Personally and professionally, Cat Zingano has spent the better part of the last three years living inside a tornado.
After arriving on the UFC stage as an unbeaten contender and collecting a come-from-behind victory over Miesha Tate in her promotional debut, the dark clouds started moving in overhead and the funnel cloud appeared on the horizon. A thrilling performance that should have unlocked greater opportunities and carried the talented fighter to new levels of recognition and established her as one of the elite threats in the women’s bantamweight division got swept away with just about everything else in her life.
Five weeks after beating Tate, Zingano blew out her knee, forcing her out of a coaching assignment on The Ultimate Fighter and a championship fight with Ronda Rousey. In January 2014, her husband, Mauricio, took his own life.
She returned to the cage the following September, earning another come-from-behind victory, this time against Amanda Nunes, to once again put herself in a position to challenge Rousey for the women’s bantamweight title, but when the fight finally came around five months later, it was over before it ever really started. Constantly labeled as a slow starter, Zingano rushed across the cage and missed a flying knee, leading to a scramble on the canvas with the champion, her right arm exposed. Rousey saw it and attacked, cinching in a modified armbar, forcing Zingano to tap.
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The whole thing lasted just 13 seconds.
“I knew before I fought Ronda that I wanted to take a break after that fight regardless of what the outcome was,” explains the 33-year-old contender, who has not fought since her championship loss at UFC 184 in February 2015. “I thought I was going to win – obviously I didn’t – but that didn’t change the fact that I wanted to take a break.
“If anything, that kind of solidified the fact that I needed to take a break because I wasn’t able to compete to my capabilities and I think it 100 percent showed in the performance. It was kind of one more nail in the coffin as far as taking the break, and doing what I needed to do in terms of backing away in order to bring myself to the point where I am today.
“I wanted to feel hungry to fight again and I finally am.”
In the 18 months since that meeting with Rousey, the funnel cloud has dissipated and Zingano has sifted through all the debris left in its wake.
She never stopped training, having bounced around to various gyms across the United States and taken training trips to both Thailand and Mexico, but she also allowed herself to push back from the sport a little in order to adjust to her “new normal.”
After years of just grinding her way through everything and trying to use the force of will she frequently displays in the Octagon to put her life back in order and get it moving forward again, the intense and powerful “Alpha” knew she needed to switch things up.
“I hadn’t really allowed myself to adjust to what everything was, so I kind of had to just keep piecing it together,” Zingano, who still sits at No. 3 in the women’s bantamweight rankings, admits. “It again showed me how strong I could be, but there was definitely a point where I was tired of being strong and I wanted to be a mom and just rest and breathe and deal with things in a healthy way; get through them in a healthy way.
“I couldn’t figure out what I was fighting for because it wasn’t making me happy at that moment,” she adds. “I knew I loved it, so something had to be wrong, and in order for me to figure that out, I needed to remove myself and regroup and that’s exactly what I did.”
Zingano returns to action next weekend against surging Ultimate Fighter winner Julianna Pena in the final preliminary card bout at UFC 200. After being away for a year and a half, the division she’s returning to is drastically different than the one she left and that includes two familiar faces battling it out for the women’s bantamweight title three fights after she and Pena grace the Octagon.
“It’s frustrating, but I get it,” Zingano says of seeing two women she’s defeated, Tate and Nunes, battle for UFC gold. “I do realize the show must go on without me if I’m taking a break.”
She pauses, adjusting her words.
“When I hurt my knee, the show went on without me and Miesha got the title shot and the show and all of that stuff. When my husband passed away, the show went on without me again and it just kept happening. I have no problem earning my way back to the top – I don’t like when things are handed to me anyway.”
But she also wants to make it clear that she’s back, and from this point forward, she had no interest in letting the show go on without her any more.
“I’m excited to go out and fight,” she says, her tone brightening as she raves about spending her training camp in San Diego working with Eric Del Fierro and the team at Alliance MMA, though she’s not sure if the move will become a permanent one yet.
Not because she doesn’t love it, but because she’s been too busy getting ready to square off with Pena next weekend in Las Vegas.
“I need to deal with Julianna right now – getting ready for her, putting in the miles and the time and all the hard work that goes into July 9th. As soon as that’s over, I think I can pick up that decision, put it on my plate and see what ends up manifesting itself from there.”
Whatever happens, both in the cage and in life, Zingano is back in a good place, having survived the twister and taken the time to put things back together again the way she needed to.
“I think it’s a great change and I think those forward steps that I got to take from it are all from really taking care of me even when other people weren’t supportive of it and were ready to be entertained right away.
“I will come back a much better athlete than when I left,” she adds. “I’m here. I’m back. Don’t forget about me.”