From the moment she flew out from her homeland New Zealand to attend the European Championships in Russia, the second half of 2021 for IMMAF Rising Star Michelle Montague became a ‘whirlwind’.
The reigning IMMAF Lightweight World Champion underwent a series of challenges during this period that would have tested even the most seasoned professional fighter.
It started with her traveling to Russia to compete without her usual coaching team due to the difficulties caused by New Zealand’s strict border controls. Next, during the tournament, Montague found herself battling an injury. Then, just as she was preparing to head home Michele discovered she would need to extend her overseas adventure, due to a recent Covid outbreak in New Zealand, which saw the borders closed for all returnees except emergency cases.
The difficulties Montague faced would appear daunting to many, but “The Wild One” rolled with the punches, created opportunities out of adversity, and stayed focused on her overall objective of improving herself as a mixed martial artist.
Montague is currently back home preparing to compete at this month’s IMMAF World Championship in Abu Dhabi. Fortunately, this time, she will be traveling with the support of her coaches and a full contingent of her fellow Kiwis.
“To have this big group, and a lot of them I am super close with, but we’ve never gone and fought at the same event. So I am excited for that, ” she says. “To get over there and be together as a team, get our fights in, and support each other like the way we do at these events; everyone’s going to be super pumped.”
The former Waikato Rugby representative will undoubtedly aim to improve on her bronze medal outing at the European Championships. Montague decided to switch from lightweight to featherweight and looked impressive in the opening round with a second-round stoppage win over Russia’s Elena Vetrova.
Unfortunately, Montague sustained an ankle injury during the bout, which she carried into her semi-final clash with Bahrain’s Sabrina Laurentina De Sousa — the division’s reigning world champion in the semi-final.
On the morning of her matchup with De Sousa, the 28-year-old had a video chat with her team back in New Zealand, who put her through a series of exercises to determine if she would be able to compete.
“Once I went into the other stance [orthodox], I could half make it happen. So they were like, ‘if you can push through the pain, you can go through with it,’ and I was like sweet, we’ll do it.” Montague explains.
“So we push through all of that and then obviously an opponent, you know, she [De Sousa] is really good and was ready for that no matter what. So, you know. it is what it is.”
Montague ended up losing to De Sousa via unanimous decision. It was the first loss of her career, but even in defeat, she demonstrated the mental and physical toughness that people have come to expect from her.
The upcoming World Championships could see a rematch between these two take place, and while Montague’s focus is on what she needs to do in Abu Dhabi, if the rematch did happen, she would welcome it with open arms.
” If it happens, it happens, that would be cool. I think we’re both exciting. We both hype people up, we hype each other up, and I think it would be quite a fun fight.”
While Montague was competing, the New Zealand government had, due to an outbreak of the Covid-19 Delta strain, implemented travel restrictions making it difficult for citizens outside of the country to return home. With her Russian visa due to expire in 24 hours, Montague, with the help of her “godsend” of a travel agent, secured flights to Florida, USA, where a friend of hers had a spare room.
The “Sunshine State” also happens to be home to one of the premier gyms in MMA, American Top Team. As a result, Montague spent three months in Florida, which enabled her to have the full ATT experience, which saw her training alongside the likes of PFL Featherweight Champion Kayla Harrison and under the guidance of ATT’s Mike Brown.
“The team at ATT were so awesome,” Montague says. “I mean, obviously, doing those sessions with Kayla and Mike was for me the most valuable part, all those extra reps and drills and all that we did. That there for me was probably one of the best takeaways.”
Montague’s Florida trip also saw further doors open for her, which may not have happened if she had flown home after the European Open.
” We had a couple of other opportunities pop up from that trip as well, and that stuff would never have happened if I hadn’t been stuck out. So honestly, I think it worked out for the better,” Montague explains.
After the unexpected cancellation of the 2021 IMMAF World Championships in Kazakhstan, Montague found herself again experiencing visa issues. She could not stay in the USA but could not yet return to New Zealand until her spot in MIQ [Managed Isolation and Quarantine] opened up.
Fortunately, IMMAF president President Kerrith Brown and SBG Ireland’s John Kavanagh came up with a solution. Montague waved goodbye to sun kissed Florida and said hello to the Emerald Isle as she took up residence in the Irish capital of Dublin.
She was also was able to join the team at SBG while she was there, giving her insight into yet another of MMA’s most well-known gyms.
“That’s been amazing working with different personalities, different coaches, obviously all high-level coaches and gyms.”
After a year that was anything but plain sailing, Montague has big plans for 2022. At the moment, she is keeping her cards close to her chest about what comes after the World Championships, but whatever it is, adding another IMMAF gold to her credentials would consolidate her reputation as one of MMA’s hottest rising stars.
Watch the 2021 IMMAF World Championships streamed live from Abu Dhabi at immaf.tv from 24 to 29 January 2022.