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Cat Zingano: Through the Fire

UFC: The Official Magazine profiles women's bantamweight number one contender "Alpha" Cat Zingano ahead of her UFC 184 bout with champion "Rowdy" Ronda Rousey. Since earning the title shot with a victory over Miesha Tate in April of 2013, Zingano has been through hell and back to get to her title shot at UFC 184.
 

“Do you see me?”

It was a question screamed, not asked, of UFC president Dana White by bantamweight contender Cat Zingano— a consequence of trying to be heard over the screams of more than 10,500 fans at the MGM Grand Garden Arena who had just watched the Coloradan stop Amanda Nunes in the third round of their UFC 178 bout.

The win was the most important of the 32-year-old Zingano’s career, and one that didn’t seem possible after the first five minutes of the bout. But if anyone knows how life can change in the matter of minutes, it’s Zingano. But in that moment, she just wanted to be seen.

“I wanted him (White) to know that I’m serious and not to look past me,” she said. “I know it’s a business and that the show must go on, but I put on a performance that I wanted to make a statement with. And I wanted to make sure he saw it.”

He did. So did Zingano’s next opponent, UFC women’s bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey, along with the rest of the mixed martial arts world, a decent segment of which didn’t know if Zingano still had what it took to sit in the number one contender’s spot after a horrific year and a half in which she lost out on a title shot and a coaching spot on season 18 of The Ultimate Fighter due to knee surgery and then lost her husband and coach Mauricio Zingano to a tragic suicide in January of 2014.

Zingano didn’t even know if she was the same fighter or person she was when she debuted in the UFC in April of 2013 with a knockout of Miesha Tate. That seemed like an eternity ago, and she felt the pressure every step of the way as she dealt with questions from every side.

“This fight was mostly about getting through it myself,” she said. “Yeah, it’s obviously important to have the support of the fans and everybody involved, but I really needed to get through that fight for personal reasons—to keep going when I had every reason in the world to stop. This was about getting through it, showing up and making sure that I’m still who I’ve always been and that I can still pull these things off.

“I lost my coach, I lost my team, I lost a lot of things that were really important to me and that were a big part of my identity,” Zingano continues. “It was definitely in my head. It wasn’t about skill, it wasn’t about heart, it wasn’t about all those things that I was born to do. It was about ‘Am I going to be able to do this without him (Mauricio)?’ It was a roller coaster.”

Making it through training camp, media obligations and fight week in Las Vegas, Zingano physically showed up in the Octagon on September 27, but in the first round against the tough Brazilian, “Alpha Cat” was nowhere to be found, as Nunes took her to the mat and began unleashing her trademark ground-and-pound attack. “There was a point in the fight where I couldn’t hear his voice when I was getting pounded in my face, and I thought, Man, I can’t do it. I can’t do it without him. Look at me, I’ve never been on bottom getting hit like this before,” Zingano recalled.

But she wasn’t done yet—not by a long shot—and the trigger was something that reminded her of everything she went through to get back to this point. “She (Nunes) grabbed my knee, and I was like, Don’t touch my damn knee. You don’t even know what that thing cost me. Then it was punishment from there. I needed her to do something like that, and she stepped right in and did it. The fight was over from there. It was just a matter of time.”

Roaring back from almost certain defeat, Zingano dominated the second round, and at 1:21 of round three, she stopped Nunes with a series of unanswered ground strikes. For want of a better term, the fight could best be described as fierce, with all the emotions and frustrations of the previous 17 months being unleashed in one 11-minute-and-21-second capsule. Yet for Zingano, every fight is just that: a fight.

 

“To me this is all real, especially when I have a kid and can relate it to that,” said Zingano, the mother of an eight-year-old son named Brayden. “These fights are real; it’s not a sport to me. I don’t like going out there and dancing and timing and checking out what everybody else has got. I’m trying to finish them, and I’m trying to show myself that I’m indestructible. It’s very real to me. I don’t know how else to describe it. It’s self-defense—me using these disciplines that I’ve learned to not be hurt by someone and to hurt them in return instead.”

That’s against the people with whom she has no beef. Against Nunes, a little pre-fight trash talk from “The Lioness” went a long way toward motivating Zingano even further. “Her getting on Twitter and saying cocky, ignorant things—especially when we’re both high-caliber athletes that have worked equally hard to get where we’re at—and for her to say she’s going to go knock me out, it was almost like, ‘Thank you for saying something, because now I’m going to shut you up,’” Zingano recalled. “And had she been nice, had she been respectful, maybe I wouldn’t have had that little chip on my shoulder to make an example out of her. But she did it. She went ahead and she was arrogant and said things that were helpful, because it brought it to a different level for me. I don’t get shy or intimidated or anything like that. Those things make me take it to a different level, and I appreciate it.”

The victory was the unbeaten Zingano’s ninth as a pro, one less than the win total owned by Rousey. But the two do share a zero in their loss columns, something that will change in the co-main event of UFC 184 on February 28. As far as other similarities,  Zingano believes that despite not knowing each other personally and even with the prospect of a five-round championship fight looming, she and Rousey have a bond few would detect without her bringing it to the surface.

“Fortunately and unfortunately, we have a lot in common,” Zingano said. “We have a lot of mutual friends, we’re very intense athletes and we both fight from the heart and not for the sport. We also have some personal life things in common that really suck for both of us. I know that she lost her dad similarly to how I lost my husband, and that makes me look at her as a completely different human now. Knowing what I’m going through, knowing what I’m feeling, knowing the things that I see my son going through every day, I can see why she is the way she is, and I can see why she’s so strong and so tough. Because if any of those things affected her the way that they’re affecting me, you don’t know how strong you are until strong is the only option. I can see that in her, and that’s why I think this will be an epic fight.”

It certainly has the potential to be the greatest women’s fight ever simply because both fighters bring an element of “mean” to STAPLES Center in Los Angeles. There will be rules, a referee and three judges, but neither fighter is interested in anything but a decisive finish. “I don’t ever want a decision in a fight,” Zingano said. “To me, decisions are a loss because you wouldn’t know how that fight would have went had it gone another 20 minutes or another hour. In nature you would not know what happened, and I don’t like that. I want to get to the bottom of things, and it bothers me for a fight to go to a decision. I had one fight go to a decision, and that fight still bothers me.”

Zingano’s lone decision win, over current Invicta FC champ Barb Honchak in 2010, was so traumatic for her that she brought Honchak out to Colorado to train with her, and the two became fast friends. But that doesn’t mean they let up on each other when the gloves are on. “We try to kill each other every single time we go, and if we didn’t it would be disrespectful,” Zingano said of her sparring sessions with Honchak. “One of us always hurts the other one at some point, and we expect it. It’s something we laugh about. But we would never walk off the mat thinking, Oh, I tapped early or I gave up that tap. There’s no giving up points, no giving up positions. It’s a brawl, it’s a fight, and we try to take each other’s heads off. And as soon as it’s over we’re giggling and acting like 18-year-olds again. It’s a beautiful friendship. It gets violent, but it’s beautiful.”

 

She laughs, a moment of levity in what still has been a tough time for her, and understandably so. There are good times, though, whether it’s her impending title shot, the downtime with her son or just knowing that there are brighter days ahead than what she’s dealt with over the past several months. As for sitting back and enjoying the ride a bit, she chuckles. “I’m working on it,” Zingano said in October.

“I still have a lot going on personally, and I feel like these fights are a distraction from real life for me. Right now that I don’t have fighting and don’t have training to go to and I don’t have this schedule and regimen, I almost feel like I don’t know what to do with my time. I don’t have the same outlet that I had during the camp where it’s really good for me to have that structure. But I’m very proud of myself. I find a new confidence every time I go out there and compete well. I really want to walk away from all of this happy and healthy and looking back on my life being proud of everything I’ve accomplished. And I think when all this is said and done is when I get to stop and smell the roses.”

In other words, not now and not yet. There’s work to be done, fights to be won and a title belt to put around her waist. At this point Cat Zingano’s focus is clearer than ever. She’s been a competitor for much of her life, but a fighter for all of it. And while all the trappings of being a world champion will be nice, knowing that she’s the best in the world means more. And not just for her.

“Through everything that’s gone on, my husband always told me that he knew from the day I walked in the gym that I’m the best in the world. And although I miss him and he’s not here to see it, there’s a huge part of me that still wants to go get that for him and prove him right and prove myself right,” she said. “I started this whole thing out as a hobby, and now I’m where I’m at because he believed in me and we did all this work together—and I want to see it through.”

We see you, Cat. We see you.

 

 

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