Nicco Montano is learning fast that being on top makes you a big target.
The UFC’s newest champion has been a titleholder for just over a week and already some of the promotion’s famous names are looking to rip the belt from her waist. One-time bantamweight title challenger Valentina Shevchenko has stated she is targeting Montano’s flyweight crown (though Shevchenko did suggest she has no issue with having to win a No. 1 contender’s bout at 125 pounds first) and strawweight star Paige VanZant is also campaigning for a future flyweight championship opportunity.
While Montano understands the demand to see her first defense be against a credible opponent, she balked at the notion that she might be scared to face her more well known adversaries.
“I laugh it off,” Montano said on Monday’s episode of The MMA Hour. “Some people don’t have the best attitude or sportsmanship, especially when it comes to fighting. But I feel like - like I’m not scared, I’m absolutely not scared, but I definitely think that they should be able to show what they can do at ‘25 before getting a chance to fight for a title. ‘Sarge’ (Sijara Eubanks), even though she didn’t make weight, we can’t forget she made the weight three times in a six-week period (during the Ultimate Fighter 26 tournament). So she can make the weight. It was just a hard process right after the show, everyone went home, went back to their regular diet so their body wasn’t used to it after that six-week period and then it was kind of hard to bounce back given the amount of time that we had.
“I’m definitely not scared because it’s the name of the game. You want to fight the best so that you can prove to everybody else that you are the best, but right now the best is not Shevchenko at ‘25. She hasn’t fought at that weight. It’s not Paige VanZant, she hasn’t fought at that weight either. So I think it’s pretty silly and I’m a person who wants fair fights and so I just don’t think they are deserving of it right now.”
Since debuting with the UFC in December 2015, Shevchenko quickly established herself as one of the 135-lb division’s most dangerous fighters. She holds wins over Holly Holm, Julianna Pena, and Sarah Kaufman, with her only two Octagon losses coming to current women’s bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes. Shevchenko lost a razor-thin five-round split decision to Nunes in a title fight at UFC 215 this past September.
VanZant doesn’t have the in-cage accomplishments of Shevchenko, but she has mainstream cachet that few on the UFC roster can match, due to her appearances on reality show competitions like Dancing with the Stars and Chopped. Like Shevchenko, VanZant is also coming off of a loss, having been submitted by Michelle Waterson in December. The 23-year-old makes her flyweight debut this coming January when she takes on Jessica Rose-Clark.
Until Shevchenko and VanZant pick up wins at 125 pounds, Montano is leaning towards fighting Eubanks, her originally scheduled opponent for the TUF 26 Finale. Eubanks and Montano both emerged from TUF 26 as surprising finalists by knocking off several flyweight notables including Roxanne Modafferi and Barb Honchak, but Eubanks was removed from their bout two days before fight night when she was hospitalized due to weight complications.
Montano would instead go on to Modafferi (stepping in as Eubanks’s replacement) by unanimous decision to become the UFC’s first women’s flyweight champion. Having shared the trials and tribulations of the TUF house with Eubanks, she still wants to make a showdown with her castmate happen.
“I’m a pretty fair fighter and I do think that Sarge can make it,” Montano said. “I would like it to be Sarge, I think she deserves another chance. She made it through six weeks of hell doing that. I was there watching, I was there partaking in that six-week period, so I know how much heart she has and how much she’s wanting this.
“I unfortunately can’t see Shevchenko or Paige VanZant through the process of making ‘25 or wanting this belt, but I just feel like Sarge is a little more deserving for sure.”