Catching Up with Cat Zingano Ahead of Her Return to the Cage at Bellator 256

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For the first time since last September, Cat Zingano returns to the cage tonight for Bellator.

Zingano (11–4) meets Olivia Parker in a featherweight bout at Bellator 256. Parker (4–1) is four inches taller than Zingano, yet has considerably less experience, starting her pro MMA career 11 years after Zingano. This bout is pivotal, as a win will position Zingano for a featherweight title fight against reigning champ Cris Cyborg.

Speaking with Sports Illustrated before the fight, Zingano discussed her new brown belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, the bout against Parker and the potential for a rematch against Amanda Nunes.

Sports Illustrated: You were just promoted to brown belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. This was especially meaningful after being promoted to purple belt over a decade ago by your late husband, Mauricio Zingano. This obviously was very difficult. What went into your decision?

Cat Zingano: It was a very big deal and it was very hard to do. My goal is to get my black belt. MMA started for me by walking into a jiu-jitsu class. I learned a few things in jiu-jitsu, and then I wondered how I could do if I was tested.

I went through my Facebook a few months back, and I saw a picture where I was on the podium at nationals from 2011. I had my purple belt. It’s so complicated because of the journey and what happened with my husband. I thought back to one of my first big jiu-jitsu tournaments. I remember sitting with my husband when André Galvão walked by. My husband said, “That’s one of the baddest men on the planet.” I competed against his wife in the finals, and she got gold and I got silver. That’s always been in my mind.

I’ve trained at a lot of places, but it never felt like home. Someone tried to surprise me with a brown belt last year and I respectfully declined. There have been a lot of people that told me I deserved my brown belt and offered to be the ones to give it to me, but it never felt right until now. The style is so good for me at Atos and with André. It’s very similar to where I came from with my husband. They made me work for it; they made me earn it.

SI: Why did you make the move to featherweight?

CZ: I’ve been doing combat sports since I was 12. After that many years, you get tired of cutting weight and training depleted. I moved up to 145 because making weight was killing me. I didn’t eat a carb for four years. I also wanted to be able to fight more often. That’s one of the reasons I came to Bellator. In UFC it’s hard to fight as often as you’d like to fight. Plus raising my son on my own, I had to be precise with how and when I do this. So Bellator is the perfect place for me, and not having to cut as much weight is such a gift to my body. It allows me to be confident, gives me the power I want, and I can be in a good mood around the people I love. It’s a totally different energy, and I feel good about where I’m at. This division is deep, and I want to build it.

SI: Is it hard for your son to watch you fight?

CZ: My son is 14 and we’re super close. We’ve definitely had struggles. Anything that’s terrible about what I’ve went through, that happened to him, too. They were days when it wasn’t cool for me to go and train. He wasn’t doing O.K., I wasn’t doing O.K. But people don’t see that. They just see you not fighting. My reality was very tough. When he was younger, and he wasn’t getting his mom, it was a struggle. Now he’s older and he understands more. On the flip side he’s seen you can still follow your dreams.

SI: Your story is one of courage and bravery, especially as a mother, as well as a fighter. In terms of the Bellator 256 fight, Olivia Parker certainly presents her share of problems. And though this looks like your fight on paper, particularly in terms of conditioning and getting on the mat, what do you see as a key to victory?

CZ: I need to execute. I’m super powerful, super strong and aggressive. I need to keep my pace. Every fight can go either way. It’s a fighter vs. a fighter, and it’s all about who applies it best and wins. I don’t know quit. I know I’m tough, I know I’m built for this. We’ll see if she is. I can’t wait to hear it’s time to go. I’m coming for my win.

SI: You are the last fighter to defeat Amanda Nunes. She is currently in the midst of an unstoppable run. Does her camp still reach out to you for a rematch? And considering you won, is that a fight that interests you?

CZ: A rematch, that was the goal before I decided to leave and go to Bellator. They were asking for that to happen. Then I had the opportunity to make some money over here. That was a tough decision because I had some goals over there, but I had to do what was best for me. I really want that fight, which is funny to say considering I won that fight.

It’s appropriate to see it again. I think the fans want to see it. Maybe the UFC borrows me for the weekend and we go do it, or Bellator borrows Amanda for the weekend and we go do it. It would be great to do it again someday.

SI: What are you pursuing next? The featherweight title is within sight, but like you mentioned, this is also in your soul. What are you looking to prove in the next chapter of your career?

CZ: This is my life. I’ve been doing it since I was 12. I love getting to train and having consequences, the seriousness and the intensity. It’s what I look forward to doing and learning. This is crazy and intense, but it’s such a thrill. I learn something new about myself every time. And I get to see how I do against some of the baddest mother------- in the world.

Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.