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With only one UFC fight on her record, Nicco Montaño’s career is already teeming with history. In that one fight, she became not only the first UFC women’s flyweight champion, but also the first Native American UFC champion.
Most of the world was introduced to her during the 26th season of The Ultimate Fighter, where Montaño consistently demolished the expectations of her original 14th seed, steadily toppling more established fighters on her way to UFC gold. But her story starts back on the reservation of her native Navajo people, and her commitment to the ideals and traditions of that culture only serve to enrich her story.
We sat down with her ahead of her first defense of that flyweight title at UFC 228 in Dallas.
UFC: Take us back to the night you won the first UFC women’s flyweight title.
NM: It was fun. I came out with a pretty jacked-up face, so I was sore [laughs], and pretty bruised up. But it was a good stress-reliever to be done with the fight, win or lose. I was so happy when I won.
UFC: When certain people in the press claimed you were ducking [UFC 228 opponent] Valentina Shevchenko, I was struck by how much support you had from your former Ultimate Fighter cast members. They all seemed to have your back. Do you still feel a kinship with them?
"I'm not going to say no to a fight. That's why I'm a fighter." Champ @NiccoMontano talks about how her TUF cast mates had her back when detractors accused her of ducking fights. Check it out: https://t.co/qzM5oqGhg0 pic.twitter.com/w0pG5CC9yi
— UFC News (@UFCNews) September 6, 2018
NM: I do. Making that weight for some of us was pretty difficult, so to have that support system of girls--all of whom knew they were going to be fighting each other for the belt—at the end of the day, it was pretty awesome. That’s why I stay loyal when [TUF opponent] Lauren Murphy’s name comes up. She understands I’m not going to say no to a fight. That’s why I’m a fighter. That’s my job. Who would say no to getting paid? It’s just the fact I was sick. It’s ridiculous. But I’m very appreciative of the support I still have and the friendships I made on that show.
UFC: The stretch between the TUF finale and this fight at UFC 228 is the longest you’ve gone without a fight since you started. How have you kept yourself sharp?
NM: My mental game has been my strength, and I’ve never been one to hesitate on thinking I can be the best. Even with all those days in the bed, sick at home, there was never a time when I wasn’t thinking about what my next move would be. I was itching to get back on the mats to see if this move or that move would work. But I kept sharp sticking through it with my mind.
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UFC: Some of your detractors have already crowned Shevchenko champion in your division, perhaps forgetting you were the 14th seed on TUF. How do you see it going down on Saturday?
NM: Yeah! With all due respect to Lauren, she thought that too. Everyone saw the episode where she said “It looks like it’s going to be me and Barb [Honchak] at the end of this.” The next thing you know, I just come and dominate. I know what I’m capable of. People that followed me from TUF and even before TUF know what I’m capable of, and I think that’s the only thing that’s important. Those are the only opinions that matter to me.
UFC: Anyone who follows you on social media knows how proud you are to be the first Native American UFC champion. Talk about how important it is to be that person, and what it meant to bring the belt back to your people.
NM: Growing up on the reservation, there are no playgrounds. Maybe a couple swing sets. You’re just having fun out in the boonies. When someone moves off of the reservation to live their life in a city, everyone is like “Good job! She’s going to college. She made it.” That’s all they want for you, they see that as success, the Western civilized mentality.
When I got the belt, I definitely developed this following of [indigenous] people that want to go and work out and be motivated. But I want our motivation to be a communal one so we can grow our moral support in our communities and keep our traditions alive. I don’t want our values to change just because of that shiny, tangible object. I want them to remember what motivates me and why I’m a champion, because each and every one of those indigenous people have it. Each and every person who has listened to the sacred stories and had a Kindaalda [Navajo coming-of-age ceremony]; they know it, they just have to trust in it.
UFC: What would be your main goal in using your platform to uplift your people?
NM: No matter what label I have, no matter what kind of underdog I am, I need to keep portraying that I always stay determined, push through and perservere. I am who I am because of where I come from. It’s as simple as that. I’d like to find a way to work a charity for the indigenous kids have something to look forward to, and to remind them of where they come from. There has been just generation after generation of people trying to break us down, and it hasn’t worked. Keeping that [strong] mentality is so important, and it’s the only thing that’s going to keep our traditions alive.
Steve Latrell is a digital producer and writer for UFC.com. Follow him on Twitter at @TheUFSteve