Barb Honchak (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

Toe-to-Toe: Invicta FC 9 Preview and Predictions

Everyone has to leave home eventually. They need to go out and explore the world. Grow. Mature.

With its ninth show, Invicta Fighting Championships is leaving home. In this case, that home is Kansas City, Mo. The promotion, which launched to much fanfare in 2012 and has provided women’s MMA with the necessary platform to succeed, is headed to Davenport, Iowa’s RiverCenter for a card headlined by a flyweight championship tilt.

Barb Honchak puts her belt on the line against Takayo Hashi in the evening’s main event. Honchak, who claimed the title with a victory over Vanessa Porto in 2013 and successfully defended the crown later the same year against Leslie Smith, will seek to continue her dominance of the 125-pound division against Hashi, the reigning 135-pound champion of the Jewels organization.


The lineup also features key battles in the strawweight division, where Mizuki Inoue meets Karolina Kowalkiewicz, and the atomweight division, where Jodie Esquibel squares off with Nicdali Rivera-Calanoc. The card also introduces Invicta fans to 10 fighters who will be making their promotional debuts, including a pair of fighters who will compete professionally for the first time.

Invicta FC 9 ushers in the month of November with a nine-fight lineup on Nov. 1. The entire event airs live on UFC Fight Pass beginning at 9 p.m. ET. Combat Press writers Rob Tatum and Bryan Henderson square off to preview the card in this addition of Toe-to-Toe.

Flyweight Takayo Hashi will mark the third veteran Japanese fighter to challenge for an Invicta title, joining atomweights Naho Sugiyama and Yasuko Tamada. Can she succeed in finally bringing gold to Japan when she meets Barb Honchak? Furthermore, is this trend of older Japanese title challengers something we’ll continue to see as Invicta moves forward?

Tatum: One thing that is often overlooked in the women’s MMA landscape is that while the sport has had its fair share of ups and downs in North America, the Land of the Rising Sun has largely embraced it. Much the way that Pride FC fostered the men’s side of the sport in the early-to-mid 2000s, Smackgirl, Jewels and Deep have provided female fighters a home for the past decade. As Invicta searches the globe for the best fighters, it’s only natural that it would tap Japan as a resource for veteran competition.

Thus far, the champion Honchak has dominated every opponent she’s faced inside the Invicta cage. Given Honchak’s success against top-ranked fighters like Aisling Daly, Vanessa Porto and Leslie Smith, it’s no surprise that Invicta has turned to Japan to secure its next challenger. Hashi represents the type of experienced, difficult-to-finish fighter that is needed to push Honchak.

Hashi has spent over a decade in the sport and she’s only been finished twice. She avenged one of those losses, an armbar submission to Hitomi Akano, and the other came against current UFC bantamweight No. 1 contender Cat Zingano. The 37-year-old has gone the distance with former Strikeforce champion Sarah Kaufman and holds a win over current Invicta and former UFC competitor Roxanne Modafferi. She’s a solid grappler who has seen the scorecards in 12 of her 20 career bouts.

Unfortunately for Hashi, she’s going to be overmatched against Honchak. The 35-year-old Miletich Fighting Systems product has already proven just how dominant she can be in the Invicta cage and that won’t change on Nov. 1. Honchak will find Hashi just as difficult to put away as her past opponents have, but it won’t matter as Honchak cruises to the decision win and retains her 125-pound title.

Henderson: The keyword we need to be careful about here is “older.” Sugiyama was still in her prime at age 34 when she met Jessica Penne for the Invicta atomweight crown, and she still had an undefeated record to justify her spot in the championship tilt. Tamada and Hashi, though? They are older and their claims to contender status aren’t quite as bulletproof. Tamada, who challenged Michelle Waterson for that same atomweight strap, was just three fights removed from a four-fight skid and checked in at 47 years old, and Hashi, while definitely a threat to Honchak, is 37 years old and stands at just 2-3-1 over her last six fights. There’s no denying Japan’s place in the history of women’s MMA, but Invicta should seek to target the nation’s best fighters for these match-ups. Hashi and Tamada don’t necessarily fit that bill, but Japan has enough talent that does—there’s even one such fighter on this card in the form of co-headliner Mizuki Inoue.

There’s another factor that might lead Invicta away from the trend of older, Japanese title challengers in the future, and the promotion itself has had a big hand in cultivating that factor. Women’s MMA, as Rob highlighted, used to be a virtual Japanese monopoly. That’s not the case now. With Invicta’s rise and the UFC’s acceptance of female fighters, we’re seeing more and more American ladies donning the four-ounce gloves, and we’re seeing prospects emerge from all corners of the world. Matchmaker Julie Kedzie not only has legitimate, younger Japanese title challengers like the aforementioned Inoue and Ayaka Hamasaki waiting in the wings, but she now has fighters from Poland, Mexico, Australia and countless other countries climbing their way up the ladder, too.

In the meantime, Hashi makes for a solid test for Honchak. She’s an experienced grinder who typically only loses to the best of the best. Her recent fight to a draw against upstart 1-0-2 fighter Ji Yeon Kim does raise some reservations as to her ability to really gain an upper hand against someone who has displayed so much recent dominance as Honchak, but that has to be considered a bad night for Hashi and nothing more. Hashi is no easy out and Honchak isn’t exactly a finisher, so this fight is almost certainly bound for the judges. Don’t expect Hashi to be the fighter to take Invicta gold to Japan, though. That honor will fall to Inoue or Hamasaki. Hashi, meanwhile, will fly back across the Pacific after finding herself on the wrong end of the verdict in this title fight.

The co-headliner features Mizuki Inoue, a fighter who was getting punched in the face at an age when most of her peers were worried about graduating high school. Inoue will face prospect Karolina Kowalkiewicz. Now that the UFC has a strawweight division and has acquired most of Invicta’s top 115-pounders, will Inoue quickly rise to the top of the Invicta strawweight division? Is this simply a showcase fight to set her up for a title contest against reigning champ Katja Kankaanpaa?

Henderson: It’s quite surprising that Inoue and Kankaanpaa aren’t already employed by the UFC. When the UFC announced its massive talent acquisition from Invicta, these two ladies were the most notable omissions. Kankaanpaa quickly rose to the level of champion, claiming the belt left behind by Carla Esparza, and Inoue can’t be far behind. The young Japanese phenom isn’t immediately launching into a title bid, but she’s lined up for an interesting co-headlining affair against a rising prospect in Kowalkiewicz.

Kowalkiewicz won’t be a cakewalk for Inoue by any means. The 29-year-old is undefeated through five fights and has found ways to stop her opponents with her fists as well as her grappling game. Her first three wins came against fighters who have combined for a current record of 4-6, but she’s stepped up in her last two outings to notch a decision win over Simona Soukupova and claim a first-round submission finish over Jasminka Cive. She can scrap on the feet and has the skills to score takedowns and control her opponent on the mat. She’s a threat to Inoue wherever this fight goes, but there’s just one big factor working against her chances at success.

That factor, of course, is that her opponent ranks among the division’s elite. Inoue, who finally exited her teenage years in August and celebrated by capturing Deep gold just 10 days before her birthday, doesn’t falter often. Her record contains two losses, but that is misleading. She did suffer a unanimous decision loss to Ayaka Hamasaki in her third pro bout, but she actually won the other fight that is listed as an official loss on her record. That fight took place in February and ended with Inoue submitting Emi Tomimatsu. Inoue had failed to make weight for the title contest, however, and so she received a disqualification loss as punishment.

Inoue has a karate background, but she has fallen in love with the armbar finish. The young lady has used the hold to officially finish five fights and she also stopped Tomimatsu via the method in their botched first meeting. The Jewels veteran has a chance to shine in an Invicta division that has been cleaned out of talent. Can she capitalize? Definitely. Kowalkiewicz is going to test Inoue’s limits, but the Polish fighter does tend to leave her arms out there for the taking and there’s no way Inoue will pass on an opportunity to finish this fight. This is a showcase fight for the Japanese fighter, but it’s one where Invicta is allowing her to prove her worth as championship material against a tough opponent rather than giving her an easy match-up to dominate.

Tatum: If I knew how to say “hold your horses” in Polish, this would be the appropriate place for it. But, for now, you’ll have to settle for the English version.

The way my colleague has described Inoue, you’d think she was a shoo-in for the next strawweight champion in Invicta. While the Japanese fighter is immensely talented and is certainly one of the most promising prospects in the organization, I’m not convinced she’ll be able to get past Kowalkiewicz on Saturday night.

The reason for my doubt lies in Inoue’s previous appearance inside the Invicta cage. She went the distance against Australia’s Bec Rawlings at Invicta FC 6 in a back-and-forth battle. Inoue did come out on top, but the style of Rawlings frustrated her through much of the fight. Rawlings was able to avoid getting put on her back repeatedly and made Inoue work for every position.

Kowalkiewicz may not be the same fighter as Rawlings, but there are similarities in their games. Both are gritty fighters, willing to scrap, and they have enough skills on the mat to survive against tough competition. As Bryan pointed out, the biggest question is whether Kowalkiewicz can hold up against Inoue’s ground game.

If Inoue can’t get this fight to the mat and is forced to employ the grinding clinch game like she did against Rawlings, Kowalkiewicz has a strong chance to play spoiler. I’m certainly intrigued by the idea of an Inoue-Kankaanpaa match-up in the near future, but there’s just something about Kowalkiewicz’s style and skill set that has me thinking upset. Look for the Polish fighter to get the better of Inoue on the feet and eke out a decision win.

This card continues the ushering in of the second generation of Invicta fighters. Invicta FC 8 had 10 first-time Invicta fighters, and this show is also bringing in an additional 10 new faces, including the title challenger and one half of the co-headliner. Of this group of debuting Invicta fighters from the promotion’s ninth show, which fighter will have the most long-term impact within the promotion?

Tatum: I can’t help but feel like this is a loaded question. Why, you ask?

While Invicta wasn’t founded to be another organization’s development league, there’s still a chance that fighters in the strawweight and bantamweight divisions will find their way into the Octagon sooner rather than later. Shannon Knapp and matchmaker Julie Kedzie have managed to re-stock both divisions with talented fighters from all over the world, but given Invicta’s close relationship with Zuffa, it’s unlikely they would stop a fighter’s path in the sport.

So, back to the question at hand, my response comes with a bit of reservation. My pick for the winner of the fight discussed above, Poland’s Kowalkiewicz, stands out as the fighter with the most long-term potential if she stays with the promotion for the long haul. The strawweight is poised to ascend to the top of Invicta’s rebuilt weight class and, with a win, has to be in the conversation for a title shot against the recently crowned champion Kankaanpaa.

There are a lot of talented young fighters on this card, and because of the potential for Kowalkiewicz to some day move on to the UFC, there’s a chance that a younger fighter further down the card will actually make a bigger impact on the promotion. However, there’s a reason Kowalkiewicz was tabbed for the co-main event. She’s already established herself as one of the premier strawweights in Europe and she’ll cement her place as a title contender with a win over Inoue.

Henderson: The UFC can’t just open the floodgates and let every strawweight and bantamweight into its promotion. It has 16 strawweights from The Ultimate Fighter and others, like Claudia Gadelha, already on its active roster. Count current champion Katja Kankaanpaa and top contenders like Mizuki Inoue, Stephanie Eggink and Rob’s pick here, Kowalkiewicz, as established fighters who are near shoo-ins for UFC contracts in the not-too-distant future. That’s a pretty full boat, which means that Invicta’s next crop of strawweights will get a chance to develop without being immediately courted by the UFC.

That brings me to Jamie Moyle. Moyle already has a leg up on her competition despite not having a single pro fight under her belt. That’s because she won the Tuff-N-Uff amateur strawweight tournament to earn her Invicta pro contract. She made her return to action in 2014 after a two-year layoff. When she returned, she had just a 2-2 record, but the losses came against Delaney Owen and Tecia Torres, a pair of fighters who have found success at the pro ranks. Moyle lasted a full three rounds with both ladies and she has a habit of going the distance in her fights. Once she resumed her amateur career in 2014, she tacked on three more victories to bring her amateur mark to 5-2.

Moyle trains alongside Roxanne Modafferi at Syndicate MMA, and that could make a world of difference for her. Moyle showed her relentless, grinding style against Jianna Denizard in the Tuff-N-Uff tourney. She’s a strong fighter with effective takedowns and dominant top control. She needs to improve her finishing rate, but the 25-year-old is entering the Invicta cage at a time when the flow of fighters out the door should slow tremendously. That’s going to give her the chance to evolve while competing on a big stage. She has the potential to grow into a perennial contender at strawweight once the rest of the division’s big names have moved on to the UFC.

Invicta is traveling away from its home base of Kansas City for the first time with this event and Invicta President Shannon Knapp has revealed that the promotion’s December card will also take place in a new location. How important is it for the organization’s growth to venture outside where it began?

Henderson: Invicta is one of those anomalies. This is a promotion that has remained in one city for its entire existence. In terms of numbered events, that doesn’t seem like much, with Invicta only entering its ninth card, but the promotion is two and a half years old. Despite this fact, nobody is ever going to go around calling Invicta a regional or local promotion. The company launched out of the gates with a debut event that captured the collective MMA community’s rabid attention, and it has parlayed that into a spot on the UFC Fight Pass. Along the way, it can be cited as a trailblazer that has largely influenced the UFC’s own direction with its women’s divisions.

In reality, this is a national promotion with a regional/local event schedule. It’s time to take the show on the road. Is it necessary for the organization’s growth? Of course. Invicta can definitely continue to draw a crowd in its hometown, but holding regular shows in the same venue is going to result in attendance numbers that plateau and merchandise sales that taper off over the long term. Taking the show out of Kansas City and setting it down in various locations is the equivalent of a rock band going on tour. Invicta will give its fans who can’t make it to Kansas City a chance to attend the live event and shell out additional money on t-shirts or whatever other merchandise the company might offer.

There’s also the added effect of spreading the word about the promotion to those who aren’t already loyal supporters. Yes, Invicta is already on Fight Pass and its former athletes are in The Ultimate Fighter house, but that doesn’t mean the casual MMA fan has heard of the promotion. This is still a UFC world after all, not an MMA world. Taking the show on the road affords Invicta the chance to put up billboards and take out advertisements in the local media. Brand awareness equals growth, and by venturing outside of its home base, Invicta is taking the necessary steps to achieve that growth.

Tatum: It’s hard to argue with a single word Bryan said. Invicta is absolutely as big and as important for the women’s MMA world as the UFC. And although the UFC does hold a number of events in its home base of Las Vegas every year, the promotion’s reach extends around the globe. Now it’s time for Invicta to start its own journey.

For the sake of comparison—purely due to the relative age of the promotions—Invicta can be likened to the Resurrection Fighting Alliance. The RFA has found success in holding shows all across the nation by selecting the right fighters and venues for the right location. It’s a recipe that Invicta President Shannon Knapp is following with her promotion’s ninth event. She’s tabbed flyweight champion Barb Honchak to fight in Davenport, Iowa, which is just minutes away from Honchak’s gym in Bettendorf. And the RiverCenter is a comparable venue to what Invicta has used in Kansas City thus far. Invicta isn’t swinging for the fences and trying to sell out an NBA arena or anything just yet.

Again returning to what Bryan has said, taking Invicta on the road will help create additional buzz about the promotion and allow fighters and fans who may not have been able to fight or attend in Kansas City an opportunity to be part of the show. This is a huge step forward for the young promotion and it is key to Invicta’s future.

Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?

Tatum: With the amount of fresh talent on this card, any of the night’s fights could easily steal the show. The first four bouts of the evening all have “Fight of the Night” potential because each of the newcomers will be looking to make an impression for Invicta brass and fight fans.

That said, the fight that’s sure to leave fans wanting more is the atomweight clash between Jodie Esquibel and Nicdali Rivera-Calanoc.

Esquibel will be making her fourth appearance in the Invicta cage, and she’ll be doing so on a quick turnaround. The 28-year-old was in action at Invicta FC 8 in September, earning a split decision win in a three-round war with Jinh Yu Frey. The Jackson’s MMA product possesses great boxing skills, but she is still a work in progress on the mat. She did manage to survive a nasty head kick against Frey and avoid getting submitted, proving her resiliency.

Rivera-Calanoc may not have the best record on paper, but the Oklahoma-based fighter is gritty and aggressive. Unfortunately, those traits have led to almost as many losses as wins for the 29-year-old. She’s been out of action since a first-round submission loss to former Invicta champion Jessica Penne at Invicta FC 6 last July.

There are some big questions going into this fight. Can Esquibel avoid starting out slowly like she has in her three previous appearances? Can Rivera-Calanoc come out firing and put Esquibel away like Frey could not?

Look for Esquibel to weather the early storm of Rivera-Calanoc and use her advantage on the feet to score a convincing win on the scorecards.

Henderson: There’s nothing better than an incredible opening fight to set the tone for a night of combat, and Invicta certainly has that in the bantamweight bout between Kelly McGill and Maegan Goodwin.

McGill’s nickname is “Killer.” One look at fight film from her amateur career can tell you why. This Californian looks like the Tasmanian Devil from the Bugs Bunny cartoons once she starts throwing flurries. She’s incredibly aggressive on the mat as well. Everything she does in the cage is meant to finish her opponent, from her wild barrages, to standing guillotines, to attacking her opponent’s limbs on the mat. She’s ended fights in as little as seven seconds via knockout, and opponents who take her to the mat have to be wary of her bottom game.

Goodwin, meanwhile, is a ground specialist who tends to work for submissions. She’s undefeated through five amateur contests, but she’s making her pro debut against McGill. Goodwin has a couple of first-round finishes, but she has also seen a couple of fights go the distance.

These ladies are only separated by two inches in height, but their frames are very different. McGill is a lanky bantamweight, whereas Goodwin is a larger fighter who has competed as a featherweight. McGill can be put on her back, but Goodwin might find it difficult to keep her there and avoid McGill’s relentless submission attempts from the bottom.

This fight has the potential to be a highlight-reel knockout for McGill in the opening seconds, a three-round slugfest or a chess match on the ground, all of which are entertaining options. Goodwin could use her strength to bully McGill around, but my suspicion is that this fight will end quickly and violently courtesy of McGill’s fists.

Pair this card with…

Henderson: A stress ball. It’s no secret around the Combat Press offices—okay, we don’t actually have offices, but let’s just pretend we do—that I absolutely hate online streams. MMA events online, outside of UFC broadcasts, are notorious for their failure rates. Crash and burn is the norm, not the exception. Then, there’s Invicta. Whenever Invicta head Shannon Knapp even looks at a computer, the internet seems to break. That’s why I was excited when news broke about Invicta’s deal with the UFC Fight Pass. If Invicta was going to continue streaming, at least it would be on a reliable platform. Or so I thought. Invicta’s debut on the UFC’s digital network was going well until the main event, when the broadcast reached a magical time limit and went into self-destruct mode. As we head into Invicta FC 9, I’ll nervously watch the fights and hope that Ms. Knapp and company can finally experience a flawless execution of their product over the internet. And if they can’t, that stress ball might just make a fine projectile to throw at the screen.

Tatum: Antacid. No, not for the reasons my fellow panelist described above, but because I fully expect everyone reading this to be consuming massive amounts of Halloween candy. Hopefully that sugar buzz will serve as the catalyst for an exciting night of fights, and the antacid will help prevent an uncomfortable stomach ache that usually follows such a binge. I understand my colleague’s concern about the stream, as he’s endured issues with nearly every Invicta card to date. I’ve been fortunate enough to attend most of those events in person, but I’ll be watching on UFC Fight Pass on Saturday as well. I’m confident that the issues that marred the end of Invicta FC 8 have been resolved and that I can focus on consuming my fun-size Kit Kats and 3 Musketeers bars—along with a side of Tums—as I watch the best female fighters in the world compete.

Fight Picks

Fight Tatum’s Pick Henderson’s Pick
Main Card (UFC Fight Pass, 9 p.m. ET)
FlyW Championship: Barb Honchak vs. Takayo Hashi Honchak Honchak
StrawW: Mizuki Inoue vs. Karolina Kowalkiewicz Kowalkiewicz Inoue
FW: Raquel Pa’aluhi vs. Kaitlin Young Young Young
AtomW: Nicdali Rivera-Calanoc vs. Jodie Esquibel Esquibel Esquibel
AtomW: Amber Brown vs. Liz McCarthy Brown McCarthy
FW: Amanda Bell vs. Maria Hougaard Djursaa Bell Bell
FlyW: Andrea K. Lee vs. Shannon Sinn Sinn Lee
StrawW: Jamie Moyle vs. Jenny Liou Shriver Shriver Moyle
BW: Maegan Goodwin vs. Kelly McGill McGill McGill