THERE was a definite sense of finality about Paige VanZant's appearance at UFC 251.
As she walked to the octagon before her bout with Amanda Ribas, with tears in her eyes, it seemed like she knew this was her farewell to the sport that's put her on the map.
And that was before the 26-year-old was comprehensively beaten by her opponent in the first round through a submission.
There's no doubt injuries have caught up with the MMA star – the most crucial being an arm fracture that's left a scar going from the wrist to the elbow of her right arm.
But with her contract now expired, and UFC president Dana White refusing to confirm whether the championship would offer her a new deal, VanZant finds herself at a crossroads.
“I’m excited. I’ve never been in this position ever, so I think it’s an important position for me to be in,” VanZant said, undeterred by a future that's unwritten.
“You don’t really know your value until somebody else tells you what it is, and it’s the option of multiple people that say what they think my value is. So I’m going to gain a lot of knowledge.”
So what's next for Paige?
Where VanZant won't be short of offers will be from TV producers who understand her star quality and pull.
With her girl-next-door looks, she's developed a cult following outside the UFC and boasts an ever-growing social media following (2.6m on Instagram).
She has already become a household name in the States thanks to an appearance on Dancing with the Stars (US's version of Strictly) in 2016.
The blonde beauty wowed judges Bruno Tonioli and Len Goodman to finish runner-up in the competition – scoring perfect marks in the Jive, Samba, Freestyle and Jive/Salsa fusion.
A year later, VanZant was invited to be a contestant on Chopped – a celebrity cooking competition like Masterchef in the UK.
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 edging out former Olympic gold medalist figure skater Dorothy Hamill.
Although she was a favourite among UFC fans, her financial earnings with the organisation were measly.
Across nine fights, including pay-per-view money, VanZant earned around £290,000 – a sum dwarfed by her male counterparts who have earned figures in the millions.
And she has always been vocal about what she feels she's worth. Which is why for the past few years talks with the WWE have been taken very seriously.
VanZant hasn't been shy in flirting with the idea of wrestling, and has always viewed it as a serious alternative to MMA fighting.
"I also think the WWE is an amazing organisation and it’s a very athletic entertainment industry which would suit me," she previously said.
"There’s probably huge potential for a crossover down the line and of course I’m a big fan of what they do, so it would be great to be a part of."
VanZant even met WWE's Chief Brand Officer Stephanie McMahon during the global tech conference Web Summit in Portugal in 2018.
She revealed: "I got the opportunity to talk to Stephanie for a little bit on Tuesday which was great."
While Wrestling Observer Newsletter’s Dave Meltzer revealed she nearly appeared at SummerSlam.
Responding to a follower on Twitter, Meltzer wrote: “They talked to her a few years ago for SummerSlam and she was game for it, but UFC wanted her to fight that month instead.
“But she's said she's up for it.”
"There’s this conversation that I would have a short career, that Hollywood would be calling my name," Paige once told the South China Morning Post.
"Of course they are, but as a fighter, my passion is to compete, and that’s what I’m going to do until that passion is no longer there."
Having lost three of her last five fights in the UFC since becoming a "celebrity", that hunger and desire for the fight is now in question.
But VanZant would surely be box office gold for an action movie franchise, just like Ronda Rousey is?
Sylvester Stallone made a star of the former UFC champ with The Expendables 3, and she soon appeared in Fast & Furious 7, proving the crossover can happen.
And VanZant will certainly have designs on becoming a movie star, if the offer's there from a Hollywood producer.
Through lockdown, Paige and her husband Austin Vanderford have kept us entertained with a series of cheeky Instagram posts – flashing their naked bodies while performing mundane tasks at home.
The pair, who married in 2018, want to start a family, which could be her next move.
However, Paige is adamant that will only happen if they are financially secure.
“It is fun for me. I do love what I do but it has to be worth it for your future, for your career, for your family," she revealed.
"For being a woman, I want to be a mum, too. There’s a timeframe on that.
"My career, yes I can come back after having kids but there’s other factors like I need make enough money to be able to take time off and have kids."
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