“Some people have that ‘it factor’ that you can’t teach people,” UFC president Dana White said of Paige VanZant in 2015. “And Paige has it.”
At the time, VanZant had exactly one fight on her UFC ledger — a win via Round 3 KO in her debut — and a newly minted, highly coveted Reebok endorsement deal. Of the six UFC athletes to ink such a deal with the sports giant at the time (Johny Hendricks, Jon Jones, Conor McGregor, Anthony Pettis and Ronda Rousey joined VanZant to round out the roster), she was the lone fighter without a belt, or the chance to fight for one on the horizon.
Four years later, VanZant remains beltless and her partnership with Reebok was not renewed. She has been knocked as the hype-over-substance commercial darling, the one who could land a spot on “Dancing With the Stars” but couldn’t land enough strikes to ward off three losses in four tries. That didn’t stop her from growing her career inside the cage and out. Last year she released a book, “Rise: Surviving the Fight of My Life,” in which she opened up about her struggles with bullying and assault. And on Jan. 19, she scored a huge victory via armbar submission over Rachael Ostovich.
For the latest issue of ESPN The Magazine — “The Boardroom: Making of a Mogul” — we caught up with VanZant to talk about how she has built her brand, and how marketing and perception have played into her fighting career.
How does it feel to be the designated “it factor” fighter? Is there a pressure to live up to that?
I don’t really put a ton of thought into that. These brands are continuing to want to align themselves with myself if I keep succeeding. That comes from hard work, from sacrifice, from training as hard as I can to keep winning fights and keep being successful. … Companies pay money to see you do something amazing, and I want to try to continue to do that. I do want to have a really good image because I have so many people, young people, looking up to me.
You pursued opportunities outside of the cage — “Dancing with the Stars,” “Chopped” and your recent book. What’s next?
I’m definitely focused on fighting. I didn’t get hurt in my last fight, so I’m excited to get ready for the next one; get back into the octagon as soon as I can. I just pick opportunities as they come; I get different things from my agent that come up, and if there’s something I see that fits and aligns with my image, then I capitalize.
If you have a break in the fighting action, is there an opportunity you’d jump at?
I would love to have my own cooking show. I would love to write a cookbook, I would love to continue to be on awesome TV shows. Anything in the TV industry is also something I’m super passionate about, but I really just take things as they come.
Why do you feel it is important to be seen in places we don’t normally see UFC fighters?
It wasn’t something I was like, “Oh, I have to do this to have people see me in a different light.” I do understand that I have to have something that nobody else is doing. But I’m not forcing anything. I was on “Chopped” because I genuinely love cooking. I was taking culinary arts classes as a kid. I was a part of “Dancing with the Stars” because I grew up dancing. These things are genuine to who I am.
Do you ever feel outside resistance or pushback about the fact you are out there doing these other things?
“Dancing with the Stars” was the one thing I’ve done that actually took time away from my life (she made it to the finals in 2016, finishing in second place with partner Mark Ballas). It takes approximately three months throughout the entire process. But there’s a big misperception that I’m not focused on training and I’m not focused on fighting. It takes a very determined person to be successful in the UFC and to stay successful in the UFC. Everywhere I go I bring my husband [fellow MMA fighter Austin Vanderford], a coach or training partner. I’m consistently training no matter where I am and what I’m doing. Everything is very strategic, and that’s something I have a team to focus on with … putting things in a strategic place in my life to where I’m not missing a single day of training. Ultimately, I’m a fighter first.
Physical appearance plays a part in opportunities athletes get from a marketing and commercial perspective. What do you say to grumblings like, “Her looks helped get her here”?
I hope I continue to put on amazing fights and continue to change that perception of me, but I think some perceptions will stick with you for your entire life. I know how hard I work, my family knows how hard I work. I’m literally getting punched in the face, breaking arms and limbs. I don’t think if my looks were anywhere in my mind I would be doing this career, so eventually that perception will change … It might not. I can’t change the way I look and that’s the thing. I was born this way.