Bellator 293: Zingano and McCourt Approach Summit From Different Paths

Cat Zingano and Leah McCourt, Bellator 293 weigh-in
Cat Zingano faces off with Leah McCourt ahead of Bellator 293. Photo: Lucas Noonan/BELLATOR MMA

At a time when the featherweight division worldwide is on the verge of turnover, veteran Cat Zingano and the fresh-faced Leah McCourt will battle to secure the next shot at Bellator gold at Bellator 293.

It certainly feels as if it has to happen now for Cat Zingano.

When she joined Bellator in 2020, she entered with high expectations from the fan base to be the big name signee that would be the B-side in a high profile bout with long-time champion Cris “Cyborg” Justino.  But reality has set in over the past three years.  For various reasons, “Alpha” has only fought once per year since joining the company.  Per her own words, the negotiations to make a fight with Justino have fallen apart over her requests to undergo more extensive drug testing for the bout.  Now with Justino entertaining the options afforded to her in free agency, Zingano must win if she wants to entice her to stay for a high profile bout.  Further, Zingano must win if she hopes for Bellator to put their efforts behind her should Justino decide to pursue her options outside the company.

For the record, Zingano is still the best option for Justino that Bellator has to offer.  She has benefitted from being one of the first women to sign with the UFC back in 2013 and being the B-Side against superstar Ronda Rousey in 2015 where they drew in reportedly nearly one million buys on pay-per-view.  Her victories have also aged like wine when viewing them today: current UFC champion and consensus best female fighter in the world Amanda Nunes, top bantamweight contender Raquel Pennington, and former UFC and Strikeforce champion Miesha Tate.  That said, at 40 years-old, any setback would undoubtedly feel like the end of the line for her journey to win a title in a major promotion.

While Zingano is looking to cash in the chips she’s won over the past decade, Leah McCourt is a contender very much benefitting from the here and now.  A professional since 2017, “The Curse” has emerged as one of the top new prospects in the featherweight division and was signed to Bellator after just two fights.  As the promotion has invested in developing talent and their foothold in Europe, McCourt has been a fixture overseas with only one of her seven Bellator fights taking place in the United States.  In terms of a brand, McCourt has flourished in the spotlight at home as she has been a part of multiple Bellator broadcasts for their events in Europe, is the first female athlete from the UK to be signed to a deal with Everlast, and has appeared on the BBC network both in a profile piece and as part of the reality show Go Hard or Go Home.

Competitively, McCourt is poised for her breakthrough about as well as she can be in the big picture of the featherweight division.  The 30 year-old is 7-2 overall and most recently bounced back from her first Bellator loss with a decision victory last September.  The winner between herself and Zingano is expected to fight for the title next, whether Justino remains in Bellator or not.  Further, with Justino expected to focus on opportunities in boxing in the coming years and UFC champion Amanda Nunes expected to be in the final fights of a storied career, McCourt could establish herself as one of the top featherweights in the world as the division looks to soon enter a new chapter. Add in the fact that McCourt could be an individual who headlines tentpole events in Europe at a time when the UFC, Bellator, and the PFL are looking to further their brands in the country, and it is a huge opportunity to say the least.

Reigning champion Cris “Cyborg” Justino is well aware that the window to continue competing at the elite level is not open as wide as before and the opportunities to collect lucrative paychecks against the likes of boxing star Katie Taylor could expire at any time.  As such, adding to an already established legacy in Bellator may not be a priority if paydays against Taylor or a potential one-off against Kayla Harrison on the PFL’s pay-per-view event later this year are available.  The Zingano/McCourt winner is expected to be next for Justino if she competes next in Bellator.  Or, the winner from Friday could face the winner of the upcoming bout between former title challenger Arlene Blencowe and UFC veteran Sara McMann.