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Light of the world: Ex-UFC champ Nicco Montano finds new purpose by bringing much-needed utilities to Navajo nation

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

From the day she was crowed the first ever UFC women’s flyweight champion, Nicco Montano has known her purpose was more than just fighting or trying to hold onto a belt.

In addition to her achievement in the 125-pound division, the now 32-year-old veteran was also the first Native American to ever hold UFC gold and in her mind that accolade also came along with a certain amount of responsibility.

She was not only representing her people inside the cage, which was an honor she always took seriously, but more importantly Montano had a big enough stage where she could raise awareness to issues that were affecting the Navajo nation as well as the rest of the native people spread across the United States.

“My people are my motivation,” Montano told MMA Fighting. “They inspire me everyday. Reality is my ancestors have fought through and through hardships so all of my little roadblocks in life, they are nothing compared to what my lineage has done.

“I’m just trying to do my part and help out the community. Through fighting, I feel like I have the platform to help do that but since I’ve been out of it, it’s been tough.”

Winning the title back in 2017 was supposed to be the start of a great career with the UFC but sadly Montano has only fought one more time since then while enduring a number of injuries, illnesses as well as a grueling weight cut that ultimately cost her the flyweight championship.

Most recently, Montano was scheduled to compete at UFC Vegas 18 in February but after being rear-ended in a car accident, she’s been suffering from a concussion that has continued to keep her sidelined.

“It’s been two months and I’m still having symptoms and still concussed,” Montano said. “But for the most part my recovery process is coming along very well. Slowly but surely for protocol it’s about three months before I’m able to do anything.

“So considering I’ve been trying see what my limits are because I was working through everything trying to get through this fight.”

With her fight career on hold as she dealt with the concussion, Montano had to find another outlet where she could begin putting her attention.

It didn’t take long for her to remember a promise she made to always shine a light on the Native American community and that gave Montano a brand new idea.

“I’m passionate about the inspiration that they give me,” Montano said. “Now I’m not feeling so helpless because I’m able to help, I’m able to go back to my [reservation] where my sister lives, my grandparents, my mom, everyone I grew up with and be able to help them out.

“It’s what I’ve wanted to do since day one. Now I can legitimately help them out with my utilities program.”

Nicco Montano celebrates with the Navajo nation following her title fight win in 2017
Ricky Kottenstette

The Navajo nation, which is the largest Native American reservation in the United States at over 27,000 square miles, serves as a home to an estimated 300,000 plus people but it also stands as one of the most impoverished areas when it comes to utilities like electricity, running water or broadband internet.

According to the American Public Power Association, the Navajo nation represents about 75 percent of the homes without electricity in the United States. About 40 percent of the people living on the reservation are forced to haul water into their homes and use outhouses without the benefit of clean, running water.

In 2020, Navajo nation president Jonathan Nez testified before Congress where he reported that over half of the communities on the massive reservation that stretches across three different states was without any broadband internet access. The spread of COVID-19 made internet that much more important not only for information related to the pandemic but also so children were able to continue attending school even if that means learning on a computer alongside classmates at home.

That option wasn’t even available to so many homes throughout the Navajo nation where broadband internet can sometimes be considered a lavish luxury.

Montano hopes to lend a helping hand through the new program she’s started in order to bring those necessary utilities to the Navajo people.

“We live a simple lifestyle out there,” Montano explained. “Through this program, I’ll be able to bring them running water, WiFi, everyone’s online right now with school including my sister, my little cousins, so I can go back home and I can put myself back in that reality because I grew up in that reality.

“I can see that my people are hurting and the struggles that they have because I know first hand what they need. I’m just finally able to do that.”

For so many people living in the U.S., high-speed internet and clean drinking water are almost a foregone conclusion in this day and age, which is why Montano so desperately wants to pull back the curtain on what’s happening in the Navajo nation.

The ongoing pandemic has only amplified the need for all of these utilities as families have been forced to stay at home in order to slow the spread of the deadly disease.

As Montano explains, most people outside the reservation don’t understand the difficulties involved with bringing electricity into hogans — a traditional Navajo home — much less trying to expand broadband internet and Wifi to rural locations.

“WiFi and running water, the whole reason I’m starting this utilities program, is not common on the rez,” Montano said. “[For instance] if I call the cops, it’s going to take an hour for the cops to get there. Any sort of WiFi issues, or just calling someone to come out ‘hey can you come out here and set up my WiFi’ and they say ‘what’s your address?’ and you say ‘I don’t have a physical address, I live on the Navajo reservation, you’ll find me at BA Route 123’ and they’ll say they have no idea where that is. It’s such a process. So I totally understand.

“There’s a lot of kids out there who aren’t able to go to school because there aren’t enough resources i.e. computers and WiFi or their household doesn’t have WiFi or their house doesn’t have power or electricity to generate WiFi. A lot of people do take it for granted. They can’t picture living in a hogan with a dirt floor and not seeing another face in sight. It’s definitely something that’s a necessity at this point. There’s where the world is going towards the internet. A lot of people don’t even understand the concept of the internet on the rez.”

Taking charge of the utilities program in order to bring awareness to these issues has given Montano new purpose as she continues to recover from the recent concussion so she can finally compete again.

None of this has been easy but Montano knows that if she can’t grab the microphone during a post-fight interview to let people know what’s happening to the Native American people in this country, then she needs to do something else to help out.

“We’re the foundation of this land, of America,” Montano said. “I think obviously bringing awareness through interviews is great. It’s so hard to bring help to myself specifically without fighting because I’m known as a fighter so without fights, I feel like I lose interest and then I lose the platform that I have. I feel like it’s a lot going to waste. So because of that issue, I need to find ways to bring awareness to these issues.

“With the whole pandemic happening and Navajo nation getting hit so hard, I feel like it’s on my shoulders to remind my brothers and sisters, especially the younger generations that we’re a strong people, especially if we’re together through anything.”

Montano’s utilities program is still a work in progress and she knows change doesn’t happen overnight.

That said, the former UFC champion is committed to the cause and while this may end up being the toughest fight of her entire life, she promises defeat is not an option this time around.

“It’s hard to gather all of my ideas and throw it into one concept. But I think through this avenue, I’ll be able to stoke that fire and keep my passion and my drive alive,” Montano said. “I’m just happy to be able to help. We’re out for bid right now. So we have to wait for the money to circulate and because most of the reservation doesn’t have WiFi, I’m going to have to make my rounds. I want to talk to the community and let them know what my plans are.

“I hope people understand that I’ve lived through this. I’ve lived on the rez, I’ve lived through all of these obstacles I’ve had to surpass. My passion is helping my people.”