Editor's note: This story contains explicit language.
This story appears in the Feb. 16 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
CAT ZINGANO has been crying all day. Her eyelids swollen to slits. Her skin bled of color. Slouching cross-legged on a mat at the MusclePharm gym in Denver, she swigs honey and coconut oil from sticky plastic bottles as her wrestling coach, Leister Bowling, clomps over and asks what she wants for practice music. It is her third workout in 12 hours.
Zingano, 32, shrugs limply, says she doesn't care.
"Fucking headcase," Bowling mutters, walking back toward the practice ring, leaving the hardcore rap blasting.
Zingano keeps her chin down, eyes on the ground. Beside her, four male MMA fighters chat as they stretch. Zingano cracks her toes. They snap loud as firewood. Her phone rings. It's her son, Brayden, 8, wanting to say good night.
"Hey B-Diddy," she coos, then falls into mom-listening. "Uh-huh. Uh-huh. That's great, baby. OK. Yes." She promises a good-night kiss when she gets home. Then she hangs up, and the tears start again. She doesn't bother wiping her face.
Zingano has always been an emotional fighter, a tendency some opponents use to knock her, which is not only a gross misread of how emotion fuels fighting (just ask Rocky Marciano) but also irrelevant. Not only is Zingano undefeated, but her dramatic wins -- five by KO/TKO, three by submission, one by decision -- bleed passion, her hunger obvious and consuming enough to make her the only flame who might eventually melt UFC champion Ronda Rousey's glacial ice.
Admittedly, Zingano is not the smoothest fighter to watch. She is pure desire, a shameless grappler unafraid to show her want. Billie Holiday in spandex. Rousey herself has said Zingano has more "heart" than any other competitor, which is another way of saying she lacks sense. Zingano belongs to the tribe of fighters whose yearning trumps their reason. Those who gladly forsake the rational to enter the transcendent twilight zone that is the test of will, publicly sacrificing themselves on the altar of said test, no matter the cost, so the rest of us can bear witness to what actual sacrifice looks like. So what if today that sacrifice looks like a hot mess?
"It's a cleansing," Zingano explains of her spontaneous weeping. "All that gets left behind is the warrior part."
She is two weeks from her highly anticipated return to the Octagon against bantamweight Amanda Nunes on Sept. 27. She has dropped 7 pounds from her 5-foot-6 frame; she is barely eating and is sleeping less. She's also, unlike most of her competitors, raising a young boy, alone. "Everything I do in here is with my son in the back of my mind," she says, popping her neck and absentmindedly massaging the skin.
Zingano's sparring partner, Shannon "Sinn" Culpepper, enters the gym, walks to Zingano and drops her gym bag with a thud. Last week Zingano accidentally broke Culpepper's nose in a training session. "I won't go for it, don't worry," Zingano reassures her friend, who looks less fearful than resigned.
The two women join the men who are already warming up. Zingano paces the perimeter of the practice mat, while the guys around her goof and joke with one another, swallowing cicada-sized supplements from plastic jugs. Coach Bowling calls, "Two minutes, Cat," and Zingano's brow knits. She shadowboxes, kicks the air, knees ghosts, circles in her own orbit, chest tight, her steps small and deliberate, as if she's walking a plank.
Beside the cage, her striking coach, Christian Allen, watches. Allen, a former pro, retired from the cage five years ago. "I don't have the drive to fight," he admits freely. "In this sport, drive matters more than natural ability. Mentally strong always wins." He tilts his head toward the mat. "Like her."
Zingano enters the ring. The buzzer sounds, and she wastes no time connecting several pulled kicks to Culpepper's head. Then she throws herself over her opponent's body like a blanket, simultaneously covering and taking Culpepper down, pistoning jabs to her face without fully connecting. Culpepper coils like a roly-poly. Soon enough, the sparring is done.
Zingano hugs Culpepper once she finally stands up. She then removes her own mouthpiece and loops it into the strap of her jog bra. Minutes later, she is across the gym, panting on the VersaClimber, arms and legs pumping as if she's being chased up a mountain.
ANY FEMALE FIGHTER will tell you everyone asks them the same question: Why do you fight?
"You fight like a girl." Maybe it's to shut those morons up. Maybe it's so she can walk down the street and not feel afraid. Maybe it's because she is a mother, and all mothers will kill for their children, even those who've never thrown an armbar in their lives. Maybe it's because there were times she wanted to fight and couldn't, or didn't. Or maybe it's because mastery over your body is a feeling so rare and an accomplishment so singular that to do it is to make yourself a diamond, to pressurize yourself into the hardest, most beautiful thing you can think of, then cut every bitch who dares to challenge your magnificence.
It's a bit of an illusion, this toughness. No amount of strength training or chokeholding will actually protect you from the rain of life. Fighting does not cure loss. But it does make you feel something else. And it does remind you with every blow, bruise and bent knuckle that you are human and alive. It makes the primordial struggle less abstract. It brings math to chaos.
Also. It feels good. There is that dirty secret. Hitting something feels good.
"Usually I spar with dudes," Zingano says, eating a postworkout salad and reflecting on the difficulty of her practice session with Culpepper. "When I spar with girls, I worry about how they're feeling, what they're thinking. I care. You know?"
Zingano sucks her bottom lip, spears a piece of lettuce with a plastic fork.
"I'm always shocked when people feel threatened by me," she says earnestly. "I guess not shocked, because it happens a lot, but I often get, 'God, before I met you, I really thought you were gonna be a bitch!'"
Like every female fighter, Zingano knows intimately how public perception of girls who kick ass outside of movies and comic book pages remains doggedly complicated.
"With men, if you tell them you're a fighter, it goes one of two ways," Zingano explains with a sigh. "One: They say, 'I will fuck you up.' Or two: They say, 'I'd let you,' and they make it something sexual. People don't talk about Georges St-Pierre being hot, or brag that they would 'do him,' you know? They talk about how he's the baddest man alive."
She sighs again. Shakes her head a little. "And if you did beat my ass, is that a win for you? Also, you probably can't. But whatever."
Zingano says she gets called out no matter the context. At the gym, at her son's school, out to dinner in heels and a dress. "They don't understand that this is my job." Something she admits she rarely tells anyone. "I dance around what I do, even now," she says, casting a glance over her shoulder. "I don't call myself a fighter. I let people think I do CrossFit."
Zingano has observed what her fellow female fighters have had to deal with, in particular Rousey, who has made a brand of her seductive aloofness. "Ronda does put herself out there way more than the rest of us. But she's still got to hate what people do. Guys will come up to me and say, 'I hope you beat her fucking ass, I hate that bitch.' And I'm thinking, 'That's weird. Don't you see how weird that is?'"
Zingano is not naive. She knows the UFC is a business, like boxing, and like boxing (and all of reality TV) thrives on conflict and personalities, manufactured or otherwise. The issue is, she is constitutionally unsuited to playing pretend. Unlike many of her competitors and peers, Zingano is not chippy or vain. She doesn't boast or trash-talk or point fingers when fights or plans go pear-shaped. She is not about becoming a persona or a product. She is about becoming the best. Now more than ever.
"At this exact point in my life, I don't have room for anything else," she says, her voice low. "There's bullshit and there is the truth. And I don't have time for bullshit anymore."
AS A CHILD, Zingano, née Cathilee Deborah Albert, was a voluble tomgirl, the youngest of three children raised in Boulder, Colorado, born to Jon Albert, a general contractor, and Barbara Albert, owner-operator of a local day care. Neither of her siblings was athletic, but Cathilee wanted to play all the time. She was curious, carefree, devoid of caution. She ate bugs. She dived off cliffs. Her father also loved sports. Jon wanted a boy jock he could root for. "He got me," she says. Her father could be volatile and difficult, but Zingano did her best to make him proud. "If I won, I knew I could count on a couple good days at home," she remembers.
Like most young girls, Zingano started with dance. Then soccer, volleyball, the swim team. She excelled in each but quickly grew bored. In sixth grade, one of her coaches suggested she try out for wrestling. There was no girls team, so Zingano joined the boys team, a choice that angered wrestlers, parents and coaches. None more so than her current coach, Bowling, who had won state.
"I wanted to train with the best people, so when I started high school, I went to one of his practices, hoping to learn from someone better than me," she recalls. Bowling deliberately shattered Zingano's cheekbone with his forearm so she would never wrestle again. "If you fight a girl, you're either a bully or a pussy," he explains. "So I was going to be the biggest bully there was." Zingano, then 15, returned to the mat the next day.
At 17, Zingano officially began training for the 2004 U.S. women's Olympic team, feeling for the first time in her young life like she had found where she was meant to be: single-minded in pursuit, reaching for greatness. Wrestling was its own organism, an art she could never perfect and thus never grow weary of. "I was constantly learning. I didn't peak," she says.
Then on Jan. 8, 2001, her best friend, Mary Rogers, 17, was found bound, beaten and shot to death in the apartment of a boy they both knew. After that, wrestling in the Olympics felt trivial, selfish even. Zingano kept training, but she was listless, uninspired. In the end, she didn't even attend the qualifying tournament.
Zingano received college scholarships to Cumberland in Kentucky and later to MacMurray in Jacksonville, Illinois, where she competed until injuries sidelined her. She would end up enduring five surgeries on one knee and two on the other. She dropped out of school just shy of getting a degree as an American Sign Language interpreter. Zingano relocated to Denver and, before she knew it, was 23 and pregnant, a reality her then-boyfriend was not prepared to embrace. So he left. That same year, her beloved mother passed away from brain cancer and the family lost its glue.
Zingano weathered the pregnancy and birth alone. She suffered, but she also saw her son as a gift, a reason to make her life the best it could be. For her, that included reminding herself what her body was capable of. An old high school coach told her about MMA. Unfamiliar with the sport, she checked out a local school.
"And there was Mauricio on the mat," she remembers.
"I don't think about being tired, I don't think about my technique. I just try to break their will."
- Cat Zingano
Brown-eyed with a shaved head and a row of neat, white teeth, Mauricio Zingano was a third-degree Brazilian jiujitsu black belt and two-time national BJJ champion. He was also the owner of the gym. Zingano knew nothing about jiujitsu. Mauricio said, "Try a week for free."
It took little time for Cat and Mauricio to fall in love. He became her coach. She became his champion. Under his tutelage, she won eight consecutive fights, becoming the UFC No. 1 bantamweight contender. They ran Zingano BJJ together. When Zingano began dominating, enrollment skyrocketed.
"I was the face of the gym," she recalls. "I did all the tournaments. I put on really good performances. We built this empire as a couple." Cat was the encouraging coach, Mauricio the hard-ass. "We were known as a pair. We were Catricio."
They wed, Mauricio adopting Brayden, who called him Papai, Portuguese for daddy. The marriage was good, if not perfect. It was a challenge balancing work and home life, especially with Mauricio coaching her. Sometimes the boundaries blurred. Theirs was the sort of operatic romance in which fiery arguments ended in tight Harlequin clinches, lungs bled of oxygen, hearts pounding against each other like church bells. "I knew he was a wounded soul," Zingano remembers. "Who was I to judge? We were both damaged. Together we made it right."
After they married in 2010, Mauricio told Zingano she "looked cocky" when they first met. "He didn't know then that I was a marshmallow." Mauricio also said something else in those early weeks.
"He told me that someday I was going to be the best fighter in the world."
IT IS 8:30 A.M., and Zingano is trying to get Brayden into his football uniform. Her long black hair is threaded with playful neon pink highlights and pulled into a ponytail. Exposed, her ears resemble crumpled origami, evidence of decades spent wrestling. She wears a pedicure of bloodred nails. Brows groomed to perfection, lines tight. When she smiles, her eyes crinkle disarmingly at the sides.
"Get changed, sweetie," Zingano says once, twice, three times. Brayden, a gorgeous reed of a boy, with round doll eyes that will no doubt seduce legions in the near future, is distracted, rolling on the carpet with a plastic dinosaur. "He has ADD," Zingano says. "I'm the same way. A space cadet."
Zingano lives in the Denver suburbs, in a cul-de-sac community amid the sprawl of growth flanking the Rockies. She and Brayden share a split-level house with Betty Johnson, an old family friend and the woman she calls Grandma. Zingano reveals that she and Brayden are in counseling but that, just as was true for her as a girl, Brayden finds sports more therapeutic than talking. "My son bursts like a dam sometimes," she says, folding a towel and hanging it over the edge of the kitchen sink.
"Brayden!" Zingano tries again, her voice a notch louder. Brayden looks up from the living room floor, grins. He runs over, wraps his arms around his mother's legs. "I love you," he says, squeezing tight. "I love you too," Zingano answers, bending to kiss the top of his head. "Now. Go. Get. Dressed."
Today is Brayden's game day. Zingano loads up the truck with a cooler, a football helmet, a folding chair for Betty, a bag of tangerines. In her center cup holder sits a dusty bottle of apple cider vinegar, which she lustily gulps as if it were cold beer. "It's my reward," she explains, begging the question of what the punishment might be.
On the passenger seat, the empty plastic case of an Eckhart Tolle life coaching CD -- "Maybe it works. I don't know" -- rests atop an 8-by-10 photograph of Zingano and Mauricio taken after one of her victories, her knees encircling his waist, him hoisting her skyward like a baby in his arms. "This way he's with me all the time," she explains of the picture.
In the back, Zingano rearranges her gear -- duffel bags, clothes, shoes, a bedroll with a woolen blanket for sleeping between workouts. "People at the UFC have been calling this a warm-up fight," she says of her bout with Nunes. "But there's no warm-up fight at this level. Everyone's tough." And besides, "I feel like this is the most important fight of my life."
Months earlier, Zingano had been at the dog park with Brayden and their corgi-shepherd mutt, McKenna, when she heard from UFC president Dana White that she was being passed over for a title shot at Rousey a third time. "He said I'd become 'irrelevant,'" she recalls. "That I had disappeared."
White wasn't interested in the circumstances surrounding her hiatus. Zingano says she understands. "He has a company to run." But the words still burned, so she did the only thing she could think to do: She used them to flagellate herself. She repeated the claim of her irrelevance in her brain like a bizzaro-world mantra, determined to make it a lie. She was not going to allow pain to erase her.
"Life is tough, but I'm tougher. It was time to make fucking lemonade."
IF YOU ASK Zingano, she'll say the precipitous decline started May 16, 2013, the day she injured herself during a routine practice. Coming off a win over top contender Miesha Tate, she'd recently been selected to go coach against Rousey on the reality-TV competition The Ultimate Fighter. It was a slot that would cement her star in the UFC and secure income, as well as clients, for the gyms she shared with Mauricio. It also guaranteed a title shot.
Mauricio had tried out for the men's division of the Fox show but had not been cast because he was "too small."
"It was so hard on him," Zingano recalls. "So when I got the spot, he was pumped. Everyone at Zingano BJJ was so excited and happy. All they talked about was 'when we are on the show, when we are on the show.'"
Mauricio promised his wife that after they were paid for the TV gig, they would buy a sweet little house for their family. For seven years the couple and their son had been living in the modest trilevel Mauricio had shared with his ex-wife, a space Zingano never felt comfortable in, a place she went as far as to regard as cursed. "I believe in energy," she says. "And that house had evil energy." Zingano longed to start fresh, pick out paint colors, do all the girlie things that made a house a home.
Once they were officially signed, Mauricio began ramping up his training. He wanted to be as formidable as possible for television. As his wife's coach, he would be a major cast member. He wanted to look the part.
Six days before they were set to move to Las Vegas and start filming, Zingano awoke, her mind filled with dread. "I was exhausted. My body didn't feel right." She decided to skip conditioning, but Mauricio encouraged her to go. She drove to the gym and began jumping 10-inch hurdles, jump-land, jump-land, an exercise she had done a thousand times if she'd done it once.
Fifteen reps in, her right knee caved, the sound like a plastic bottle being crushed. She rolled, her kneecap sliding out instead of forward. In a single hop, she'd blown her ACL and ripped her meniscus.
"Mauricio said as soon as the phone rang, he knew what had happened."
Zingano was inconsolable. "I was headed toward becoming world champion. I could maybe have been the best in the world at what I do." Mauricio had a different concern. "All he kept saying was, 'What about the show? What about the show?'"
The next day, the Zingano family phoned producers to deal with the fallout of her injury. After which, "everything changed."
"Once I got hurt, Mauricio withdrew. I couldn't fight, I couldn't train, there was nothing I could do to have him value me. I couldn't cook his food or do his laundry or keep Brayden out of his hair. I ruined his opportunity. And even though I didn't do it on purpose, he hated me for it."
The show no longer a possibility, Zingano traveled to California for surgery. She, Brayden, Mauricio and a 19-year-old friend who was supposed to help baby-sit lived in a hotel room for three weeks while Zingano recovered. Confined to the bed, she could only watch as her husband spun out, his rage and disappointment manifesting in screaming matches about everything from what to watch on television to having to help her get to the bathroom. Zingano, frightened and confused, suggested that once they got back to Colorado, maybe they should take a break from each other.
"I said if you want to come be with me and not talk about training or what I'm eating and not bring work home, I'll be there," Zingano recalls. "And he said he thought that a separation would be good for us."
Zingano rented her own apartment for six months while her knee continued to heal. At first, Mauricio would come for nightly dinners with her and Brayden. But little by little, the meals stopped. Zingano found herself lying on the floor every evening, sobbing, pining for him to rejoin their family.
"I had horrible insomnia. I would just lay there alone and want my husband. I would fall asleep at 7 a.m. and have to take Brayden to school at 8."
Zingano says it wasn't that she'd fallen out of love, far from it. She just couldn't breathe in the MMA bubble anymore. Mauricio remained Zingano's coach throughout the separation, an impossible dynamic.
"I'd go to the gym and we'd talk and talk and everything was intertwined. That was a problem." When the lease ran out after six months, Zingano and Brayden moved back into Mauricio's house. There she joined her husband's friend and a fellow coach from LA, as well as Mallory, the baby sitter, who had no place else to live. Five people packed in a tiny three-bedroom house that was constantly filled with other visiting fighters and fighter groupies. The atmosphere had shifted from family to frat house. Zingano found herself in the role of schoolmarm.
"There were always people staying with us," she says. "And it was always about fighting. I loved being the team mom. I loved taking care of fighters. But I also wanted to walk around in my robe and cook breakfast for just us three. Mauricio never did. He never got sick of that scene."
The couple tried marriage counseling. But "he never talked. I couldn't make him want to get better." They were bickering constantly. After one particularly intense confrontation, Mauricio traveled to Cambodia on a vision quest. He returned a month later a seemingly changed man, dressed in white, the word "love" tattooed on his knuckles along with three black dots representing Cat, Brayden and himself. He'd taken to meditating every night. He also brought back a series of journals he'd written, unpacking his childhood, his private traumas, pages of frenetic scribbling, the howl of pain purged.
"He promised he would show us the man Brayden and I deserved. 'You're my life,' he'd say. 'We're going to walk the beaches of the world together.'"
There were other, darker issues. Ones no amount of journaling could remedy. Zingano looked at her son, and she realized she had a choice. She could make a healthy life for him, or she could stay.
She decided to move out again. It wasn't long after that when Zingano noticed her husband posting disquieting photographs on the gym's Facebook page. Pictures of himself flipping off the camera. Grainy security videos of men bleeding to death after a botched robbery attempt. Mauricio also began phoning Zingano's friends. Asking whether she was seeing anybody else. "I wasn't thinking about men," she says. "I'm still not."
Zingano went to Al-Anon meetings. Saw her own shrink. She worshipped her husband. She wanted to be with her husband. But the man posting the photos was not one she recognized. Even his face seemed different. His eyes were dark. His posture hunched. She became scared.
On Jan. 11, 2014, Mauricio sent Zingano a text that said, "Do you still see me?" Minutes later, he sent another one.
"I love you. I know you love me. Let's put our hands down. Let's grow old together. Don't shut me out."
Zingano responded. They set a date to meet at the mall food court that Sunday at 5. She would bring Brayden. It would be just the three of them, eating a hamburger dinner together like they used to, the way families do. Mauricio never showed.
That night, Zingano took Brayden home, put him to bed. "Don't worry," she said. "Your daddy didn't forget about you, he loves you, he has a good reason, I know it. Whatever it looks like, it's going to be OK."
She called a sitter to stay with him, then drove to her old house, where she could see lights on inside, Mauricio's car parked out front. Bastard, she thought, then drove home without confronting him. She didn't want to be the angry wife anymore. She didn't want another fight. The next day, after calling Mauricio a dozen times, Zingano rang the gym. No one had seen him since Saturday morning. At 8 p.m., Zingano returned to the house a second time to find police vehicles out front.
"What the hell did he do?" she wondered, assuming he'd been in an altercation, something not improbable in her history with him. She parked her car and started walking toward the front door. On her way, she passed a van, and she noticed two men loading duffel bags into the rear.
"What are you doing?" she asked, but they didn't answer, just looked through her and kept tussling with the bags.
"What is that?" she pressed, alarmed now, her throat thick, pulse rabbit quick. "What is that?" she yelled, louder, furious no one would answer. It was then that she saw the wheels. And recognized that there was only one bag.
"What did he do? What did he do?" she screamed, her distress bringing the police from the house.
"Are you Cat?"
"What's in the bag?" she screamed, desperate.
"Are you Cat?"
"Just tell me."
"Are you ..."
"Yes, I'm fucking Cat. What is in the bag?"
They told her it was her husband, 37 years old, dead by suicide. Then they led her 20 feet from the body, where she collapsed on the ground like a punctured balloon.
THERE WERE, of course, details. A week before his death, Mauricio had given a friend an envelope of letters and his will and instructed him to "open it when appropriate." He left his journal and a stack of CDs and photos with a label, "For Cat only," in the bedroom. There were several notes. One to students who were also in the police department: "Sorry you have to see me like this." Another outside the bedroom door: "Don't come in, I've hung myself."
There was a letter to Cat, another to his oldest friend. There were clues, and there was evidence, but that's the problem with details: You think they will add up, but they never do.
EIGHT MONTHS LATER, the boisterous crowd for UFC 178 has spilled out into the MGM Grand lazy river pool. Oily men with tribal tattoos lounge in ringed floaties, beers in both hands, chatting up bronzed goddesses as they bob past their chaise lounges. Zingano, in Las Vegas doing lead-up media work to the Nunes fight, avoids the scene, barely leaving the hotel. She isn't in the mood for swimming pools and sunshine. When reporters ask how training has been without Mauricio, she does not sugarcoat.
"It sucks," she answers. "Every second of it."
For weeks after her husband's death, there was only shock. Then came bawling. The hysteria that springs from bottomless doubt. Blame was next. That one was easy. Other people blamed her. Said she could have done something. "It hurts. It all hurts."
Zingano has borne all the phases. Almost. She still has not forgiven herself, even as she comes to grasp that there is nothing to forgive. "That's a work in progress," she says quietly, almost shamefully. "I know I did right by my son. That's what I got."
Later, curtains drawn in her hotel room, Zingano recovers from the streaming, impertinent media inquiries into her private life. She wants to talk about where she is now, not where she was eight months ago.
"People have no idea what we went through leading up to his suicide. They have no idea during, after, still. It is so much bigger than what anybody knows. It is so much worse than what anybody knows." Especially for Brayden.
"He loved his dad so much. He wanted to get a black belt to be like him. Now he doesn't do jiujitsu anymore. He won't even go into the gym."
Zingano confides that if she didn't have Brayden, if there were no reason to get up at 6 a.m. and make eggs, check homework, no reason to get in the car and drive to school, or pick up groceries, or buy dog and hamster food, no reason to rent an action movie on Friday night or make homemade pizza dough, or wash football jerseys and pair socks, no reason to do any of the quotidian chores of life and to smile while doing them, to brave-face the whole shebang -- she probably wouldn't. She would not smile. She would not fake it 'til she makes it. She would stay in bed in the dark and mourn, and when that grew tiresome, who knows.
"I lost my best friend, my coach, my husband, my home, my car, my income. I lost everything. I would be completely justified sitting on my ass all day, but I want my son to see something else. I have to have him see me reach for things. So he knows he can do it too." She catches her reflection in the hotel mirror, looks away. "This? It's not a sport to me. I'm literally doing this to fight my way back to life."
There is a sudden knock at the door. Zingano walks to open it and the room fills with squeals. Several girlfriends from Denver have traveled to Vegas to glam Zingano up. "Hairapy," they joke as they enter, flitting and hovering around Zingano like a scene from Coming to America. One slides open the curtains. Light floods in.
Zingano curls up on her hotel desk chair as her hair is braided into cornrows for the bout. On the bed behind Zingano is a small stuffed Rottweiler that Brayden gave her to protect his mother on her trip. There's also an old baby blanket that was hers. She sleeps with both on top of her. She always travels with what she calls her "bag of treasures," a gypsy pouch stuffed to the seams. Inside: a tiny glass tiger her friend Teresa gave her for her birthday. A tooth her Labrador lost in a fight. A "calming" rock. A chess piece her friend Bridget sculpted. Earrings from a female fan, crystals, a key chain her mother made for her, a toy pig she used to play with as a child, her first UFC coin, a piece of Brayden's nursery blanket, a stone carved with the word "forgiveness." Buried within all these and many other trinkets is a beaded pendant from a Buddhist temple in Thailand.
"It's meant to offer peace and protection," Zingano explains. "I really wanted it when I saw it, and my husband was like, 'Uhh, let's keep looking. You don't want to buy the first thing that you see.' We left, and later he drove back up and got it to surprise me."
She cradles the pendant in her palm, then places it gently back inside the bag with all the other charms and pulls the strings closed.
BY THE TIME Zingano arrives at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, the bass is rattling the seats around the Octagon. Smoke fogs the air as "Baba O'Riley" blares from speakers. Nunes is already at the cage when Zingano's anthem starts -- "You're Going Down," by the Sick Puppies. Zingano's arrival is met with steady applause. Her face remains a mask, her body visibly stiff.
The match begins, and the women fly at each other as if magnetized. Almost immediately, they hit the mat, intertwined. "Pinch her nipples!" someone yells. "Make out!"
Zingano and Nunes do not make out. They coil around each other like tangled boa constrictors, each attempting to squeeze the life out of the other. The round ends, and Zingano breaks away, bobbing her head and shoulders, too hyped to be effective. Round 2 is better, but it is not until Round 3, after she has exorcised her adrenaline, after Nunes has reminded her how it feels to hurt and Zingano has taken it, swallowed it whole, does she finally locate her bearings.
Round 3 begins. Bowling yells "Brayden!" from her corner, and as if waking from a dream, Zingano starts into focus, smoothly rolling Nunes on her back, pinning her, then pummeling her face with a fist, over and over, a jackhammer to a cherry pie.
"Knock her out, knock her out," the crowd chants. Nunes jerks her head around, eyes stricken. Zingano does not relent. She remains steady, determined, rhythmic in her destruction. Nunes wilts, and the fight is called. Zingano by TKO.
Zingano bursts into tears, her arms bolting up over her head, her mouth a triumphant howl as Nunes lies on the mat, blood pouring from every hole on her head.
"I love you, Brayden," Zingano mouths, as the cameras find her.
The emcee rushes over. "Looks like you might have been in trouble the first round?"
"Fuck yeah!" Zingano shouts into the mic as the crowd laughs.
"What now?" he presses.
"I just want to go home to my little boy and get this shit over with."
Zingano turns and sobs in the arms of her close friend and fellow fighter Barb Honchak. Exiting the cage, she spots White in the crowd. She rushes over.
"Do you see me now?" Zingano screams into his face, eyes wild, skin wet with sweat. "Do you see me now?"
White chuckles, nods, as Zingano bounds backstage to wash the blood out of her hair.
THERE ARE MOMENTS in any MMA fight when it looks a lot like love. Two impassioned people clinging to each other. Their faces pressed together, bodies flush, sweating. MMA is all about contact -- how much you can stand, what you do when it happens, how close you can get. You hear the heartbeat of your opponents. You smell their breath. There are no secrets in MMA. It makes boxing look like a Mormon dance.
After fighting for her father, her husband, her son, Zingano is at last ready to fight for herself. A month after Vegas, White officially announces Zingano's next bout. She will battle Rousey for the UFC women's bantamweight title in Los Angeles on Feb. 28. She is being billed as the underdog, which suits her fine.
"When I fight, I don't think about being tired, I don't think about technique. I just try to break their will," she explains of her combat style. There's a point, she says, where she can feel the energy in her opponent's body shift, feel her soul begging to escape.
Zingano says that she has never had that experience herself. That no one has broken her. "I've been beaten," she says with a laugh. "But beaten and broken are two different things." For now, her soul remains at home in her body. Her spirit hasn't fled.
BACK IN DENVER, it is an unseasonably warm day, and Zingano is standing near the 50-yard marker of Brayden's football game, hands on her hips, tiny khaki shorts loose around her waist. "Good job, Zingano!" she yells as Brayden runs down the field, his helmet bouncing on his head like a bucket on a pea.
"My kid saves my life every day without knowing it," she says, watching her boy take the bench, his thin legs swinging, the toes of his cleats ruffling the grass like hair.
Fighters, as a rule, are made, not born. Few people enter this world with an innate desire to have their bones splintered, their eye sockets bruised. Fewer still sign up to make that violence their day job. Circumstance does that. The fickle middle finger of fate.
What Zingano hates the most about her husband's suicide is how the mystery invites speculation. How in the face of unanswerable questions, most people fill in the blanks with blame, hate and judgment.
"Mauricio had a huge heart," she says. "He would do anything for you if he cared about you. I wish he was here. Because the man who did what he did? That wasn't him."
Such is the story she tells Brayden. She wants him to remember his father as strong, healthy. So she tells her son that, for a time, "Daddy was really sad, that his mind had something like cancer, it was sick and it made him think things that weren't real, and if he'd known how bad it would have hurt everybody, he never would have done it."
She assures her child that it wasn't his fault. That he was loved. That there was nothing he did or could have done. As she says it, she tries to believe it too.
After the game, Zingano is driving toward Boulder, the Rockies beckoning in the distance. Her mind drifts to her upcoming title fight with Rousey, the one her husband predicted she'd have, when he imagined her becoming the best in the world.
"You know, her father committed suicide," Zingano says, alluding to Rousey's loss at 8 years old, the same age as Brayden. Zingano glances at the horizon, gives her neck a sharp pop. "I remember when I heard that about her, thinking, 'Damn, that's why she's so good. She made it through that.'" Her lips curl at the corners, the hint of a smile. "If you can survive what we have, what's a fight?"
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