Cat Zingano tuned in to watch the debut episode of The Ultimate Fighter season 18 with a heavy heart but with pride in her eyes.
She witnessed Ronda Rousey enter The Ultimate Fighter gym, followed by Miesha Tate. After some initial confusion, UFC president Dana White explained to Rousey that Zingano—who was supposed to coach the show—had blown out her knee. The injury forced the UFC to tab Tate as a replacement coach.
For Zingano, watching the show was like reliving a bad dream. She had to talk about this situation three months ago when it first happened, and then last night on television, it all unfolded again.
She had earned the right to coach opposite Rousey and then face her for the UFC women's bantamweight title later this year. As disappointed as she was about missing out on the title shot, watching the first-ever women's cast of the long-running reality show debut without her ended up being the hardest part of it all.
"Losing the opportunity to be on the show and have those cameras in my faces, that wasn't that big of a loss for me, but the chance to impact people's lives as a coach and just influence with my style and sharpen steel with steel as far as getting these fighters good or even better," Zingano said on Thursday.
"I kind of removed myself from that position when I was told the position was gone. I wasn't thinking about it too much, but when the show came on last night and I watched it, there were a few burns. Some things that I really feel like I would have enjoyed.
"It was bittersweet at a few points, but I'm really proud of everybody and I'm proud I got to be a part of it in some sense."
As heartbreaking as it was to not be part of The Ultimate Fighter this season, Zingano is using this experience as motivation to work that much harder in physical therapy and rehab. She wants to get her knee back to full health so she can face the winner of Rousey vs. Tate next year.
Three months ago, a simple jump led Zingano to the hospital when a routine training day turned tragic.
She was doing her strength and conditioning program like she had done a thousand times before, and she happened to be jumping over tunnels, each about a foot high off the ground. During one jump, she landed hard on her knee and heard a loud pop. As she fell to the ground, she could feel the dream of coaching on The Ultimate Fighter and facing Rousey later this year slip away.
Zingano underwent surgery on her ACL, putting her out of action for the rest of 2013 and out as coach on The Ultimate Fighter this season.
Now with the healing process under way, she attends physical therapy every day with a new hunger to get back in the cage as soon as possible. Throughout her life, she has faced a million different obstacles—none of them easy.
Whether it was fighting, wrestling or motherhood, Zingano has stood up to every tough test thrown her way. She's been conditioned throughout her entire life to never back down from a challenge, and the knee injury was just the latest in a series of hurdles she had to overcome.
"I have this urgency to make it all worth it when the time comes," Zingano said. "I'm going to come back so much stronger and so much harder because throughout my life with wrestling, with school, with any kind of adversity people would tell me 'Cat, you can't' or 'Cat you won't' and those are the things that I succeeded in the best.
"My knee is essentially sitting here telling me I can't and I won't on all these different occasions and I just can't wait to prove to myself and in honor of all of these things that I'm applying to myself right now in physical therapy and the things that I'm able to put myself through now that at the end of all of this, I need to show myself all the hard days, all the ups and downs, and all the days that this has really, really sucked and days that have been awesome are all for something. They're all for me to come back and appreciate the sport even more."
When she returns to action, she may have a formidable test standing in front of her in the form of Rousey, or it could be a rematch against Tate, whom she has already beaten. It doesn't matter much to Zingano whom she faces because neither fighter will be as intimidating as what she faced just a few days ago during her rehabilitation.
Like a boxer who breaks his hand and has to punch the heavy bag or a rider tossed off a horse forced to climb back onto the saddle, she faced her biggest fear when she took a small jump on her surgically repaired knee for the first time.
She wasn't leaping over a tall building in a single bound or even the foot-high tunnels that she was jumping over when the knee injury occurred. No, this was literally just a one-inch jump off the ground, but for the first time in months, she was landing on the knee that cost her a title fight and a shot at coaching The Ultimate Fighter.
"I had to do this little mental countdown in my head like 'you can do it, just do it' and I had my physical therapist right there in front of the mirror and I took my first jump," Zingano said. "When I landed I immediately had this creepy little flashback and this little groan and it scared the crap out of me, but I only gave myself about two more seconds until I went into the next one and then the next one and now I've had three more sessions where I'm jumping forward on agility ladders.
"The physical progress is there, the mental progress is there, and I'm really happy that yes, I felt the scare and that kind of trauma that has come from the injury, but I'm fighting through it and I'm gaining some mental toughness."
When she landed and realized that her knee was holding up and things would only get better, Zingano she help but let her joy be heard.
"I giggled like a little school girl," she said.
She will spend the next four months in rehabilitation until her knee gets back to full strength so she can return to training and eventually fighting. She can't promise she'll watch every episode of The Ultimate Fighter this season given her time commitments to physical therapy and her own child's recreational activities, but when she does tune in, it's going to be with one thing in mind—scouting the competition.
"I feel like watching them coach and the way they'll coach their fighters and the way they will interact with each other, it's almost like I feel like a big setup for me to learn a lot about these opponents and learn a lot about their mental state, and their mental capabilities," Zingano said. "I find it very motivating.
"I think all of this is going to benefit me in the long run. It's telling me these are things that I can't do, and all I can do is sit back and watch and dream about when it's my turn. Nothing in my life has ever come easy."
Getting back from major knee surgery won't be easy either, but Zingano knows if anyone can get through it and come back stronger, she's the person to do it.
Damon Martin is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report, and all quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
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