Toughness comes in many forms, and the act of climbing the steps and entering the cage to fight another person is an act of toughness in and of itself.
But fighting at least a round-and-a-half with a broken arm takes unimaginable toughness and pain tolerance.
That, though, was just the beginning of the displays of toughness from Paige VanZant, who returns to competition for the first time in a year when she faces Rachael Ostovich on Saturday at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn in a bout streamed on ESPN+.
Much has occurred in VanZant’s life since she last stepped into the Octagon, when she broke the ulna in her right arm on Jan. 14, 2018, during a fight with Jessica-Rose “Jessy Jess” Clark. She hit Clark in the forehead with a spinning back fist in the second round and the ulna snapped.
She said she figured adrenaline would take over and she wouldn’t notice the pain until after the fight, but the first time she threw a punch, the pain was excruciating. On a scale of 1-to-10, she said the pain she felt when she threw a punch was “easily a 10, no doubt.”
It was one of many negatives in a year that, professionally, she’d rather forget. On the positive side, she married fellow mixed martial artist Austin Vanderford, who recently signed with Bellator.
But other than her wedding, 2018 proved to be a difficult and trying year. Her arm refused to heal, and she had two surgeries, including a bone graft from her hip, to fix it. Her endorsement deal with Reebok expired and the company chose not to renew it.
She lost a unanimous decision to Clark that was her second loss in a row, following a 2016 submission defeat to Michelle Waterson. It was also her third loss in four bouts.
She had surgery a few days after the fight, and a small plate was inserted in her forearm. It was expected to heal within two months, but it simply wouldn’t heal. In July, she underwent a second surgery, this one a much more complicated one.
“Six-to-eight weeks is pretty typical for a recovery from the kind of injury I had,” VanZant said. “But a month went by, and then two and then three months, and my arm was still 100 percent broken. There were zero percent signs of healing. They call it a non-union, and after six months of not healing, at that point, the bone inside your arm is basically dead and not alive.
“They had to go back in, take the old plate out, scrape all the dead bone out, and they did a bone graft where they took some bone and platelets from my hip. They filled the crack and put a much, much bigger plate in there that runs almost the length of my forearm. I have a scar from my elbow to my wrist now, and then I had to be in a cast for two months.”
She was afraid her career was over and worried she’d never have the full use of her right arm.
It was a difficult and emotional time and she spent many nights crying as she thought of what might be.
“I went through a severe depression and my husband is the person who got me through the whole thing,” she said. “The first surgery, I had such a positive outlook, and I really believed I’d heal up quickly and get right back to it. I was like, ‘Cool, people break their arms and have surgery all the time, and they’re better than ever.’ But when it didn’t heal, there was absolutely no explanation why. I had no idea what was going on. And so when I was going through the process of the second surgery, I was like, ‘Well, what is different now that will make it heal this time?’ It was such a stressful process and I was so mad that a silly bone break could cause so many issues.
“Yes, I’m a professional fighter, but I do cry a lot. I’d go to practice [with Austin] and we’d go home and I’d be bawling in the truck because I couldn’t practice. I wanted to get back to training and get back to my normal life so bad, and my arm wouldn’t heal up. I didn’t have the strength I needed and I had extreme pain that went up and down my arm.”
Vanderford told his wife he’d badly injured a knee and successfully rehabilitated it to the point that he came back to win the NAIA national title.
That encouraged her and she made it back. But she’s returning not as a strawweight, where she’s competed since joining the UFC, but as a flyweight. She was torturing her body trying to make strawweight.
She said when she was a strawweight, she’d be at 138 pounds between fights, meaning she’d have to drop 23 pounds, or 17 percent of her body weight, to make it.
So the fight with Ostovich will be at 125, and while that will be easier, it’s not as simple as one might expect. She has gotten bigger and she’s cutting down from 144 now.
“For some reason, I don’t know if it’s social media or whatever, but people think I’m a lot smaller than I am,” she said. “I haven’t been open about how much weight I cut, and people think I’m small for the division. Even at 125, I’m cutting a lot. I’m cutting from 144 pounds, so that’s a significant amount for a girl to lose.
“ … It was terrible for my body and I was killing myself trying to make weight. When they opened the 125s for women, I had to do it, because it was no longer fun for me. I know everyone suffers when they cut weight, but it was extreme to me. I couldn’t do it anymore. It was that bad.”
But Saturday, she’s back doing what she loves and one can tell just from her voice how excited she is to return.
She said she expects fireworks.
“We have pretty similar styles, I think,” VanZant said of Ostovich. “I’m told that’s an attribute of mine. She’s very tough and I believe I have shown my toughness over and over. I think it’s going to come down to who has the better technique and who is the better overall fighter. We’ll see. I think it’s going to be a lot of fun.”
A lot more fun, for sure, than healing from a broken arm that cost her nearly a full year on the sidelines.
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