Nicco Montano was stripped of her title on the eve of UFC 228. (Photo: Josh Hedges/Getty Images)
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The Ultimate Fighting Championship female flyweight division started with a press release sent in error. In retrospect, that press release seems like a perfect metaphor for the weight class, which lost its inaugural champion this week after a botched weight cut and an arbitrary decision to declare the title vacant.
Nicco Montano, the first Native American to hold a UFC title, joins the likes of Conor McGregor, Josh Barnett and Germaine de Randamie as undisputed champions who were stripped before ever defending their titles. Unlike the aforementioned names however, what prompted the UFC to separate Montano from the strap was capriciousness above all else.
It’s been the dominant theme since the promotion green lit the weight class in May 2017.
Failure to Launch
First, the UFC announced, then rescinded, and then confirmed that the maiden titleholder of the weight class would be determined through Season 26 of “The Ultimate Fighter” -- giving prospective applicants just 20 days to get themselves to Las Vegas for tryouts and then another five weeks before filming started. This was just the second time that the reality program had been used to crown a champion, the first being when it introduced the female strawweight division back in December 2014. Unlike when it introduced the 115-pound weight class however, there were already multiple women fighting in the UFC who had expressed interest in populating the division. This included former strawweight champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk, former bantamweight title challenger Valentino Shevchenko and a number of other UFC-tested talents.
Since participating in TUF is not compensated, requires contestants to leave their families for six full weeks, and to fight -- and cut weight -- up to three times over a six-week period without any wins (or losses) being added to their professional MMA records, the decision to make TUF the vehicle for determining the champion basically guaranteed that more established fighters wouldn’t apply. Indeed, of the 16 women who did compete on the show, only two -- Roxanne Modaferri and Lauren Murphy -- had competed under the UFC banner before, and together they owned just one victory in the Octagon from five attempts. Of the 14 remaining competitors, nine had four professional victories or less.
Predictably then, given the TUF format had long since failed to capture the imagination of fans, and especially in light of the less-than-stellar talent pool, the show tanked; the 10th episode attracted the lowest ratings ever for the series, and the finale event was the lowest rated primetime live UFC show on FOX Sports 1 history. Highlighting the extreme physical pressure the TUF format places on its contestants -- in particular women, who must navigate more difficult weight cuts -- one half of the main event in Sijara Eubanks also had to withdraw at the 11th hour courtesy of kidney failure. This pitted Montano, who herself experienced a harrowing cut courtesy of a broken foot, versus late-replacement and cult favourite Modafferi for the title.
Despite all this, the fight between Montano and Modafferi delivered, with the former taking a unanimous decision in a scrappy back-and-forth brawl that won Fight of the Night honors.
Montano, picked as the No. 14-ranked seed during TUF and holding a record of just three wins with two defeats upon entering the house, was overcome with emotion as the title was wrapped around her waist, and in the aftermath spoke candidly about living in abject poverty with her boyfriend before the show. Her priorities were to “get some treats” for her cat and locate an apartment with running water, as well as visiting the tribal reservation she grew up on to give a boost to her community -- a laudable to-do list if there ever was one.
In spite of the promotion’s impatient and uninspired approach to implementing the flyweight division, out had popped a champion whose story seemed tailor-made for a fight promoter: the perennial underdog, the tribal member fighting for a marginalized people, someone who’d been a fighter from day one and was finally paying the bills with her passion.
Phoning It In
As the dust settled on the TUF Finale, UFC President Dana White praised Montano as a “tough, gritty little girl” who “has something special.” But when it came time to sell her as the champion, the promotion dutifully phoned it in. Despite being the UFC’s first ever native champion -- she was the centerpiece of a parade at Navajo Nation when she returned there with the belt -- with a combat sports lineage that started with her father, a Golden Gloves boxer, ostensibly little effort was made to tell Montano’s story in earnest. As she told Bleacher Report in the lead-up to Saturday’s aborted championship fight, to the extent that the UFC’s marketing team did want to explore Montano’s heritage, it was in the most undignified way possible, asking her to put on a costume and war paint that played to stereotypes about Native Americans.
The promotion also appeared to make no attempt to endear Montano to the broader fan case, for example by facilitating more media opportunities, or spotlighting her at fan events, making her the most under promoted and undistinguished champion in the modern era. Granted, this probably owed in part to Albuquerque-resident’s health problems -- of which the promotion also stayed curiously silent on -- but there also seemed to be an aura of resignation on the UFC’s part. After spending three months trying to convince us that the winner of TUF 26 would be the best flyweight in the world, the promotion seemed wholly indifferent to the new world champion, giving fuel to (moronic) fan theories that Montano was attempting to avoid defending her belt.
De Ja Vu
The rest of the story came out early this week, and it combines the very worst of the UFC’s proclivities: the prioritization of its event schedule above fighter health and safety, a dangerously cavalier attitude towards its champion belts, and a general lack of humanity.
Under the implied threat of being stripped of the championship (a claim that White vociferously denied earlier this year after journalist Ariel Helwani reported the UFC were “ losing patience” with Montano), she agreed to a bout opposite number No. 1 contender Valentina Shevcheko at UFC 228. The camp became about losing weight -- an undertaking she claims was made harder by the physiological impact of cutting weight so many times on TUF -- and, predictably, the 29-year old found herself in the hospital dangerously close to having “cardiac issues.”
Unlike the main event -- where the UFC had a back-up fighter in Kamaru Usman ready to step in if either Tyron Woodley or Darren Till failed to hit 170 for their championship contest -- the flyweight title was scrapped, and while Montano was in hospital White gave an interview to ESPN asserting Montano had been stripped; the now-former champion found out about her downgrade on social media.
For a weekend that showcased so much of what makes MMA great -- veterans turning back the clock, physics-defying submissions and crushing knockouts -- the UFC’s incompetent handling of the female flyweight division, and its cruel treatment of Montano, remind us of how little there is stopping the promotion from acting on its worst impulses. Moreover, it reminds us that fighters bear the brunt of this erraticism.
Simply put, if the UFC cared about its athlete’s physical wellbeing it wouldn’t have held a financially ruinous stick over Montano’s head to force her to fight earlier than she believed was healthy.
Simply put, if the UFC wanted its inaugural champion to make a quick turnaround after TUF, it wouldn’t have required her to fight, and cut weight, four times in five months.
Simply put, if the UFC wanted us to believe that the flyweight championships is is worth something, it wouldn’t have created it to sell a TV-show, and then vacated it to avoid the consequences.
Jacob Debets is a recent law graduate who lives in Melbourne, Australia. He has been an MMA fan for more than a decade and trains in muay Thai and boxing at DMDs MMA in Brunswick. He is currently writing a book analyzing the economics and politics of the MMA industry. You can view more of his writing at jacobdebets.com.