would pass and she’d get through it,” she said. “I think people just saw that she had a good spirit and kept her head up high and was happy and for whatever reason there were a few girls who that bothered. It was their goal in life to bring her down.”
Those girls wouldn’t want to mess with VanZant these days. Now standing 5-4 and a muscle-packed 115 pounds, VanZant is one of the top women’s mixed martial arts strawweight fighters in the nation.
The 19-year-old VanZant, who moved to Sparks after her freshman year of high school and graduated from TMCC High School in 2012, is in the midst of an intense five-month training camp as she prepares to compete on season 20 of “The Ultimate Fighter,” a reality television show that will crown the UFC’s first strawweight (115 pounds) champion. VanZant is one of 16 women who will compete for the title.
VanZant didn’t initially get into MMA fighting to combat bullying, but the sport has boosted her self-confidence and helped knock down some barriers she had built. It’s change her life.
“At first, I didn’t think there was a correlation, but now I look back at the bullying as one of the reasons I did like fighting,” VanZant said. “If that happens again, I can defend myself. I guess I have to thank the people who did those things to me because without them I don’t think I would have become a fighter.”
VanZant grew up in Dayton, Ore., a city without a stoplight and with a population under 2,600 people.
“She was a tomboy when she was really young,” her mother said.
Even before she got in the octagon, VanZant was always feisty, a competitive spirit pulsing through her veins. The youngest of two children, VanZant’s first foray into fighting came in middle school.
“Her and the neighbor kids used to like putting on boxing gloves and punch each other,” Rachel said.
But that was just neighborhood fun. VanZant didn’t seriously get into the sport until after she moved to Nevada. After landing in Sparks, she looked for a dance studio close to home but couldn’t find one. Instead, she stumbled onto The Lion’s Den, the gym run by UFC Hall of Famer Ken Shamrock.
Her father suggested she should give fighting a try. She did and ended up falling in love with it. Initially, she mostly concentrated on boxing before moving into full-fledged mixed martial arts.
Two years later, VanZant had her first amateur fight, needing just 50 seconds to score a submission in her debut in April 2012. She turned pro two months later, earning a split decision in a bout in Corpus Christi, Texas.
While Rachel loves how MMA has instilled self-confidence in her daughter and would suggest the sport for any child who has been bullied, it’s still been difficult for her to watch her child fight.
“I pretty much pray through half of it and watch the half through one eye,” she said. “I have yet to watch an entire fighting without stopping part way.”
Fighting in Invicta FC, VanZant has compiled a 3-1 pro record. Four months ago, she moved to Sacramento to train with Team Alpha Male, one of the West Coast’s top gyms which trains about 30 fighters. With her appearance on The Ultimate Fighter months away, she’s focused even more on training. VanZant logs double days, training 20 hours a week, while also working at a 24 Hour Fitness.
“Ever since I started training with Team Alpha Male, I’ve become a totally different fighter,” she said.
After a training session in early December, VanZant saw a missed call on her phone. Later, came a text from the same number the read, “Hey Paige, Can you call me?”
She dialed the number and the male voice on the other line said, “Can you go somewhere where nobody can hear us?” A little freaked out, VanZant asked who she was talking to.
“He said, ‘This is Dana White,’” she recalled. “I said, ‘No, it’s not.’ He said, ‘Yes, it is.’ I said, ‘Are you sure?’ He said, ‘I’m pretty damn sure.’”
White, the UFC’s president and one of the most powerful men in sports, asked VanZant if she wanted to be a part of the reality television show The Ultimate Fighter, a program that helped launch the UFC and made stars out of little-known fighters, like McQueen High grad Ryan Bader, a winner in season eight.
“I could barely breathe,” VanZant said. “It was the best feeling of my life.”
VanZant was one of 11 Invicta FC fighters who had her contract purchased by the UFC. She will leave for Las Vegas on May 18 and be one of 16 strawweight fighters vying for a UFC championship.
The show, which will begin airing in September, will be taped over a six-week period when all access to the outside world will be cut. VanZant won’t be allowed use her cellphone, get on the Internet or watch television. She’ll only travel to and from the gym and could fight as many as three times in six weeks.
With 16 girls in one house all vying for one title and no link to the outside world, drama could ensue.
VanZant will be the least-experienced fighting on the show – some of the contestants were fighting when VanZant was still in elementary school – but she’s confident she’ll fare well.
Urijah Faber, one of the top bantamweight fighters in the world, has been training VanZant at Team Alpha Male. He said VanZant is an excellent athlete who is an above-average striker. They’ve been working on VanZant’s grappling to make her a more well-rounded fighter by the time the show begins.
“The growth and the potential are endless,” Faber said. “She’s really committed and the sky’s the limit. She’s like a sponge. The biggest thing she’s improved is the understanding of what it takes to be a fighter. She went from dabbling in it, in my opinion, to being on a team that is one of the most consistent and well-calculated gyms on the planet. Shes understating the lifestyle a lot more now.”
The winner of The Ultimate Fighter will earn a long-term contract with the UFC, an organization valued at $2 billion. Even if she doesn’t win the title, VanZant already can call herself a UFC fighter, a lifelong goal she’s accomplished at age 19. She’s come a long way since being bullied as a high school freshman.
“Making it to UFC was my biggest dream and biggest goal,” VanZant said. “I knew I would make it happen. I thought I’d need to put two or three more wins under my belt before that would be a possibility, but when I got that phone call it was one of the best moments of my life. I knew I deserved it and I know I’m going to wow a lot of people.”
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