In September, Invicta atomweight champion Michelle Waterson returned to action for the first time since capturing the 105-pound crown from Jessica Penne. Her layoff of 17 months came to an end when she locked horns with veteran Japanese fighter Yasuko Tamada. The result of that fight—a third-round TKO victory for “The Karate Hottie”—established Waterson as one of the best female fighters around. Now, after a much shorter layoff of just three months, Waterson has another challenge in front of her. This one, though, would seem to pose a much bigger threat to her title reign.
Waterson is set to meet Herica Tiburcio, a young and largely successful strawweight who is now shifting her focus to the atomweight division. Tiburcio was supposed to make her Invicta debut in November against Ayaka Hamasaki, but visa issues caused what turned out to be a fortunate change in plans for the 22-year-old.
Waterson and Tiburcio vie for the Invicta atomweight crown in the headlining affair of a night filled with intriguing match-ups. There’s Tonya Evinger, whose re-emergence as a legitimate contender in the bantamweight division is on the line against Cindy Dandois. There’s Roxanne Modafferi, who stirred up a buzz with her impressive performance against Tara LaRosa but now faces a young up-and-comer in Andrea Lee. There’s the clash of flyweight contenders Jennifer Maia and DeAnna Bennett.
These are just some of the contests that round out the nine-fight card scheduled for Dec. 5 at the Arena Theatre in Houston. The action is set to kick off at 9 p.m. ET, and the entire card airs live on UFC Fight Pass. Combat Press writers Rob Tatum and Bryan Henderson square off to preview the card in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.
Michelle Waterson is back, just three months after a dominant showing against Yasuko Tamada. This time, she faces a much younger and arguably more deserving challenger in Herica Tiburcio. Can Waterson maintain her streak of recent hard-fought wins, or does her 22-year-old foe have what it takes to snatch Waterson’s crown as the top atomweight in the world?
Tatum: Waterson’s last three wins, all in the Invicta cage, have come against some very tough and talented women. Her submission win over Jessica Penne at Invicta FC 5 put Waterson in the conversation of the pound-for-pound best in the world. There’s no denying that Waterson’s Invicta FC 8 opponent, Tamada, was overmatched. But after watching Waterson systematically tear her apart on the feet, it’s not like there’s a bunch of atomweights lining up to challenge her.
Tiburcio will be making her promotional debut. The Brazilian possesses a strong ground game, but has a small frame. At just 4-foot-11, it’s hard to fathom that Tiburcio has competed at strawweight numerous times in her 10-fight career. Both of her losses have come on the scorecards, including a hard-fought contest against current UFC contender and former Invicta fighter Claudia Gadelha. Tiburcio was expected to compete at Invicta FC 9 in November, but visa issues forced her off the card. The setback proved to be a blessing in disguise as the title opportunity against Waterson presented itself shortly after.
The wildcard in this fight may be Tiburcio’s age and lack of experience competing in the United States. Everything about the experience will be new to the 22-year-old, so she may be overwhelmed by it.
On paper, Waterson should win this fight. She’s a far more experienced striker. She’s longer. She’s fought on the biggest stage multiple times. But Tiburcio has proven her toughness and has the submission game to at least make Waterson work to keep her belt. The Brazilian may put Waterson in some tough spots over the course of five rounds, but ultimately, Waterson’s ever-evolving striking arsenal will be the difference. Waterson will retain her title with a decision win.
Henderson: After losing three of her first nine pro fights, Waterson hardly seemed like she’d turn out to be one of the best female fighters in the world. However, that’s exactly what has happened. She topped Diana Rael under the Jackson’s MMA Series banner, then transitioned to Invicta with a hard-fought win over Lacey Schuckman and then the impressive title victory over Penne. Her defense—and domination—against Tamada were to be expected, but now she has another challenger who should press her to her limits.
Tiburcio’s age and lack of experience on U.S. shores are concerns, no doubt. But a fighter who almost edged Camila Lima and went the distance with Claudia Gadelha is still a challenger to be taken very seriously. She may be short in stature, but she’s put up some big performances in hanging with a strong strawweight like Gadelha and in racking up notable wins over Kinberly Novaes and Aline Sattelmayer. If this fight goes to the ground, where these ladies have picked up the majority of their wins, we’re in for a special treat. The Brazilian has a strong top game, but she’s also dangerous from the bottom, where she’ll hunt for armbars and triangles.
If this fight stays standing, Waterson’s striking skills will make all the difference. However, if it heads to the mat, I’m not so sure that Waterson remains the favorite. She’s an excellent grappler, granted, but she’ll be facing someone who is just as aggressive when the fight hits the canvas. We have seen Waterson succeed against a higher level of competition, so I’ll give her the edge here. My prediction is a decision win for Waterson, but don’t look for a shocked expression on my face if Tiburcio’s hand is raised when the dust settles.
Cindy Dandois is returning to action after three and a half years on the sidelines, and she’s jumping into the deep end by facing the surging Tonya Evinger. Is Dandois, who holds wins over the likes of Marloes Coenen and Sheila Gaff, the woman who can stop Evinger’s longest winning streak in seven years?
Henderson: It’s taken quite a lot to make me a believer in Evinger. I have plenty of respect for the veteran fighter and her skill set, but there’s no denying the inconsistency that has plagued her career. Evinger herself admitted as much during her brief stint on The Ultimate Fighter 18, where she lost to Raquel Pennington in her fight to make it into the TUF house. Yet, despite all my doubts, Evinger made it impossible to ignore her as a top bantamweight when she put a quick end to the 135-pound debut of former elite featherweight Ediane Gomes.
Evinger’s win over Gomes, which came by way of a first-round armbar, was the exclamation point on a five-fight run of victories dating back to 2011. Evinger may have lost an exhibition bout to Pennington, but officially she had stopped Anita Rodriguez, Lacie Jackson and the aforementioned Gomes within the first round and decisioned Carina Damm and Sarah D’Alelio. As much as the “Evinger’s head just isn’t in it” philosophy had lingered, the win over Gomes forces us to go back and look at her career from a different perspective. Her losses? They came against Jennifer Tate (as an amateur), Vanessa Porto, Gina Carano, Alexis Davis (twice) and Sara McMann. Tate was a 5-1 prospect when she walked away from the sport, and every other lady on that list has fought for gold in some of the biggest leagues out there, including two who have challenged for Ronda Rousey’s crown. Evinger has also claimed wins over current Invicta matchmaker Julie Kedzie and veteran fighter Adrienna Jenkins. In light of her current streak, that resume seems impressive, not inconsistent.
I can’t help but look at Dandois as a step backward for Evinger after the stunning win over Gomes. Dandois is a quality fighter—she has to be to have defeated Coenen and Gaff—but her long layoff took her out of the spotlight. Where a win over Gomes makes a statement toward Evinger as a legitimate title contender, a fight against Dandois just doesn’t scream “Next stop, title shot!” The 30-year-old Belgian is a dangerous opponent, however. She has a judo base that could lead to takedowns against Evinger, a fighter whose biggest holes lie in her submission defense. If Dandois can get the fight to the mat and control Evinger, it could be game over.
But here’s where that whole believer thing comes into play. Against Gomes, I thought Evinger would be little more than a stiff first test on the Brazilian’s journey to the top. I even predicted that Gomes would be the one to lock in the submission. Evinger, though, was the one who dominated with takedowns, escaped a submission and snagged a submission of her own. If she could do that against someone like Gomes, she’s certainly capable of doing so against a fighter coming off a long layoff. Will Dandois end this streak? No. Instead, Evinger will continue to build on her success by claiming the win.
Tatum: My colleague wasn’t alone in his doubts of Evinger leading into the fight with Gomes at Invicta FC 8. Her frequent struggles against the aforementioned elite-level competition left me with plenty of reasons to pick against her. However, not only was I wrong, but I left the venue extremely impressed. At 33 years old, Evinger has hit her prime. She’s now in prime position to challenge for the vacant Invicta bantamweight belt, should the opportunity present itself.
The match-up with Dandois isn’t a step backwards for Evinger if the Belgian can compete at the level she has in the past against the aforementioned Coenen, Maria Hougaard-Djursaa and Jorina Baars. But after more than three years away from the cage, it’s very difficult to predict how Dandois will perform. Couple the lengthy absence with the fact that Dandois has never fought in the United States and she’s facing an uphill battle in this fight regardless of her opponent. Even if this fight were against someone other than the red-hot Evinger, I’d be a little uneasy about how Dandois will perform.
Bryan did a good job of spelling out the path to victory for Dandois, but I have to agree that if Gomes couldn’t stop Evinger’s current wave of momentum, Dandois isn’t going to fare much better. Evinger by TKO.
Roxanne Modafferi turned heads with her performance against Tara LaRosa. She was slated to face Vanessa Porto at Invicta FC 10, but Porto was forced to withdraw and has been replaced by Andrea “KGB” Lee. It might be easy to look at Modafferi as a clear favorite, but are we getting ahead of ourselves? Is this really a huge break for Lee?
Tatum: If there’s one fight on this card that exemplifies the “old” guard against the “new” guard, it’s this fight between Modafferi and Lee. Porto’s loss is absolutely Lee’s gain, as the 25-year-old will make a quick turnaround after fighting at Invicta FC 9 in early November.
Modafferi snapped a six-fight skid in September with the most complete striking performance of her lengthy career. The 32-year-old has fought a who’s who of women’s MMA over the last decade, but it’s largely been her ground game that has led to her success. Now working with the team at Syndicate MMA in Las Vegas, Modafferi’s stand-up game has grown leaps and bounds, as her performance against LaRosa showcased. What better way to test her evolving skills than to face a talented striker?
Lee may face an experience disadvantage in this fight, but the Louisiana native has plenty of combat sports experience. “KGB” is a former WKA, TBA and IKF Muay Thai world champion and also won a National Golden Gloves title prior to competing in MMA. She easily cruised to victory over Shannon Sinn in her Invicta debut, using her stand-up prowess throughout.
The uncertainty in this fight lies in what happens if Modafferi gets Lee to the mat. Lee is only two fights into her professional career, and she did lose via submission in her amateur career. If Modafferi can close the distance without absorbing a barrage of punches from Lee, she will prove why she’s the favorite. However, Lee’s technique on the feet is going to be the difference. Look for her to score the massive upset with a second-round TKO over Modafferi.
Henderson: The praise Modafferi received for her performance against LaRosa was well deserved. However, that performance doesn’t make Modafferi into a top flyweight. This is a legendary pioneer of the women’s side of the sport, but she’s also a fighter who was coming off not just six straight losses but seven losses in her last nine appearances. She did show great improvement on her feet, but she did so against a fellow legend who has struggled in the striking department against her recent opponents.
Lee is getting a big break in several ways. First, the quick turnaround allows her to keep her momentum going following an impressive showing against Sinn. Second, she’s fighting a very beatable opponent. Third, she’s fighting that opponent when said opponent is coming off her biggest (and only) win in years.
Rob does have a point about Lee’s untested grappling game. We did see her defend well against Sinn and offer some offense early in the fight after rocking her opponent, but Sinn is no Modafferi on the mat. If Modafferi can drag Lee to the canvas, things will get really interesting. However, Lee is very active in her attempts to escape and bring the fight back to the feet, and I don’t think Modafferi has the ability to keep her grounded for long.
As little success as Modafferi has had over the last several years, she’s still a gigantic leap up in competition for a fighter who has thus far defeated a pair of fighters who have combined for a 1-3 mark. What we’ll get to see in this fight is a test of Lee’s true potential. If she fails, the 25-year-old can chalk it up as a learning experience against a veteran fighter. If she passes, then we can start looking at “KGB” as a possible contender for Invicta’s flyweight gold, though she will need a few more wins before truly entering the title picture.
I wouldn’t go as far as my colleague in calling it a massive upset, but Lee will surprise a lot of fans who think Modafferi received an easy fight in the wake of Porto’s withdrawal. Lee will dominate the stand-up while keeping the fight off the ground as much as she can. The result will be a decision victory for the rising prospect.
Mexico’s Alexa Grasso will make her return to the Invicta cage after picking up a win at Invicta FC 8. Can she repeat her performance from September? Will the fighter work her way into contention with another win?
Henderson: Despite Grasso teammate Irene Aldana’s quick win at Invicta FC 8, Grasso may have proved more at the event by grinding out three rounds against Ashley Cummins. Regardless, both performances were impressive displays that gave Invicta a set of Mexican talents that the UFC must be eyeing closely as it looks to strengthen its own appeal in that market.
So, can Grasso repeat that performance? It’s quite possible.
The 21-year-old, who had finished her first three pro fights via strikes within the first minute, not only managed to get the best of Cummins on the feet, but she was also largely effective in thwarting takedown attempts from Cummins. We’ve seen plenty of strikers fail in that department when they make it to the big league, but Grasso demonstrated a very solid all-around game that could take her far in the strawweight division. In Alida Gray, Grasso is facing another competitor who can be dangerous on the mat. However, Gray also has some vicious knockout power. Gray had the misfortune of making her biggest impression to fans through a loss in a World Series of Fighting bout against Jessica Aguilar. Grasso could have her hands full in this fight, but her skill set makes her a confident pick to post a repeat performance.
The victory here would absolutely put Grasso into title contention. However, that’s because she is fighting in one of the most depleted weight classes within Invicta. That’s not to say she isn’t deserving of title consideration, but she certainly doesn’t have to deal with a gauntlet of established contenders like, say, Tecia Torres dealt with as she was rising through the strawweight ranks. Yet, that brings me to an extended point regarding title contention. Look at where Torres is now. That’s right, the UFC. Unless the UFC starts treating Invicta as an all-female version of the RFA by equating a championship belt as the primary ticket into the Octagon, Grasso might be making her UFC debut before she ever lines up an Invicta title fight.
Tatum: I can’t argue with my cohort’s assertion that Grasso’s talent and drawing power might lead her to big things very soon, but I expect that greatness to happen in the Invicta cage.
Grasso and her unblemished record are one of the crown jewels of matchmaker Julie Kedzie and president Shannon Knapp. Her performance against Cummins gave the MMA world a glimpse into her overall skill set. With a family full of boxers, Grasso’s well-round attack could be the recipe for Invicta gold in the near future.
The biggest obstacle in Grasso’s way—outside of former WSOF title challenger Gray—may be the recently re-stocked 115-pound division in itself. Invicta champion Katja Kankaanpaa has yet to defend her belt, but Poland’s Karolina Kowalkiewicz, and even the fighter Kankaanpaa defeated to win the belt, Stephanie Eggink, may be in line for title shots before Grasso. But an impressive win over Gray in Houston will go a long way towards changing that.
I expect Grasso to pick up another win at Invicta FC 10. A title shot may not immediately follow, but the Mexican fighter will firmly state her case by defeating Gray decisively.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
Tatum: Top to bottom, this fight card is very intriguing. It’s easy to get lost in the night’s headliner or the aforementioned match-up featuring Alexa Grasso, but the fight with the most importance on this card is the flyweight match-up between Brazil’s Jennifer Maia and Utah’s DeAnna Bennett. Now that Vanessa Porto is out of the bout with Roxanne Modafferi, this fight between Maia and Bennett could determine the next challenger to Barb Honchak’s 125-pound title.
Maia has already had one chance to claim the title of No. 1 contender in the Invicta cage, but she fell short against Leslie Smith at Invicta FC 6. The 26-year-old bounced back with back-to-back wins over Mariana Morais and Elaine Albuquerque, and will again look to state her case for contention against Bennett.
Bennett moved her record to 5-0 in September with a second-round stoppage of Michelle Ould at Invicta FC 8. The Pit Elevated fighter has stopped four of her five professional bouts, only going the distance with The Ultimate Fighter 18 winner Julianna Pena.
This fight will come down to which fighter is able to impose their will. Maia possesses a grinding clinch game and strong ground skills. Bennett has shown she can put people away on her feet and on the mat. Maia has struggled against elite competition in her career and, unfortunately for the Brazilian, that won’t change against Bennett. Look for Bennett to stop Maia with strikes late in the opening frame.
Henderson: We’ve really picked through the big fights on this card, and with Irene Aldana forced out of her bout with Marion Reneau—the pairing was my original pick for sleeper fight—I’m left looking at a lineup of fights where I see one fighter holding a significant edge over the other—Tweet over Van Duin, Wawro over Morgan, Frey over Robb—and a contest between two fighters who are still in the earliest stages of their pro careers. In this case, the latter contest consists of Rachael Ostovich and Evva Johnson, a pair of flyweights looking to make a statement in the opening match-up of the evening.
The pair has a combined three pro fights, and they’ve emerged with two total wins. But the supposed lack of experience can be deceiving. Johnson has fared best as a pro, with a stoppage win in her September debut, but she is far from a newcomer. “No Fear” started fighting as an amateur in 2008 and put up an 8-1 record with several championship wins before finally going pro in 2014. She went the distance on only two occasions as an amateur, including in her lone loss, and she’s made a habit of submitting opponents with her grappling abilities or simply by forcing them to tap to strikes.
Ostovich, meanwhile, started her amateur career in 2010 and posted six victories before turning pro in 2014. She lost her pro debut to Jenny Liou Shriver, but bounced back with a win in September against Misha Nassiri. She has a couple of close decisions as an amateur, but she has also scored two TKO victories and two submission wins over the course of her combined amateur and pro careers.
This is the Invicta debut for both ladies, and that means they’ll be working to get noticed and earn a return invite. Ostovich is the more aggressive striker, but Johnson can be strong in the clinch. However, it’s the ground game that could make this a fun affair. Ostovich has explosive takedown ability, but she can be sloppy on the ground and lose position. Johnson only flashes her powerful takedowns against smaller opponents, but she’s slick on the mat. Johnson can transition to mount or take Ostovich’s back if Ostovich isn’t careful.
The flyweight division is rather shallow at the moment, which means a big win here could translate into a quick rise through the ranks for the victor. Ostovich’s tendency to keep fights close could hurt her in this affair, but it’s Johnson’s grappling that will ultimately spell doom for Ostovich.
Pair this card with…
Henderson: A dozen oysters. Invicta continues to travel outside of its home base of Kansas City with its 10th event, and the destination this time is Houston. If I’m in a city near a coast, seafood is a high priority on my to-do list. And if raw oysters make you squirm, then try them fried. Either way, it’s the perfect meal to go with another strong offering from Invicta. You might not find a pearl in your food, but you’re sure to land on at least a few within the lineup Invicta has constructed for this card.
Tatum: They say everything is bigger in Texas, but does that mean it’s better? That’s what fight fans and barbecue fans alike can find out this weekend. After eight cards in Kansas City and plenty of pulled pork and rib tips, it’s time to try a plate of what Texas has to offer. If seafood isn’t your thing, then it’s time to dabble in a different take on delicious, smoked meat.
Main Card (UFC Fight Pass, 9 p.m. ET)
AtomW Championship: Michelle Waterson vs. Herica Tiburcio
BW: Tonya Evinger vs. Cindy Dandois
FlyW: Andrea Lee vs. Roxanne Modafferi
FlyW: Jennifer Maia vs. DeAnna Bennett
FW: Charmaine Tweet vs. Faith van Duin
FW: Peggy Morgan vs. Andria Wawro
StrawW: Alexa Grasso vs. Alida Gray
AtomW: Jinh Yu Frey vs. Cassie Robb
FlyW: Rachael Ostovich vs. Evva Johnson
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