Separately, independently, like two ink-stained ships in the night, Journal arts editor Adrian Gomez and I each interviewed documentarian Landon Dyksterhouse regarding his new film, “Warrior Spirit.”
The film will be presented online Friday by the Albuquerque Film & Music Experience.
Gomez’s story appeared in Wednesday’s Journal.
Dyksterhouse, a former Albuquerque resident, had set out to chronicle MMA fighter Nicco Montaño’s remarkable journey from a Navajo reservation in northeastern Arizona to becoming the first-ever UFC women’s flyweight (125-pound) champion.
In Dyksterhouse’s own words, the project took a hard left turn – “it was crazy, man” – when he and his crew filmed Montaño’s excruciating attempt to make 125 pounds for her first scheduled title defense in September 2018.
Her hospitalization as a consequence of that failed weight cut, her being stripped of the title as a further consequence and her treatment by the UFC in general became a theme Dyksterhouse could not and did not ignore in the making of “Warrior Spirit.”
My question to him, though, was this: How was he able to sew together the disparate threads – Montaño’s Native American roots, her journey from underdog to champion, the larger issues of dangerous weight cuts and the UFC’s treatment of not just Montaño but fighters in general?
To Dyksterhouse, his path was clear cut.
“How does it all connect? It connects in a big way,” he said.
No stranger to being treated like a second-class citizen as a Native American, he said, here was Montaño being treated that way again.
In 2017, Montaño, an unknown with a 3-2 professional record, was selected as one of 16 women to participate in the UFC’s The Ultimate Fighter 26. Of the 16, training in Albuquerque at FIT-NHB, she entered the competition ranked 14th.
Someone at the UFC, whether President Dana White or someone else, had seized upon the idea of having the TUF winner become the UFC’s first-ever women’s flyweight champion.
In a span of 37 days, Montaño defeated Lauren Murphy, Montana De La Rosa, Barb Honchak and Roxanne Modaferri to win the competition and claim the title. She beat Modaferri while fighting with a broken sesamoid bone in her left foot.
The UFC was eager to match the new champion with Valentina Shevchenko, a longtime bantamweight contender who’d defeated Albuquerque’s Holly Holm by unanimous decision in 2016. But Montaño, in addition to the broken foot, needed tonsil- and adenoid-removal surgery, which the UFC paid for.
The UFC, feeling it had waited long enough, scheduled Montaño-Shevchenko for Sept. 8, 2018, in Dallas. Montaño feared she wouldn’t be ready and asked for an October fight instead. No, the UFC said, you’re going to fight in September. The result? That horrendous weight cut, an ambulance ride to a Dallas hospital and the stripping of her title.
Dyksterhouse doesn’t believe the UFC ever truly viewed Montaño as a legitimate champion, though she’d won the belt through a process the UFC brass themselves devised and approved. Rather, Shevchenko was seen as the champion-in-waiting.
Montaño, he said, “has been an underdog her whole life. If you could imagine the psyche of a kid coming from the reservation, to come in as an underdog and win that show, it’s a big deal.
“I think (her subsequent treatment) points to what I was talking about, her being treated unfairly and being exploited and some real red flags.”
The weight-cut issue, of course, is bigger than Montaño, bigger even than the UFC. The weight gradients in MMA – 10 pounds from strawweight through lightweight, 15 from lightweight through middleweight, then 20 from middleweight to light heavyweight – virtually guarantee there will be problems.
In order to be at his or her competitive best, a fighter would much rather be a big flyweight than a small bantamweight, and so on. Hence, extreme dehydration, nutritional deficits, sauna sessions, rubber suits, etc., leading up to the weigh-in.
“It is literally a ticking time bomb,” Dyksterhouse said. “It’s a very archaic process.”
Make no mistake; Dyksterhouse is a rabid MMA fan. His previous work, “The Proving Grounds,” focuses on Albuquerque’s Jackson-Wink MMA and traces MMA’s origins here en route to the city’s status as a hotbed of the sport.
“Don’t get me wrong,” he said. “We (he and his production team) are still fans of the UFC and all these fighters. We went to see them fight, though, right? That’s the goal. By making it safer and installing more regulation and sanctioning around the weight cutting and stuff like that, that’s gonna make the product better.”