UFC 228: Overlooking Nicco Montano is a massive mistake

UFC, Getty Images (Getty Images)

(Update at 11:34 ET: The fight between Montano and Shevchenko has been canceled.)

When Nicco Montano steps into the Octagon on Saturday night to defend her flyweight title against Valentina Shevchenko at UFC 228, she will do so as a massive underdog.

While a champion not being favored isn’t anything new, few have made the walk to defend their title facing as steep odds as Montano will this weekend in Dallas, as many critics foresee Saturday’s bout as a fait accompli. From the moment the 29-year-old champion claimed the belt back in December, people have discussed her title reign as if it has an expiration date, believing that she is simply keeping the flyweight throne warm for Shevchenko.

Treating her like a transitional champion and paying little attention to the path Montano took in order to etch her name in the history books as the division’s inaugural titleholder is a slight against the Albuquerque-based standout and a missed opportunity to shine the spotlight on an incredible story that transcends the Octagon and the sport of mixed martial arts.

A New Story to Tell

Montano was born in LeChee, Arizona, a speck of a town located in the northwest corner of the Navajo Nation reservation.

She is the first Native American champion in UFC history and instantly became a role model and inspirational figure for indigenous people throughout the United States and beyond by reaching the biggest stage in the sport and claiming the title.

There is no way to downplay what kind of impact Montano’s success can and will have within a community that is lacking representation throughout the mainstream sports and media world.

Last month at UFC 227, Montano spoke about the time she’s spent back homeland and what it means for the youth of the Navajo Nation to see someone, who grew up in the same circumstances they’re facing, make their dreams come true.

“It’s huge for the kids there to know that they can become whoever they want to become if they stay dedicated and happy about the path that they choose,” she said. “Some of them still live in hogans, some of them don’t see shiny things. In hogans, you live on a dirt floor, so, seeing something bright like (the UFC belt) made them smile.”

She added: “There’s not a lot of people that I feel like they can trust and listen to because there are a lot of people that want them to become more Westernized – it’s not even modernized, it’s Westernized in culture aspects – but I feel like that’s what makes me stronger, that’s my strength is my culture and traditions. So, I want them to realize that they don’t need to assimilate to anything or any assumptions of how they should be acting out of the rest; just be truthful and honest.”

At a time when representation is a major issue in society, here is Montano, setting an incredible example for a historically under-represented population and embracing her role as an ambassador for her community.

While every fighter has a story, hers is one that hasn’t been told at this level before or told in very many arenas at all in the past and it should be celebrated and broadcast at full volume.

If Darren Till’s journey from the hard streets of Liverpool to becoming a contender in the UFC welterweight division can be told in advance of his homecoming showdown with Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson back in May, the path Montano has taken and the inspiration she provides to indigenous people everywhere deserves to be in the spotlight this week as well.

But it’s not just her heritage that makes Montano someone who should not be overlooked as UFC 228 draws nearer.

Tough Road on The Ultimate Fighter 26

When the cast for Season 26 of The Ultimate Fighter was announced, there were myriad familiar names that jumped out as competitors with the potential to win the tournament and become the first ever female flyweight champion.

Pioneer Roxanne Modafferi had re-invented herself under the tutelage of John Wood at Syndicate MMA and impressed inside the Invicta FC cage, entering the competition as the No. 1 seed.

Returning after a lengthy hiatus, second seed Barb Honchak ruled Invicta’s flyweight division before pressing pause on her career, but many envisioned “The Little Warrior” picking up right where she left off.

While she had mixed results fighting at bantamweight in the UFC, Lauren Murphy brought a wealth of high-level experience and battle-forged tenacity to the table as the third seed, while fighters like DeAnna Bennett, Montana De La Rosa (nee Stewart) and Rachael Ostovich-Berdon stood as recognizable talents who could potentially make a Cinderella-like run to the semifinals or beyond depending on how things shook out in the bracket.

Montano was the No. 14 seed and sent to Team Gaethje when Eddie Alvarez made Murphy the third overall selection, behind Honchak, whom he took with the first pick, and Modafferi, whom Justin Gaethje selected as the first member of his squad. She was 3-2, coming off a loss and had to be convinced by her coaches to audition for the long-running reality TV competition.

She beat Murphy by unanimous decision in the Round of 16 and did the same to De La Rosa in the quarterfinals before securing her opportunity to fight for the title by outworking Honchak in the semis.

Originally scheduled to face fellow unexpected finalist Sijara Eubanks, who took out the other half of the Top 6 on her way to the championship finale, Montano was thrown a curveball the day before the biggest fight of her career. While everyone else was weighing in, Eubanks was in the hospital, dealing with complications from her weight cut, resulting in the UFC elevating Modafferi from her “bronze medal” matchup with Honchak to fight for the title.

Montano took it in stride, navigating through a couple scares on the ground to score a unanimous decision victory and claim the flyweight title.

All told, she beat the top three seeds in the tournament as well as the sixth seed in order to claim the title, overcoming her underdog status in all four matchups with very little resistance.

Her victory over Modafferi in December may not have been as lopsided and emphatic as Shevchenko’s mauling of Priscila Cachoeira in Brazil, but in terms of the “degree of difficulty,” it was a much more daunting assignment than the one the challenger faced in order to earn her shot at the title this weekend.

The Champion Deserves Respect

Say what you will about UFC titles being devalued or her paltry professional record, but the fact of the matter is Montano handedly beat a quartet of talented, more experienced opponents en route to winning the women’s flyweight title back in December and it’s an achievement that merits recognition.

Even if you believe that Shevchenko will leave Dallas as the new champion, that doesn’t mean what Montano has done to this point should be overlooked.

And in a sport where similar stories are told prior to every event and narratives are recycled and repurposed on the regular, Montano stands as someone who has traveled a very different path and represents a massive community who would benefit immensely from seeing one of their own enjoying a well-deserved turn in the spotlight before stepping into the Octagon on Saturday night.