Nicco MontaĂ±o, perhaps weary of the media onslaught that began some nine months ago with her Cinderella-like ascent to the UFC womenâ€™s flyweight title, was a woman of few words during most of a teleconference last week.
MontaĂ±o, 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 MontaĂ±o 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.
â€śI think Iâ€™ve been able to shine light onto where Iâ€™m from, the Navajo Nation and kind of all of our trials going on,â€ť she said.
â€śA lot of people are kind of naive when it comes to our cultures and traditions, and I think whatâ€™s most important (about having won the title) in giving me strength and the confidence that I have.â€ť
MontaĂ±o, 29, is Hispanic on her fatherâ€™s side. Her dad, the late Frankie MontaĂ±o, 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 anyoneâ€™s eyes to those cultures and traditions through MMA, she said, it is worth all the training and sacrifice.
Regarding the fight, MontaĂ±o is an underdog of historic proportions. As of Wednesday, according to one betting website, a $100 bet on MontaĂ±o 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.
MontaĂ±o (4-2) was an unknown at the sportâ€™s highest levels before earning the inaugural UFC womenâ€™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 Albuquerqueâ€™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 MontaĂ±oâ€™s chances against Shevchenko, and regarding her worthiness as a champion, were heightened by months of inactivity. During TUF 26, MontaĂ±o 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 didnâ€™t want to fight.
Nor was it surprise, then, when the first question directed at MontaĂ±o on the teleconference was about those long odds.
â€śDoes that make you feel any kind of way?â€ť she was asked.
â€śNo,â€ť she said.
And what, MontaĂ±o was asked, were her thoughts on Shevchenko?
â€śSheâ€™s a human just like any other person, so sheâ€™s beatable,â€ť she said.
Later: was she looking for vindication, proving herself a worthy champion?
â€śNo, Iâ€™ve already proven that,â€ť she said. â€śâ€¦ With this fight, after I beat Shevchenko â€¦ itâ€™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.â€ť
MORE ON UFC 228: Featherweight John Dodson and welterweight Diego Sanchez, longtime teammates at Albuquerqueâ€™s Jackson-Wink MMA, will join MontaĂ±o on Saturdayâ€™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).
Sanchezâ€™s fight will be part of a digital streaming on UFC Fight Pass, starting at 4 p.m. Dodsonâ€™s fight will be one of four fights telecast on FX, starting at 6 p.m.
MontaĂ±o-Shevchenko is part of the main card, to be telecast on pay-per-view starting at 8.