Paige VanZant was already a UFC fan favorite, but her second-placed finish on Dancing with the Stars after wowing viewers with her foxtrot and salsa transformed the Oregon native from MMA fighter into a household name.
She’s amassed more than two million Instagram followers and is one half of MMA’s premiere power couple. Her husband is fellow MMA fighter Austin Vanderford.
Her rising profile has also convinced her that it’s time to become a voice for equality in MMA.
“I genuinely believe – and I don’t know if we’re ever going to get a true answer from the promotional companies – that the women outsell the male fighters,” VanZant said.
“There are the few that stick out – such as Conor McGregor because he’s a superstar – but when you’re looking at the card, the women are bringing in the money, they’re bringing in the eyes, they bring so much to the table.
“We should be looked at as equals. It is true that females get paid less than the men. At this point, it’s more than, ‘I want to be paid the same as a man.’ All of us fighters need to get what we deserve, and I honestly think that. I just wanted to see my true value.”
CNN has requested figures from UFC on how receipts compare between female and male fighters but has not received a response at the time of publication.
At the UFC’s most recent meeting – 242 in Abu Dhabi – a report from the Sports Daily estimated that while Khabib Nurmagomedov was paid $6,090,000 for overcoming Dustin Poirier in the UFC Lightweight Championship bout, Joanne Calderwood was the highest earning woman, netting an estimated $45,000 for beating Andrea Lee.
In 2016, Ronda Rousey, one of the UFC’s most marketable athletes, earned $140,000 for her win – $70,000 to show up and $70,000 to win – in UFC 190 against Bethe Correia, while Chris Weidman made $500,000 – $250,000 to show and $250,000 to win – at UFC 187. Both were undefeated at the time, Rousey with 12 wins and Weidman with 13.
For VanZant, the disparity between men and women fighters is so great that in a recent interview with Ariel Helwani, the MMA star said she was paid more for her sponsored Instagram posts than fighting in the UFC.
However, UFC president Dana White is adamant that the sport is more equal than others, with men and women having similar starting wages.
“Unlike most professional sports, men and women in the UFC have the same starting compensation to provide an equal playing field,” White said in a statement given to CNN.
“Comparing average compensation at similar tenures shows that female athletes get paid an equal or greater amount than the male athletes. Specifically, VanZant has made considerably more than the average male athlete that has been competing for the same amount of time in the UFC.”
VanZant became involved with MMA as a way of “fighting back.”
In her book “Rise: Surviving the Fight of My Life,” VanZant details how as a teenager, she consistently suffered bullying and was raped by multiple male classmates at a party.
After being introduced to former UFC fighter Ken Shamrock’s gym, VanZant found that fighting helped regain her confidence.
“It was my way of standing up for myself and getting my strength and power and continuing to be successful despite everything I went through,” she said.
“I didn’t get into fighting to learn how to beat up people who were bullies but I definitely gained back my confidence, I gained so much from fighting that all the success is a way to show that I didn’t let someone else define me or break me and I’m so much more than a survivor of my past.”
After making her professional MMA debut aged just 18, VanZant’s rise was meteoric.
She was one of 11 women signed to the UFC’s newly created Strawweight division and after only one fight, in February 2015, became only the sixth UFC fighter to land an individualized Reebok deal.
At the time, the signing of the then 20-year-old was criticized because four of the other five fighters signed to Reebok were either UFC champions or former champions, while the lone outlier, McGregor, was already a star in the making.
White pointed to VanZant’s “it” factor as the reason behind her signing, adding that there something that makes you “want to tune in and watch and it’s not necessarily just defined by good looks.”
While there was some media criticism in the past, the majority of the negativity came from VanZant’s fellow competitors, something which hurt her.
“It was definitely disappointing because I had gone through bullying my entire life and I didn’t expect as an adult in the professional world to have girls still bullying me,” VanZant said. “Of course, I was used to it and I knew that their issues weren’t with me but were with themselves.
“They obviously wanted to be where I was, and they weren’t getting it. I’m trying to change women and show that you need to be nice to each other and be happy for each other’s successes and not trying to tear people down because they’re doing something you wish you were doing.”
Coping with injuries
VanZant’s professional fighting career has had its downsides.
She had to pull out of UFC 216 because of a herniated disc, double ear infection, sinus infection, pink eye and ringworm all at the same time and more recently, has missed over a year of action after breaking her arm three times.
And while VanZant describes the recovery process from her third broken arm as being “horrible,” the time she has been forced to spend out of the sport has only solidified her love for it.
“I think maybe it did take getting MMA taken away from me for me to realize how much I love it,” he said.
“It definitely wasn’t an easy road for me, so everyone who said that I’ve had an easy path to victory, or it was too easy for me, I can genuinely say that I’ve had a hard journey to get where I was. A lot of people would quit going through three broken arms, three arm surgeries.”