Last month, FIT NHB (Fighters In Training, No Holds Barred) celebrated their twentieth year of existence as a successful entity within the combat sport’s world. Not just a unique acronym, the lauded gym has been quintessential to the development and evolution of mixed martial arts in the State of New Mexico and the Southwest region.
When FIT NHB announced via social media that they’d be celebrating their 20th year, it piqued the interest of Southwest Fight News to become fans for a while and take a drive down memory lane to commemorate FIT NHB as experienced by the individual who stood at ground zero building the gym from the first brick – Head Coach and Co-Owner Tom Vaughn. We went through chapter after chapter of how it all came to be and speaking personally, it has been nothing short of incredible to learn the behind-the-scenes history of a gym so pivotal to where the local fight game is today.
Though many gyms are full of hard-work, determination, and never-give-up attitudes, the measuring stick for success among combat focused gyms will always be themed around quality, as the wins and accolades of the athletes validate the overall production of the team. For FIT NHB, the measuring stick has been a torch carried by fighters like Tim Means, Frank Baca, and Amber Brown.
Though the trio is impressively successful in their combat careers, the measuring stick and the bar of success would be taken into new heights when one of the FIT NHB’s athletes got the call for a one-of-a-kind opportunity.
“In May 2017, the UFC announced that Season 26 of The Ultimate Fighter would feature the newly added Women’s Flyweight division. Sixteen flyweights would get the chance to fight for the inaugural UFC Flyweight World Title. I’ve never been a fan of The Ultimate Fighter show and the tryout announcements u
sually go right past me. Arlene however, watches TUF and has always insisted we should encourage our fighters to attend the tryouts. Nicco Montano was the current King of the Cage 125lb champ at the time of the tryout announcement and Arlene felt this was a golden opportunity for Nicco. Nicco was interested so we stepped up her training right away. UFC doesn’t give much time to prepare, I think it was 2 weeks, so we had to work fast.” – Tom Vaughn
Nicco was 3-2 prior to trying out for the reality television show that would broadcast on Fox Sports 1 every week. She was impressive in her amateur career and had exceptional showings in her professional tenure, however, Nicco was undefeated as an amateur but had run into a few tough decisions resulting in two professional losses.
It is worth noting that Nicco fought much of her career outside of her weight class competing as a bantamweight weighing in at 135-pounds. Nicco was 1-2 as a bantamweight and undefeated 2-0 in the 125-pound flyweight division. In the two losses, Nicco lost a razor-close decision in one outing and in the other bout, Nicco competitively fought a tough opponent for the full 25-minutes competing for the HD MMA Title.
Impressive in her wins and experienced through her losses, Nicco was still relatively unknown around the MMA world. SWFight had the privilege of covering several events that featured Nicco, but outside of New Mexico she had yet to make her mark outside of the Southwest region. Nicco was a talented grappler who was clearly headed for big things but that path got fast-tracked for the TUF tryouts.
“When the time came Nicco went to Las Vegas to the tryouts. She made it all the way thru the grappling, pad work, and interview part, which you have to do to be considered for the show. After that I believe Nicco stayed for a couple of extra days for additional things TUF requires and then she came home. I don’t remember how long it took to get the call but it probably seemed like forever to her. I felt certain Nicco would get picked but I didn’t think it was a good idea to get her hopes up just in case it didn’t happen. It DID happen and Nicco got the call. Shortly after receiving the call she was off to Las Vegas for the show. All the participants of the show have to sign non-disclosure agreements and they don’t have much communication with the outside world while the show is being filmed for obvious reasons. The UFC doesn’t want the results of the The Ultimate Fighter season to leak before the show airs.” – Tom Vaughn
New Mexico is very familiar with the reality TV show as several local talents have had an opportunity to be showcased in front of a national television audience. Nicco would become the newest member of that list of fighters with the exception that she would have an opportunity that none before her received as an incentive for being on the show – Season 26 of the show would crown the winner as the inaugural UFC Women’s Flyweight Championship.
The women on the show would compete in a single-elimination tournament with sixteen fighters ranked #1-#16. The traditional tournament format would favor the most well-known fighters on show and deal tougher hands to those fighters who haven’t had very much exposure. Nicco fell into that dark horse category of being unknown but talented, but that would inevitably hurt her seeding in the sixteen women ranking system but did not impact the overall results as Nicco would perform well during her time in the TUF house.
“After the show is filmed and the fighters go home I’m pretty sure at that point all their inner circle know what happened on the show. I know we did. The first episode of TUF aired August 30 and ran until Nov 29. I was surprised out of 16 women that Nicco was ranked #14 . Shows you how little rankings mean. It ended up working in Nicco’s favor. In her first fight (Episode 4) Nicco beat the #3 seed Lauren Murphy which gave her momentum right from jump street. Nicco’s second win on the show was versus the #6 seed Montana Stewart. In the semi-finals Nicco fought the #2 seed Barb Honchak and won again. Nicco Montano would be fighting for the UFC Flyweight World Title.” – Tom Vaughn
As members of the media, it was relatively easy to observe the MMA online community and the show was favored for the top four ranked women who had all tremendous success in Invicta FC and in Lauren Murphy’s case, in the UFC competing as a bantamweight.
A couple of the women in the middle ranks had some buzz, but if you took away the local support of New Mexico and Colorado – Nicco was an afterthought when analyzing the bracket.
That would all change when Nicco beat Murphy. The beating was so thorough that the unknown Nicco who had just dominated a UFC veteran immediately became one of the hottest names on the show. She beat Stewart and she became one of the favorites to steal the show as the Cinderella story. She beat arguably the most accomplished woman on the show, Barb Honchak, and suddenly it was a reality – Nicco would fight for the UFC World Title in one of the most impressive underdog performances in combat sports history.
“I’d say it was only one week into starting our prep for the finals that Nicco sustained a pretty serious foot injury. This prevented us from doing a lot of things we would have normally done in preparation for the finals including any real sparring but we worked around the injury and did what we could. Nicco did a good job of staying positive which I know couldn’t have been easy. The last episode of TUF aired on November 29 which was kinda weird since the live finale was only a couple of days later on December 1. Nicco, Arlene, and Brenda Gonzales-Means were already in Las Vegas for fight week but had to stay tight lipped about who Nicco would be fighting until the final episode aired. On Wednesday of fight week it was revealed that Sijara Eubanks would be Nicco’s opponent in the finals.” – Tom Vaughn
The scheduled opponent for Nicco would also ironically be an underdog with a high-seeding in the tournament. Eubanks who went on an improbable run to the finals albeit some controversial weight-cutting issues throughout the show.
This would be a massive jump from the regional circuit to the top level of the sport. Even though Nicco was a Champion under the KOTC banner, she would be competing for the UFC Title which would crown the best fighter in the entire world in her weight class. From one of the up-and-coming talents to an opportunity to become the best in the world.
“Nicco handled her first UFC fight week like a real pro. Even though she had a busted foot she kept her head together. She fulfilled her media obligations, kept her workouts up, nursed the foot, and still managed to cut the weight which wasn’t easy. The day before weigh ins the UFC arranged for Nicco to get a second shot in her foot to reduce inflammation. This doctor was a different doctor than the previous shot she received in Albuquerque. Even though Nicco told the Las Vegas doctor where the Albuquerque doctor had successfully injected the first time, he injected the shot in a different spot. He must have hit a nerve or something because Nicco’s foot wouldn’t move and she wasn’t sure she was going to be able to fight. Great, what else could happen?” – Tom Vaughn
The struggles of Nicco weren’t a known story at the time of fight week which makes her performance and even participation that much more impressive. As a viewer, the improbable run of Nicco was highlighted in all media outlets and it was well noted that Nicco beat two of the four favorites to win the show and she did so dominantly through a relentless and grueling pace and tough-nosed durability to get throw adversity.
As if Nicco wasn’t dealing with enough nursing a foot injury, her opponent would find herself in her own battle as she ran into weight-cutting difficulties again.
“It was around 2 AM when we got word from UFC that Sijara Eubanks had flopped during her weight cut and was taken to the hospital. The doctor declared Eubanks medically unfit to fight and Roxanne Modafferi was selected to take her place fighting Nicco for the title. Roxanne didn’t seem to have a problem cutting the extra 1 pound to make championship weight so the fight was on. It was a different type of fight than the one we planned for with Sijara but Roxanne faced the same situation so it was a level playing field. The fight was a tough, back and forth battle but Nicco dominated almost the entire fight. In the last-minute of the last round she got caught in an armbar which was a little rough on our nerves but she managed to get out. When the final bell sounded we felt pretty sure Nicco had won the fight but you never know with judges. As the scored were read she had won a unanimous decision, Nicco Montano was The Ultimate Fighter Season 26 winner and more importantly the first UFC Women’s Flyweight World Champion. Nicco made history.” – Tom Vaughn
During the show, Nicco had beat #2 and #3 ranked fighters from the show’s bracket and had now claimed a victory over the #1 ranked fighter, Roxanne. Nicco literally ran the gauntlet against sixteen of the most talented 125-fighters in the world and she did so unknown the MMA world, initially written off as a fighter expected to lose in the first round.
Fighting Roxanne had made for three of four TUF fights to be against women who had profound amounts of success in the sport. That was a heavy contrast to the amount of experience Nicco had in comparison. It was a true validation to the hard-work of Nicco throughout her career and also the amount of work invested by FIT NHB and the coaches.
Though FIT NHB had produced so much success already, the victory would secure the gym’s first UFC Title. Though KOTC, WEC, and other titles have been showcased by a FIT NHB athlete, the UFC’s Title is the pinnacle of success and ultimately designates an individual the status of being the best in their respective weight classes.
FIT NHB was the home to the best 125-pound female athlete who was now also the UFC Champion.
“The FIT NHB/NM Wildbunch fight team has a lot of great moments over the years but this would probably have to be the biggest. The UFC is considered the pinnacle of MMA and so few teams ever get to have a UFC Champion. Arlene has contributed so much to our team’s success over the years it seems fitting that our first UFC Champion is a woman. We don’t deal with the quantity of traffic that some other gyms do but the quality we produce is undeniable. We produced the first ever Zuffa World Champion (Carlos Condit) in New Mexico and at the moment we have the only current UFC Champion here in New Mexico. It took us 20 years to get here but here we are and it’s no fluke.” – Tom Vaughn