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Montaño says she doesn’t have anything to prove against Peña

Albuquerque’s Nicco Montaño is set to fight against Julianna Peña on Saturday. (Jim Thompson/Journal File Photo)

Time and circumstances have not been kind to Albuquerque’s Nicco Montaño the past 19 months. Nor, at times, have been the critics.

Yet, Montaño says, her mindset entering Saturday’s fight against Julianna Peña in Sacramento, Calif., on UFC Fight Night 155 is free and clear of any desire to prove herself to anyone.

“I never go into a fight thinking I have something to prove,” Montaño said this week in a phone interview. “Nothing in this sport is guaranteed. All that’s guaranteed is (one’s own) hard work and effort.

“If I keep putting in all my honest effort and dedication, then I’m gonna guarantee my own happiness, and that’s all I want to show. I don’t want to prove anything except to show people they can do what they want to do as long as they put their mind to it.”

Now, about those 19 months:

On Dec. 1, 2017 in Las Vegas, Nevada, Montaño defeated Roxanne Modaferri by unanimous decision in the championship match of the UFC’s The Ultimate Fighter 26. With the victory, she became the UFC’s inaugural women’s flyweight (125-pound) champion.

During the TUF competition, however, she’d broken a metatarsal in her left foot. While rehabbing that injury, she also underwent surgery to remove her tonsils and adenoids.

The UFC, meanwhile, was becoming impatient — eager to match the new champion against Valentina Shevchenko, a longtime title contender at bantamweight. Though she much preferred to wait until October, the better to be fully recovered from the surgery and its after-affects, Montaño agreed to face Shevchenko in Dallas on Sept. 8, 2018.

But the previous morning, Montaño was hospitalized as the result of a failed weight cut. The fight was canceled, and the UFC stripped her of the title.

And then?

In April, the United States Anti-Drug Agency announced it had suspended Montaño for six months retroactive to a positive out-of-competition drug test in November. In levying the suspension, USADA accepted Montaño’s explanation that her positive test for the banned substance Ostarine was unintentional and the result of having taken a tainted supplement.

So, after all that lost time and all the doubters created by it, how pumped is Montaño to finally get back in the Octagon?

“Very,” she said. “I didn’t get to fight last time, and I’m pretty excited to have this second opportunity to be able to.”

Since she last fought, Montaño has moved from Albuquerque’s FIT-NHB gym to Jackson’s MMA Acoma. The change should not reflect on FIT-NHB, she said, but only on her desire to learn and try new skills.

“I’d spent four years at FIT, and it’s not like they’re doing anything wrong,” she said. “I became a champion under their wing, so all kudos to them.

“I just wanted to see what else was out there and broaden my horizon and learn from different people and start to figure out where my style lies.”

Montaño brings what appears to be a meager 4-2 record into Saturday’s fight, but that figure doesn’t include her first three TUF 26 victories over Lauren Murphy, Montana Stewart and Barb Honchak.

Peña (8-3) is a replacement for Sara McMann (11-6), who withdrew due to injury. The Washington State-born, Chicago-trained fighter has been out of the cage even longer than Montaño, not having fought since a loss by second-round submission (arm bar) to Shevchenko in January 2017.

In January 2018, Peña gave birth to a daughter.

Peña, Montaño said, has a style that reminds her of Modaferri’s.

“She’s a volume striker,” Montaño said. “She comes in close to find the clinch and look for trips. She has a pretty good reach, but I’m looking forward to a bunch of volume, for sure.

“I’ve played that game before, and I’ve won.”

Saturday’s fight is at the bantamweight limit of 135 pounds, but Montaño said she would like to return to flyweight eventually.

Would she like to finally climb into the Octagon to fight Shevchenko, who’s now the UFC flyweight champion and who had many less-than-kind words for Montaño before and after the September fight fell through?

“Oh, yeah,” she said, laughing. “Everyone should know what the answer to that question is.”

Montaño-Peña is on the prelim portion of Saturday’s card, scheduled to be streamed on ESPN+ — the network’s subscription streaming service — starting at 3 p.m.

Both fighters weighed in Friday morning at 135.5 pounds, an allowable half-pound over the bantamweight limit.