Alexa Grasso (Esther Lin/Invicta FC)

Toe-to-Toe: Invicta FC 18 Preview and Predictions

There are no belts on the line this Friday night. There’s not a champion in sight. Invicta FC 18 isn’t about current champions. It’s about the future.

This much is evident from the headlining affair all the way down to the night’s opening contest. The lineup is full of prospects seeking to separate themselves from the pack and become eventual title challengers. It’s about undefeated fighters out to keep those perfect records intact. It’s about stepping up to the next level.

This starts with the main event, which features rising atomweight contender Jodie Esquibel in her promotional strawweight debut. The talented boxer squares off with Mexican star Alexa Grasso, a fighter who has managed to hold on to her unblemished record through three Invicta outings and seven total pro fights.


Then, there’s Grasso’s teammate, Irene Aldana. Aldana came up short against Tonya Evinger in a bid for the bantamweight title, but the Mexican fighter rebounded with a victory over Jessamyn Duke. Now, Aldana welcomes undefeated Brazilian Taila Santos to the Invicta cage.

These are but a few of the prospects in the nine-fight lineup set for Friday night’s show, which takes place at the Kansas City Scottish Rite Temple in Kansas City, Mo. All of the action will air live on UFC Fight Pass beginning at 8 p.m. ET. Combat Press writers Riley Kontek and Bryan Henderson preview the event in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.

Jodie Esquibel, a top-10 atomweight, is relocating to the strawweight division. Her first challenge is to overcome the undefeated Alexa Grasso, arguably one of the best 115-pounders on Invicta’s roster. Will Esquibel find as much success at her new division as she found at her previous home at 105 pounds?

Henderson: I have my doubts about Esquibel’s potential at strawweight. In fact, I’m getting tired of seeing so many fighters go up in weight just because it’s their only path to the UFC. We’ve seen Jessica Penne do it. Ditto Michelle Waterson. Now, Esquibel is the latest to make the move. While the jury is still out on Waterson after her impressive UFC debut against Angela Magana, Penne’s a much better example for comparison’s sake here.

Penne was an Invicta champ at 105 pounds. She performed well enough as a strawweight on The Ultimate Fighter 20, although her victories came against Lisa Ellis, another natural atomweight, and Aisling Daly, a good but not great fighter, and her loss came to eventual TUF winner and UFC champion Carla Esparza. Penne barely edged Randa Markos via split decision in her official UFC debut and was then thrown into a title fight with Joanna Jędrzejczyk. Jędrzejczyk destroyed Penne’s face with strikes. In her next fight, Penne similarly looked awful against Jessica Andrade and suffered another loss. And this is also a fighter who lost at 115 pounds against Zoila Frausto under the Bellator banner.

So, why’d I just spend an entire paragraph talking about someone who’s not even on this fight card? Well, because I believe Penne’s top-level success at atomweight and her less than stellar showings at 115 pounds also apply in Esquibel’s case. Esquibel, a Jackson-Winkeljohn fighter, has built herself up as a strong candidate for a title shot at 105, but now she projects to be an also-ran at strawweight.

Unlike Penne, who stands 5-foot-5 and has a 67-inch reach, Esquibel doesn’t have the size to truly contend at the larger weight class. She’s a short 5-foot-1 boxer with a 62-inch reach. Furthermore, Esquibel has used her boxing and muscled her way to victory in the clinch throughout her career. She’s not going to find as much effectiveness with her strikes against bigger opponents, and she’s going to struggle to control her adversaries against the fence. Esquibel doesn’t have finisher’s stuff either. She’s seen two split verdicts and four decisions total. She was also submitted as an atomweight by Alex Chambers, who hasn’t exactly been on fire in her career either, especially since moving up to strawweight.

Grasso has been fun to watch during her Invicta run. This is a woman with plenty of knockout power and the composure to hang with the likes of Mizuki Inoue, a talented striker and grappler, for three full rounds. If Inoue, a natural strawweight with a much more dynamic skill set, couldn’t edge Grasso, then Esquibel is not going to do it either. The only question here is if Grasso can score the knockout instead of the decision.

Kontek: I echo the sentiment of my fellow colleague.

Although Esquibel is a great fighter, she is greatly undersized for the strawweight division. She’s not even a huge atomweight. She will continue to find her best success at the lighter weight. As an atomweight with Invicta, she was among the top contenders along with Jinh Yu Frey.

That said, Esquibel did not look bad in her TUF fight with Ashley Yoder. I actually thought she won the fight or, at the very least, had earned a third round for her effort. Is Yoder a top-level 115-pounder? No. Did Esquibel nevertheless look solid? Yes.

Esquibel can have some success against Grasso, but I don’t see her beating the top Mexican fighter. This will be a one-off fight for Esquibel before she returns to atomweight to hunt down the Invicta belt.

Taila Santos is the latest much-hyped Brazilian prospect to arrive in the Invicta cage. Will Santos prove she’s for real when she locks horns with established bantamweight contender Irene Aldana, or is the prospect a lamb being led to the slaughter?

Kontek: I don’t think she’s a lamb being led to slaughter, but this is certainly the biggest challenge in her career. She has spent a career in Brazil crushing cans for the most part, so we will finally get to see what she can do when talent is put in front of her.

There is no doubt that Santos has talent. You don’t just go 13-0 if you’re not a great fighter. However, she has never gotten in the cage with somebody like Irene Aldana. If Santos wants a war, she will get that. Santos loves to bang, and Aldana will have no problem engaging in that.

Aldana is clearly the favorite here. She has fought some tough talent in Invicta, such as Colleen Schneider, Jessamyn Duke and Peggy Morgan, all of whom she has finished in the first round. Simply put, Aldana loves to get it done early.

This will be a contentious fight while it last. I think it has the chance to produce fireworks. This will not be one-sided. It will not be a slaughter, but I think Aldana hands the Brazilian her first loss.

Henderson: Anyone remember Mariana Morais? This Brazilian prospect went 9-2 before entering Invicta. She was on a five-fight winning streak and had just turned 20 when she made her promotional debut against Roxanne Modafferi. The results weren’t pretty. Modafferi scored frequent takedowns and dominated Morais on the ground before scoring an eventual TKO finish.

Yes, I just brought up another fighter who isn’t on this card. Why? Because Santos, who coincidentally was slated to meet Morais recently before Morais withdrew with an injury and Santos signed with Invicta, reminds me a lot of that other young Brazilian.

Santos, just like Morais, is riding a full head of steam coming into her Invicta debut. And Santos, 23, is a fighter with more experience than you’d tend to expect from someone so young. Finally, there’s the strength of competition for the Brazilian. Morais had faced and lost to Jennifer Maia and Luciana Pereira before making her way to the big leagues. Santos, meanwhile, has never lost, but her most notable opponents have been Rachael Cummins and Gisele Moreira.

I’m not convinced that we’ve seen the last of Morais, a 21-year-old. I’m also not saying that Santos will get destroyed and forever vanish from our collective radar either. However, the Brazilian is in for a tough time against Aldana. The Mexican fighter has only lost to Larissa Pacheco in an all-out war and to Tonya Evinger, a resurgent champion. Aldana packs the power to either score the knockout or rattle an opponent before locking in a submission. She has five inches in height on Santos, too.

Let’s consider this a learning experience for Santos. She might prove to have a better Invicta debut than Morais, but she’ll still land on the losing end of this affair. Maybe Invicta should look to book Santos against Morais next and give these prospects a chance to slowly work their way up the ladder of competition.

There are a lot of prospects gracing this card, and it is not exactly the most “star-studded” event in Invicta history. It still should be entertaining, though. Which fighter is the prospect you are most looking forward to seeing compete?

Henderson: Wow, that’s a tough question. There are quite a few compelling choices. I definitely like the pairing of Agnieszka Niedźwiedź and Claudia Rey, but I’ll save them to discuss as the night’s sleeper pick. Aspen Ladd is on fire, but she’s done everything under the Invicta banner, so it feels wrong to still call her a prospect when she’s turning into a borderline contender. I’ve already stated my doubts about Taila Santos. That brings me to Amberlynn Orr.

Orr hasn’t made her pro debut yet. She was supposed to do so at Invicta FC 16, but she was forced to withdraw with an injury. Now, more than four months later, she gets another chance. This 23-year-old bantamweight is finally joining the professional ranks after a lengthy amateur run — she amassed a record of 11-1 — and an extended winning streak. Orr’s only loss came via submission in her amateur debut in 2011. Since then, she’s finished all but one of her amateur foes. Those are some pretty impressive stats, albeit at the amateur level. But that’s what raises the anticipation for her pro debut.

Invicta has made it a habit of unearthing prospects in the earliest stages of their careers. Names like Tecia Torres and Rose Namajunas come to mind. Orr could be the next name on that list. Her debut comes against Sijara Eubanks, a 1-1 fighter who impressed under the Invicta banner against fellow debutante Gina Begley. In her sophomore effort, Eubanks stumbled against future UFC fighter Katlyn Chookagian. Eubanks, a multiple-time jiu-jitsu world champion, is no cakewalk for Orr. In reality, she might be an upgrade from Kelly McGill, the fighter Orr was slated to meet at Invicta FC 16. Eubanks is going to test Orr’s takedown defense and grappling ability. Orr’s performance will tell us a lot about whether she’s a future champion or not at the pro level.

Kontek: Orr is definitely a great prospect. However, the prospect I am most looking forward to is the aforementioned Niedźwiedź.

Niedźwiedź is a prospect to keep an eye on because not only is she undefeated at 7-0, but she is coming off a major layoff. She just went through a pregnancy, so it will be interesting to see if that will affect her in any way. Sometimes, pregnancy can change a fighter’s mentality or affect their performance in the cage.

If we see a classic performance by Niedźwiedź, then her opponent, the aforementioned Rey, is in for a rough night. Rey is a good prospect in her own right, but she has not really had a difficult strength of schedule. She has spent her career crushing cans in Brazil while Niedźwiedź has fought some tough opposition in Europe.

Niedźwiedź will ground, pound and finish opponents. If she does that in her Invicta debut against Rey, there is no way the promotion can deny her a title shot in the near future. She’s just that talented.

This card features two well-known fighters who have really struggled to find consistency. Those fighters are Peggy Morgan and Jessamyn Duke. Morgan is set to meet Megan Anderson and Duke draws Cindy Dandois. Will either Morgan or Duke finally start moving in the right direction, or are they both doomed to continue repeating the same mistakes we’ve seen from them recently?

Kontek: I could totally see both of them faltering here. That said, if either one of them is going to win, it will be Duke.

Morgan is running into a freight train. Anderson has wrecked her last two opponents with brutal knockouts. Amber Leibrock and Amanda Bell both felt the wrath of the Australian, and Anderson is only getting better. Morgan is going to need to bring her A-game, but, based on Morgan’s recent performances, I don’t think she can get by Anderson.

Duke has a little more of a favorable match-up. Her recent struggles have been attributed to fighting good strikers, something Dandois is not. Dandois is a drag-you-down grappler that will not threaten Duke in the kickboxing arena. Duke can also handle herself on the ground, so don’t be surprised if she ends her skid.

Henderson: Duke and Morgan have similar issues to some extent. Neither lady can see to find the key to using their height and reach to their advantage. In Duke’s case, she’s often too willing to get in a brawl with a solid striker. In Morgan’s case, she leaves her chin open for the taking. In both cases, the result is not a good one for these two former The Ultimate Fighter cast members.

I don’t think my colleague gives Dandois enough credit. Dandois might be a judoka and grappler first, but she’s a seasoned veteran who decisioned Marloes Coenen in her pro debut. This is the type of fighter who will prey on Duke’s inability to use her length to her advantage and send Duke home with another loss. She’s not likely to get a knockout, unless it’s of the ground-and-pound variety, but Duke simply makes too many mistakes.

One interesting note is that Duke beat Morgan for her only victory since her time on TUF. Morgan, meanwhile, has at least managed wins in two of her last three fights. Both wins came on the scorecards, however. So, can she last 15 minutes with Anderson and outpoint the Australian fighter? Not likely. Morgan’s chin has let her down on more than one occasion. She hasn’t been finished by knockout outside of one of her TUF exhibition fights, but she becomes vulnerable to submissions after getting rattled and, even if she hangs in there till the final bell, can’t produce any offense of note after enduring the blow. Anderson has been a wrecking machine in her two recent bouts, and the big striking finishes could foreshadow the first official knockout loss for Morgan in her pro career.

If forced to pick one of these fighters as the one with a better chance of victory on Friday night, I, too, have to go with Duke. However, it’s more likely that these former TUF hopefuls will both continue to repeat their past mistakes.

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

Henderson: I always get excited to see prospects fight on the big stage. I get even more excited when those prospects are undefeated finishers. Will they continue to perform so well at this level? Will they fold under the pressure? Am I looking at the future queen of the division? These are the questions that will come to mind when flyweights Agnieszka Niedźwiedź and Claudia Rey step inside the cage.

Niedźwiedź is the latest in a growing line of fighters whose names will be butchered by the masses (I certainly won’t even attempt to pronounce it). The 21-year-old is already seven fights into her career, but she hasn’t seen action in more than two years. Her biggest fights came under the Cage Warriors banner, so the Invicta spotlight might not intimidate her too much. However, she has competed exclusively in Poland and the United Kingdom up to this point, so a trip to Kansas City could take a toll. The majority of her career has been spent at the bantamweight level, and she has responded with two submission wins, four striking stoppages and only one fight that went the distance. She has a background in judo and a purple belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

Rey is also coming off a long layoff, and she’s fighting for the first time outside of her native Brazil. The Astra Team product hasn’t competed since an April 2015 win over Ana Paula Borges. She has four wins by some form of knockout and two submission victories. Among those wins, she’s scored a nine-second knockout and a 15-second submission finish. The 28-year-old has never seen the scorecards in her pro career. She has a background in Muay Thai and Luta Livre.

These fighters have several red flags — long layoffs, opponents with little to no experience — but the winner could start a journey toward tougher competition and potentially a title reign somewhere down the road. For now, though, it’s their finishing abilities that make this a sleeper fight. Either woman is capable of ending the fight on the feet or on the ground, and they can end fights in less than a minute. This one should produce an exciting finish.

Kontek: My sleeper matchup is a late-notice bout between Mizuki Inoue and Lynn Alvarez. It’s flying way under the radar, but it has all the makings of an all-out war that could be the “Fight of the Night.”

Inoue is still a prospect, despite her 15 pro fights. She is just 21 years old, and she’s still among the top 25 in the world at 115 pounds. Inoue is on a winning streak that is split between Invicta and fights overseas in her native Japan. Another win could easily throw her into the title picture, though Alexa Grasso is clearly ahead of her at this point.

Alvarez is criminally underrated, but she is coming off a huge layoff. She was originally slated to face Manjit Kolekar, but Kolekar dropped out due to visa issues. Alvarez actually was given an even harder opponent, which is rare when it comes to late-replacement fights. She is rugged, tough, well rounded and skilled.

This fight will be bananas while it lasts. Inoue will earn the win, but Alvarez will drag her feet all the way till the bitter end.

Pair this card with…

Kontek: UFC 201 and World Series of Fighting 32. It’s going to be a busy weekend of fights, so it’s important that you stay up to date with all the action.

UFC 201 will have an awesome main event with the UFC welterweight championship bout between Robbie Lawler and Tyron Woodley. You won’t want to miss that fight. It also has a top contender’s bout between Karolina Kowalkiewicz and Rose Namajunas, which makes the weekend of female fights even more important.

WSOF has two title rematches that should be great. It’s on cable TV, too, so many people will have access to the card. Marlon Moraes and Josh Hill battle for the bantamweight strap, while Alexandre de Almeida and Lance Palmer vie for the featherweight belt. Both will be intriguing bouts.

Sometimes, you can’t have enough MMA.

Henderson: What, no Resurrection Fighting Alliance? Toss that card full of prospects into the mix and what you’ll need to pair with this Invicta event is a nice, long Saturday afternoon nap before gearing up for another jam-packed night of fights. My colleague is right: sometimes you can’t have enough MMA. So, make sure you’re well rested for a long weekend of watching people get punched in the face.

Fight Picks

Fight Henderson’s Pick Kontek’s Pick
Main Card (UFC Fight Pass, 8 p.m. ET)
StrawW: Alexa Grasso vs. Jodie Esquibel Grasso Grasso
BW: Irene Aldana vs. Taila Santos Aldana Aldana
FlyW: Agnieszka Niedźwiedź vs. Claudia Rey Niedźwiedź Niedźwiedź
BW: Cindy Dandois vs. Jessamyn Duke Dandois Duke
FW: Megan Anderson vs. Peggy Morgan Anderson Anderson
AtomW: Tessa Simpson vs. Simona Soukupova Soukupova Simpson
StrawW: Mizuki Inoue vs. Lynn Alvarez Inoue Inoue
BW: Aspen Ladd vs. Jessica Hoy Ladd Ladd
BW: Sijara Eubanks vs. Amberlynn Orr Orr Orr