Tonya Evinger (Esther Lin/Invicta FC)

Invicta FC’s Tonya Evinger: Among the Best in the Bantamweight Division

Through her journey from junior high wrestler to Invicta FC champion, Tonya “Triple Threat” Evinger has had many ups and downs, none higher than her recent finish of highly touted prospect Irene Aldana to win the Invicta bantamweight championship this past July. Invicta has announced her next challenge, a defense of her title against 23-year-old prospect Pannie Kianzad. At an undefeated 8-0, Kianzad is one more step toward Evinger’s ascension into the history books.

The 34-year-old Missouri native was born into a life of combat sports, set forth on her path as a high-level fighter early on in life. Before her world title win in July, Evinger endured a rocky road on her path alongside the growth and development of women’s mixed martial arts. A 13-year wrestling career, highlighted by three U.S. National High School championships and an invite to the Junior U.S. National Freestyle team, ended in 2004 when Evinger graduated from Missouri Valley College. Upon graduation, she felt burnt out on wrestling, instead eager to begin her new competitive sporting career. In a time when women’s fights were hard to come by, Evinger would eventually find a willing combatant in young Californian Jennifer Tate. The June 2006 bout was the first-ever California State Athletic Commission (CSAC) sanctioned female mixed martial arts bout. Evinger lost the fight, succumbing to a triangle submission just under two minutes into the second round of the IFC Warriors Challenge 21 fight. The defeat was a learning experience for Evinger, who went on to win her next seven fights.

Evinger faced grappling ace and current Invicta FC flyweight Vanessa Porto, a fighter who had only lost to Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino and Carina Damm at the time, at a Fatal Femmes Fighting event in 2007. Porto was able to take Evinger’s arm, locking up the armlock submission just over two minutes into the first round. The loss didn’t hinder Evinger’s place as an up-and-coming female fighter.


Her televised debut against “The Face of Women’s MMA” Gina Carano took place just two months later. While Carano struggled to make weight, Evinger came into the bout two and a half pounds under the 140-pound weight limit. Evinger found early success in the fight, pressuring forward with right hands before getting control in a clinch and dumping Carano to the floor. Evinger passed to side control, but Carano regained half guard and reversed Evinger. Evinger looked to pay back the favor, but instead gave up her back to the fighter known as a striking specialist. Carano sunk in the rear-naked choke and got the finish in the final 30 seconds of the first round.

A move to Urijah Faber’s Ultimate Fitness gym was a much welcomed change for the Missouri native. Three months after the Carano defeat, Evinger flew to the Philippines to fight Katrine Alendal at PFP-Ring of Fire. Evinger locked up an armbar finish, building momentum going into her next bout with EliteXC, a January 2008 match with current Invicta FC matchmaker and commentator Julie Kedzie. Evinger dominated the fight from start to early finish. A quick takedown, pass and back take led to the rear-naked choke finish for Evinger. She followed the first-round win with a victory over Sarah Schneider, capping off an impressive 2008 campaign.

A 23-month hiatus from the sport was abruptly interrupted when Evinger took a short-notice fight at Raging Wolf 7 against Alexis Davis. Evinger cruised through the Canadian in the first frame, connecting on the feet and controlling on top. The last-minute replacement slowed as the clock continued to count down the seconds in round two. Davis clamped down on Evinger’s back the first chance she got, forcing the tap with a rear-naked choke submission.

A devastated Evinger looked to get right back in the cage, dominating Southern California prospect Adrienne “AJ” Jenkins just nine weeks later. The second-round ground-and-pound finish showed what exactly Evinger was capable of when fully prepared for a fight.

A title rematch with Davis just six months after the first fight led to another devastating submission defeat. Davis wrapped up Evinger’s neck for the second time, this time less than 90 seconds into the first round.

Evinger signed to fight yet another short-notice bout against Olympic Silver medalist and six-time U.S. Nationals champion Sara McMann. Former competitors on the wrestling mat, McMann used her pronounced advantage against the much more experienced Evinger.

Short-notice fights continued to be Evinger’s downfall, but worked in her favor upon her return from back-to-back losses. Evinger put Anita Rodriguez in a fight-ending rear-naked choke at 1:57 of the first round. The win propelled Evinger through 2012 undefeated, with wins over Lacie Jackson and Carina Damm. Evinger dropped to flyweight to face the veteran Damm, hoping to be signed to fight in the upcoming Bellator 125-pound tournament. Evinger instead found herself at The Ultimate Fighter 18 tryouts.

The UFC’s addition of the women’s bantamweight division in 2012 opened the doors for the top-level female fighters to fight for MMA’s largest promotion. The first and only co-ed edition of TUF featured UFC women’s bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey and No. 1 contender Miesha Tate. Evinger fought Raquel Pennington in the qualifying round of 16. Evinger started strong, getting control of the first round with her wrestling. Pennington was able to get comfortable in the second, slamming her right shin into Evinger’s lead leg. Evinger, feeling the need to get the fight to the floor, shot in and took Pennington down. Ever aggressive on top, Evinger put herself into Pennington’s half guard, giving her 24-year-old opponent the guillotine choke and submission win. Evinger was eliminated from the show in the opening round, a shock to most fans and pundits.

Evinger was given a spot at Invicta FC 7 a few months following the filming of TUF 18. Originally scheduled to fight Kelly Kobold, Evinger instead fought Sarah D’Alelio on short notice. Evinger took the decision victory before claiming back-to-back armbar submission wins over Ediane Gomes and Cindy Dandois. These victories earned Evinger a bantamweight title shot.

On one of the biggest weeks in the UFC’s history, the International Fight Week before the heavily promoted UFC 189, Invicta FC 13 played host to three title fights on one of the best Invicta cards in promotional history. Evinger fought the highly touted Mexican prospect Aldana in the evening’s co-main event. Evinger entered the championship bout as high as a +160 underdog to the largely unproven 27-year-old. Evinger came out strong against Aldana, landing crushing elbows, going for multiple submission attempts and utilizing brutal ground-and-pound from mount. The round was clearly in Evinger’s favor when she hit a deep armbar on Aldana. Despite the arm being fully extended, Aldana somehow gutted her way through the submission attempt, eventually escaping after an extended period of time. Evinger continued to dominate the fight, getting takedowns and the mount repeatedly. A bloody and battered Aldana displayed heart, but a series of unanswered punches and elbows forced the referee to call a halt to the bout just before the bell in round four. The finish and championship win came after Evinger pulled through throwing up in her corner in the third round.

The dominant performance showcased Evinger’s strong attributes, her wrestling and aggressive grappling. Evinger has continued to improve as a striker, often letting the public know they underestimate her punching power. When asked post-fight if she was surprised she won the title, she said, “No, I always thought I was going to be a champion.” That is an attitude that has pushed her through personal turmoil and a professional roller coaster. Despite setbacks in her past, Evinger appears focused on continuing her seven-fight winning streak. “I’m just here to win. I just want to keep on winning, I don’t like losing,” she said. A renewed confidence after switching fight camps has led to a more positive approach to life, “I had a lot of crazy shit going on in my life. I just got away from all that and I got to a good gym.” It is a change that has identified Evinger’s winning formula — “It clicks in my mind sometimes in fights; this girl can’t beat me.”

Evinger had to wait 11 years to win her first major title, but the win came with a reward, getting back at what Evinger believes was disrespect on the part of UFC matchmaker Sean Shelby, UFC President Dana White and the UFC organization itself. Evinger has talked about a possible move to the UFC in the past, but she is excited to keep fighting for Invicta until the UFC gives her a significant raise or, in her own words, “that Ronda Rousey money.” A potential grudge match with Tate, a bantamweight fight with Hawaiian contender Raquel Pa’aluhi or a “champion vs. champion” bout with Cyborg could all potentially be in Evinger’s future place. As she puts it, she’s “going to talk [her] way to a couple of paychecks.”

The announcement of her Invicta FC 14 main event in Kansas City on Saturday, Sept. 12, ended speculation of Evinger’s first title defense. It will be a quick turnaround for the champion, who fights just three months after her four-round title affair in Las Vegas. Kianzad will also be making the appearance after her promotional debut win at Invicta FC 13, a dominant decision victory over talented Australian prospect Jessica-Rose “Jessy Jess” Clark. “Sexy Scramble” was born in Ahwaz, Iran, and moved to Sweden later in life. Kianzad currently trains at Rumble Sports with the likes of Nicolas Dalby and Mat Nilsson in Denmark. She has fought in many of Europe’s top regional promotions. A win over UFC fighter Milana Dudieva at ProFC 50 in October 2013 began the hype behind the promising young fighter. Despite a second-round point deduction, Kianzad dominated the second and third rounds, upsetting the more experienced Russian. Two big wins in Cage Warriors put Kianzad’s name on the mat as a top bantamweight fighter in 2014. A third-round knockout victory over Megan van Houtum in Cage Warriors 71 preceded Kianzad’s first major title win, a five-round decision victory over Finnish fighter Eeva Siiskonen to win the Cage Warriors FC women’s bantamweight title.

Kianzad can be defined as a wrestle-boxer, working her striking and wrestling to keep the fight standing. She is a very strong fighter for the weight class, often the stronger fighter in the clinch despite any technical disadvantages. Primarily a boxer, she likes to pressure forward and keep her opponent on their back foot. Kianzad has the ability to cover distance with her jab, often tending to throw her left hook to control the distance at the end of an exchange. She can take a step back when looking to regain her composure, countering with her back foot planted and circling off of her opponent’s power hand. The orthodox striker has a few favorite combinations and tendencies. She uses the right straight to set up her left side attacks. The stiff jab and left hook make multiple appearances throughout her fights. Kianzad is a strong, athletic fighter who has great takedown defense and the ability to scramble up. She has been caught in bad positions in the past, but she has the ability to work her way up to the feet, capitalizing on the smallest of openings with her sheer strength. In scrambles on the mat, Kianzad often finds her way to the top, where she has great balance and frequently looks for heavy punches and the occasional submission attempt.

Kianzad will make for an entertaining challenge to Evinger’s title. Evinger’s personality leaks into her fighting style, allowing her to claw her way through the lofty obstacles set in front of her. Evinger’s tenacity won’t allow her to back down. She finds a way to always be competitive in any fight she is in. She has an ever-improving striking game that gets even better teamed with her great offensive wrestling. Evinger forces her opponents to retreat, employing relentless pressure to make her opponents uncomfortable and susceptible to mistakes. Her persistent punches and elbows from the top allow Evinger to grab any open submission attempts her opponents give her while defending. The No. 9 ranked bantamweight in the Combat Press Women’s MMA rankings, Evinger will look to continue to build on her seven-fight winning streak, proving she is one of the very best bantamweight fighters in the world.