There was a time when the idea of ladies trading blows inside the UFC’s Octagon seemed impossible. UFC President Dana White vowed it would never happen. Then, something changed. Perhaps it was the entertaining fights that the ladies put on with regularity. Perhaps it was the growing passion and enthusiasm shown by MMA fans for these female warriors. Perhaps it was the success of Invicta FC, or even the overwhelming dominance shown by Ronda Rousey. Whatever it was, that once impossible idea has become a reality. Now, the UFC is preparing to embark on another adventure in women’s MMA.
The UFC is on the verge of making history in a number of ways. The promotion has added the women’s 115-pound division to its set of weight classes, and it’s introducing the division to fight fans in style with a season of The Ultimate Fighter devoted to crowning the first-ever UFC women’s strawweight champion. Never before has the UFC’s reality series featured such high stakes.
The UFC’s ambitions for The Ultimate Fighter 20 started to take shape late last year when the promotion announced its acquisition of a number of strawweight fighters from the Invicta FC roster, including reigning champion Carla Esparza and top challengers Claudia Gadelha, Tecia Torres and Joanne Calderwood. The promotion eventually found that three of those acquisitions, Gadelha, Juliana Lima and Paige VanZant, either lacked the English language skills, failed to meet the requisite age limit to participate in the reality series or felt they couldn’t make multiple weight cuts in such a short span of time.
On April 28, the UFC held tryouts to find eight additional cast members who would join the Invicta imports and round out the field of 16 on the show. On July 3, the promotion revealed those additions: Heather Jo Clark, Aisling Daly, Lisa Ellis, Angela Hill, Justine Kish, Angela Magana, Randa Markos and Jessica Penne.
The season filmed for six weeks beginning in July. The finished product debuts on Fox Sports 1 on Sept. 10. The season will be coached by former Strikeforce champion and UFC title challenger Gilbert Melendez and current lightweight champion Anthony Pettis. Pettis and Melendez will fight for the 155-pound title following the show’s conclusion.
Here’s a look at the entire cast of The Ultimate Fighter 20, beginning with a look at the Invicta imports before introducing the additions from the April TUF tryouts.
Redondo Beach, Calif.
Carla Esparza enters the TUF 20 strawweight title tournament as the favorite due to her previous standing as Invicta’s strawweight champion. The “Cookie Monster” scored TKO victories in her first two Invicta appearances to secure a spot in the fight to determine the promotion’s inaugural strawweight champion. The two-time college All-American wrestler used her wrestling skills to grind out a unanimous decision victory over TUF castmate Bec Hyatt (now Rawlings) en route to claiming gold. She was to defend the belt at Invicta FC 6 against Ayaka Hamasaki, but was forced out with a knee injury. Then, at Invicta FC 7, she was again slated to defend her belt, but her opponent, Claudia Gadelha, suffered a bacterial infection the night prior to the fight and was forced to withdraw. In addition to a wrestling background at Menlo College, the Team Oyama fighter has spent time training in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu under the tutelage of Rener, Ryron and Ralek Gracie. She sports a balanced record of three wins each by knockout, submission and decision, including decision wins over Nina Ansaroff and TUF castmate Felice Herrig and a submission victory over Lacey Schuckman. Esparza, who made her pro debut in 2010, has fought under the Bellator banner, where she suffered her only two losses versus Megumi Fujii and Jessica Aguilar.
Joanne Calderwood will be the elite Muay Thai fighter among the cast of TUF 20. The Scottish fighter started training in Muay Thai at the age of 13 and currently holds a long list of Muay Thai and kickboxing championships. She is 19-2 as a kickboxer and undefeated in her MMA career. She made her pro debut in February 2012 and has racked up eight wins, including three TKOs and a knockout. The Dinky Ninjas Fight Team product has notched wins over such notable names as Lena Ovchynnikova, Ashley Cummins, Sally Krumdiack and Katja Kankaanpaa. Calderwood made four appearances under the Invicta banner, the most recent of which was her victory over Kankaanpaa on Dec. 7 at Invicta FC 7.
Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
There may be no other fighter in women’s MMA who has seen such a meteoric rise as Tecia Torres. The “Tiny Tornado” has spent her entire four-fight professional career inside the Invicta cage. She made her pro debut at Invicta FC 3 in October 2012 with a win over Kaiyana Rain and has gone on to defeat Paige VanZant and TUF castmates Rose Namajunas and Felice Herrig. Though all her wins have come on the scorecards, Torres always takes part in exciting fights. The American Top Team fighter’s win over Herrig prompted a call-out from the champion, Esparza, and Torres was viewed as a top contender in Invicta before the UFC’s announcement of the strawweight season of TUF. Torres may have just over a year of experience as a pro, but she has been training in karate since she was a child and possesses a black belt in that discipline. She holds a 16-4 kickboxing record and an undefeated seven-fight record as an amateur mixed martial artist. Torres also holds the rank of purple belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
Buffalo Grove, Ill.
Felice Herrig is known for capitalizing on her sex appeal in a ways unlike most other female mixed martial artists, and she could turn out to be one of the more colorful characters on TUF 20. The Team Curran fighter has a background in kickboxing and Muay Thai and has won titles as an amateur and pro kickboxer. However, she only has one victory via strikes on her MMA resume. Herrig made her pro debut in 2009 and lost her first two fights. She rebounded with three wins, including a split decision victory over TUF 18 finalist Jessica Rakoczy inside the Bellator cage, before dropping a decision to current Invicta flyweight champ Barb Honchak. Herrig has gone 6-2 since that loss, with her only defeats coming courtesy of TUF castmates Esparza and Torres. She has notched wins over Nicdali Rivera-Calanoc, Patricia Vidonic (twice), Simona Soukupova and TUF castmate Heather Jo Clark. Herrig’s only Invicta appearance came in her loss to Torres, but she has gone 3-0 under the Bellator banner.
Brisbane, Queensland, Australia
One aspect of TUF 20 that makes it unique from any past season of the reality series is the amount of popularity each individual fighter already possesses heading into the season. Among the more popular of the competitors is Australian Bec Rawlings (formerly Hyatt). Rawlings made her pro debut in 2011 in a bantamweight bout, which she lost via head-kick knockout. She rebounded with four straight wins and was granted an opportunity to compete for Invicta’s inaugural strawweight championship as a late replacement for Claudia Gadelha. Rawlings lost via unanimous decision against TUF castmate Carla Esparza. She bounced back with an impressive submission victory over Jasminka Cive, before dropping a decision to teenage phenom Mizuki Inoue in her most recent of three Invicta outings. The Australian fighter has three submission wins and one TKO victory.
St. Ives, New South Wales, Australia
The Australian contingent of fighters on TUF 20 also includes Alex Chambers, the oldest of the announced Invicta crossovers. The VT-1 Gym product has just five fights under her belt, but her only loss came via submission to teenage prospect Mizuki Inoue. “Astro Girl” has often found herself fighting against larger opponents, but she has picked up two TKO victories, a submission win and a unanimous decision victory. She has competed once under the Jewels banner (the loss to Inoue) and once in the Invicta cage, where she quickly submitted Jackson’s MMA fighter Jodie Esquibel. Chambers, who holds a degree in physics, impressively finished Mika Nagano via TKO in just 42 seconds. Chambers has competed as an atomweight in the past.
Rose Namajunas may only have three fights under her belt, but the Milwaukee native has already made her name known to women’s MMA fans. One of the youngest of the announced cast members, the 22-year-old started training in taekwondo at age five and earned her black belt by the time she was nine years old. Once in high school, she started training in kickboxing under the tutelage of Duke Roufus and also wrestled during her senior year. “Thug” now trains at the Grudge Training Center in Colorado. Namajunas has spent her entire career in the Invicta cage, where she earned “Submission of the Night” honors in victories over Kathina Catron and TUF castmate Emily Kagan. She made her pro debut at Invicta FC 4 against Kagan, but it’s the flying armbar submission of Catron at Invicta FC 5 that stands as one of the highlight-reel moments in Invicta history. Her lone loss came against TUF castmate Tecia Torres in a very close and entertaining fight at Invicta FC 6.
Jackson’s MMA will have a representative in the TUF house in the form of Emily Kagan, who might stand as one of the bigger underdogs of the cast. The 32-year-old went 5-2 as an amateur before making her pro debut in 2012. All three of Kagan’s victories have come on the scorecards, including two via split verdicts. In her Invicta debut, she was the victim of a third-round rear-naked choke submission delivered by TUF castmate Rose Namajunas. Kagan returned at Invicta FC 6 to notch a controversial split decision over Ashley Cummins. Kagan has a background in jiu-jitsu, but even her amateur career is littered with decision victories and no wins by submission (she did lose via submission once, though).
Though Heather Jo Clark hails from Albuquerque, N.M., she trains at Syndicate MMA in Las Vegas. She has also spent time under the tutelage of Chute Boxe coach Roberto Piccinini and trained at Jackson’s MMA. A former professional hockey player, Clark started training in kickboxing before Piccinini suggested she take up MMA. “Hurricane” fell in love with the sport and eventually opted to turn pro in 2010. She lost her debut fight, but bounced back with a four-fight winning streak. That streak led to a contract with the XFC, where she went 1-2 with losses to Marianna Kheyfets and Stephanie Eggink. Clark shifted to Bellator, where she dropped a split decision to TUF 20 castmate Felice Herrig. The 33-year-old’s most recent bout saw her return to the XFC cage, where she claimed a decision victory over Hannah Cifers. Although her introduction to MMA came via a path that included kickboxing and boxing, Clark has just two wins via some form of knockout compared to three victories via submission. In addition to her fight career, Clark is also a professional photographer.
Ireland’s representative in the TUF 20 cast is a longtime veteran of the sport. Aisling Daly made her pro debut in 2007 and has amassed 19 pro fights while competing under such notable banners as Cage Rage, Bellator, Cage Warriors and Invicta FC. The 26-year-old went undefeated through her first nine bouts, including a decision win over Maiju Kujala. She hit rockier times beginning in 2010 with a loss to TUF 20 castmate Lisa Ellis and has gone just 5-5 in her last 10 fights. She topped current UFC fighter Jessica Eye in 2011, but has also succumbed to defeat against the likes of Sheila Gaff, Rosi Sexton, Barb Honchak and Katja Kankaanpaa. The Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu purple belt has spent a majority of her career competing at 125 pounds, but the SBG Ireland product now moves to strawweight for her TUF bid. The 26-year-old is a former NAAFS women’s flyweight champion who has claimed five wins by some form of knockout and seven via submission, while suffering most of her losses on the scorecards.
Lisa Ellis co-owns the United Training Center gym with her husband, TUF 16 alum Eddy Ellis. The 31-year-old claimed a gold medal at the 2007 World Grappling Championships and secured 11 of her MMA victories by way of submission. However, Ellis is also vulnerable to submission finishes on the mat. She’s been submitted five times since making her pro debut in 2004. The former Fatal Femmes Fighting flyweight champion has battled some of the best fighters in the business. In her fifth pro fight, she defeated current World Series of Fighting champion Jessica Aguilar, who would avenge the loss nearly six years later. Ellis has also nabbed victories over such notables as Miku Matsumoto (another fighter who would later avenge her loss to Ellis), Stephanie Frausto, TUF 20 castmate Aisling Daly and, most recently, Amy Davis. Meanwhile, Ellis, who went 2-2 in the Bellator cage and lost in her lone appearance under the Invicta banner, has suffered defeats at the hands of Molly Helsel, Megumi Fujii (twice), Ana Michelle Tavares, the aforementioned Matsumoto and Aguilar, and TUF 20 castmate Jessica Penne.
With just one pro fight under her belt, Angela “Overkill” Hill has to be the biggest underdog—and biggest surprise addition—of the TUF 20 cast. Hill is a Muay Thai fighter who may be familiar to fans of the Lion Fights organization. She went undefeated through 14 amateur Muay Thai fights and two pro bouts before turning her attention to MMA. She was awarded a contract with XFC based on her showing at one of the promotion’s open tryout events, but Hill never got the chance to make her debut with the organization. Instead, her slated XFC atomweight bout against Stephanie Skinner was shifted to USFFC 18, which took place in April, just days before the TUF 20 tryouts. Hill stopped Skinner in the second round to earn the TKO win. The Brooklyn-based fighter trains out of Evolution Muay Thai and Radical MMA.
The Ultimate Fighter 20 will provide Justine Kish with an opportunity to break out and prove that she can live up to the hype. Kish has put together an impressive resume through four fights, including two appearances with Resurrection Fighting Alliance and a pro debut in 2010 inside the Ring of Combat cage. Kish submitted Munah Holland in her pro debut, and her most recent outing ended in a decision win over TUF 20 castmate Randa Markos. Kish is a seasoned striker who has held the WMC Muay Thai super-featherweight world championship and claimed a Golden Gloves championship in boxing. The 26-year-old Black House product started training in Kenpo karate at age 13 and is now a second-degree black belt in the discipline. Oddly, though, Kish has yet to defeat an opponent via strikes in pro MMA competition. She does have two submission victories, however, and her striking arsenal led her to the victory over Markos.
Angela Magana is one of the more interesting additions to the TUF 20 cast. It’s not that she doesn’t deserve the opportunity, but she has been known to withdraw from fights at the last minute. She hasn’t exactly endeared herself to many of her fellow fighters, and that could lead to some tension in the TUF house (castmate Carla Esparza has called Magana out before for her fight withdrawals). Magana, who is based out of Team Four Corners, has spent time training at Phuket Top Team. The 30-year-old has a background in wrestling and grappling, and she has used her skills on the mat to submit six of her foes. However, Magana has suffered four submission losses of her own. Her first and second pro defeats came via submission against reigning World Series of Fighting champion Jessica Aguilar, but Magana avenged those losses in 2009 with a majority decision win over Aguilar. She has also notched wins over reigning Invicta champion Barb Honchak, Nicdali Rivera-Calanoc and Meghan Wright. In addition to Aguilar, the XFC veteran has suffered losses to Lisa Higo, TUF 20 castmate Jessica Penne, current UFC fighter Jessica Eye and Stephanie Eggink. The loss to Eggink came in a failed bid for the XFC strawweight title.
Windsor, Ontario, Canada
Randa Markos will enter the TUF 20 house as one of the season’s underdogs. The Iraqi-born fighter, who now resides in Canada, made her pro debut in 2012 with a victory over the much larger Allanna Jones. She remained undefeated until she ran into TUF 20 castmate Justine Kish, who delivered a beating on Markos en route to defeating the Maximum Training Center fighter via unanimous decision. The 28-year-old bounced back with a submission win in March to move her pro record to 4-1. A decorated grappler who also took home a bronze medal in wrestling at the national level, Markos favors armbars as her method for securing the win.
Huntington Beach, Calif.
Jessica Penne joins Carla Esparza in the exclusive group of TUF 20 cast members who have held Invicta gold. Penne’s reign came in the atomweight division, where she captured the crown with a second-round submission of Naho Sugiyama. She lost the belt in her first defense when she succumbed to an armbar in the fourth round of her fight against Michelle Waterson. Penne bounced back in her most recent outing to claim a submission win over Nicdali Rivera-Calanoc. The 31-year-old is 3-1 under the Invicta banner, with her additional win coming against TUF 20 castmate Lisa Ellis. Penne has also appeared in Bellator, where she defeated Tammie Schneider and lost to Zoila Frausto Gurgel. The Kings MMA and Reign MMA product also holds notable wins over Sally Krumdiack, TUF 20 castmate Angela Magana and Amy Davis. Penne, who made her pro debut in 2006, fought as a strawweight until suffering the loss to Gurgel. She then shifted to atomweight, where she has found the most success of her career thus far. She might find herself struggling to hang with the bigger strawweights in the TUF 20 house. Penne is a brown belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and has seven submission victories on her resume.