09/24/2014 03:19 EDT | Updated 11/24/2014 05:59 EST

Cat Zingano returns to the cage after surviving injury and family tragedy

Cat Zingano was a raw bundle of emotions as she walked in for her UFC debut in April 2013 against Miesha (Cupcake) Tate at the Mandalay Bay Events Center.

She was smiling, clapping and then suddenly fighting back tears.

Zingano, the first mother to fight in the UFC, entered the cage and ran her hand along the top of the Octagon as if she wanted to feel every part of the moment.

Asked after the bout what had been going through her mind, she replied: "Stop crying."

"It was just really surreal," said Zingano, who defeated Tate by third-round TKO to secure a title shot. "I was overwhelmed definitely by the opportunity. I knew I'd be excited, I knew that it was going to be amazing. But I don't think I had any idea how much it would impact me from the inside out.

"It just felt great, it felt really, really special to me tonight. This moment will be hard to top. ... This is exactly what I wanted."

She later admitted she was "out of control" during her walkout, after a difficult training camp with things "a little rocky" outside of training.

One can only imagine the roiling emotions when Zingano (8-0) enters the cage Saturday night to face Amanda Nunes (9-3) at UFC 178 in Las Vegas.

Since beating Tate, the 32-year-old from Broomfield, Colo., suffered serious injuries to both knees that derailed her career. Then in January, her husband and jiu-jitsu coach Mauricio Zingano took his own life.

"My life has changed irrevocably," Cat Zingano said in a statement at the time. "I am shocked and deeply saddened. Thankfully, my family and friends are coming together to provide the support I need. I am grateful for them, as I know there are many difficult days ahead."

Zingano is still not talking about the family tragedy, as noted by a UFC official in advance of a pre-UFC178 interview.

But she is healthy and looking to reclaim the title shot she earned by beating Tate, saying she had never doubted she would be back in the sport. Asked what emotions will run through her mind on the weekend, Zingano paused.

"I'm very driven," she said. "I'm feeling very resilient. There's some (of the) same pressures, there's some different pressures. There's new pressures, there's old pressures. All of it is stuff that I function very well under, so ultimately it's a good outlet for me and good for my life.

"I can't wait to get my hands on someone."

That would be Nunes, a 26-year-old Brazilian who trains out of Miami. Nunes is coming off first-round stoppages of Sheila (The German Tank) Gaff and Germaine (The Iron Lady) de Randamie.

Despite the long layoff, Zingano is ranked No. 1 among women's 135-pound contenders while Nunes, known as The Lioness, is No. 8.

The Tate win earned Zingano — whose nickname is Alpha — a role as coach opposite champion (Rowdy) Ronda Rousey on Season 18 of "The Ultimate Fighter." Tate took over when the knee injuries sidelined Zingano.

Zingano tore her anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus in her right knee. Then, while healing, she tore up her left knee, possibly from compensating for her right knee problems. The two surgeries were followed by stem cell treatments to both knees.

She says the prognosis today is better than good.

"Both of them are perfect. I'm not worried about them," she said.

She has been cleared for full training since May, training both in Florida (at American Top Team) and California before starting her camp in August her native Colorado.

"It feels really good to be back for sure," she said.

Zingano started wrestling at 12 and continued through stints at MacMurray College in Illinois and Cumberland College in Kentucky, often competing against men in training. She is a former national champion and all-American wrestler.

She took up MMA as a hobby, soon discovering she was good at jiu-jitsu and was a quick learner when it came to striking.

"I worked my butt off and got really good at my hobby ... just wanted to achieve more and more and more," she said.

Zingano met her future husband Mauricio in March 2007 through a friend who was training at his jiu-jitsu gym. She fell in love with the sport immediately. Falling in love with her instructor took about six more months.

Zingano, who has a son Brayden, made her pro debut in June 2008, becoming the first Ring Of Fire women's 135-pound champion in the process.

The Zingano-Tate fight was the second women's bout and the first to earn a fight of the night bonus, which netted the two women US$50,000 apiece.


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