In her first UFC title defense, ex-bouncer Nicco Montaño faces toughest challenge yet in Valentina Shevchenko

Kevin Iole
Combat columnist
Nicco Montaño now holds the dubious distinction of being the largest underdog a UFC champion has ever been for her fight against Valentina Shevchenko. (Getty Images)

There are some sections of Albuquerque, New Mexico, that are so rough that not even the police are all that eager to patrol there. Nicco Montaño, now the UFC women’s flyweight champion, worked in one of those areas.

As a bouncer.

Her job required to tell guys to tuck their jewelry behind their shirts.

“I’d say to one of [the bar customers], ‘You need to tuck in your chain,’ and they’d look at me like, ‘Who are you? What are you going to do?’ And so I was like, ‘You better tuck in that chain.’ There was nothing physically I could do about it, but I was ready to step up.”

Her indomitable spirit and fearlessness made her effective at her job in one of the notoriously tough watering holes in Albuquerque, and it has served her well in her MMA career.

She’ll need every bit of that toughness and fearlessness on Saturday when she makes the first defense of her title against Valentina Shevchenko in the co-main event of UFC 228 at the American Airlines Center in Dallas.

The Westgate Las Vegas sports book has Shevchenko as a minus-1400 favorite, giving Montaño the dubious distinction of being the largest underdog a UFC champion has ever been.

At a news conference in Los Angeles to announce the fight, a reporter began a question to Shevchenko by saying, “Most people think it’s a foregone conclusion” that she’d win.

Montaño heard it and quietly stewed, but it only made her more determined.

“I do get insulted when I hear that, but it’s nothing new,” she said. “Being the underdog is kind of what I feed off of. It means I have nothing to lose and everything to gain.”

Nicco Montaño (L) and Valentina Shevchenko face off during the UFC 228 ultimate media day on Sept. 6, 2018 in Dallas, Texas. (Getty Images)

Shevchenko has vastly more experience than Montaño and came close to defeating Amanda Nunes to win the bantamweight championship. She already has a win over former champion Holly Holm and won an incredible victory over Julianna Pena at bantamweight.

In Shevchenko’s first flyweight bout, she delivered a brutal beating to Priscilla Cachoeira on Feb. 3 in Brazil.

It’s going to take a talented, tough and mentally strong fighter to defeat her, but there are few tougher or mentally stronger fighters than Montaño.

Consider, for a moment, how she won the title. After making it to the finals of “The Ultimate Fighter,” Montaño was supposed to fight Sijara Eubanks for the newly created title.

She was going ahead with the fight even though she had a broken foot. And while Montaño was in the midst of a difficult weight cut, she got some other tough news: About 30 hours before the fight, she learned she’d get a new opponent.

Eubanks was also having a difficult weight cut and was yanked from the bout for medical reasons, replaced by Roxanne Modafferi.

After saying yes to fighting with a broken foot, she wasn’t about to say no to a new opponent, even though she had no time to prepare.

That is the kind of toughness, physically and mentally, that will be required of someone – anyone – in the flyweight division to defeat Shevchenko.

“At that point, I knew I had to do it [fight with the broken foot] or else someone else would step up to the plate,” Montaño said. “Lauren Murphy was there, just waiting. She was asked to be there just in case someone didn’t make weight. I knew at that point from the TUF season how ready these girls were to jump on any opportunity that was open, so I knew I had to push through the broken foot and the injury.”

She had been cutting weight the night before with Eubanks, and knew Eubanks wasn’t going to be able to fight. She suspected Modafferi might be the opponent and she just switched gears mentally and prepared for her.

But Montaño said the way she prepares for fights allowed her to handle the late opponent change with ease.

“Throughout my camp, it’s not necessarily, ‘How do I beat this person?’ it’s ‘How can I be the best I can be that night?’ ” she said. “Fights can go anywhere. You could be moving perfectly. Your timing could be on point and one second later, you’re caught. You get clipped with a good, accurate shot and you’re down. It doesn’t have to be powerful. Or, you slip and then the fight’s on the ground. There are so many variables when it comes to mixed martial arts and MMA fighting and you have to be pretty strong and sturdy mentally.”

She’s eager to get in the cage with Shevchenko because it will give her the opportunity to get the last laugh against those who have said she has no chance.

She noted that Shevchenko is quick and flashy, but believes her “sturdy” style is suited for it.

She’s also confident because of what she has overcome in life. She is a Native American from the Navajo tribe and had plenty of obstacles in front of her in her everyday life.

She was living hand-to-mouth before going on ‘The Ultimate Fighter,’ and her win enabled her to leave the tiny basement apartment she shared with her boyfriend.

The odds are long, but so too were the odds that she’d escape poverty to become a world champion, so don’t tell her that it’s impossible for her to win.

“I think I’ve been able to shine light onto where I’m from, the Navajo Nation and kind of all our trials going on,” Montaño said. “You know, we’re a third-world country within this country and we don’t get recognized as such and we see, you know, a lot of people are kind of naive when it comes to our cultures and traditions. I think that’s what’s most important in giving me strength and the confidence that I have and that’s why I’m the champion.

“Not every person who wins a belt is going to be a champion per se, because they’re not utilizing the advantage of the situation to the best. I think in this movement, particularly with the indigenous peoples, I’ve shown that no matter how much of an underdog you are, you know you can come out on top and we’re all able to prevail. It’s definitely an analogy in our strength.”

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