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TUF 26’s Nicco Montano began following late father’s legacy before she ever realized it

Nicco Montano, the former King of the Cage champion, competes this season on The Ultimate Fighter.

LOS ANGELES — Nicco Montano never knew her father that well. Montano was raised by her mother and mother’s side of the family in Navajo Nation, the largest Native American reservation in the United States.

Her father lived in Farmington, N.M., and Montano didn’t visit often. When she did, he always told her to come to his gym.

Frankie Montano was something of a local legend in Farmington, a boxer turned boxing coach and promoter. He spent just about every waking moment at that gym. Nicco didn’t necessarily resent it; she just didn’t get it.

“I never wanted to go,” Nicco told MMA Fighting at a recent UFC media day. … “That was his life and I didn’t really understand too much of him. Him and my mom didn’t have a great relationship. The stories I have are obviously biased. Whenever I remember him, it was just always about his boxing gym, all about his fighting, all about making me a fighter.”

As a kid, Nicco would hit the bag and mitts sometimes with her dad. But she was resistant. Years later, after her father’s death in 2006, Montano would visit Farmington and Four Corners MMA to get in some Brazilian jiu-jitsu training. The people there found out she was Frankie’s daughter and immediately came to the conclusion that she must be a fighter. No way, Nicco would say.

“Everyone thinks I’m this fighter,” Montano said. “I’m like, ‘I’m not. I don’t even like fighting. What are you talking about?’”

Fate was already set for her, though. And she didn’t even realize it. Nicco started with cardio kickboxing, then got really good at Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Her coaches and teammates pushed her to take an amateur MMA fight and then she eventually turned pro.

Now, Montano is on The Ultimate Fighter 26, trying to become the first UFC women’s flyweight champion. On Wednesday night’s episode, Montano will take on UFC veteran Lauren Murphy with a chance to earn a berth in the title tournament quarterfinals. The season was filmed over the summer.

Through the years in the gym and on the mat, Montano never really thought about her father and the fighting future he wanted for her. But after her first amateur fight, in 2013, it really set in.

“When I did my first MMA fight, it was just like that’s when I really started to make that connection,” Montano said. “I didn’t even really think of myself as a fighter still, because I just took it as another tournament-style setting.

“Now that I’m falling deeper into it, I’m really finding that he’s part of my motivation.”

Montano, 28, has bounced around the southwestern portion of the United States. She grew up on the Arizona portion of Navajo Nation (her mother is half Navajo and half Chickasaw), went to Arizona State University, came back home to the reservation, then off to Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo.

About 2-1/2 years ago, with an eye on making a career out of MMA, Montano moved to Albuquerque, N.M., to train at Fit NHB with the likes of UFC fighter Tim Means and others. She went 5-0 as an amateur, but only 3-2 on the pro level, despite winning the King of the Cage women’s flyweight title last year. In her most recent fight, Montano lost to Julia Avila in the main event of a regional show in Oklahoma City back in January.

That was almost it for Montano in MMA. She applied to go back to Fort Lewis for school and she was accepted in May — just days before tryouts for The Ultimate Fighter in Las Vegas. If she didn’t make the show, she would have likely been done with the sport.

“When I tried out for TUF, I was like, ‘My last chance, it’s my last hurrah,’” Montano said. “Now I’m here. So having that mindset coming into tryouts and then knowing what was my alternative choice, I definitely have a perspective. I knew not to take for granted the experience. I took total advantage of every single day, learning from the coaches. It was like the perfect timing.”

Montano is rejuvenated in MMA now and no matter what happens on TUF, she plans on continuing her fighting career. She’s back in Albuquerque at Fit NHB training and working at a local UFC Gym. Montano has her family’s support, though it was reluctant. Her mother and grandmother attend every fight, but didn’t initially want her to be a fighter.

#sneaking in some #fun in between #matrix and #kickboxing classes at #work here @ufcgymalbuquerquewest @leroybazan

A post shared by N I C C O R A E (@nrmontano) on

However, they knew it was inevitable.

“They’re like, You have your dad’s blood, of course you’re going to be a fighter,” Montano said. “Of course. It was no surprise to them.”

When she visits Farmington now and people find out she’s Frankie Montano’s daughter, Nicco knows the question she’ll be asked — Oh, and you’re a fighter, too? — and she’s ready with the answer.

“Now,” she said, “I can finally say yes.”

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