As the UFC’s first-ever women’s flyweight champion, Nicco Montaño already has made MMA history.
Come Sept. 8, she’ll have a chance to make more.
It is rare, though not unheard of, for a UFC champion to enter the Octagon as an underdog. Rose Namajunas has done it, Stipe Miocic has done it, Amanda Nunes has done it, as have a few others.
No UFC champion, though, has ever gone into a fight facing odds as long as those facing Montaño. As of Monday, the Albuquerque fighter is an approximately six-to-one underdog for her title defense against Kyrgyzstan’s Valentina Shevchenko at UFC 228 in Dallas.
Those odds are not surprising, given the disparity between the two fighters’ records — 4-2 for Montaño, 15-3 for Shevchenko — and that of the competition the two have faced.
Shevchenko has a victory over Albuquerque’s Holly Holm, a former UFC bantamweight champion, and has lost two competitive fights to Nunes, the current bantamweight title holder.
The opponents Montaño defeated last year during the filming of The Ultimate Fighter 26 — Lauren Murphy, Montana Stewart, Barb Honchak and then Roxanne Modaferri for the title — are by no means chopped liver. And while only the win over Modaferri appears on Montaño’s official record, a record of 7-2, not 4-2, would be a more accurate assessment of her talents and accomplishments.
Even so, Murphy, Stewart, Honchak and Modaferri cannot be viewed as close to the equal of Shevchenko. Hence the long odds.
And in terms of perception throughout the MMA world, Montaño might be even a more pronounced underdog than the odds suggest.
In response, Montaño, in a recent interview at Albuquerque’s FIT-NHB gym, didn’t exactly channel Han Solo — as in, never tell her the odds.
No, not exactly. But close.
Where does her confidence come from?
“It comes from the facts that I’ve laid out in the fights that I’ve had,” she said. “I’m the champ now. I think that speaks for itself.”
Though her specific preparation for Shevchenko was in the early stages at the time of the interview, Montaño said the Kyrgyzstan-born, Peru-based fighter is no stranger to her.
There is respect, she said, but no awe.
“I think I’ve seen every fight that she’s had as a UFC fighter, just because I was a fan before,” Montaño said. “She’s a good fighter for sure, but that’s the awesome part about MMA. There’s no statistic or strategy that can really get you that win. It’s all kind of up to (what happens) that night.”
There was some long-distance discord between the two fighters, stemming from the long delay between Montaño’s title victory over Modaferri on Dec. 1 and the making of Montaño-Shevchenko, officially announced on July 18.
Montaño suffered a broken foot during the TUF competition, then had tonsil- and adenoid-removal surgery. During her hiatus, Shevchenko expressed doubt on social media that Montaño really wanted the fight.
Montaño didn’t say a lot in response — at least, not to Shevchenko. But when MMA journalist Ariel Helwani tweeted that the UFC was “losing patience” with her, Montaño unloaded on Helwani.
“(Helwani) is a huge waste of space,” Montaño posted on Instagram. “Everyone and their grandma knows about my condition. … the UFC not only knows about this but flew me out to Vegas themselves to get this surgery done. …”
Montaño went on to make some extremely unflattering remarks about Helwani, “Mr. Poor Excuse of a Man” being among the mildest.
She later apologized for the language she used, but not for standing up for herself in light of what she still believes was unfair treatment.
In an interview with TMZ, UFC President Dana White, no fan of Helwani — he once pulled his credential for unauthorized breaking of news, but quickly reinstated him — supported Montaño’s contention that the UFC was aware of her situation throughout.
Media obligations in general, Montaño said, have been the biggest change in her professional life since winning the title. Helwani aside, she said, she’s comfortable with it and won’t let it be a distraction come fight week.
“In camp, it’s kind of my priority to make weight and stay on track when it comes to having a routine,” she said. “Now every weekend through this camp I’ve been out, Vegas or L.A. or Dallas or something.
“I know what to expect in terms of the media, the media press.”
Arlene Sanchez Vaughn, Montaño’s striking coach at FIT-NHB, shares the fighter’s confidence that she’s a worthy champion and that she belongs in the Octagon with a fighter of Shevchenko’s caliber.
“She doesn’t overthink and stress herself out by worrying about what her opponent can do,” Sanchez Vaughn told the Journal via social media. “She does what she needs to do and is able to adjust to her opponent during the fight. She’s a good listener. Our voices guide her. Win or lose, she will give 100 percent of who she is.
“She is definitely a true warrior.”
GONZALES MEANS UPDATE: Moriarty MMA fighter Brenda Gonzales Means, Montaño’s teammate, is back home after her scheduled fight Friday in Clive, Iowa, was cancelled. The Iowa Athletic Commission scrubbed the event because the promotional company, The Fight Series, failed to have security or an ambulance on site as required.
Sanchez Vaughn said Gonzales Means was paid for her troubles.
On her Instagram page, Gonzales Means posted that the canceled fight against Panama’s Joselyne Edwards Laboriel could be rescheduled for Sept. 1 at Sky Ute Casino in Ignacio, Colo.