Nicco Montaño: The UFC Sets An Unfair Precedent That Will Be Unfairly Applied

By Raphael Garcia

There are many people across the world that are coming off of tough weeks, but very few had as public of a bad week as Nicco Montaño. The 29-year-old fighter started as the first ever UFC Women’s Flyweight Champion, and ended up in the hospital, stripped of her title. And unfortunately for Montaño, where the fans are concerned, there isn’t much compassion over her situation. But notwithstanding the lack of outrage, the promotion’s decision should be more controversial. It’s worth discussing why.

Let’s start the conversation with Montaño. She was a competitor on The Ultimate Fighter Season 26, where she was the last fighter picked, but overcame those odds to defeat everyone who was placed in front of her on her path to the finals. She picked up wins over Lauren Murphy, Montana De La Rosa, and Barb Honchak before defeating fan favorite Roxanne Modafferi to become the first woman to hold the UFC’s 125-pound title. In retrospect, that would be the high point of her UFC tenure, as bad luck would precipitate a downward trend in her career.

After her title win on December 1, 2017 at thee TUF 26 Finale, Montaño disappeared. Not only did she remain silent on social media, where many fighters are becoming more active to build their brands, but she was also largely invisible on UFC platforms, as the organization struggled to properly promote one of its champions. Montaño, who is of mixed Latinx and Navajo heritage, has the kind of story of struggle and adversity in her background that the UFC promotional machine typically uses to build narratives around fighters that will connect them to fans. But that didn’t occur with the newly-minted champion.

Instead, the UFC focused on other fighters within the developing flyweight division, specifically Valentina Shevchenko and Paige VanZant. VanZant’s name was oddly floated as a rumored title contender despite no fights in the division, and Shevchenko, the former bantamweight title challenger, was awarded a shot at 125 after her violent victory over Priscilla Cachoeira at UFC Fight Night 125. From there, she began to aggressively push for her title shot, while Montaño cited injuries and other issues, which would keep her out of active competition for most of the year. Their bout was finally scheduled for UFC 228.

As it’s widely known now, Montaño fell ill before weighing in and was deemed medically unfit to compete. The flyweight championship fight was cancelled, and mere hours later, UFC President Dana White stripped Montaño of the title. He also announced that Shevchenko will remain the number one contender and fight for the vacated title against an unnamed opponent later this year.

Now, if one were to look at the social media space, he or she would see many MMA fans praising the decision to take the belt off of Montaño. Words such as “afraid,” “scared,” and other insulting terms are being tossed around. She was a massive underdog heading into the fight, and so, to them, Montaño is somehow frightened by the idea of facing Shevchenko. It’s an ignorant and misguided perspective for sure, but it’s one that the UFC leadership fed into with its swift and decisive action here. With its decision to strip Montaño, the UFC set a dangerous precedent — or rather, it would have, if we weren’t already aware that it doesn’t and will not apply to everyone.

Nine months had passed since Montaño fought, as she’s dealt with a variety of situations which have hampered her career. But in the end, pulling out of a fight is something that happens often, as this was the 22nd main or co-main event fight in 2018 that has been cancelled due to last minute issues. Montaño’s camp stated that she will be able to recover soon, and the bout could have been rebooked for UFC 229 or UFC 230. But the fan base and the UFC wanted none of that, and the promotion removed the belt from her grasp.

From the perspective of precedent, the question would be, “Now what? Is this what happens when a champion pulls out of a fight?” UFC Featherweight Champion Max Holloway, who like Montaño hasn’t fought since December 2017, has pulled out of three straight fights since then (including his last-minute attempt to face Khabib Nurmagomedov at UFC 223). However, there haven’t been any calls to strip Holloway of his title, and if his health issues continue, affecting his scheduled fight against Brian Ortega at UFC 231, would he get the same treatment from the UFC and its fans? Most likely not.

So why take this stance with Montaño? Perhaps it’s frustration from the promotion, as she has yet to defend that title. Or perhaps the promotion sees more marketability in Shevchenko, who was a massive favorite heading into this fight, and who the UFC has made a concerted effort to keep in the title pictures of two divisions. She fits the blond, conventionally attractive mold that the promotion embraces with its female fighters, so it’s understandable that the company would want to get a belt on her sooner than later. In pulling out of the fight, Montaño prevented that, and even though her health was at stake, for the UFC, interfering with its big money plans often carries a hefty penalty. It’s possible that the promotion will keep Montaño outside of the title picture for the foreseeable future, even if she racks up multiple wins in the division upon her return.

Regardless of its reasons, the UFC clearly made a business decision when it chose to strip Nicco Montaño of the UFC Women’s Flyweight Championship; it wasn’t about doing the “right” thing; it was about the bottom line. But equating a fighter seeking medical attention due to complications during a weight cut with missing weight at weigh-in is not only an unfair proposition, it’s also a dangerous one. If we believed that the UFC were creating a precedent, we’d wonder whether the company would stick to that policy in the future. But we know it won’t. In the end, this was an unfair decision
involving a woman who earned a UFC title, but has never been treated fairly or properly represented by the entity expected to promote her. Unfortunately, there’s precedent for that too.

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