Failed title fights are never easy for fighters to bounce back from. To climb, and climb, and climb, only to stumble at the summit is surely a difficult fate to reconcile.
Such was the fate of Cat Zingano, who competed in the main event of UFC 184 last weekend.
Zingano’s climb began with her first fight, back in June of 2008—which she won, coincidentally, by first round armbar. From there, she amassed a wicked 9-0 streak; enough to earn her a spot on the UFC roster, and eventually, a shot at Ronda Rousey’s ferociously guarded bantamweight belt.
Now, Rousey’s dominance has been irrefutable for some time, but in Zingano many saw a fighter capable of giving the champ a good fight, if not unseating her altogether. The challenger was marketed as the champ’s toughest test to date, and rightly so.
Regrettably, Zingano ended up on the receiving end of Rousey’s most dominant victory ever, falling victim to an arm-bar just 14 seconds into the bout. It was an ugly, ugly way to lose—and if her record-breaking (and heartbreaking) slew of post-fight F-words were any indication, Zingano is well aware of that fact.
With the fight now in the rear-view, the biggest question in the WMMA landscape is what could possibly be next for the apparently unbeatable champion. Yet that’s not the only question that emerged from Rousey’s blitzkrieg. Another, though less obvious question, is where the defeated Cat Zingano goes from here.
Typically, when a challenger loses a title fight, the next steps are pretty straightforward. They take a few steps down the ladder, and are matched up with another relevant fighter in the top 10. After his loss to middleweight champ Chris Weidman, for example, Lyoto Machida drew CB Dolloway. Following his failed title bid to Anthony Pettis, Gilbert Melendez was matched up with Eddie Alvarez. It’s a tried-and-true formula. But things don’t appear quite so simple for Zingano who, at least for the moment, appears to be the clear-cut number two under Rousey’s iron-fisted rule.
The beatings she laid on Miesha Tate and Amanda Nunes, two of the division’s best, coupled with her tremendous strength and heart, figure to render her a favorite against any prospective opponent. So, in a way, her loss to Rousey ushers her into the company of fighters like Junior Dos Santos and Chad Mendes—beasts who would almost certainly own their divisional titles were it not for the dominant, current champs.
So, while logic might suggest that the UFC pair Zingano with contenders like Bethe Correia or Holly Holm, such things require some care, as there’s a good chance Zingano would trounce these women like she has every opponent but Rousey, and in doing so, thin the already sparse group of contenders available to the champ. Just as the UFC wouldn’t match Chad Mendes up with a fresh contender like Conor McGregor, it’s unlikely to risk losing Holm or Correia to Zingano.
Instead, the UFC may choose to match Zingano up with another fighter coming off a loss—say Raquel Pennington or Sara McMann. Yet again, barring any confidence issues resulting from Rousey loss, Zingano is likely to blast through this kind competition, and in doing so, remain in a strange limbo as the woman who is good, but not quite good enough to be the champion.
Yes, Zingano is in a bizarre place where no option really makes sense. And because the UFC only has two women’s divisions (the other being strawweight, 20 lbs below Zingano’s bantamweight home), she’s not afforded the same kind of weight-jump options that male fighters are. After losing his lightweight title, Frankie Edgar gave his career new life by moving down to featherweight. Benson Henderson, similarly, recently rejuvenated his career by moving up welterweight to challenge Brandon Thatch. For the moment, the UFC’s women are not afforded the same flexibility. They’re all pretty much stuck where they are.
Of course, there’s always a chance the UFC uses Zingano as a welcome committee for a bantamweight Cyborg, but really, the chances of that are very slim. If Cyborg figures out how to make 135, we all know who she’ll be fighting first.
So Zingano now enters an unfortunate grey area. She does, however, have one advantage, and it’s found in the most unlikely of places: she might actually be helped by the brevity of her loss to the champion. In the 14 seconds the fight lasted, we saw what Rousey is capable of. We did not, however, see what a confident, cautious Zingano can do. Despite her lightning-fast loss, that question remains unanswered.
So really, it probably won’t take much for Zingano to work her way back into contention. If she’s able to knock off a few other fighters—say Pennington and Correia— she may be able to renew interest in herself as a credible challenge to Rousey. And her cause will only be helped by Rousey’s continued dominance—eventually, the UFC might have no choice but to start feeding the champion rematches. With a barrage of kicks and punches, Zingano just needs to convince the MMA community that she deserves that rematch the most.
In such an event, the thing to remember, as the second and third Cain Velasquez vs. Junior Dos Santos bouts taught us, is that not even the most dominant victory guarantees a rematch will unfold the same way. With a few more wins, Cat Zingano may yet prove to be Ronda Rousey’s toughest test.
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