LAS VEGAS — In case the point she made in the Octagon on Saturday night wasn’t quite emphatic enough, Cat Zingano scanned the crowd until she found her boss.
The 32-year-old Colorado native had just finished off a tough opponent, Amanda Nunes, in brutal fashion, raining down ground-and-pound strikes until the referee waved off their UFC 178 bantamweight bout in the third round.
And after making such a statement in her first fight back after a tumultuous year-and-a-half out of action, Zingano was going to make damn sure UFC president Dana White, seated in the first row at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, fully understood what just happened.
“You probably didn’t hear it, but she was screaming at me after the fight,” White told reporters at the post-fight news conference. “She ran over and started screaming, ‘Do you see me? Do you see me?’ I said ‘Yes, I see you.’ ”
The undefeated Zingano’s moment of triumph was 17 months in the making. She had a memorable UFC debut in April 2013, when she rallied from a shaky start to finish former Strikeforce champion Miesha Tate in the third round.
With the victory over Tate, Zingano was supposed to earn a coaching slot opposite Ronda Rousey on “The Ultimate Fighter,” along with a shot at her women’s bantamweight title at the end of the show.
Instead, Zingano injured a knee and had to drop out of both the show and the title shot. While she was out, she suffered through the death of her estranged husband.
While coping with her out-of-the-ring issues, Zingano watched Rousey defend her title three times, as the champion defeated Tate, Sara McMann and Alexis Davis.
And even as she prepared for her return, Zingano had to endure what seemed an endless period of speculation over whom Rousey might fight next. There was Gina Carano, the first star of women’s MMA. There’s the ever-looming specter of Cris “Cyborg” Justino. And there’s undefeated Brazilian Bethe Correia, who has been defeating Rousey’s friends one-by-one and taunting the champ while she does it.
But one impressive victory was all it took to put the title picture back in focus. White confirmed that Zingano will be next in line for Rousey, in a fight likely but not officially set for the Jan. 3 card in Las Vegas which will also feature Jon Jones vs. Daniel Cormier.
“This was the ‘shut-up-about-Gina-Carano’ fight,” White quipped. “I think that’s what Cat, the statement she wanted to make tonight. She made it loud and clear.”
The title shot, of course, is not being given out as a charity case. Zingano’s fight against Nunes, who came into the bout the winner of three out of her past four fights, was eerily reminiscent to the 2013 Tate fight. In both fights, Zingano took a beating in the opening round and seemed a well-placed strike or two away from losing. In round two, she slowly turned the tide. In round three, Zingano seemed to find energy as her opponent faded. In the Tate fight, Zingano finished the bout with standing knees in the clinch. Against Nunes, a takedown followed by a textbook display of ground-and-pound led to the finish.
“I was really just pushing to get through this fight,” said Zingano, who didn’t seem interested in rehashing her past issues. “I had to get through this to get through the horizon and get to the next point.”
Zingano also exhibited a sense of flair and diversity in her skill set. Twice in the fight, she threw her foe to the mat in a manner that can best be described as similar to the pro wrestling “DDT” move. At another point, she went straight back to the days of Ken Shamrock and used an old-school ankle lock.
Between the unpredictability of her offensive arsenal and her ability to weather storms, Zingano makes for Rousey’s most intriguing foe in quite some time. Many of Rousey’s opponents seem to have lost the mental battle before they even hit the cage.
“Let’s go, I’m ready,” Zingano said. “I have all the respect in the world for Ronda Rousey, but this is my time.”
Given Zingano seems to have an endless reservoir of willpower both inside the cage and out, she could be uniquely suited to withstand not only Rousey’s mind games, but her vaunted fast and furious starts.
Perhaps Rousey realizes this, too, as the champion recently told Brazilian media she looks forward to Zingano’s challenge.
“I talked to her personally,” Rousey said. “And I told her, ‘One day we are going to have a title fight that you deserve. I’m going to beat you, but you’re going to have it.’ She’s had a very, very rough year and it’s exactly what she needs. I’d be happy to provide that experience for her.”
White realizes it, as well.
“She is back,” White said. “I think the fans can see her and she needed to remind everybody why she was in line for a title fight. She did it tonight.”