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Champion Montaño ‘shines light’ on Navajo Nation

Nicco Montaño, perhaps weary of the media onslaught that began some nine months ago with her Cinderella-like ascent to the UFC women’s flyweight title, was a woman of few words during most of a teleconference last week.

Montaño, who lives in Albuquerque and trains at FIT-NHB on Lomas, will defend her title on UFC 228 Saturday in Dallas against Valentina Shevchenko. Hence, the teleconference.

It was a question not directly related to MMA that finally got Montaño talking.

How, she was asked, was her life different since she won the title?

She spoke at length, and eloquently, about something far more important than a fight.

“I think I’ve been able to shine light onto where I’m from, the Navajo Nation and kind of all of our trials going on,” she said.

“A lot of people are kind of naive when it comes to our cultures and traditions, and I think what’s most important (about having won the title) in giving me strength and the confidence that I have.”

Montaño, 29, is Hispanic on her father’s side. Her dad, the late Frankie Montaño, was a Farmington boxer and boxing promoter. She grew up, though, with her mother on the Navajo reservation in Eastern Arizona.

If she can open anyone’s eyes to those cultures and traditions through MMA, she said, it is worth all the training and sacrifice.

Regarding the fight, Montaño is an underdog of historic proportions. As of Wednesday, according to one betting website, a $100 bet on Montaño would produce a payoff of $700. To make $100 betting on Shevchenko, it would require an investment of $1,200.

No defending UFC champion has faced odds this long.

This is no surprise.

Montaño (4-2) was an unknown at the sport’s highest levels before earning the inaugural UFC women’s 125-pound title with four straight victories at The Ultimate Fighter 26 late last year in Las Vegas, Nev. Only the TUF title-match victory over Roxanne Modaferri counts on her official record.

Shevchenko (15-3) has been a title contender at bantamweight (135), having defeated Albuquerque’s Holly Holm at that weight and having lost two close decisions against current UFC bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes. The 125-pound flyweight limit, Shevchenko has said, is actually better suited for her.

Doubts regarding Montaño’s chances against Shevchenko, and regarding her worthiness as a champion, were heightened by months of inactivity. During TUF 26, Montaño fought with a broken foot that never has completely healed.

She then had surgery to remove tonsils and adenoids, further delaying her return to the Octagon and fueling speculation that she simply didn’t want to fight.

Nor was it surprise, then, when the first question directed at Montaño on the teleconference was about those long odds.

“Does that make you feel any kind of way?” she was asked.

“No,” she said.

And what, Montaño was asked, were her thoughts on Shevchenko?

“She’s a human just like any other person, so she’s beatable,” she said.

Later: was she looking for vindication, proving herself a worthy champion?

“No, I’ve already proven that,” she said. “… With this fight, after I beat Shevchenko … it’s just going to show other people that, like my true people are inspired by me, that no matter what the odds are you can still come out successful and victorious.”

MORE ON UFC 228: Featherweight John Dodson and welterweight Diego Sanchez, longtime teammates at Albuquerque’s Jackson-Wink MMA, will join Montaño on Saturday’s card.

Dodson (20-9) is matched against Jimmie Rivera (21-2) of Ramsey, N.J., Sanchez (27-11) is scheduled to face Englishman Craig White (14-8).

Sanchez’s fight will be part of a digital streaming on UFC Fight Pass, starting at 4 p.m. Dodson’s fight will be one of four fights telecast on FX, starting at 6 p.m.

Montaño-Shevchenko is part of the main card, to be telecast on pay-per-view starting at 8.