LAS VEGAS – Some people go on vacation and visit historic sights or play a few rounds of golf. For her vacation, though, Cat Zingano traveled halfway around the world to learn a bit of Muay Thai boxing in the country where it originated and, despite zero experience, wound up taking a pro fight.
On Saturday, she'll face Miesha Tate on the main card of "The Ultimate Fighter Finale," with an opportunity to coach opposite UFC women's champion Ronda Rousey in the next season of TUF going to the winner.
The Mandalay Bay Events Center, where Zingano will meet Tate in the most important bout of her fighting career, is thousands of miles away and light years removed from the tiny, filthy gym in Thailand where Zingano unexpectedly took a professional Muay Thai fight last year.
Zingano, her husband, Maurice, and their son, Brayden, went to Thailand for vacation last summer. An All-American wrestler at Cumberland College and MacMurray College, Cat Zingano was going to teach a seminar on takedowns in jiu-jitsu and mixed martial arts.
She and her husband, a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, were given coupons for Muay Thai classes, which she eagerly snapped up.
"It was such a great opportunity, to learn Muay Thai in Thailand," she said. "I thought it would be so neat to see the whole ambiance of it. My husband, he was more into the vacation part of it. He was there to relax and have fun. But I had to take advantage of being in Muay Thai and learning about it there."
It wasn't like she went down to the local 24 Hour Fitness and took a class, though. She immersed herself into the training so deeply that her coach urged her to take a pro fight before she returned home. The surroundings should have told her this would not be the kind of fight she was used to taking, but Zingano is nothing if not adventurous.
She took the bout and now has a story for years to come.
Her coach was smoking and drinking a beer as he wrapped her hands and prepared her for the fight. The dressing room was filled with bloodstains on the wall and looked like it had never been cleaned. The odor was nauseating.
"I'll bet if someone got murdered in there, you'd never find out who did it," she said, chuckling. "It was pretty gnarly. I didn't take off my sandals for the warm-up because of the floor. There was cigarettes all over and spit and blood and who knows what else. It smelled awful."
It would have been one thing for a professional Muay Thai fighter to be in those surroundings, preparing to fight. Zingano, though, was on vacation with her family and had as much experience fighting Muay Thai as the barista at the local Starbucks.
The ring and the ropes were similarly filthy. She wound up with a Staph infection in her armpit after putting her arm over the rope during the fight.
"At some point, I went for an elbow on her and the rope ended up under my arm pit," Zingano said. "We continued to fight, but it turns out a couple of days later, I wound up with this gnarly Staph infection in my armpit and I had to go to all these different pharmacies to try to figure out how to get rid of it.
"It took two weeks to get rid of it. I can't imagine how much DNA was on that rope. They didn't wipe it down between fights and I'm sure they didn't at the end of the night. It was pretty disgusting."
Given that she got through that experience – with a knockout win via a knee to the head – she's unlikely to be fazed by the lofty stakes in her UFC debut. In Tate, she's meeting the UFC's second-most famous fighter with the TUF coaching gig and a title shot against Rousey on the line.
UFC president Dana White frequently speaks of the jitters fighters face before their UFC debuts, but if Zingano didn't get rattled fighting Muay Thai in Thailand with no experience, it's a pretty good bet that she'll be relaxed as she climbs into the Octagon to fight Tate.
"My background is in jiu-jitsu and wrestling, so to go to a situation [in Thailand] where I wasn't comfortable and I hadn't had years of training, it helped me to conquer my fears," she said. "I was in a situation where I had to stand up the entire fight, and that's not what I had done at that point. I had to throw heavy leather. I needed to learn to improvise, because I knew if I got tired, I couldn't go to the ground, which had been my comfort zone.
"I forced myself to do that and, as a result, I increased my faith in my capabilities as a fighter," she said. "Now I know, if someone takes all these things I'm comfortable with [as a fighter] and that I like about my style away from me, I know I can still succeed. I proved that to myself under the most difficult circumstances imaginable."
Zingano has great respect for Tate and what she's accomplished as a fighter, but the one thing she is certain of is that she won't be awed by Tate's skills.
Though it's her UFC debut, nothing will be shocking for Zingano after what she went through in Thailand.
"I'm going to go out and be myself and be aggressive and have fun and do what I do," she said. "If I had any doubts, I know from [Thailand] that I have the heart. I'm really looking forward to the experience."
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