How UFC queen overcame horrifying rape
Paige VanZant is one of the most recognisable UFC fighters in the world, and a darling of reality TV.
The 26-year-old MMA star came second on America's version of Dancing with the Stars and was first in a reality cooking show on US TV.
She has also become an online sensation with 2.4million followers on Instagram.
However, reaching celebrity status has been far from easy.
In her autobiography Rise: Surviving the Fight of My Life, she revealed that when she was just 14, she was raped by multiple male classmates after they got her drunk at a high-school party.
The horrific ordeal forced VanZant to change her name after years of persistent bullying.
But it didn't stop her from ruling in the Octagon, and VanZant's rise is even the more remarkable given the circumstances behind her turning to mixed martial arts in the first place.
HORRIFIC RAPE DROVE VANZANT TO THE BRINK
VanZant enjoyed a normal childhood, growing up in Dayton, Oregon in the US. Her parents owned a dance studio, and she was brought up dancing hip-hop, ballet and jazz for more than 13 years.
A natural flair for performing arts led to VanZant appearing in a commercial for mops, and she seem destined for stardom one way or another.
As a teen, she said she was a tomboy - with a love of dirt-bike riding and fishing. But what should have been an idyllic upbringing was haunted by the persistent bullying she was getting at high school after a rumour circulated that she had sex with multiple boys at a party.
Bullies mocked her surname - she was originally called Sletten - and cruelly nicknamed her "Slutton". One time she came home to find condoms hanging from the trees around her house.
However, VanZant was hiding the truth - that she had been the victim of a gang rape.
In 2018, VanZant courageously opened up about the experience in her book. Recalling the horrific incident, she wrote: "They move me around ... They change my position.
"I fail each time I try to resist, my limbs like wet cement on my body, my brain a heavy fog. I am awake and conscious, but my body feels dead.
"I know what is happening but can do nothing to stop it. I have no voice or choice but to submit and pray that it ends soon."
VanZant never said if the perpetrators faced any legal charges, but the incident left her contemplating taking her own life.
"I didn't see any other way out," she said in an interview on American television. "When you're in that position, when you're feeling that much pain, it's not that you want to die ... you just don't want to be in pain anymore.
"I didn't have anywhere to run to, I didn't have anybody to turn to."
FROM BULLIED TEEN TO UFC QUEEN
Haunted by her past, Sletten became VanZant when she legally changed her name and took on a different identity.
And when her family moved to Nevada, she found a new hobby that was to change her life forever.
Aged 15 she walked into UFC veteran Ken Shamrock's gym The Lion's Den, after looking for dance studios in the area, and began to train in boxing and mixed martial arts.
Primarily, VanZant wanted to be able to defend herself. She picked it up with ease, already having nimble feet from her years training as a dancer.
Just a year after making her MMA debut at UWF's Tournament of Warriors finale, VanZant was one of 11 female fighters signed by the UFC for its new strawweight division in 2013.
By 2015, she had become one of the faces of sportswear company Reebok. It caused jealousy among her rivals who thought she was only chosen to represent the brand because of her looks. But UFC boss Dana White nailed it when he said she had the "it" factor and personality deserving of the sponsorship.
REALITY TV DARLING
Just as Ronda Rousey used her UFC stardom to leverage appearances in Hollywood movies, VanZant became a bona-fide reality TV star because of her fame inside the Octagon.
First, she stole hearts when she went back to her first passion - dancing - to appear on Dancing with the Stars in 2016. And she showed she still looked good on the dance floor, showing off a perfect paso-doble to win votes and praise from the judges.
VanZant finished runner-up to deaf model Nyle DiMarco, and by then she had already become a household name to middle America.
A year later, in 2017, VanZant was invited to be a contestant on Chopped - a celebrity cooking competition akin to Masterchef. After breezing through the appetiser and entree rounds, she found herself in the show's finale, the dessert round.
This time, she became a reality TV-winner by edging out former Olympic gold medal-winning figure skater Dorothy Hamill.
HAPPILY EVER AFTER
In 2017, VanZant began dating MMA fighter and former amateur wrestler Austin Vanderford.
They were engaged in January 2018 and that same year VanZant shocked fans when she revealed they had secretly married by sharing her wedding photos on Twitter.
She sweetly captioned one tweet "Mrs Vanderford" as she looked stunning in a white dress.
Recently, VanZant has seen her UFC career interrupted by injuries that have hampered her progress in the Octagon. She hasn't fought since January last year when she beat Rachael Ostovich, after a year out with a broken arm.
She has one more fight left on her current UFC contract and has been begging boss Dana White to give her a match-up.
VanZant has been training with her husband recently, and regularly posts naked photos on her Instagram page as the pair take a unique approach to dealing with self-isolation during the coronavirus pandemic.
However, as she as already proven during her life, she'll always be a fighter, and you wouldn't bet against her making a victorious comeback.
This story originally appeared on The Sun and was reproduced with permission
Originally published as How UFC queen overcame horrifying rape