Motherhood, chasing a belt both stiff challenges for these UFC fighters

Yana Kunitskaya beamed at the mention of her 3-year-old son, Adam, who’s being cared for by family in Russia as mom meets the daunting challenge of fighting featherweight champion Cris Cyborg in Saturday night’s UFC 222 main event.

The challenger’s tone shifted darkly, however, when Kunitskaya was asked about the location of her immediate family.

“My family is not supporting me. They don’t like me fighting,” Kunitskaya said. “Yes, I’m married. I don’t want to think about him. I don’t have a good relationship with my husband.

“My parents don’t support me. My father doesn’t like fighting. He was a professional skier and wanted me to be in a regular sport. They do not like MMA … this is personal, I don’t want to think about it.”


Kunitskaya is a 10-1 betting underdog at the MGM-Mirage Race and Sports Book, but she has the opportunity of her fighting lifetime to step in on less than a month’s notice to seize the women’s featherweight belt from the dominant Cyborg (19-1).

Like Kunitskaya, No. 6-rated bantamweight Cat Zingano of Chula Vista’s Alliance MMA has a son and is excited about the UFC 222 card at T-Mobile Arena.

Zingano (9-2) fights Brazil’s unbeaten, No. 5-rated Ketlen Vieira (9-0) on the pay-per-view portion of the card, with both believing the winner will land a shot at the winner of the May 12 title fight between champion Amanda Nunes and Raquel Pennington.

Zingano, 35, previously defeated Nunes by third-round knockout in September 2014, eight months after Zingano’s husband-coach, Mauricio, committed suicide in Colorado.

Zingano returned for a title fight at Staples Center against Ronda Rousey in January 2015, and was submitted in a then-title-record 14 seconds.

She hasn’t fought since her UFC 200 loss to Julianna Pena in July 2016, mainly because the tug of motherhood in raising her 11-year-old son, Brayden, proved undeniable.

“When I stuff things down and avoid it, or try to work too hard through something that needs to be addressed, that’s when life slaps me in the face and I get told,” Zingano said Thursday at the UFC 222 media day at MGM Grand. “I got told to slow down. I had to lose twice.

“Now I’m raising my son in the best way possible given everything that’s happened, and he’s turning out great. All I can hope is that sticking true to what matters to me is the right kind of example for him so he can deal with his life in the best way possible.”

Kunitskaya had six knockout victories in her first nine fights before leaving the sport when she learned she was pregnant.

“I was strong before the birthing and I started training one hour after he was born … I gained my strength back, but it was hard mentally because he took so much focus. If I’m not watching him, he’ll destroy everything around, you know?” she said with a smile. “It’s not easy to leave for camp and focus on a fight that takes all of my attention.”

She decided to return to the gym in 2016. “I didn’t feel any difference,” in strength and conditioning, she said, and ultimately won the Invicta bantamweight title last year in Lemoore, Calif., which paved her date to a Cyborg fight that will pay her $200,000.

“When I’m here, the most important thing is the fight,” Kunitskaya said. “When I come back home, it’s just my son. And we’ll just … rest.”

Zingano has spent part of her downtime participating in a documentary about her life and writing a new book, “Train Like a Fighter: Get MMA Fit Without Taking a Hit.”

She’s most cherished the time with her sixth-grade son.

“Changing my scenery to the water and the sun and closing the chapter of Colorado that was such a complicated ghost town to us … it was terrifying,” Zingano said. “But I never stopped trying, never stopped working on us. And we did it, just Brayden, me and our corgi shepherd.”

At Brayden’s football games and wrestling and swim meets, Cat Zingano is the most vocal supporter.

“When I’m feeling comfortable at home, confident in my day-to-day, being healthy and being the best person I can be, MMA is easy,” she said.

Motherhood is not for every women’s fighter, though. Vieira, 26, said she doesn’t want to have a child until she has won a belt.

Said Cyborg: “It’s really nice to see the ones who have a baby and continue [fighting], and sometimes when I see a kid, I say, ‘Awww … ,’ but then I think about the time it takes. One day, I’ll have a baby. I tell my fiancée, ‘But I’m coming back to fight … .’

“Because,” motherhood, “it’s work.”

Follow Lance Pugmire on Twitter @latimespugmire