‘Warrior Spirit’: This initially straightforward doc turns into an ominous, cautionary tale

“Warrior Spirit” – Nicco Montano is a woman of firsts.  At 28 years young, on Dec. 1, 2017, she won the UFC Women’s Flyweight Championship.  On that day, she became that division’s premiere female UFC champion and the organization’s first Native titleholder.


In the documentary “Warrior Spirit”, Nicco – an admirable, inspirational role model with Navajo roots – arrives at her alma mater, Chinle High School in Chinle, Ariz., and speaks at the 2018 graduation ceremony.  Students, parents, and teachers give her a rock-star welcome, and she reciprocates.

“Thank you, my friends, family, and my people.  I love you,” Nicco says.

Montano was born in Lukachukai, Ariz.  Her father was a fighter, and she spent time with him in boxing gyms as a kid, but Nicco didn’t wish to pursue such a career as an adult until she met her boyfriend, Steve Hanna. 

“He convinced me (to train and compete in mixed martial arts) through his passion, his love of the sport, so I got to see how fun it was and promote my own confidence,” Montano says. 

As a UFC champ, 2018 should be Nicco’s year, and director Landon Dyksterhouse chronicles the months leading to another first, her title defense.  The challenger – at UFC 228 on Sept. 8 in Dallas, Tex. – is Valentina Shevchenko.  Now, if a team of screenwriters descended from the Rocky Heavens to conjure up an intimidating antagonist, they would draw up Valentina faster than you can say, “Ivan Drago.”

She’s a blonde-haired, muscular, no-nonsense pugilist from Kyrgyzstan (a former republic of the Soviet Union), who speaks with a thick accent. 

No, she doesn’t utter, “I must break you,” but you can easily imagine her saying it.

Let’s set aside Shevchenko for the moment because Montano runs into other challenges and bad breaks, as her journey towards Sept. 8 is brutally rocky.

Now, Nicco doesn’t need help with fighting techniques or mechanics.  She can fight, and Dyksterhouse films numerous training sessions.  For instance, during a 3-week camp at an Albuquerque gym, Nicco flips over an MMA grappling dummy, hovers above the helpless leather model, and repeatedly smashes her fists and forearms into its face, like a possessed demon pulverizing her prey. 

After watching Nicco bludgeon that inanimate object for, perhaps, 10 seconds on the big screen from my movie theatre seat, I’m pretty darn convinced – somewhere between 99.9 and 99.99 percent – that I won’t ever enter an octagon.  

No, Valentina and training for her upcoming brawl aren’t Montano’s biggest hurdles. 

Time is her most intimidating enemy.  Tonsillitis and a foot injury slowed down and hampered her training. Nicco now has to play catchup to be in fighting shape for the set Sept. 8 date and cut a significant amount of weight.  According to the paperwork shown in the film, on July 13, 2018, Nicco weighs 154.7 pounds, and she needs to drop 29.7 to 125 by Sept. 7, the weigh-in day.

UFC Performance Institute Director of Nutrition Clint Wattenberg states that given a choice between September or October, waiting until October is a preferable option for Nicco’s sake.   

Nicco has a different idea, as she calls out, “December.” 

But, the September date stands, so Nicco has no choice.

Earlier in the doc, Dr. Charlsey McDonald provides therapy on Nicco’s injured foot, and she offers a worrying bit of foreshadowing. 

“And then towards the end of camp, you’re facing a weight cut, which is extra on the body, extra exhausting, extra hard for the tissues to heal.  You’ll feel depleted,” Dr. McDonald said.

You’ll feel depleted.   

This documentary’s initial vision may have started as a celebratory piece or an insider’s look at training for a PPV bout, but Dyksterhouse’s film morphs into an ominous cautionary tale.  Frankly, the second half of the 94-minute doc becomes a horror show:  Nicco’s last five days before the dreaded Friday, Sept. 7 weigh-in at a Dallas Hilton.

Montano diets, avoids sodium, and says, “I’ve been living off of boiled eggs and almond butter since Monday.”

If you thought dropping 30 pounds in 8 weeks was taxing, you flat-out won’t believe how much weight the woman has to lose during the last 16 hours.  The amount is so shocking that it’s a spoiler to reveal the pounds in this review.  Perhaps, dramatic weight loss one day before a weigh-in is standard, business-as-usual practices, but reaching her target in the given timeframe seems impossible.   

Imagine a track coach asking his athlete to run a 2-minute mile. 

How in the world can it be done?  The answer – and this is coming from a critic with zero MMA or boxing experience – seems, again, impossible.    

During this last day, the movie captures Nicco shuttling between a sauna, a hot tub, her room, the lobby, and a courtyard with a winding path, where she jogs.  She denies herself water, and Hanna – who has cut weight before – says, “Every cell in your body is screaming for water.” 

Wattenberg and Hanna stay with Montano during her agony, but she horribly suffers and, at times, lays on the cold tile like a wounded soldier on a battlefield with a shotgun wound to the abdomen.  During this crisis, the two men show concern, but they both appear calm and composed during the entire ordeal, like business consultants on a conference call discussing billable hours while Nicco withers away. 

I was squirming in my seat and silently pleading for a doctor to show up.  Witnessing Nicco grieve was a torturous experience, but “Warrior Spirit” offers eye-opening insight into hideous extremes.

Does Nicco make weight? 

Since UFC 228 happened three years ago, a simple Google search will provide the answer, but this movie is not only a revealing, visceral experience in a Dallas hotel.  It also celebrates Montano’s accomplishments, but yes, the documentary records her struggles.  Dyksterhouse overlays the sound of several interviews on top of joyful and painful images.  The result is a conflicting array of visuals and commentary, which sparks clashing feelings and thoughts.

Regardless of any setbacks, no one can take away Nicco Montano’s successes.  This MMA warrior – who fittingly sports a pair of Wonder Woman gloves during a training session in the film – can always be defined by her aforementioned, groundbreaking firsts.  Unfortunately, my guess is that she’s not the last one to face a seemingly unattainable weight loss before a bout.

⭐️⭐️⭐️ out of ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Directed by: Landon Dyksterhouse

Starring:  Nicco Montano, Steve Hanna, Clint Wattenberg, and Dr. Charlsey McDonald

Runtime:  94 minutes

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