Nicco Montano, UFC's First Native Champ, Has a Story You Need to Hear

Scott Harris@ScottHarrisMMAMMA Lead WriterSeptember 6, 2018

Nicco Montano
Nicco MontanoJeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

There are a few things we know for sure about Nicco Montano.

She is the first women's flyweight champion in UFC history. She is the first Native champion in UFC history. When she makes her first title defense Saturday against Valentina Shevchenko, she'll be the biggest underdog of any UFC champion in history.

There's another distinction, if you want to call it that. Data don't exist for this one, but insiders and fans believe she's the most anonymous, underpromoted UFC champion ever.

The distinctions follow different branches, sometimes intertwining and sometimes not. But there is clear and present space between the two circles she inhabits on MMA's Venn diagram.

In one, she's the invisible champion, dismissed before she began.

In the other, she's mobbed on the streets, an instant icon, an athletic and moral hero carrying the identity of a large, proud and troubled society.

It's more than a simple case of a fighter who made a Cinderella run that never caught fire in the public imagination. The story of Montano, the daughter of a Gold Gloves boxer and a rodeo queen, doesn't need embellishment to help it spread beyond the red and ochre dirt where it sprouted, back on the New Mexico reservation that raised her.

The question, then, is why so fewincluding in hardcore fan circlesknow that story. The answer is a story in itself, one that sheds light on the modern UFC's marketing machine. It also seems to speak to a continued reliance, both in society in general and the UFC in particular, on outmoded—some might say offensive—stereotypes that continue to dehumanize the long-struggling Native population.

"So much of what I represent metaphorically and physically is about being the underdog and coming out on top," Montano said. "It's having those obstacles to overcome with everyone thinking 'she's going to lose.' Then changing everybody's minds and changing beliefs. A lot of indigenous peoples have seen that and felt it firsthand."


Their Champion

She was an instant sensation.

It wasn't always glamorous, but on December 1 in Las Vegas, Montano did enough to defeat fan favorite Roxanne Modafferi by unanimous decision. The 35-year-old Modafferi pushed the pace early before 29-year-old Montano used clear edges in strength and athleticism to batter and grind down her opponent. Montano gutted through a dramatic last-ditch armbar to seal the win.

When the referee lifted her arm, Montano became the inaugural UFC women's flyweight champion.

UFC @ufc

#AndNew UFC women's flyweight champion | @UltimateFighter season 26 winner | The No. 14 seed | @NiccoMontano #TUFFinale https://t.co/BTfZO0Fiej

A well-traveled pioneer of women's MMA with a 21-13 pro record, Modafferi was the sentimental favorite. By contrast, entering the field of The Ultimate Fighter 26, which culminated in the title fight, Montano had a 3-2 pro record to her name and no UFC experience.

There's no gambling on the TUF regular season, but it's safe to wager that the finale was the first time Montano left the underdog seat. The distinction was hard won in three consecutive victories over current or future UFC fighters Lauren Murphy, Montana De La Rosa and Barb Honchak.

"She's gifted as a fighter, but she's still a little raw because she hasn't been in the game that long," said Lawrence Herrera, Montano's strength and conditioning coach in her home base of Albuquerque, New Mexico. "There's definitely lots of potential."

The Modafferi fight took place in the finale of quite possibly the least-watched season of the long-running TUF franchise, which has experienced declining viewership for years. By a wide margin, the finale was the lowest-rated primetime UFC broadcast in the history of Fox Sports 1, barely cracking 500,000 viewers. That's probably due in part to its unconventional Friday night slot, 24 hours before the blockbuster UFC 218.

On paper and on the screen, the historic win happened more or less in silence.

"It feels less official, in a sense," Herrera said. "It was a Friday fight because there was a bigger Saturday card. Not a lot of people saw the fight."

In at least one place, though, her win was the opposite of quiet. In Navajo Nation, it set off a sonic boom.

LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 01:  Nicco Montano celebrates with her grandmother after her unanimous-decision victory over Roxanne Modafferi in their women's flyweight championship bout during the TUF Finale event inside Park Theater on December 01, 2017 in La
Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

From the winning moment to her return to New Mexico and ever since, Natives have been celebrating. Montano is a quarter Chickasaw, a quarter Navajo and half Hispanic but considers herself Native, having been raised on the 65,000-person Navajo Nation reservation near Gallup, New Mexico, that comprises a small part of America's 5.2 million total Native population.

(Montano and others prefer the term "Native" or "indigenous" to "Native American," viewing the latter as a government label not reflecting their input.)

In the eyes of Natives, a race with a proud but scattered athletic tradition, Montano is their champion. That must have been why so many flooded the streets of Navajo Nation for her triumphant return. The pandemonium there was quite different from the flatline of the larger MMA world's reaction.

"When I got the championship belt, the next day I came home, and there was just this mega parade," Montano said. "And there were people hugging me and crying in my ear, and I'm like 'You were my teacher! You know me!' There were so many people from so many different reservations. There were people who came all the way from Canada. And they were, like, jumping on me. When you're indigenous you call somebody your brother or sister, like 'Hey, brother' or 'Hey, sister.' Now I had so many brothers and so many sisters."

Montano hadn't previously considered what the championship might mean for her or anyone else. With people busily jumping on her and screaming her name, she was now almost forced to do so.

LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 01:  Nicco Montano celebrates with her mother and grandmother her unanimous-decision victory over Roxanne Modafferi in their women's flyweight championship bout during the TUF Finale event inside Park Theater on December 01, 2017
Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

"MMA has gotten so big, and the UFC has gotten so big, especially with kids and people who grow up not having a basketball court outside their house, not having any sort of playground," Montano said. "All you got are your cousins to wrestle with. So making a career out of that playfulness and being amplified on TV like that is what caught their attention."

Her speech at the parade was designed to express her pride in and solidarity with the audience, with all those who had walked and driven long distances to be part of it. She delivered the speech in Navajo. She had learned the complex language in part through her grandfathers, who worked as World War II code talkers.

From that speech forward, the die was truly cast.

"I think that made them think 'We can do this,'" she said. "There are traditional people who still live traditionally, live off the land, live in harmony with the land, who don't have a job, who still barter and live off of handshakes and word of mouth. The Navajo language might be gone in 20 years. Soon it will be gone. ... So when I did that, it really motivated them."

It motivated Montano too. It lit a fire in her, she said, to do more work like this, spreading her story to her own community and beyond.


Without Landing a Punch

Navajo Nation is roughly the size of West Virginia, stretching 25,000 square miles across Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. Its Eastern end touches the Grand Canyon, and though its trademark is that arid red clay, snowy forests grow at its highest altitudes.

Mesas in New Mexico
Mesas in New MexicoERIC BARADAT/Getty Images

The mesas burst out of the dirt like giant tombstones, so weathered and cracked that the names are worn away. It's hard to decide what's more foreboding: the undying belt sander of nature or the titanic fists of rock that resist it. Nothing makes a person feel smaller than driving a lone highway toward a looming mesa, the sky so vast it distorts distance.

No one has to wonder why Montano feels a kinship with this land. It's a beauty anyone would feel glad to have at their back.

Growing up here, young Nicco spent lots of time watching her father, Frank, work and train in the boxing gym he owned. They didn't have an exceptionally close relationship, but what relationship they did have occurred in his gym. She was 16 when he died.

That part of her fell away for a while. College took her to Durango, New Mexico, where she practiced jiu-jitsu for fun. She was good. She had never boxed before but was not completely uninitiated given her time in the boxing gym. Some kind of MMA encounter was inevitable.

She was good at that, too. Maybe too good. When it came time to try her hand at real competition, there was still a bug in her system: She was afraid of getting hit.

So she hatched a very simple plan: Don't get hit. And so it went. Montano won her first MMA fight without taking—or landing—a single punch.

"I always said I didn't want to punch anybody," Montano said. "They were like 'You can break somebody's arm [with jiu-jitsu], what's the difference?' When it comes to making somebody bloody, or hitting them so hard they see stars, that's the part I thought was brutal at first. I was absolutely fearful when I started MMA. I didn't want to get knocked out."

Of course, that wasn't sustainable if she was going to be serious about this, and after deeper immersion in standup training, she began to lose her fear and respect the artistry of striking.

That experience was another chance to apply the lessons of her background: face fear, understand the problem, persevere.

Natives track well behind nearly all the population in key areas like income, education and employment, while they experience higher rates of health problems such as diabetes and heart disease. In 2014, Natives had an infant mortality rate 60 percent higher than Caucasians.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, 34 percent of Native children lived in poverty in 2016, higher than any other race. A 2012 survey revealed more than a quarter of all Natives live in poverty, the second-highest percentage among all races behind blacks.

Drug use and crime are rampant, compounded by the extreme isolation of many Native communities from law enforcement and similar services.

She's reluctant to give details because she doesn't want to seem exploitative, but Montano recalled the scarcity of electricity and running water in her home growing up, of wrapping plastic bags around her shoes when it rained.

"We had to work for everything," Montano said. "Now I can say it was rewarding. It sucked when I was a kid. We had to work for every little thing."

It wasn't glamorous, but glamour and beauty are two different things. Montano learned which one she preferred and came to love it.

"Working for everything is beautiful. It's because of the land itself," she said. "There's so much to appreciate, especially when it comes to our culture."


Buckskin and Teepees

Montano yearns not just to tell her story but to tell it straight. She wants people to know more about the way Native communities exist today, the new and old, large and small, internal and external beauty and adversity they face.

But a specter looms here, one that is sadly predictable. The struggles of Native people aren't anything new. Their history as genocide victims is well-documented, beginning with the first settlements of the American colonies. If nothing else, people at least understand there are hard Native stories that go unheard.

The sad part is that many perceptions appear to dwell in outdated and all-too-familiar caricatures. These aren't just racially motivated fire bombs, either, Montano said, but commonly held assumptions about how Natives actually live.

Simply put, Montano can't tell her story without first correcting the record.

"They think we live in buckskin and teepees," she said. "It's 2018 and there are still people who ask that question."

You'd think these misconceptions might not extend to a company as large, multi-ethnic and ostensibly media-savvy as the UFC. But according to Montano, they do.

Her most damning observation involves the UFC's efforts to market her, including a suggested approach that would make use of those same stereotypes.

"They literally wanted me to put on a costume," Montano said. "They literally wanted to see me coming out with war paint on my face. They think 'Native' and they think these things. I don't want to be the token Native. I don't want to be blasted on posters with a headdress on and with buckskin and a loin cloth."

The UFC did not respond to requests seeking comment for this story.

In fairness, there does appear to be a stronger push as UFC 228 approaches. Perhaps the most salient example, however, comes from UFC sponsor Modelo rather than the company itself.

UFC @ufc

"Fighting Spirit is not about winning, it’s about fighting – and you’re going to see me fight." @NiccoMontano shows what drives her #FightingSpirit ahead of #UFC228. (B2YB @ModeloUSA) https://t.co/4C2xeMSzVi

At first Montano claimed not to care about any of it, including the idea that her basement-level profile keeps her off the mainstream radar. She gives the athlete's standard answer about taking it one day at a time and letting results speak for themselves.

"It doesn't really matter to me," she said. "And I don't really think about it until people bring it up. I don't know why. But I've never really even thought about it."

Then she remembers her victory speech, and the stories she wants to tell about her own life and all the other lives she's known and come to know on the reservation. Just like that, the professed apathy takes an about face.

Montano (left) and Shevchenko
Montano (left) and ShevchenkoJeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

"I do care," she said. "Because I do want to get my word out. I want to be able to share my values and to have people see where I'm coming from."


Finding a Voice

With her title win obscured from much of the fight-watching public, Montano is left to take the matter into her own hands. It's a taller order for an introverted social media skeptic like Montano than it is for, say, Conor McGregor.

People see McGregor and assume it's easy. Because self-promotion instincts are important, every fighter must have them, right? If you don't bark at your own carnival, you must be lazy, unenlightened to the game or simply have nothing worth saying.

Montano is not what you'd call a natural in the ways of media, old or new. Her biggest social-media moment to date was a dustup with Shevchenko back in May over the fight contract. Long the clear choice as Montano's first challenger, Shevchenko is in many ways Montano's opposite: a crowd-pleaser in and out of the cage, a dynamic striker who dazzles fans with elaborate dance routines at open workouts.

Well, Montano doesn't do stuff like that, and the social media experience reinforced and probably deepened every concern she had about Twitter and its cohorts. Now, however, she understands that it might be her best option—one that has worked well for plenty of users who saw a chance to amplify their voices.

"I always look at social media as a bunch of bias and propaganda, but it doesn't have to be that way," she said. "I don't have to take half-naked pictures of myself for people to notice me. But social media is something I'm going to have to be mindful about so I can be more influential and help lead younger generations and helping everyone keep our traditions alive. So I'm learning now."

There's also the small matter of Saturday's fight, which is obviously where Montano's current focus lies. In advance of Saturday's UFC 228, where she opened as a record-breaking +350 underdog (a $100 bet would net a $350 profit). She now sits as high as a titanic +925, according to OddsShark. Shevchenko (15-3) has enjoyed extensive UFC success behind an electric muay thai style and an underrated grappling game, all fueled by some of the best conditioning in women's MMA.

Montano and her coaches, not surprisingly, like her chances anyway, pointing to her increasing skill set and formidable athleticism.

"Against Shevchenko, she's better than before," Herrera said. "Nicco is raw but she's learning every day. ... She's very gifted as an athlete."

However the fight ends, Montano will retain her story and a fairly large fan base that seems unlikely to desert her. Perhaps Natives' economic demographics are less than ideal under the fluorescent lights of the boardroom. But they are also less likely to mirror the rest of MMA's notoriously fickle fanbase.

Montano has done more public speaking, with plans to do more in the future. She also seems determined to figure out how to use social media to her advantage.

In the meantime, Montano and her story appear marketable enough, even if it all requires more of a scalpel than a tomahawk. For example, according to Herrera, she could make a strong addition to any card in the Southwest, regardless of what happens with Shevchenko.

"She's Navajo and the Navajo Nation is huge," Herrera said. "She needs a legit [fight] on a pay-per-view or a national card. The UFC is kind of missing the boat here. She's huge in the Southwest. Give her a show in Glendale, Arizona. She'd sell this out. Or at The Pit, where the [University of New Mexico] Lobos [basketball team] play? There'd be heavy crowds."

For now, Montano remains the UFC's invisible champion. If that is to change in the mainstream MMA community, it seems it's up to her. A huge title defense at UFC 228 would be a powerful sign. As a child of the mesas, she's used to those.

"When I got the belt, I wanted to be shining a light on my native culture," she said. "Like, this is truly my motivation and truly where my mind is. When I fight, it's so I can have a voice for them."


Scott Harris is a feature writer for Bleacher Report and CNN.