Conor McGregor, Nicco Montaño, And The Disparity Of The UFC

UFC 228 Marketing

If you are reading this you are probably aware of Conor McGregor. If not, it is not for lack of effort on the UFC’s part. McGregor is the biggest star in mixed martial arts and the UFC’s most lucrative draw by a huge margin. You may be familiar with his historic run to MMA titles in two different weight classes, or his wildly successful boxing-related-grift with unrepentant domestic abuse menace Floyd Mayweather.

You might also remember McGregor from such promotional racism classics as saying of José Aldo and Brazil, “If this was a different time I would invade his favela on horseback and kill anyone that was not fit to work,” or telling Mayweather to “Dance for me, boy.” You could recognize him as the man who jumped into a Bellator cage after his teammate Charlie Ward’s victory, and got into a physical altercation with the referee and officials. Or you may have seen McGregor’s most recent work: mobbing a bus filled with his co-workers, throwing a hand-dolly through a window injuring at least two fighters with flying glass — which caused them to miss their scheduled fights — getting a third fighter from his crew removed from the card for being involved in the attack, and traumatizing another of the organization’s champions. His boss, UFC president Dana White said of the incident, “In the history of the UFC, this is definitely the worst thing ever that’s happened.” He also told ESPN, “This is bigger than Conor McGregor getting fired.”

Dana White saying something meaningless about Conor McGregor

It was so big that not only was Conor McGregor not fired, after pleading to a slap-on-the-wrist disorderly conduct charge that did not involve jail time, a criminal record, or any impact to his visa status, he received no apparent punishment from the UFC. One place you may have heard about this “disgusting” rampage is from the UFC’s own promotional footage where they are using it to sell McGregor’s next fight. On October 6th, he will be rewarded by facing lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov in what should be one of the richest, most-watched UFC fights ever.

While McGregor is seemingly unavoidable, even if you are a fight fan you may not have heard of the now former champion Nicco Montaño. On the opposite end of the UFC’s roster, filling the undercards of McGregor’s main events and absorbing the fallout from his tantrums are fighters like Montaño. They don’t get paraded on globe-trotting publicity tours and they don’t enjoy the protections of money and fame. The disparity between the two champions is as fitting an illustration of the UFC in 2018 as any.

Nicco Montaño did not defend her flyweight title at UFC 228. Instead of facing heavily favored challenger Valentina Shevchenko, Montaño was in the hospital with failing kidneys. Her weight cut before the fight was disastrous, and in a scene that plays out entirely too often, instead of attending the weigh-ins she was rushed to medical attention. According to her Instagram post afterward, she received treatment just in time:

“I had stopped sweating early, my kidneys shut down, and I had an imbalance of electrolytes, my sodium levels were way too high. When I got to the hospital the doctors had told me that it was the best idea, that if I had waited even 30min longer it could’ve led to cardiac issues.”

Montaño will not be defending her title at a later date, though, because she was stripped of her belt before leaving the hospital. She first learned of this news when she saw an interview with UFC president Dana White, also on Instagram.

Nicco Montaño on having her belt stripped

Despite a heartwarming underdog story, at this point Montaño is one of the most unsung UFC champs ever. After going 3–2 in just 5 professional fights, she improbably became the first champion of the newly-formed women’s flyweight division by fighting her way through The Ultimate Fighter reality show. Unfortunately for Montaño’s exposure and bargaining power, this was the 26th season (36th if you count the international editions) of a series whose format was already well-worn when it launched in 2005. Relatively few fans witnessed her accomplishment.

Following her title fight finale victory against veteran Roxanne Modafferi, Montaño revealed to MMAjunkie that she had entered the match on an already broken foot, but that she had plenty of incentive to continue anyway. “We were dirt poor just before tonight in all reality,” she said. “I’m going to go move to an apartment with some water pressure, and buy some good food and treats for my cats.”

Given her previous resume and profile, Montaño was immediately relegated to placeholder status. Many assumed it was only a matter of time before she was dethroned by the more experienced, better-known Shevchenko, a former bantamweight title challenger dropping down a weight class. Montaño’s recovery from her foot injury and the grueling TUF schedule, and then a “tonsillectomy and adenoid removal surgery due to a bacterial infection” repeatedly delayed their meeting.

The UFC, who have a long track record of trashing even their biggest fighters, used their usual channels to publicly express frustration with their champion. According to a Bleacher Report profile, when they did attempt to market Montaño, who is of Chickasaw and Navajo descent and grew up on a reservation in New Mexico, it was sometimes with appalling tactics.

“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.”

[Update: In an interview with MMAFighting, Montaño would later say that these ideas were coming from her Ultimate Fighter team and not the UFC directly. Thanks to a reader for the heads up.]

Now, after all this, Montaño has been stripped without a the chance to solidify her future or prove her detractors wrong.

If you can consider the current state of weight cutting in MMA in any way reasonable, there is a reasonable argument that any champion who misses weight should be stripped. In the same vein, you can hold Montaño responsible for coming into her weight cut too heavy, which she apparently did, or cite other similar instances of fighters being penalized due to ongoing injuries or weight cutting issues. Because the UFC only loosely operates as a sport and its belts are largely advertising gimmicks that the company shuffles around however it sees fit, you can cite or not cite anything you want. Ironically, there are no rules. The UFC does whatever it wants, largely unchecked.

Just as when the UFC previously stripped McGregor of his featherweight and then lightweight belts, they did so at their discretion, at some arbitrary point when they became fed up with trying to negotiate with him. The difference is that McGregor has already made a life-changing, class-altering amount of money, and already has the clout that comes with being one of the sport’s few recognizable stars. Montaño, as with almost everyone else in the sport, has not.

Though there is some very guarded optimism in MMA’s most recent long-shot organizing effort — this one, called Project Spearhead, is being pushed valiantly by fighter Leslie Smith — the fighters still currently have no semblance of organization or collective bargaining. Things are dire enough that even small achievements, like Tyron Woodley refusing to bend to UFC management’s whims, or Daniel Cormier and Stipe Miocic vaguely collaborating on potential purse amounts, feel like revolutionary victories for the fighters. But the vast majority of them have little-to-no leverage.

The UFC’s roster is composed of almost entirely of fighters like Nicco Montaño, who are purposely kept in check to never rise above the brand, but their business model is dependent on the the rare Conor McGregor, Brock Lesnar, or Ronda Rousey, who in great part have become stars in spite of the UFC’s system rather than because of it. Those few stars operate under a completely different set of rules, and can more or less get away with whatever they want, because the UFC is devoid of any ethics outside its financial ledger and believes it can’t afford to lose them. Everyone else is interchangeable fodder.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to see a belt defended, thinking Montaño was far from the best fighter in her division, or finding her trash talk hard to believe. There’s not even anything inherently wrong with believing it was right to strip her. But it’s worth thinking about who you’re siding with anytime you argue for the company over the fighters. I’ll tend to favor the worker who is just trying to keep her water running, over the oligarch who doesn’t care if your coworker maims you, as long as he’s selling pay-per-views, every time.

Twitter: @ HugeMantis | Email: HugeMantis @ Gmail dot com

I write. Twitter: @ HugeMantis. Email: HugeMantis @ gmail dot com