MMA fighter Paige VanZant reveals how her happy-go-lucky childhood made way for years of inner torment and self-destruction caused by bullying and a high school gang rape, and how it fuelled her eventual rise to UFC stardom.
Paige VanZant is some warrior. And I’m not just talking about her chosen profession. Sure, it takes astounding levels of courage and bravery to excel as a professional fighter, but the journey VanZant has had to endure before reaching the bright lights of the UFC is what makes her truly remarkable.
When I ordered Rise, I knew very little about VanZant. In fact, my knowledge of MMA is passable at best. But that is the very reason why I ordered her book, and indeed why I created The Sports Book Club: to learn more about sports and figures I wouldn’t normally come across.
I didn’t even read the book’s description until I actually sat down to read it – only then did I realise that this was not going to book your average sports memoir.
Rise begins innocently enough as VanZant – then Paige Sletten – documents her rather typical childhood: growing up with a hard-working, alpha male father, a creative and dance-obsessed mother, and her younger brother. Paige dreamt of becoming a star and had – like many kids – a variety of hobbies, from dance and sports to academia and, yes, a bit of backyard fighting.
Entering high school, Paige is full of hopes and dreams, ready to embrace this new and exciting social scene. But her dreams soon turn to nightmares when she becomes the victim of vile and incessant bullying.
If her bullying ordeal makes for heartbreaking reading, a fateful Halloween night is truly harrowing and would shape the course of Paige’s life. Brace yourself, because this was one of the most difficult passages of any book I’ve ever read.
What follows in Paige’s life, and therefore the pages of Rise, is years of inner torment, silent suffering and self-destruction as a young woman struggles to comprehend her dark reality.
VanZant conveys the fear, anxiety and hopelessness that consumed her during those years with such stirring honesty that you cannot help but feel that those emotions were not so difficult to recall for this book all these years later.
Mixed Martial Arts becomes Paige’s sanctuary; the gym a place not only to escape her constant torture, but where she can channel her anger at the world. But even as light starts to creep into her world and genuine friends enter the scene, a new monster appears to threaten Paige’s progress…and life.
However, the fragility that for so long controlled VanZant slowly makes way for resilience and fearlessness, helped in no small part by her increasing involvement in MMA. It is the years of pain and suffering that allows her to pursue this most brutal of professions.
Most elite-level fighters are drawn to combat sports as a means of escaping wider problems, and while many first enter a gym to escape poverty, gang violence, or broken homes, VanZant’s career has been built on the most horrifying of circumstances. After all, this is a woman who once auditioned to become a child actor and who excelled academically. In essence, this is someone who had other options than to risk her life in a cage.
With her rediscovered inner strength and drive, VanZant throws herself head first into MMA; making all necessary sacrifices, dealing with external and internal doubts, training like a machine, and learning from her losses – all to fulfill her ambition of becoming a world champion.
Rise documents VanZant’s fast and sharp rise in MMA, and how she has dealt with the increased spotlight that comes with entry to the UFC – as well as her participation in Dancing With The Stars! It is all the more remarkable how well she handles the added attention considering how much of her life was spent craving normality.
Given the social climate we now live in, as the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have helped empower women against sexual predators, Rise offers readers the opportunity to understand the destruction caused by such heinous crimes. But more than that, it provides other victims vital hope that recovery and survival can be achieved.
Paige VanZant is a hero and an inspiration. Her story of remarkable courage and survival needs to be read.