Tonya Evinger (Jeff Vulgamore/Combat Press)

Toe-to-Toe: Invicta FC 17 Preview and Predictions

Two champions. Two unlikely challengers.

When Invicta FC sets down in Costa Mesa, Calif., for its 17th event, these unlikely challengers, bantamweight Colleen Schneider and strawweight Angela Hill, will get their chance to unseat the champions of their respective divisions.

In Schneider’s case, that champion is Tonya Evinger. Schneider, a seasoned veteran with a 10-6 mark, might view Evinger as inspiration.


Just a few years ago, Evinger held a 12-5 record and was fresh off a shocking exhibition-bout loss to Raquel Pennington that eliminated Evinger from The Ultimate Fighter 18 competition. She was the experienced longtime fighter who seemed far from ever grasping a major championship title. Then she came to Invicta and started winning. It took Evinger three straight victories to earn a title shot and then, after winning the vacant title with a TKO finish of Irene Aldana, she battered Pannie Kianzad in a non-title affair after the Swede missed weight.

Schneider, now 10-6, is in a similar situation. She kicked off her career in 2010 and went 1-4 through her first five bouts and was just 4-4 when she lost to Shayna Baszler in her own TUF 18 bout to make it into the house. Although she continued to flounder after her TUF appearance, going just 2-2 over her next four and losing her own Invicta debut to the aforementioned Aldana, Schneider eventually turned things around as well. She has now won four straight and is coming off a split decision victory over Raquel Pa’aluhi in her sophomore Invicta effort. Can Schneider, like Evinger, bring things full circle by claiming Invicta gold?

Then, there’s Hill. The Muay Thai striker is another TUF alum. The strawweight appeared on season 20 of the reality show, but she lost her first fight to the show’s eventual winner and inaugural UFC women’s strawweight champion, Carla Esparza. Hill continued on to make three appearances inside the Octagon at live UFC events. She won her first fight at the TUF 20 Finale, but she suffered losses to Tecia Torres and Rose Namajunas in her subsequent bouts, leading to her departure from the promotion. It didn’t seem like Hill could mount a title run, but then she joined Invicta and notched knockout victories over Alida Gray and Stephanie Eggink. Now, she’ll challenge Livia Renata Souza for the 115-pound belt.

Souza captured the belt more than a year ago when she submitted Katja Kankaanpää at Invicta FC 12. The undefeated Brazilian proved that her win was no fluke when she returned in January to defend the crown against DeAnna Bennett. Just 90 seconds after the opening bell, it was over and Souza was still the champion. If Bennett, a formerly ranked flyweight, couldn’t defeat Souza, does Hill stand a chance against the champ?

These championship affairs top an eight-fight lineup that airs live on UFC Fight Pass beginning at 9 p.m. ET. Combat Press writers Riley Kontek and Bryan Henderson preview the card in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.

Colleen Schneider and Angela Hill, the respective title challengers in the bantamweight and strawweight championship bouts atop this card, can be considered heavy underdogs. Can either — or both — of these title hopefuls score the upset over their division’s champion?

Kontek: I definitely don’t think both can score the title upset. In fact, it would be surprising if either one scored the upset. It’s not because I don’t think they are skilled fighters and worthy contenders, but the champions are just too strong at this point.

If one of them has a chance to upend the champion, I would give that accolade to Schneider. Her style is tougher against Evinger than Hill’s style is against Souza. In fact, Hill’s ground game is such a glaring weakness and Souza’s grappling is so strong that this match-up is tailor-made for the Brazilian. Meanwhile, Schneider can wrestle and grapple. She has also shown improvements in her stand-up. She won’t be an easy out for Evinger.

I think you will hear “…and still!” twice come fight night in Costa Mesa, but I have been wrong before.

Henderson: My colleague won’t be wrong this time.

Evinger has been on an amazing roll lately. I’ve often compared her to Matt Brown and Robbie Lawler in terms of career resurrections, but that comparison is leaning more and more toward Lawler lately. Evinger, like Lawler, seems to be so focused and in the zone. Nobody — at least nobody on the Invicta roster — is going to stop this lady.

I’ll also echo my fellow writer’s sentiments on the pairing of Souza and Hill. If Souza can score the takedown, this one is over in a hurry. Even if she can’t, Souza is skilled enough on her feet to fend off Hill’s attacks and supply some offensive firepower of her own.

If both underdogs win, they’ll be vying for “Upset of the Year” honors against each other in December. As for the more likely upset? I have to go in the opposite direction of my colleague. Schneider does in fact have the more well-rounded game, but Evinger is locked in right now and seems unbeatable. Meanwhile, Hill has the striking game to potentially provide her with opportunities to finish Souza. Is such a finish likely? No way. But, as the cliched saying goes, anything can happen in MMA.

Invicta cards have not been immune to late changes to the fight card, be it via injury or other circumstances. This event lost a pair of significant bouts in the final weeks before the card. Mizuki Inoue was set to meet Aline Sério at strawweight and Julia Jones was slated to clash with Tessa Simpson at atomweight. Which of these scrapped bouts are you most disappointed to see go?

Henderson: It’s tough to pinpoint one of these fights as the bigger loss. These were really two of the most intriguing contests in the lineup, but for very different reasons. With Inoue and Sério, we were looking at a battle between two established veterans, both of whom can be very entertaining on their feet and could have combined for an all-around excellent match-up. And with Jones and Simpson, we were looking at a pair of atomweight up-and-comers making their Invicta debuts. That’s a lot of mid-card potential for one show to lose.

Given the thinning atomweight division — a number of ladies have gone up in weight to join the UFC or compete on The Ultimate Fighter — the loss of Jones and Simpson is slightly more of a disappointment. We might be losing a “Fight of the Night” contender now that Inoue is out with an injury, but Sério will still remain and has the ability to turn any fight into a barnburner with her fighting style. Meanwhile, the atomweight match is gone in its entirety, which leaves the division without a fight that could have determined another rising contender.

One detail I’ve noticed with recent Invicta events is that by the time of the show, the card has thinned out considerably. It might be time to consider padding the lineup with more booked fights. That way, maybe by weigh-in day, there will still be 10-12 fights on the docket.

Kontek: Invicta is definitely the organization where fight cards don’t stay absolutely intact.

I agree with a lot of what my colleague said. However, I am far more saddened to see the Jones-Simpson bout shelved, due to the fact that the atomweight division will need some new title challengers. Both Simpson and Jones could be fighters who could charge up the ladder in a similar fashion to what Amber Brown did not long ago.

Of course, I am also disappointed that Inoue will not be competing on the card. She is a young fighter that has UFC potential written all over her. Sério is also a solid fighter, so it could have been a highly entertaining bout.

Tonya Evinger has been praised for her career resurrection and her recent title run in Invicta. She’s easily the best women’s bantamweight fighter not competing inside the UFC. If she defeats Colleen Schneider, is it time for the UFC to bring her into the fold? Should she be tossed right into the contender’s mix if she does land in the UFC, or will she have to take her place at the back of the line?

Kontek: Evinger should already be in the UFC. There’s no argument about that. In fact, she is a better fighter than a large part of the women on the UFC roster right now. I have a feeling that Evinger is the only person holding Evinger out of the world’s largest promotion.

In the event she does defeat Schneider, there is no doubt that the UFC needs to throw Evinger a good contract. She’d immediately be in the title hunt, too. Not only is she the champion of a top MMA organization, but the line of contenders in the UFC is short. That leaves a short road for Evinger to get to the championship picture.

Henderson: Agreed.

Evinger’s not shy about speaking her mind, and that can be all it takes to get the UFC to turn a blind eye toward any in-cage achievements a fighter makes. Oh, you won the Invicta title? Oh, you’re undefeated through five fights with the premier women’s organization? Who cares, because you’ve said this, that or the other about the UFC. Evinger doesn’t think the UFC really cares about women’s MMA, so the UFC is showing her that it doesn’t care much about signing her. It’s unfortunate.

If the two sides can call a truce, Evinger, assuming she does take home the win, should be signing a contract before she even leaves the Hangar at the OC Fair and Event Center in Costa Mesa. Her first opponent should be the UFC’s champion in a champion-vs.-champion bout, but that’s highly unlikely given the round-robin potential of Miesha Tate, Holly Holm and Ronda Rousey. So, here’s what I propose…

Tate is already lined up to fight Amanda Nunes at UFC 200. UFC President Dana White had said Rousey, who probably won’t return until late this year, was next for Tate before the bout with Nunes was booked. So, that leaves Holm. Let’s put the popular New Mexican in the cage with Evinger and see who emerges as the No. 1 contender.

Who is the under-the-radar fighter to watch on this card?

Henderson: Alexa Conners.

Yes, she’s a debuting fighter, so of course she’s not someone that most people are paying attention to quite yet. However, she’s also entering a division where the bulk of the talent is in the UFC, which leaves the door open for a quick ascent to the top of the Invicta ranks. Furthermore, it’s not that outlandish to think Conners could make a swift rise up that ladder.

This 25-year-old prospect went 7-1 as an amateur while winning five title fights. She did suffer a submission loss to Sijara Eubanks in 2013, but she also strung together a nice set of wins against previously undefeated amateur opponents Blair Patton and Robin Wissmann.

Conners has knockout power that led to five finishes via strikes as an amateur. She’s set to make her pro debut against Laura Howarth, a tough but beatable opponent for Conners. If she comes out of the gates and scores a knockout, Invicta might just have another bantamweight star in the making to feature on its future cards.

Kontek: Rachael Ostovich.

In terms of a match-up, I don’t see how her fight against Ariel Beck isn’t advantageous for Ostovich. Ostovich is a talented ground fighter. Beck’s two pro losses have both come via submission. If Ostovich can initiate a battle on the mat, there is a high chance that she will be able to control the fight and get the submission.

At 2-2, Ostovich doesn’t exactly have the sexiest record, but she is better than that mark would indicate. She has been nothing but exciting since coming to the Invicta roster. We can expect to continue to see that style on display once Beck stands across from her and the bell sounds.

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

Kontek: Charmaine Tweet and Latoya Walker.

Walker is the top featherweight in Invicta outside of champion Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino, who may not be back with the company since the UFC put her on one of its cards. Tweet is the queen of the lightweight division and a former title challenger, which makes this a great match-up. They also have opposing styles, which should make for a good fight.

Should Cyborg not return and instead opt to vacate her title, both of these women would definitely be in the running for the belt. Walker was probably next on deck anyway, so this fight could be a showcase for her eventual bid to fight for the featherweight title, whether it’s against Justino or for the vacant strap.

Henderson: Aline Sério and Kaline Medeiros.

Not all was lost when Sério’s fight with Mizuki Inoue was scrapped. The Brazilian remains on the card and gets a late replacement opponent. Instead of Inoue, she’ll now meet Kaline Medeiros. It’s not quite the same, but last-minute changes can make for interesting fights. Furthermore, Sério tends to have an entertaining style that can make any fight interesting.

Sério has been out of action for more than two years now, and this will mark her Invicta debut. She gained a lot of respect for a victory over Elaine Albuquerque and two fights, both losses, in which she went the distance with the highly regarded Kalindra Faria. Sério is just 9-5 and will fight outside of Brazil for the first time in her career, so a win is not a guarantee.

Sério’s prospects for a win do, however, increase now that she’s fighting Medeiros, a 37-year-old whose record sits at 6-4. Medeiros has a knack for going the distance, but she has suffered submission losses to the likes of Marianna Kheyfets and Katie Merrill. Her resume also includes decision losses to The Ultimate Fighter alum Peggy Morgan and Chelsea Bailey. She has also scored victories over Stephanie Eggink and Kathina Catron. She’s 5-1 over her last six fights, and her two most recent performances took place under the Bellator and Legacy FC banners.

Medeiros has competed as recently as September and has some momentum going her way. She’s also fighting in familiar territory on U.S. soil. These factors could play into the outcome of this fight. Sério can be an aggressive fighter, but she’s suffered her fair share of losses. These two might go the distance, but they’ll combine for a solid effort.

Pair this card with…

Henderson: Quality time with mom. This event falls on the eve of Mother’s Day, which makes it the perfect time to initiate your mom into the world of MMA fandom, assuming she isn’t already yelling fight advice at the TV screen whenever two fighters strap on the four-ounce gloves. Even better, this is an all-women’s league and there are moms, including Charmaine Tweet and Rachael Ostovich, among the women lacing up to fight. This way, mom gets to spend time with you and you get to watch fights. By Sunday morning, she’ll be suggesting you guys avoid the packed restaurants on Mother’s Day and stay home to catch UFC Fight Night 87. Sounds like a win-win.

Kontek: The ONE Championship card going on the same weekend, for only the reason that Angela Lee is fighting. Lee could easily be one of the best female fighters not currently in the UFC, Bellator or Invicta. If you’ve never seen her fight, take the time to watch her. Lee is a wizard on the ground and has her first really big test when she meets Mei Yamaguchi on Friday morning. It should be a great fight to pair with the Invicta bouts.

Fight Picks

Fight Kontek’s Pick Henderson’s Pick
BW Championship: Tonya Evinger vs. Colleen Schneider Evinger Evinger
StrawW Championship: Livia Renata Souza vs. Angela Hill Souza Souza
FW: Latoya Walker vs. Charmaine Tweet Walker Walker
StrawW: Aline Sério vs. Kaline Medeiros Sério Sério
FW: Amanda Bell vs. Megan Anderson Anderson Bell
FlyW: Rachael Ostovich vs. Ariel Beck Ostovich Ostovich
FlyW: Christine Stanley vs. Shannon Sinn Stanley Stanley
BW: Laura Howarth vs. Alexa Conners Conners Conners