Los Angeles, 1984. It’s the setting where the Terminator T-800 Model 101 cyborg assassin hunted for Sarah Connor. A seemingly unstoppable killing machine, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character blazed a path of destruction through the city before he was ultimately stopped.
Los Angeles, 2015. The same setting, but this time a different cyborg has come to town. She doesn’t have a fancy endoskeleton and she isn’t from the future, but Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino has a similar reputation for destroying everything put in front of her. Ronda Rousey is Justino’s Sarah Connor, the ultimate target of the mission. Rousey, too, is in Los Angeles, but she’s fighting a different opponent on a different card. Justino, meanwhile, is set to defend her Invicta featherweight title in the headlining contest of Invicta FC 11.
If Cyborg makes a strong statement against challenger Charmaine Tweet, the Brazilian could set the table for the ultimate showdown in women’s MMA. But she can’t look past her opponent, who is considered one of the world’s best 155-pounders and would like nothing more than to lay claim to the same designation at 145 pounds.
The featherweight title tilt tops a bill that gives continued attention to the smaller strawweight and flyweight divisions, where a number of up-and-comers and contenders will showcase their skills. The evening’s co-headliner pits strawweight title hopeful Mizuki Inoue against fast-rising prospect Alexa Grasso, while another of the event’s featured bouts gives DeAnna Bennett a chance to climb further up the strawweight ladder when she faces Norma Rueda Center. The lineup also features rising bantamweight star Irene Aldana in action against scrappy veteran Colleen Schneider.
In all, the card features eight fights and airs in its entirety on UFC Fight Pass. The action kicks off at 10 p.m. ET from the Shrine Expo Hall in Los Angeles. Combat Press writers Riley Kontek and Bryan Henderson share their thoughts on the card in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.
Cyborg is finally back in action. After teasing a move to bantamweight, the Brazilian is now set to defend her featherweight title against Charmaine Tweet, who has emerged as a top 155-pounder while bouncing between the lightweight and featherweight divisions. Does Tweet have a chance, or is this simply a fight to showcase Cyborg and get everyone talking once more about a future superfight with Rousey?
Kontek: This is most definitely a showcase bout for Cyborg, even though nobody should count Tweet out. The last time I counted Tweet out, she ended up on top of Veronica Rothenhausler bouncing her head off the mat like a basketball on hardwood.
Regardless, Invicta is showcasing Cyborg, as she was the best woman in the world before Ronda Rousey cut her teeth in MMA. It’s in the same town as UFC 184 on the same weekend that card takes place. Rousey fights on that card. If that’s not a smoke signal to tell us that a fight between the two is impending, I don’t know what is.
Henderson: The UFC and Invicta sure have collaborated to get women’s MMA fans buzzing. If Cyborg wins on Friday, she could be stepping into the Octagon at the end of the night on Saturday for a staredown with Rousey, assuming Rousey also emerges unscathed from her own title defense. As my colleague suggests, this is the perfect setup to align Rousey opposite Cyborg for what would be arguably the biggest fight in the history of women’s MMA.
Will Tweet stand in the way of this dream match-up? Probably not. Invicta has done an excellent job of building Tweet up as its star at lightweight despite just one fight for her in the division while competing under the Invicta banner and a 1-1 overall promotional record. Let’s also not forget that Tweet is just 6-4 overall as a professional. Granted, her debut loss came against the aforementioned Rousey and two of her other defeats came within her subsequent three fights, so she has definitely progressed beyond what her record suggests. Tweet is 5-1 over her last six fights, but the loss came to Julia Budd at featherweight. Budd may be a top fighter, but she’s leagues below Cyborg, both on the feet and on the ground.
Tweet has shown great amounts of improvement over the version that went 1-3 in her first four pro fights. That doesn’t mean she can hang with Cyborg on the feet, though. She can only hope that her length — she’ll have four inches in height and two inches in reach over her Brazilian counterpart — is enough to keep her out of range, but Cyborg is an aggressive striker who will close the distance and keep the pressure on Tweet. Perhaps Tweet pushes Cyborg into the later rounds, but there’s a good chance that Cyborg steamrolls her older foe for an early TKO victory.
Invicta’s co-headliner features a clash between top strawweights Alexa Grasso and Mizuki Inoue. Can Grasso get past Inoue and place her name at the front of the line of 115-pound contenders, or will Inoue be too much of a leap up in competition for the Mexican prospect?
Henderson: There was a time not too long ago when Inoue seemed like the obvious choice to fight Katja Kankaanpaa for Invicta’s strawweight belt. Now, her prospects don’t look quite so bright. She lost to Karolina Kowalkiewicz in her last outing and botched a weight cut two fights earlier that led to a disqualification loss on her record for a fight she actually won by submission. However, the Japanese fighter is still among the division’s best, and that means she makes for a significant test for Grasso.
Grasso entered Invicta after a stretch of four wins over opponents who have combined for a current record of 3-6, with one fighter accounting for all three of those wins. Grasso’s first Invicta fight ended in a decision victory over Ashley Cummins, a .500 fighter who has now lost three straight. Her sophomore outing with Invicta was the one that really put her on the map. The Mexican fighter demolished Alida Gray in under two minutes for the TKO win. Gray, who is now 4-2 with two straight losses, is a slight tick up in competition for Grasso, but compare Gray and Cummins with Inoue and there’s a vast gap in talent levels. Inoue is 8-3, by far the best winning percentage of any Grasso opponent, and she features a dynamic set of striking and grappling skills.
Before Inoue exited her teen years, she had already faced Ayaka Hamasaki at Hamasaki’s prime and defeated the likes of Alex Chambers, Bec Rawlings, Emi Fujino and Emi Tomimatsu (twice, if you count the actual outcome of the DQ loss). Of course Inoue marks a step up in competition for Grasso. Grasso’s striking makes her a legitimate candidate to win this fight, but Inoue could slow things down and work her way toward a decision win on points.
I was quick to jump to a prediction of an Inoue win over Kowalkiewicz, but Kowalkiewicz’s victory cast some doubt on Inoue’s ability to maintain her status as a top strawweight. Yet, I still see Inoue as a contender in the division. The young Japanese fighter has a good chin and a striking background that will allow her to withstand Grasso’s onslaught. She’s a much more skilled and well-rounded fighter than any of Grasso’s previous opponents, too. If she can endure Grasso’s early attacks, she should be able to turn the tide as the fight wears on. This will be a learning experience for Grasso, who will drop a close decision on the scorecards but eventually work her way into the division’s top tier.
Kontek: I agree that Inoue was once seemingly a shoo-in for a title fight in Invicta. We have to remember, though, that she is not even 21 years old yet. She is going to have a couple bumps in the road, like the one she experienced in her bout with Kowalkiewicz.
This match-up has all the makings of an absolute barnburner. Both ladies like to bang on the feet and display the type of fireworks that the common MMA fan loves. Grasso’s striking is powerful and technical, and the same can be said about Inoue’s stand-up game. Assuming there are fight-night bonuses, this could be a top contender for “Fight of the Night.”
The difference between these fighters comes in the ground game and clinch. Inoue has shown a great submission game and technical grappling skills, whereas Grasso is a little more of a question mark there. From the clinch, Inoue has also shown a strong presence, which means this will be a fight where she will have to close the distance. Inoue’s versatility will be the deciding factor, but, like Bryan said, this will be a valuable learning experience for the Mexican striker.
This card has been hit by the injury bug and has undergone several changes. Aspen Ladd’s debut was to come against Kristi Lopez but Ladd now fights Ana Carolina Vidal instead, DeAnna Bennett went from a match-up with Lynn Alvarez to a fight against Norma Rueda Center, and Irene Aldana traded in a bout with Melanie LaCroix for an encounter with Colleen Schneider in the weeks leading up to this event. So, of Ladd, Bennett and Aldana, who benefits the most from the opponent change and who has been strapped with a bigger task than they would have had in their original pairing?
Kontek: I think that the fighter that benefits the most from their opponent change is Ladd. At just 19 years old, she will need to be built up slowly and take her time developing. She goes from taking on an underrated flyweight with a strong skill set in Lopez, who is also more experienced as a pro, to taking on Vidal, who will be similarly making her pro debut. Vidal has just one amateur bout, while Ladd went 7-1 in her decorated amateur career.
As for the fighter who has been given a bigger task, I would say Aldana gets that distinction. Don’t judge Schneider on her record. The veteran is legit, and she has a skill set that matches up pretty well with Aldana. Schneider trains with Josh Barnett and has really improved in recent times. She could give Aldana all she can handle. That being said, Bennett also got a tough last-minute opponent in Center, who is a fighter to keep an eye on.
Henderson: My colleague and I certainly have different outlooks when it comes to this question. While he sees Ladd as the fighter who benefits the most, I’d have to lean in the opposite direction and say Ladd gets the bigger task. Lopez may be 2-0 as a pro, but those wins weren’t exactly against the cream of the crop. Ladd has a great amateur record, indeed, but she’s a 19-year-old who is stepping up to make her pro debut on UFC Fight Pass. That’s a lot of pressure. Take her out of a fight with Lopez and insert her into a bout with Vidal, a multiple-time jiu-jitsu world champion and a BJJ black belt, and Ladd may just be in over her head.
The tougher question is in regard to who gets the biggest break. If anything, we’re looking at a case where the real question should be framed in terms of who doesn’t get a bigger task. Aldana is going to have her hands full with Schneider, a scrappy fighter who has never been knocked out, which is probably a slightly bigger task than Lacroix, who has lost two of her last three. I’ve already made my case for Ladd’s lack of a break with her change in opponents, too. That leaves Bennett.
Bennett goes from a fight with Alvarez, a grappler whose only losses came against the likes of Angela Magana and elites Carla Esparza and Jessica Aguilar, to a fight against Center, who lost to Joanne Calderwood and defeated a set of fighters who now hold records of 2-2, 0-1 and 2-1. Center is still a tough opponent, but she doesn’t bring the experience and skill that Alvarez offered. Whereas I can see Aldana succumbing to Schneider in a hard-fought battle and I can absolutely see Vidal twisting Ladd in knots, I can’t see Center putting up quite the same level of challenge against Bennett, who already holds wins over the likes of Julianna Pena and Jennifer Maia.
Outside of the main couple fights, this Invicta card is very heavy on prospects. From debutants like Aspen Ladd to young, undefeated pros like Jamie Moyle to underrated veterans like Brianna van Buren, this card has a lot of up-and-coming fighters looking to establish a name for themselves. So, outside of the top-billed fights of this card, which prospect are you looking forward to watching most?
Henderson: She may be 34 years old and therefore doesn’t have quite as many years left in the sport as some of the other prospects competing at Invicta FC 11, but I’m eager to see how Christine Stanley fares in her Invicta debut.
Stanley, who squares off with Rachael Cummins, has three sub-minute victories to her credit. Her last outing produced an amazing result: a five-second knockout via flying spinning hook kick (here it is for those who have not seen it yet). Her other victories came by way of TKO at 58 seconds and 29 seconds of the opening stanza, and her only loss came at the hands of Justine Kish, a fringe top-15 strawweight.
Cummins suffered a TKO loss to Taila Santos in her last outing, so a quick knockout for Stanley isn’t out of the question. Cummins could grind away at Stanley or drag this fight to the ground and emerge with a submission, but the flashiness that could come if Stanley hits her mark is all that’s needed to get me excited about this affair.
Kontek: I am going to go the opposite way from my colleague and side with youth. There’s a young fighter by the name of Brianna Van Buren who is making her debut on this card, and she should open a lot of eyes with her game.
Van Buren is 3-1 in her career and has been spending time rounding out her game at American Kickboxing Academy. This makes sense, as she has good wrestling and a solid top game on the ground. When she adds more technique on the feet, she will be a very tough fighter.
It seems like she has a solid match-up style-wise in her Invicta debut. Amy Montenegro is a very skilled fighter in her own right, but the suffocating top game of Van Buren will be tough for Montenegro to handle. Plus, on the feet, Van Buren is likely superior. She took a late-notice bout with Stephanie Eggink, and she went from being a person expected to lose that fight and became a fighter who nearly stole one from Eggink.
Keep an eye on Van Buren. She’s athletic, explosive and only getting better. She’s got a good chance at helping the restocking of Invicta’s 115-pound division with fresh blood.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
Kontek: My sleeper match-up on this card comes between fellow 1-0 pros Jamie Moyle and J.J. Aldrich. Both made their pro debuts with the company and scored upsets that placed them fresh in the minds of fans.
Moyle is a dynamic, quick striker who made Jenny Liou Shriver look amateur in their Invicta bout. I was cageside for the bout, and Moyle was not only calm and collected, but she was a nasty striker as well.
Aldrich bested Delaney Owen, a prospect who I am still very high on. She outhustled Owen throughout the fight and established herself as a prospect to keep an eye on.
These two prospects will now square off with each other to see who is the better up-and-comer at this point. It should be exciting.
Henderson: There are a lot of excellent fights on this card. Even in answering the last question, I had a hard time narrowing it down to just one choice. I opted to go with Stanley there, because her ridiculous striking is entertaining all by itself. Ask me which pair of prospects I am most looking forward to watching, however, and the answer lands on Brianna Van Buren’s strawweight encounter with Amy Montenegro.
Van Buren stands all of 4-foot-11 and she’s only 21 years old, but she has already notched three wins and suffered just a single loss. “Tha Bull” outworked the tough Patricia Vidonic for a unanimous decision win and took borderline top-15 strawweight Stephanie Eggink the distance in a losing effort, as my colleague already highlighted in his response to the previous question.
Van Buren isn’t the only one with a strong resume, though. Montenegro is six fights into her pro career and also has just one black mark on her record. Her notable wins include a first-round submission of Jessica Doerner, a third-round submission of Kathina Catron and, most recently, a second-round TKO of Diana Rael. The 31-year-old is a skilled grappler who has picked up three wins via submission.
This fight could produce another 115-pounder to add to Invicta’s rebuilding efforts, and it should be a highly competitive scrap.
Pair this card with…
Henderson: A DVR to record the Bellator fights. The two promotions will go head-to-head on Feb. 27, and Invicta’s eight-fight lineup starts just after the Bellator main card goes live on Spike TV. While this card is on UFC Fight Pass and technically could allow fans to watch both events simultaneously, that’s not usually an enjoyable experience. The Bellator card does feature some compelling fights — Michael Page’s latest outing, Muhammed “King Mo” Lawal in a heavyweight outing, the light heavyweight title tilt between Emanuel Newton and Liam McGeary — but Invicta counters with strong prospects like Alexa Grasso and Irene Aldana, plus the first MMA fight for Cyborg in a year and a half. The UFC’s digital network does allow for the delayed gratification of watching events later without having to go through the task of setting a DVR recording, but Invicta cards are a rewarding live experience with far less downtime. So, watch Invicta live and record the Bellator fights, then skip all the commercials with your remote as you breeze through Bellator’s lineup. You’ll be caught up with everything by night’s end.
Kontek: UFC 184. Yes, it’s not on the same night, but it’s the same weekend and you can make an event of it. It’s a huge weekend for women’s MMA. Cyborg is fighting and could emerge as the potential next challenge for Rousey, whose defending her UFC title. There’s also the UFC debut of Holly Holm, who is arguably the best prospect in women’s MMA. So, gather your buddies, grab some beers, get some snacks, find some comfortable furniture and strap in. It’s a great weekend to be an MMA fan.
|Fight||Kontek’s Pick||Henderson’s Pick|
|Main Card (UFC Fight Pass, 10 p.m. ET)|
|FW Championship: Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino vs. Charmaine Tweet||Justino||Justino|
|StrawW: Alexa Grasso vs. Mizuki Inoue||Inoue||Inoue|
|StrawW: DeAnna Bennett vs. Norma Rueda Center||Bennett||Bennett|
|BW: Irene Aldana vs. Colleen Schneider||Aldana||Aldana|
|StrawW: Jamie Moyle vs. J.J. Aldrich||Moyle||Moyle|
|StrawW: Brianna Van Buren vs. Amy Montenegro||Van Buren||Montenegro|
|FlyW: Christine Stanley vs. Rachael Cummins||Stanley||Stanley|
|FlyW: Ana Carolina Vidal vs. Aspen Ladd||Ladd||Vidal|