Reviewed by Brian Burmeister
Rise: Surviving the Fight of My Life
by Paige VanZant
272 pages, April 10, 2018, ISBN-13: 978-0316472265
It’s easy to feel defeated in life. In the face of true tragedy, it often feels like there’s no other choice. But among the many lessons mixed martial artist Paige VanZant hopes to impart in her memoir, Rise: Surviving the Fight of My Life, is that overcoming the past and pursuing one’s dreams are worth the struggles.
VanZant, who is among the most popular fighters in the UFC and who gained an additional loyal following as a runner-up on Dancing with the Stars, didn’t always have a wide network of support. As a child in school, she had few friends, and throughout high school she was often bullied by older, jealous students and abandoned by resentful one-time friends for her athletic talents. Connections with her peers were rare, and when she first started forming friendships with a few older boys, things seemed great at first. These new friendships bolstered a sense of belonging for which she had been desperate.
But appearances can be deceiving. One Halloween night, VanZant was invited to a house party hosted by one of these friends. Sneaking out of her home, VanZant walked the several blocks to this party, only to discover it wasn’t really a party. Entering into a bizarrely quiet house, four high school boys several years her senior sat around drinking vodka and smoking weed. She didn’t like the scene, but decided to stay a few minutes to avoid seeming rude. But the boys had other plans. They peer pressured her to drink, which quickly escalated into them forcibly shoving drinks into her face, and it’s not long after that VanZant lost all control of her body and the situation. “I lose agency over myself,” she writes, “but my mind is present, watching. Wasn’t I just out bowling with these people? What in God’s name is happening?” Likely drugged, VanZant became a passenger in her own body. Her supposed friends pinned her down and one after another after another after another, raped then-14-year-old VanZant. Her account is horrific: “they drain me of dignity, over and over again, until I am a pile of my own bones.”
What followed that night was horrible as well. Despite the assaults not being her fault, she felt a great sense of shame and kept everything that happened to herself. But the same is not true of her attackers. In no time, rumors flew around school. The pain of what happened was amplified as she was constantly harassed and bullied at school by misinformed students for being “a slut.”
VanZant’s story could have ended there. She felt intense loneliness and fear. Shebattled both suicidal and murderous thoughts. But before she followed through on either, she found one good thing to latch onto.
She and her father began attending UFC Hall of Famer Ken Shamrock’s gym. Her relationship with her father deepened as they trained together, and VanZant discovered the cathartic potential of mixed martial arts. “I inhale the power. I exhale the bullshit. One strike at a time.”
VanZant’s skill and love for the sport grew with time, helping—albeit it slowly—overcome the wounds she suffered. Training and eventual competition weren’t panaceas for the pain. But they gave her a purpose. They gave her something to look forward to, to commit her life to.
VanZant’s dedication to her craft then and now is unreal. She began training five or six hours each day. And, after deciding to give professional fighting her all, she commuted four hours roundtrip to be able to train with another UFC Hall of Famer, Urijah Faber, at one of the world’s foremost mixed-martial-arts gyms. She writes, “There will always be wins and losses and that the real point is to give it my all.”
Throughout the later chapters of Rise, VanZant takes readers on the rollercoaster of her professional career. From the incredible flying head kick finish of Bec Rawlings to her famous defeat at the hands of Michelle Waterson in the main event of UFC on Fox 22, we see her excitement and disappointment at various moments in her career. No matter if she’s sharing the highs or lows, it is impossible to read these reminiscences without rooting for her every inch of the way.
VanZant’s story is incredible. The trauma she suffered at such a young age is still in her. But she didn’t and doesn’t let it derail her dreams. “Maybe that’s the purpose of pain,” she writes. “To strengthen. To cultivate resilience. To condition. To teach.” In the final pages of Rise, VanZant directly shares many of the lessons she learned in her life with readers who might need hope or help or love. The entire book is powerful, but its closing pages are beautifully uplifting: “Experience has taught me that life itself is a fight—to win at it, you have to be all in…You can always rise. You can ignite the part of yourself that chooses life, and compel it to take over. You can scramble out of the worst clinch and take the power back.”
Brian Burmeister teaches communication at Iowa State University. His writing has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. He is a regular contributor to the Sport Literature Association, an editor for Cleaver Magazine, and his debut collection of poetry, The Things We Did, All the Things that We Do,will be published in February 2019 by Finishing Line Press. He can be followed on Twitter: @bdburmeister.