Cristiane 'Cyborg' Justino (Esther Lin/Invicta FC)

Toe-to-Toe: Invicta FC 13 Preview and Predictions

When the educational animated series Schoolhouse Rocks! started its run on Saturday morning television in the ’70s, one of its first episodes featured a song called “Three Is a Magic Number.” It was actually the first song recorded for a children’s record and went on to inspire the animation that would turn it from music into a television show. Perhaps this song was running through Invicta FC matchmaker Julie Kedzie’s head and providing her with inspiration as she constructed the lineup for Invicta Fighting Championships 13. Three is certainly the magic number for this event.

The event features three titles on the line. The most prominent of these titles is held by Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino, who reigns over Invicta’s featherweight division. The Brazilian has decimated three Invicta opponents via TKO, and now she’ll seek to add a fourth victim to the list when she puts the belt on the line against New Zealander Faith Van Duin.

The bantamweight division’s throne is vacant, but that will change when Tonya Evinger meets Irene Aldana at Invicta FC 13. The veteran Evinger has experienced a career resurgence over three Invicta outings, but she’s fighting a tough up-and-comer in Aldana, who has two wins under the Invicta banner and seeks to make it three in this championship tilt.


Finally, there’s the first atomweight title defense for Herica Tiburcio. Tiburcio, who claimed the title with a submission finish of Michelle Waterson at Invicta FC 10, has a tough task ahead. She meets highly accomplished Japanese star Ayaka Hamasaki. Hamasaki was a Jewels champion as a strawweight, but she made a recent transition to the atomweight division, where she has already picked up two wins and will seek her third against Tiburcio.

Yes, three is a magic number, and it seems to be a running theme throughout the top-billed fights of Invicta’s latest event, which takes place on Thursday, July 9, as part of the UFC’s International Fight Week in Las Vegas.

The Cosmopolitan plays host to the seven-fight card, which will air live on UFC Fight Pass at 11 p.m. ET. Combat Press writers Riley Kontek and Bryan Henderson take a look at the event in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.

Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino destroyed Charmaine Tweet, largely considered to be the top 155-pound fighter and viewed as the closest thing to a legitimate featherweight challenger that Cyborg would find, in just 46 seconds. What does that say for Faith Van Duin’s chances in her title bid against Cyborg?

Henderson: That she’s doomed?

Okay, maybe that’s going a bit too far, but it’s certainly what has to be on the mind of every fan and analyst. Cyborg is a beast who has been defeated recently in the kickboxing ring, but she hasn’t tasted defeat as a mixed martial artist since her 2005 pro debut ended in a submission loss to Erica Paes. Cyborg demolished Gina Carano in the first round, stopped Marloes Coenen via strikes on two separate occasions and needed less than a minute to finish off the aforementioned Tweet. This is a woman whose only true threat in an MMA setting appears to be Ronda Rousey. Pair her with anyone else at the moment and the discussion is going to revolve around when and how Cyborg wins, not if she wins.

As far as featherweight challengers go, Van Duin is a legitimate contender who belongs in a title fight. She’s 5-1 overall and impressed with a submission finish of Amanda Bell in her Invicta debut. However, the New Zealander is still part of a pack of fighters who might be competitive among themselves, but who still haven’t quite reached the elite level of combat that Cyborg has attained.

If we were talking about Van Duin against Tweet for a title — or either of those women against the other members of the featherweight top 10 that reside below Cyborg — we’d be talking about a competitive fight where both participants stood more than just a puncher’s chance. But we’re not. We’re talking about someone trying to topple Cyborg, and that’s not likely to happen.

My biggest concern for Van Duin is based on her previous knockout loss to Arlene Blencowe, who holds a sub-.500 record as a boxer. If Blencowe could stop Van Duin with a knee to the body, it’s difficult to imagine a striker as ferocious as Cyborg failing to overwhelm Van Duin.

Kontek: Her chances? Slim to none. I don’t think there is a 145-pounder on this planet that can beat Cyborg. Coenen is easily the second-best 145er, and she is 0-2 against Cyborg. That’s why I wouldn’t put a dime on Van Duin.

At this point, the only competition Cyborg would face is in the form of the aforementioned Rousey. Can Cyborg make weight for such a fight? I’m not sure — she is a large woman with a vastly muscular frame — but it seems like that’s the only person MMA fans want to see her fight. It makes sense, too. They are consensus picks as the top two women of all time in the sport of MMA.

As my colleague suggested, Van Duin’s loss to Blencowe is why this is such a big concern. Blencowe is a boxer, plain and simple, whereas Cyborg is a Muay Thai wrecking machine with a good clinch and ground game. That doesn’t spell good things for the New Zealand native. Expect what you saw from Cyborg against Tweet, but just substitute Van Duin as the victim in the cage.

The Invicta FC 13 card features three title fights. In addition to the featherweight clash between Cyborg and Van Duin, there’s also a fight between Irene Aldana and Tonya Evinger to crown a bantamweight champion and there’s Herica Tiburcio’s first atomweight title defense, which comes against Ayaka Hamasaki. Which of these three fights will deliver the most competitive encounter?

Kontek: The atomweight championship will be the more competitive affair. Evinger has a great stylistic advantage over Aldana, whereas Tiburcio against Hamasaki is a great stylistic match-up that will lead to an interesting chess match.

Both women are grapplers. While Hamasaki is tall and slender, Tiburcio is short and bulkier, which allows her to get under her opponents, achieve takedowns and work her fierce top game. On the mat, though, Hamasaki is no picnic, which is why this will be so competitive.

On the feet, things will be a wild firefight. If it stays there, expect a brawl with wild punches landing wherever there is space. I expect more clinch work and grappling, though.

Tiburcio is the better fighter and grappler at this point, so she will retain the belt.

Henderson: It’s a tough pick. The featherweight championship isn’t even in contention, of course, with Cyborg a clear favorite to demolish Van Duin.

I’m not quite as certain as my colleague in seeing the bantamweight championship tilt as a clear Evinger win, though. Evinger has the experience on her side and a vastly improved game that’s been on display in her three-fight run with Invicta, but her past stumbles on The Ultimate Fighter and during a couple of rough patches in her career always cause some shadow of doubt to creep in when it comes to how she’ll fare against top-flight competition. Aldana has put on some great performances and quick finishes in the Invicta cage, and she can be lethal on the mat, where Evinger has faltered in the past. In this battle, one side could really run away with it, but it could be either side.

However, in terms of the most competitive encounter, I, too, must point to the atomweight championship. Tiburcio came through with an eye-opening performance against Waterson after a long run on the Brazilian circuit. The champ is just 22 years old and appears to be the future of the division. Hamasaki has the veteran edge and a long list of wins against top names, including Mei Yamaguchi, Naho Sugiyama, Seo Hee Ham (twice) and Mizuki Inoue. Hamasaki has only been competing as an atomweight for two fights, and the results — a first-round TKO of Sugiyama and a decision victory over Yamaguchi — have brought her back into title contention. The Japanese fighter is a judo black belt and a talented grappler, which makes her a perfect, tough challenge for Tiburcio’s first defense. Hamasaki has had mixed results on U.S. shores, though, so it’s likely that Tiburcio will outwork her for the judges’ nod.

With just seven fights, this is one of the smaller Invicta cards in the company’s history, if not the smallest. However, as mentioned, there are three title fights, leaving four non-title bouts. Which non-title bout has the biggest implications for its respective division?

Henderson: It might seem like Marina Shafir’s fight with Amber Leibrock would stand out as the obvious choice, but the implications there rely heavily on the shallow nature of the featherweight division. It features a 1-1 fighter — one who has gained name recognition as a member of Ronda Rousey’s stable — against a debuting pro. Perhaps Shafir would land a rivalry-by-proxy title fight against Cyborg if she can dispose of Leibrock, but let’s look elsewhere for a fight that has big title implications and happens to be flying further under the radar. That brings us to atomweights Catherine Costigan and Amber Brown.

Costigan has marched through three opponents under the Cage Warriors banner and five foes overall in her pro career. The Irish fighter was forced to eke out a split verdict against Irene Cabello, but her other four fights ended in submission finishes. “The Alpha Female” is a very effective grappler who was rising toward prominence in the Cage Warriors organization before Invicta snatched her up. Now, against Brown, she’ll get a chance to prove that she can step up against a higher level of competition.

Brown, in her first bout in 16 months, edged out Liz McCarthy at Invicta FC 9 in November. The 26-year-old FIT NHB product already held a 3-1 mark and a submission victory over Japanese veteran Kikuyo Ishikawa. Brown only has two finishes, though, and she has suffered a submission defeat.

The atomweight division has opened up somewhat with the departure of divisional stars Jessica Penne and Michelle Waterson to the UFC’s strawweight division. Divisional champ Herica Tiburcio is defending her belt against Ayaka Hamasaki on this same card, and that leaves only a couple of potential next challengers. Brown is seemingly flirting with a top contender spot if she tops Costigan, and the Irish fighter could leapfrog into contention herself if she stops Brown in impressive fashion.

Kontek: There are two fights that seem to have the biggest implications on the card. The first — the Costigan-Brown affair — was mentioned by Mr. Henderson. That is definitely a bout that can provide an atomweight challenger to the title. The other — and the one I view as the fight with the biggest implications in its respective division — is the bantamweight bout between Pannie Kianzad and Jessica-Rose “Jessy Jess” Clark.

There are not an abundance of 135-pound challengers for the vacant belt, which will be up for grabs at this event in the fight between Evinger and Aldana. Outside of those two combatants, the only other fighter who is likely in the running at this point in Raquel Pa’aluhi. That makes the bout between Kianzad and Jessy Jess an ultra-important one.

Let’s also consider Kianzad’s background in Europe. She was the Cage Warriors women’s bantamweight champion, an accolade that carries much weight with her coming to America. Cage Warriors has been one of the best European MMA companies, and Kianzad did serious damage while fighting under the company’s banner. Her championship status, undefeated record and a great performance against Jessy Jess will undoubtedly put her in the driver’s seat to earn a title shot at the winner of Aldana-Evinger.

UFC bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey is one of the most dominant women in the sport, rivaled perhaps only by Cyborg. Her “Four Horsewomen” stable, though? Well, that’s another story. Shayna Baszler is popular, but she’s gone 1-2 with Invicta and 0-2 inside the UFC. Jessamyn Duke is just 3-2 overall in her career and has lost her last two UFC outings. And then there’s Invicta FC 13 competitor Marina Shafir, who is just 1-1 so far as a pro and suffered a 37-second knockout loss in her last fight. Is Shafir capable of reversing the trend among Rousey’s crew? Can she eventually turn into a strong contender who challenges Cyborg for the Invicta crown?

Kontek: Shafir can reverse the trend that the “Four Horsewomen” have been suffering from lately, but it’s a little too soon to tell if she’s the one to challenge for Cyborg’s crown. I mean, come on, she’s only two fights into her pro fight career.

Shafir trains with great coaches and partners. Her judo background is impressive. She’s athletic and has shown that she has a great learning curve. Obviously, that learning curve isn’t nearly as impressive as it was with Rousey, but nonetheless, in a division as in need of stars as the 145-pound weight class, there is no doubt that Shafir is a couple wins away from stardom.

However, her opponent, Amber Leibrock, is no pushover. Leibrock has comparable experience to Shafir as an amateur. She is expected to be a stepping stone for Shafir, but I more or less see her as a litmus test as to whether Shafir has gotten better since her loss or if she is just hype.

Henderson: Shafir has a black belt in judo and she trains with Rousey. So why can’t I believe that she’s destined for big things? Maybe it’s precisely because of the hype. If she was just another judo black belt, not a member of Rousey’s stable, she probably wouldn’t get quite as much attention and the expectations would probably be much lower as well.

Shafir’s career is only two fights old, so my colleague does have a point. We do need to see much more of Shafir in the cage before we can definitively answer this question. Right now, though, we can only look at what she’s done against amateurs (a set of submission finishes posted with the same efficiency as Rousey) and a pro career that started in the same fashion with a quick submission of Chandra Engel, who happens to hold a current pro record of 0-3 and an amateur mark of 8-7. Then Shafir was flattened by Amanda Bell in 37 seconds. The hype came crashing down, too.

Shafir’s loss to Bell proves that she might be outgunned on the feet and not quite as capable as Rousey in getting top-tier fighters to the mat in a hurry. Can Shafir reverse the trend for the “Four Horsewomen”? Maybe. She has the potential to be the second most successful member of the stable moving forward. However, we might want to rein in our expectations. Winning some fights and posting a respectable career mark? Yes. Giving Cyborg a legitimate challenge? Not so much.

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

Henderson: It’s difficult to find a sleeper fight when there are only seven options. Let’s go with the bantamweight contest between Jessica-Rose “Jessy Jess” Clark and Pannie Kianzad.

Jessy Jess has put together a solid resume in her six-fight pro career. Despite a kickboxing background, she tends to shoot for frequent takedowns and looks to work her ground game. The strategy has resulted in two submission wins, two TKO finishes and a unanimous decision. Her only loss came in her third pro fight against Kyra Purcell, who frustrated Jess on the feet and stuffed her takedowns.

Kianzad has stopped three of her opponents via strikes and decisioned the remained four. Her spotless record includes noteworthy decision nods over Milana Dudieva and Annalisa Bucci. The 5-foot-7 fighter is adept at using her length to batter opponents. She’s also demonstrated strong takedown defense in her previous contests.

These two could combine for a wild battle, with Kianzad seeking to force Jess to the cage where she can then batter the Australian fighter with punches. Jess, meanwhile, will seek to ground Kianzad and work for a submission. There should be some interesting scrambles and flurries in this contest. With both ladies intent on putting on an impressive showing in their Invicta debuts, this fight should deliver plenty of entertainment.

Kontek: Sleeper match-up on this card? With three title fights? That’s a tough task!

That’s why I am going to go with a fight that not many people are talking about. It has flown under the radar, yet it carries two names that could jump into contention with a victory. They are young fighters with all the talent in the world.

That fight is the strawweight clash between Jamie Moyle and Amy Montenegro.

Moyle, who is 2-0 in her young pro MMA career, is easily a top prospect. She has destroyed Jenny Liou Shriver and JJ Aldrich, leaving in her wake two broken fighters and a whole lot of hype.

Montenegro is 6-1, and she beat up a hyped Brianna van Buren in an exciting affair in her Invicta debut. She looks to steal the momentum that Moyle has built and show the UFC that she is ready to make the jump to its roster.

These women seem destined to be future UFC competitors. Keep an eye on this underrated fight, as it could provide fireworks and insight toward the future.

Pair this card with…

Kontek: Everything that is International Fight Week. Watch Invicta FC 13 on Thursday. Watch UFC 189 on Saturday. Watch The Ultimate Fighter 21 Finale on Sunday. Get your MMA in for the weekend, as it should be amazing. Some of the biggest stars in the sport are competing in one jam-packed weekend. Just look at the names: Conor McGregor, Robbie Lawler, Cris “Cyborg” Justino and a bevy of others. What could go wrong? If you’re an MMA fan, get ready for a busy, exciting weekend of bouts.

Henderson: A plane ticket to Las Vegas. If you’re doing everything that is International Fight Week, then why not take the final step and actually attend the festivities? Invicta makes for an excellent event to attend live while kicking off a trip where there is plenty going on in addition to the three major fight cards, including the UFC Fan Expo, martial arts tournaments and a 5K run. If there’s a time to take an MMA-themed summer vacation, this is it.

Fight Picks

Fight Henderson’s Pick Kontek’s Pick
Main Card (UFC Fight Pass, 11 p.m. ET)
FW Championship: Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino vs. Faith Van Duin Justino Justino
BW Championship: Tonya Evinger vs. Irene Aldana Aldana Evinger
AtomW Championship: Herica Tiburcio vs. Ayaka Hamasaki Tiburcio Tiburcio
BW: Pannie Kianzad vs. Jessica-Rose “Jessy Jess” Clark Kianzad Kianzad
AtomW: Amber Brown vs. Catherine Costigan Costigan Brown
StrawW: Amy Montenegro vs. Jamie Moyle Moyle Moyle
FW: Marina Shafir vs. Amber Leibrock Shafir Shafir