One sentence summary
David: Two fighters hope to go out on their shield...in the cage.
Phil: It's the fight which decides not only the winner of TUF, but the best... the best 125er on the... sorry I can't do it.
Record: Roxanne Modafferi 23-13 | Nicco Montano 3-2
History / Introduction to the fighters
David: Modafferi is, for my money, MMA’s Harry Dean Stanton. They’re not big recognizable stars, but they have big, recognizable personalities. Modafferi has the length of a transitional fossil - began her career in 2003 in Smackgirl, and has maintained an MMA career through thick and thin with a big Comic Con grin - even when confronted with real tragedy (such as the loss of her sensei). Perhaps it’s fitting that, after all these years, she gets a chance to hold a UFC title because her opponent “went out on her shield” trying to destroy her kidneys making weight.
Phil: Promotability in WMMA has traditionally been something which has only been assigned to girls which are pretty, or sexy, or extremely violent, and generally some combination of the three. Roxy will never set the world on fire in the same way that Rousey or even Jedrzejczyk or Tate could, but she's a welcome reminder that there are different paths to walk, and different narratives to sell. I thought we'd never see her in the UFC again after she washed out of her prior season of TUF, but here she is. #1 seed, and fighting for the championship and the belt (some fortuitous weight cut issues aside).
David: Montano paved her own way in KOTC, where the competition really is easier. There’s not a whole lot to say about Nicco. She was good in KOTC, but any career there is a human grain of salt (exceptions notwithstanding). However, on TUF she looked a little more polished, and a little more dangerous. That extra 2% made the difference, and no here we are, celebrating a Modafferi vs. Montano main event. Hooray?
Phil: In keeping with the Modafferi "last person you'd expect" narrative, Montano was picked dead last on TUF, and marched her way steadily through the bracket. Not only did she win all her fights, but she pretty inarguably had the harder side to make it through, with a first round fight against Lauren Murphy and the third round against Honchak. Wouldn't be the first time a spoiler won TUF.
What’s at stake?
David: I like to think of this flyweight championship as something akin to the Carla Esparza title. Whoever wins the title will deserve the accomplishment of being a UFC champion, but in the long run it’ll read like an anecdote. Except the part about weight cutting. That is, sadly, a problem all too common in this “sport”.
Phil: I don't know if the UFC has realized this, but combining two things (a new belt and TUF) does not necessarily increase their legitimacy and excitement additively. Instead it's just made the belt seem silly. I'm not saying that it's impossible that the winner could beat, say, Valentina Shevchenko, but that is sort of what I'm saying.
Where do they want it?
David: Modafferi’s MO is tied closely to her self-admitted Shooto obsession. Her style is reminiscent of the early 2000 Shooto fighters - dynamic within exchanges while never inhabiting an active pattern of dynamism; something that helps explain why Japanese fighters had trouble crossing over, and that Yushin Okami specifically commented on in relation to MMA in Japan faltering when it came to training/coaching by contrast to North America - nevermind the faulty economics of it all. Tony Loiseleur once revealed to me that that Japanese fighters could be rewarded with Whey protein powder rather than actual money at times for winning.
Modafferi has a very versatile striking game. She’s able to string together diverse combinations, and incorporates that classic Shooto flare, chambering spinning backfists, hook kicks, and various eccentricities into her attack. It doesn’t always translate into pressure, but she’s won more than she’s lost as a result. On the ground, she’s excellent at throwing up armbars, and making the most of her guard to neutralize potent ground and pound. Of course, part of Modafferi’s issue is that she’s just not strong enough to ever dictate the pace. She’s a smart fighter though, and typically recognizes her limitations. Against Eubanks, she did a good job of sticking and moving, staying out of range for prolonged exchanges she might have otherwise struggled with.
Phil: Modafferi is one of those fighters where you can say something which is simultaneously the highest praise you can offer, and an indictment of her ceiling. Namely, I don't think Roxy could really be much better than she is. Wherever possible, she's squeezed as much ability as humanly possible from a gawky, uncoordinated frame. She's an infinitely better striker than she was, chambering up loopy but painful shots which maximize her reach. Despite notching up striking wins in Invicta, she hasn't lost sight of what brought her to the table, and has boosted up her previous scrambling and submission game with nasty ground and pound elbows and a much better array of trip takedowns. All the way out or all the way in is essentially the way she plays it, which makes sense.
David: Where Modafferi has a classic dynamic approach, Nicco does something similar in a very linear way. From her southpaw stance, Nicco operates at range with her left leg. Not only does she do a good job of offering front kicks to the sternum, but she can crack that leg across the body with reasonable force. Her boxing is fairly rote. She’s not fast, but throws a straight left well enough, and does a good job of quickly resetting so she’s not constantly having to readjust to her opponent’s attack patterns. There’s nothing particularly special about her style; it’s just get s--t done mechanics wrapped in unappealing Reebok gear.
Phil: Montano has one of those styles where she's all about figuring the opponent out. She was relatively aggressive in the house, but I suspect that outside we might see her revert to her old ways of circling and prodding with the aforementioned left kick to the body. Montano is clearly fairly talented (moreso than Modafferi at the very least), and has shown an increasing propensity to be able to figure out exactly when people are going to blitz past her kicks and be able to counter with a takedown. That... might not be a good idea here, seeing as Modafferi is a far more offensively potent fighter on the ground with respect to both strikes and subs. Still, Montano's takedown defense and clinch game has held up shockingly well against Honchak and Murphy. If she can kick, clinch, strike and exit that's probably her best chance to leverage her physical advantages without risking the floor.
Insight from past fights
David: I guess we can expect something similar to the Eubanks-Modafferi bout. Modafferi kept it competitive early, and mixed it up enough stifle Eubanks’ offense. As the fight wore on, Modafferi lost a little steam - it’s never been about Modafferi being unable to keep up her pace so much as her inability to dictate it limits her offensive options as the fight requires more concentrated tactics in order to earn a potential decision or finish.
Phil: I generally find pre-TUF footage to be a better indicator of the fighter than anything that happens in the house. It's just too weird in there. Montano's fight against Julia Avila was somewhat concerning. She wasn't the inferior striker, or wrestler, but she just let the fight slip away by fighting too safe.
David: Nothing of real note other than the general absurdity of Eubanks missing weight, and the fact that this is probably not the kind of talent that reflects what flywight as to offer long term. I don’t mean to sell these fighters short - especially when they invoke quality video game references - but it’s kind of unfortunate situation for everyone involved.
Phil: Confidence? Montano is the Cinderella story of the season, whereas Modafferi is the #1 seed who already fell at the penultimate hurdle. Also, as with every TUF, it's just how people react. Some people permanently blossom in the TUF house, and some look like crap. It's impossible to predict how they look out in the real world.
David: Modafferi has improved throughout her career, but not enough to make a real difference at the higher levels. Whether Montano represents that particular level remains to be seen, but Montano has shown improvement even within the show, which is unusual when you think about it. Given her style, ability to dictate the pace, and strength in the clinch, I prefer her chances in a bout against that rare MMA personality who I wish all the best. Nicco Montano by Decision.
Phil: I came incredibly close to picking Montano. She is the more talented fighter, and I become increasingly impressed with her grappling and her defense. However, I still worry about her ability to give away time and space in the cage, and I'm not sure I can trust her to stay off her back for five full rounds. For whatever reason TUF finales seem to drastically favour the grappler over the striker, and I'll pick this one to continue that trend. Roxanne Modafferi by submission, round 3.