It would have made for one of the greatest Cinderella stories in mixed martial arts history: Veteran Roxanne Modafferi, one of the pioneers of the women’s side of the sport, earning a UFC championship as a last-minute replacement.
But it just wasn’t meant to be, as another underdog story played out instead on Friday night in Las Vegas: Nicco Montano, the 14th seed on The Ultimate Fighter 26 tournament, became the inaugural UFC women’s flyweight champion.
Montano got the better of Modafferi in a hard-fought scrap, earning the title in the main event of the TUF 26 Finale at the Park Theater by unanimous decision on judges’ scores of 50-45 and a pair of 49-46s.
“I love Roxanne, she’s been an inspiration since before I even started fighting, and to share this experience with her was awesome,” said Montano (4-2), an Albuquerque native.
Modaffieri had her best round in the first, as she dictated the tempo. But as the fight wore on, Montano landed the cleaner shots and landed them often. She also scored takedowns and held her own on the mat with the veteran, who is known for her jiu-jitsu skills.
Montano simply had more gas left in the tank in the end, as well, although she had to survive a desperation attempt at an armbar in the final minute that Modaffieri nearly landed.
“I feel amazing, I’m so lost for words right now,” Montano said. “I can’t thank my coaches enough right now.”
Modaffieri, who had been eliminated in the semifinals of the tournament, was inserted into the main event on Thursday, when finalist Sijara Eubanks had to pull out of the fight due after being hospitalized due to her weight cut.
The Vegas resident, who had a three-fight win streak snapped, was philosophical after the fight.
“Nico’s awesome, she’s so talented, I can’t say enough about her, I gave it my all and I was in shape,” Modaffieri (21-14) said.
Hyped prospect “Sugar” Sean O’Malley and Terrion Ware put on a show in the evening’s co-feature bout. O’Malley, the talented striker from Montana, landed a wide variety of kicks in the opening round and appeared well on his way to a finish. Ware, though, poured it on in the second round as O’Malley tired. The Hawthorne, Calif. native found his range and peppered O’Malley with hard shots.
But in a critical third round in O’Malley’s career, the youngster dug down deep and had more to show. O’Malley not only landed the harder shots, but also a pair of takedowns. That was enough for O’Malley to earn a unanimous decision in the bantamweight bout, getting scores of 29-28 across the board.
“I knew he was going to be tough I know that was going to be a tough fight,” O’Malley (9-0) said. “I was going to try to knock him out but he was tough.”
Two days before the card, Lauren Murphy appeared to be off the show, as the MMA Lab vet’s original opponent, Priscila Cachoeira, was pulled due to paperwork issues. But she ended up with a fight against Barb Honchak when Modafferi, Honchak’s original opponent, ended up in the main event.
And boy did Murphy (10-3) make the most of her second opportunity. An exciting back-and-forth fight was punctuated with a wild third round fought mostly on the ground. In the course of the round, Murphy got top position, ended up in deep Honchak (10-3) submission attempts, but escaped and finished the round in control.
That was enough to earn Murphy a split decision over the former Invicta flyweight champ, getting two out of three 29-28 scores.
Spicely controlled the bulk of the opening round in their middleweight matchup on the ground, where he bodylocked his opponent and hunted for a choke he could never quite cinched.
But Spicely (10-3) tired himself out in the process and Meerschaert took over in the second. A pair of body kicks foreshadowed the finished, a shin-on-liver left kick that ended the bout on the spot at 2:18.
Meerschaert (27-9), who won for the ninth time in his past 10 fights with his 25th career finish, noted it was the final fight of his UFC contract. Spicely lost his second straight fight.
“Being a southpaw, I’ve always been good at setting up the body shots,” Meerschaert said. “I was landing some clean shots to the head but Eric [Spicely] was taking them really well. Usually it’s one or the other, either they got a tough chin and weak body or a weak chin and tough body. Tonight he happened to have a weak body so I took advantage of it.”
A matchup of Team Alvarez competitors hinged on a rare call: A point deduction for a fence grab.
Melinda Fabian (4-3-2) nearly finished DeAnna Bennett (8-3-1) with a head kick in the opening seconds of the opening round. She would have gotten the decision in the bout, as well, but she was called for a fence grab in the second round, and that turned what would have been a unanimous-decision victory into a majority draw. The judges’ scores with the deduction were 29-27 Bennett and a pair of 28-28s.
“I love this sport so much and I’m going to go back in the gym and prove that I deserve this,” Bennett said.
Johns (15-0) and Soto (18-6) were scrambling on the mat when Soto rolled himself right into a calf slicer and tapped in a hurry, making Soto the victim of just the second such submission in UFC history.
“I do practice [the calf slicer] in the gym but I got lucky tonight,” Johns said. “Joe is a very good grappler and I told people coming in that just because I don’t do very many grappling combinations doesn’t mean that I’m not a good grappler. I know Joe would look for the takedown early because I saw it from the way he was protecting his head and throwing the single leg and I’m very good at defending them. On a different night it probably wouldn’t have worked but I feel I got lucky.”
Johns improved to 3-0 in the UFC with his seventh career finish win. Soto had a three fight win streak snapped.
The undercard featured three first-round armbar finishes, all in women’s fights: Gilian Robertson stopped Emily Whitmire in the first round of a flyweight bout; Rachael Ostovich finished Karine Gevorgyan in a 130-pound catchweight fight, and Montana de la Rosa defeated Christina Marks. Full results can be found here.