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The night Kailin Curran made Cat Zingano cry in Las Vegas

UFC Fight Night 80 Weigh-Ins Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

The image of Cat Zingano, moments after losing to Ronda Rousey in just 14 seconds at UFC 184, is a haunting one. Zingano, who had been through so much recently in her personal life, saw the biggest fight of her career play out in diabolical super-speed — a nightmare come to life that was being processed on the fly as Joe Rogan asked her what had happened.

“I want to do it again,” Zingano said, shaking her head like she couldn’t come to grips. “She had my arm, and I saw my leg right there, and I thought to grab it and hold it, and all of a sudden I’m tapping. It was in, but it wasn’t in, ahh, f*ck. I want to do it again. It was in. She did it, she f*cking won, she did good. That was a good armbar, she did it.”

Asked what was going through her mind, it was like denial — the trauma of replaying a runaway truck that went over the ledge at 60 MPH.

“I just want to do it again,” she said, eyes on the canvas. “I just want to do it again. I want to do it again.”

Cut forward over two years later, and Zingano has gotten on with life after that lingering sequence of events…the flying knee, the throw, the scramble, the reversal, and the armbar. She has moved from her home of Broomfield, Colorado to her new environs at Alliance in Southern California. The tragic events that led up to that fight, namely the death of her husband Mauricio, have been stored in a place that can no longer be communicated in proportion to the profundity of its impact.

She has internalized the most important parts of herself, so that she can regain a sense of normalcy in resuming her career. Even through her fight with Julianna Pena at UFC 200, Zingano has been very guarded in talking about her personal life and the after effects of becoming just another one of Rousey’s victims. Particularly with media and those that don’t know her.

Yet a weird thing happened at the UFC Athlete Retreat, which took place in Las Vegas from May 19-21. Amid the festivities that were planned for the some 300 fighters from the UFC roster in attendance, Zingano had a moment with a total stranger, yet a familiar one who was there for the same reasons. That stranger was UFC strawweight Kailin Curran, who randomly encountered Zingano, and told her — out of the blue — that she still believed in her.

Life has gone on. Life has been paused. Fragments of life had been put away on some high shelf that Curran got to in a single bound.

“One night we all ended up in one of my [Alliance] teammate’s rooms and everybody was getting ready, and I don’t remember who Kailin was with or why she was in the room, but I saw her,” Zingano told MMA Fighting. “We walked in and she was sitting on the bed. I had never met her, but I’d seen her and her mom online. Her mom had told me she was proud of me at one point, and this even makes me teary-eyed right now thinking about it.

“Kailin said to me, ‘Cat, I believe in you — I still believe in you.’ She said, ‘I saw your fight with Ronda, and after everything you’ve been through, all I can feel is what you felt.’”

At a retreat that many felt was a little tone deaf to its athletes in the end, and missed the mark in terms of generating camaraderie with the new ownership group WME-IMG, it still managed to produce a few personal moments of bonding. In Zingano’s case, it was this “girl from Hawaii,” who caught her off guard by empathizing with the most harrowing moment of her career, completely unprompted.

Curran busted through two years of emotional barrier by just being human.

“At that moment it was like, why? Why haven’t I had enough?” Zingano said. “Why more? Why do I not only lose, but I’m embarrassed? Why is it I make history? And, it hit me. I haven’t had a fighter that I don’t know talk to me like that, and to feel that for me. I started to tear up, and she stood up and blocked me from everyone, so no one had to see me. And that meant something to me.

“After that night, I didn’t see her again. I was looking for her. I was asking everyone where she was, because, it was awkward, you know? All of a sudden I was crying on this chick’s shoulder, I don’t know her. I’ve never known her, but she touched something in me that isn’t touchable. I don’t let people go there. That’s my pain. I don’t show it.”

Curran, who trains in Orange County with Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino — somebody that Zingano may fight some day soon — didn’t mean to tap into that space. She only meant to tell Zingano something that has long been on her mind, and to communicate that one loss — whether it happens in a record-breaking 14 seconds or not — doesn’t define her.

“I’m a fighter too,” Curran said. “I’ve been through a lot too. Not personally, but in the fight game. I got to the UFC and my record isn’t the best, and I definitely struggle with things like, do I belong here? Do I belong in the UFC? Because I just keep losing. But also, I have a lot of potential, and I see that. I know what my capabilities are, I just come up short.

“I told her I was there, I was at your [Rousey] fight with my parents, and I got to watch. I told her, ‘I was super-excited for your fight against Ronda, and I honestly you had a good chance of putting on a good fight and potentially beating her.’”

Curran said she felt for Zingano in that moment, and let her know.

“It just happened so quick for her,” she said. “And that’s what fighting is sometimes. You train, you put in so much time and so much effort, and you’re going through a lot in your personal life. Nobody really knows. They think you just get in there and fight. It’s like, man, we go through so much personally, and internally. It’s hard for us to speak about those things, and I think that’s what makes us stronger fighters, and so passionate about fighting. It’s like our outlet to the things we don’t know how to talk about.

“I’m a complete stranger, she’d never met me before, ever. It was a pretty cool experience. It just naturally happened. I didn’t go there intending to speak to her about that type of stuff. That was something that will I’m sure stick with her, and with me for a long time.”

Zingano, who trains at Alliance in the San Diego area, south of Curran’s stomping grounds in Orange County, spent much of the remaining time at the retreat looking for Curran. She wanted to thank her for providing her that uplift. To let her know that their chance encounter had an effect on her, a think she herself didn’t expect nor think was possible.

“She got me. She made me cry,” Zingano says. “I asked around for her, and I finally saw that girl [Curran's friend] Katlyn [Chookagian], and I asked her if she would please text her and thank her for doing that last night. Thank you for giving me that moment. That I’ll remember it, and I have her back. And if she wants to come train, I got her.

“And then eventually she came down to where we were, and I got to say that to her that. It was like, that would have never happened if the retreat hadn’t happened.”

“We’re all fighters you know, and they brought us all together, and it’s awkward at first because you know people, but you don’t really know people,” Curran says. “Cat’s like one of those women that, I forget how I knew her story, but I knew it.

“That’s just what I felt at the time. Those are my real feelings. I didn’t expect for her to get emotional like that. She’s a strong woman. Actually I was just shocked, because I wasn’t trying to pull out that kind of response. I guess I said something to her and it clicked with her, and it really touched her.”

Zingano would eventually find Curran again before the retreat ended, and Zingano hugged her for saying what she did. Though they come from gyms with potential conflicts of interest — strawweights such as Angela Hill and Jessica Penne train at Alliance, while “Cyborg” trains with Curran — they made a friendship on the spot. It was an unexpected twist to a weekend with so much disenchantment in play, so much disillusion, and so much awkwardness between fighters.

What Curran said was essentially this: In and out of the cage, win or lose, after a triumphant moment or through two years of dark, fighters are rarely alone. There are always others sharing silently in the emotional tolls.

“There was so many other negative things that happened through this athlete retreat,” Curran says. “And for something good like that to come out of it, that’s really great.”

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