Well-rounded finisher, Cat Zingano, is finally set to challenge inaugural Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) women's bantamweight roost-ruler, Ronda Rousey, this Saturday night (Feb. 28, 2015) inside the Staples Center in Los Angeles, California.
It's been a very long road for Zingano. After earning a title shot along with the opportunity to coach The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) back in 2013, she suffered a debilitating knee injury which kept her out of competition for over a year. During that time, Zingano's husband and jiu-jitsu coach committed suicide.
Despite these trials, Zingano made it back into the cage at UFC 178. After surviving a brutal first round, Zingano rallied to overwhelm Amanda Nunes and earn her title shot once again.
Let's take a closer look at the title challenger's skill set.
Zingano is an aggressive Muay Thai-style striker. She specializes in doing damage in close, which has led to five of her knockout victories.
While at range, most of Zingano's punches serve the purpose of getting her into the clinch. She commonly leads with her straight left hand, which allows her to smoothly transition into the clinch.
"Alpha" will also fire off combinations of alternating left and right punches. Whenever Zingano throws a series of punches, she's certain to step forward with each strikes. When Zingano is on her feet, she's attempting to move into the clinch, where she can wrestle and strike very well.
Zingano is also pretty capable with her kicks. In particular, her front kick is rather sharp. Outside of that, she commonly throws some pretty hard roundhouse kicks. Generally, Zingano is too busy looking to close the distance before her kicks can have a major impact on the fight.
Luckily, getting to the clinch is usually a valuable pursuit for the Colorado native. Once she gets into close range, Zingano is quick to get a grip on her opponent.
From there, the violence starts.
As soon as Zingano has a hand on her opponent, she'll open up with elbow strikes. Sometimes, they're quick strikes, thrown with the intent to disorient and potentially cut her opponent. On other occasions, Zingano will ram her opponent with the flat, blunt side of her elbow, looking to take her out with a single strike.
Before long, Zingano will also attack with knee strikes. She'll occasionally dig into her opponent's body, but Zingano really likes to head hunt with knees. Thanks to her flexibility, she's often able to throw angled knees to the jaw around her opponent's guard.
Finally, Zingano does a very nice job of working her opponent's posture in the clinch. She's constantly shoving her foe off-balance, which makes it much easier and safer to land strikes from inside the clinch. Plus, it really opens up her wrestling game.
Defensively, Zingano is far from a perfect fighter. Since she's intent on closing the distance, Zingano commonly lunges in with her punches. When she does this, "Alpha" rarely gets her head off the center line.
Overall, this leaves her very open to counters.
Zingano began wrestling in middle school and eventually went on to wrestle for the University of the Cumberlands, where she became a four-time All-American and national champion of women's wrestling.
Inside the Octagon, Zingano performs most of her takedowns inside the clinch. Her best takedown is undoubtedly the front headlock throw, which she has hit a few times now in her UFC career. After snapping her opponent down from the double-collar tie, Zingano will secure the head lock and throw a few knees. Then, she'll drop her weight and lean back hard, throwing her opponent over top and landing in a dominant position.
Zingano will also look for more common throws inside the clinch. Usually, she'll look to secure a body lock before spinning her opponent down to the mat. Zingano is a physically strong fighter, and she uses that advantage well inside the clinch.
It's worth mentioning that Zingano's ground striking is pretty ruthless. She really likes to throw elbows and commonly uses her non-striking hand to push her opponent flat against the canvas before unleashing elbows. She'll also look to pin one of her opponent's arms under her leg momentarily, allowing her to land a free shot or two.
Defensively, Zingano is an above average but still imperfect wrestler. She hasn't been taken down in the clinch, her strong suit, in any of the fights I've seen, but she will give up double legs. Most of the time, it's because Zingano will look to secure her opponent's neck in a headlock or guillotine, rather than fight for underhooks while sprawling.
Additionally, Zingano's style of striking gives her opponent openings for the double leg. Since Zingano commonly reaches for her opponent with punches -- look at the photo at the top of this article, for example -- she does not leave herself in position if her opponent shoots for a reactive takedown, which Miesha Tate successfully did a number of times.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ)
Currently a purple belt in jiu-jitsu, we have not yet seen much of Zingano's submission game inside the Octagon. However, prior to her UFC debut, she did secure three submission victories.
Most recently, she tapped out fellow UFC 184 main card combatant Raquel Pennington. In that bout, she demonstrated an excellent top game. After landing directly into side control, Zingano used heavy top pressure to slowly slide her knee across into mount. When Pennington attempted to scramble away, Zingano quickly moved into back mount and locked in a choke.
Against Tate, Zingano nearly finished a very nice standing guillotine. At first, she used it to shut down Tate's takedown attempts, but then put her opponent in trouble early when she began arching into the choke. However, Tate defended well and was eventually able to use the position to her advantage, as she scored a takedown.
In her return bout against Amanda Nunes, Zingano displayed a bit of her offensive guard game. Early on, she attempted an armbar and transitioned into a heel hook as Nunes pulled away. Though a second heel hook attempt later in the round cost her some heavy punches, Zingano definitely showed that she was not helpless from her back.
Additionally, Zingano demonstrated some solid defensive jiu-jitsu thus far in her career. For example, she deftly avoided an armbar from Tate and ended up momentarily reversing the position. In her bouts with both Tate and Nunes, Zingano was put in some bad positions, but still managed to recover her guard, eventually working back to her feet.
Best chance for success
I won't sugarcoat it. Like any and all of Rousey's past and future opponents, the odds are stacked against Zingano in a major way.
In this case, that's because Zingano's style of pursuing the clinch plays right into Rousey's hands. However, that doesn't mean Zingano should switch up her style and attempt to distance strike with the champion, as Zingano's own kickboxing is not developed enough to win that type of fight or discourage Rousey from initiating her own clinch.
Instead, Zingano needs to be fearless with her offensive clinch work. Rousey is undoubtedly an incredible clinch grappler, but none of her past opponents have tried to interrupt her work with hard elbows or knees. They're too busy trying to match Rousey's grappling, which will never happen.
Furthermore, Zingano has proven to have excellent conditioning. If she's able to make the most of her time on the feet by doing damage whenever possible and avoids the arm bar, the momentum could potentially shift to her side as the fight wears on.
Can Cat Zingano pull off one of the biggest upsets of all time, or will Ronda Rousey continue to dominate her division with ease?