Evinger is the main character of one of the biggest comeback stories in MMA history. She went from a reputation as an inconsistent journeywoman fighter with a 12-5 mark and a failed attempt to make it into The Ultimate Fighter house, to a dominant reign under the Invicta banner during her mid-30s. Now, Evinger is back for yet another title defense.
The veteran champion puts her Invicta belt on the line against Russian challenger Yuna Kunitskaya on a card that also features a strawweight championship showdown between titleholder Angela Hill and challenger Kaline Medeiros. The pair of title fights top a bill that includes six additional bouts.
Invicta FC 20 takes place at Invicta’s home base of the Scottish Rite Temple in Kansas City, Mo., and airs 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.
Tonya Evinger has been outspoken at times in her criticism of the UFC. If she successfully defends her title against Yuna Kunitskaya in impressive fashion, will she have sealed up a UFC contract, or will her words continue to get in the way of any Octagon appearances?
Kontek: If Evinger was going to be signed by the UFC, don’t you think it would have happened already? Even if she’s victorious here, does that mean she will finally be brought over? It seems like a hard sell, given that she’s been in the top 10 for a while and the UFC has signed anybody but her.
When it comes to this fight, it seems like a pretty cut and dry analysis. Clearly, Invicta is running out of contenders to pit against Evinger, which is why the company had to go with the debuting Kunitskaya. It’s not that Kunitskaya is a slouch, but she is definitely not worthy of a title shot right off the bat. And it will show in this fight.
Evinger is going to do what she always does, which is close the distance with brawling, clinch against the cage, take the Russian down and then beat her up from top position. Within three rounds, Evinger will finish this fight with ground-and-pound or submission. It’s that simple.
Whether the UFC finally comes calling or not is yet to be seen.
Henderson: Evinger is one of a handful of fighters who give MMA fans fits by either talking (or fighting) their way out of a UFC deal or refusing to come to the negotiating table. It’s fighters like Evinger, Bibiano Fernandes and Ben Askren — Fedor Emelianenko, too, back in his prime — that frustrate the masses by posting a long list of victories outside of the UFC and never proving their mettle inside the Octagon.
Will the UFC ever come around on Evinger? There may still be hope, depending on how the new ownership views her. The old UFC holds grudges, but the new UFC might not. Some solid evidence of drawing power would help sway either ownership group, but Evinger is no Ronda Rousey, Miesha Tate or Holly Holm in terms of her ability to attract a huge following. The Invicta champ has proven to be an excellent bantamweight fighter, though, which should count for something.
Kunitskaya does indeed serve as evidence of the dwindling reserve of title challengers available for Invicta to hurl at the veteran Evinger. The 27-year-old Russian returned in 2016 after nearly four years of inactivity, and she’s only managed a win against a Chinese prospect and a submission loss to a 2-2 opponent. It’s an understatement for my colleague to say that Kunitskaya is an undeserving title challenger in her Invicta debut. However, what other choice doe Invicta have? There are only two ways this problem can be solved: a.) The UFC signs Evinger; or b.) The UFC stops signing away Invicta’s most promising prospects (e.g. Irene Aldana).
If a 20-year-old fighter who had previously preyed on .500ish foes could submit Kunitskaya, then Evinger’s scrappy style and sneaky ground game should be much more than the Russian can handle. Evinger will take the victory, but it will come in the first two rounds. As for a UFC contract, well, that might have to wait just a little bit longer.
Angela Hill has really emerged as a top strawweight since arriving in Invicta and marching to a title reign. Is Hill for real, or will Kaline Medeiros bring a quick end to Hill’s status as the top lady at 115 pounds?
Henderson: First impressions are hard to shake. My first impression of Hill came on The Ultimate Fighter, where she was tossed into the deep waters to compete in a tournament for the inaugural UFC women’s strawweight championship, and in the UFC, where she faced fellow castmates from the reality series. The kickboxer entered the show as a 1-0 prospect and exited with a loss in her first fight of the tournament against Carla Esparza, one of the best strawweights in the world. Then, Hill made her official UFC debut at the TUF 20 Finale with a win over Emily Kagan and followed up with losses to top-10 strawweights Tecia Torres and Rose Namajunas. This left Hill with an official mark of 1-2 in the UFC and an 0-1 record in her TUF appearance. She looked outclassed.
Her post-UFC career has definitely opened eyes, though. She went to Invicta and debuted for the promotion with a first-round striking finish of Alida Gray. She returned just a couple months later and dispatched of Stephanie Eggink via strikes. A couple of months later, she utilized her striking game to rip the Invicta strawweight title from Livia Renata Souza’s grasp. She looked anything but outclassed.
So, is Hill for real? It’s not quite so simple.
Hill’s initial exposure as a member of the TUF cast and UFC roster was just too much way too soon. Hill, a seasoned striker and World Kickboxing Association champion, wasn’t ready for the elite games of Esparza, Torres and Namajunas. However, she gained a ton of valuable experience from those encounters. Once she moved to Invicta, Hill was in a pool of talent that more closely resembled her own skill level. Gray and Eggink had struggled to get going at a national level, and Souza, while impressive in her dismantlings of Katja Kankaanpää and DeAnna Bennett, is still finding her own footing at this level. Hill, thanks to her time in shark-infested UFC waters, was able to top this strong set of Invicta opponents.
The best way to sum this up is to say that Hill’s potential is real. She only looked “bad” initially because of the level of competition she faced. Now that she’s getting to work her way up the ladder, she’s showing that she can grow and evolve into a true UFC-level contender. She gets another tough opponent in Medeiros, but it’s another test for Hill, not an overwhelming and impossible challenge. Hill should continue to prove her worth by outworking Medeiros and scoring with her strikes en route to a decision win.
Kontek: What can I say that Mr. Henderson didn’t already say? That dude just analyzed that fight dry. Well, here goes nothing.
I have always been a skeptic of Hill until I saw her tear the title away from Souza live in California earlier this year. Hill has rapidly improved and showed that her brief stint in the UFC was a failure not because she’s not a skilled fighter, but because it was too much too early. I can admit when I was wrong. Hill’s got skills (take those rhymes, new-age rap artists!).
When you talk about rapidly improving fighters, Medeiros needs to be mentioned. She has improved five-fold in a short time. Does she deserve this title shot? Probably not. Is she capable of surprising us and using her immense power to damage Hill and possibly win. Sure.
When it all comes down to it, though, Medeiros gives up a lot of speed and athleticism to Hill. She needs to force a ground battle, where Hill still has a glaring hole in her game. Either way, it will not be easy, which is why Hill should retain the belt in this outing.
This card features just one fight that resides outside of the confines of the strawweight and bantamweight divisions. Is Invicta too focused on the lone women’s divisions that are represented in the UFC?
Kontek: I don’t think so. It’s just a coincidence. If it is too focused on those divisions, though, then it’s because the UFC supports Invicta by broadcasting its events on UFC Fight Pass, and the company is repaying the favor by developing more fighters in those divisions.
Invicta puts on plenty of atomweight and flyweight fights on other cards, and the fights are based on the availability of fighters in those divisions. More fighters are trying to be in the 115- and 135-pound divisions in an attempt to get in the UFC. So, in response, fighters are taking bouts in those divisions to try to catch the UFC’s eye and get into the company.
Henderson: Maybe it’s the cynic in me, but it’s difficult to look at this card and see anything but a preference for weight classes that exist within the confines of the UFC’s Octagon. However, rather than singling out this one event, let’s look at the year in review for Invicta.
November’s show is the sixth of the year, and it features one atomweight fight to go along with a lineup of strawweight and bantamweight contests. Only three of the seven contests at January’s Invicta FC 15 took place in the atomweight, flyweight and featherweight divisions. Five of nine contests at Invicta FC 16 were outside of those two prime divisions. Invictas 17, 18 and 19 checked in with four of eight, three of eight and four of eight, respectively. So, outside of the current event, we’re looking at a 2016 that featured 19 contests within the atomweight, flyweight and featherweight divisions out of 40 total bouts. That’s nearly a perfect 50 percent.
So, while we’re looking at an event that appears to be the women’s version of the Resurrection Fighting Alliance — i.e. a set of developmental fights for UFC divisions — the reality is that Invicta is still doing plenty to promote three divisions that aren’t included in the UFC.
Invicta FC 20’s lineup is full of prospects from the top to the bottom. Which prospect are you looking forward to watching most based on their potential ceiling?
Henderson: This might be a surprise pick, but I’m going to single out Miranda Maverick. I don’t even have her as the winner in her scheduled Invicta FC 20 bout, but we’re talking ceilings here and not a single fight. The thing is, Maverick might not win tonight, but she has a long and promising career ahead of her.
The Springfield Fight Club export is just 19 years old, which is a big factor in my selection here. She’s slated to meet a 23-year-old opponent on a big stage, and that might be a tough task for her to overcome. However, she has a lengthy amateur record that includes a number of stoppages and only a single loss, which came by decision against a 6-0 amateur opponent. Maverick has proven herself to be a submission ace, which could help carry her to an eventual title reign under the Invicta banner once she gains some pro experience and enters her mid-20s.
The lack of a loss on the record of her opponent, Samantha Diaz, and Diaz’s age are the primary reasons I see Maverick losing this fight. However, it’s a very slight edge — a coin toss, to use an exhausted cliche — and I wouldn’t even blink if Maverick did win this fight and then made a march up the Invicta strawweight ladder, or shifted back up to flyweight and ascended that mountain instead.
Kontek: I’ll take Alexa Conners.
Conners has shown to be a great amateur fighter, and despite being 0-1, she has a great amount of potential. In her Invicta debut, Conners dropped a contentious split decision to Laura Howarth in a fight that most people thought Conners had won — including yours truly, who was sitting cageside.
Conners has a record of amateur finishes, and she finished almost all of her opponents by knockout. That’s why you should watch her in this bout, even if she’s taking on a good European prospect in Stephanie Egger.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
Kontek: There’s not a whole lot to pick from on this card in terms of sleeper match-ups, as this is one of the weaker offerings Invicta has given us in a while. Since I am forced to pick, I will go with the bantamweight scrap between Jessica-Rose Clark and Pam Sorenson.
Clark has been an overseas star, especially in her native Australia. Her only attempt at establishing a foothold in the United States came up short when Pannie Kianzad put a whooping on her. That said, she’s as tough as nails. She has proved as much in her personal life with the recent report of domestic abuse in which she overcame insurmountable odds to survive a scary encounter with a boyfriend, so it will be interesting to see where her head is on fight night.
Sorenson, meanwhile, has quietly established herself on the U.S. regional scene, namely in the King of the Cage organization, where she won the bantamweight championship. She captured the crown by defeating the higher-ranked, more widely known Brenda Gonzales-Means, wife of UFC fighter Tim Means. Sorenson now has a chance to get her name known on a larger level.
With both these women hoping to achieve notoriety, one has to assume this will be a barn-burner.
Henderson: Clark and Sorenson should provide us with an entertaining scrap, but I’m going to pick up where I left off with my answer to the last question and suggest the strawweight encounter between Miranda Maverick and Samantha Diaz.
This pair of strawweight newcomers to the pro ranks will kick off the night for Invicta FC 20. That’s already a significant responsibility, but then we have to consider that both of these ladies are finishers who will come out with a ton of nerves. Someone’s going to make a mistake and pay for it with a stoppage loss.
No matter who emerges with the victory in this contest, we’re looking at two women who could be the future of, at the very least, Invicta’s strawweight division. Remember in 2013 when an upstart fighter named Tecia Torres met Paige VanZant and then turned around to clash with Rose Namajunas? Well, these ladies haven’t gained quite that level of kudos, but who knows what the future might hold? Just as Invicta introduced us to Torres, PVZ and Namajunas, it’s set to introduce us to Maverick and Diaz.
Pair this card with…
Henderson: A cleared schedule and a secluded living-room setting. Of course, if you’re only a casual MMA fan, you’ll probably pick and choose which fights you watch on this insanely busy weekend. However, if you’re one of those people who has to catch every big event, well, good luck with getting laundry done or going out with friends this weekend. Invicta FC 20 kicks off a schedule that includes a daytime Saturday UFC event followed by a Saturday evening duo of UFC and Bellator cards. You’re going to want to set up camp in front of your TV from Friday night all the way through Saturday evening, lest you miss even one bit of action.
Kontek: The DVR. If you’re an MMA nut like me, you’re gonna need it. Between this card, UFC Fight Night 99 on Fight Pass, UFC Fight Night 100 on Fox Sports 1 and Bellator 165 on Spike TV, there is no way to maintain a social life this weekend if you don’t utilize your DVR or recording options. Don’t become a social recluse just because UFC President Dana White, Bellator head Scott Coker and Invicta mastermind Shannon Knapp decided that this weekend your man cave is the only spot other than the bathroom and kitchen where you are allowed to stay due to the massive amount of action.
Main Card (UFC Fight Pass, 8 p.m. ET)
BW Championship: Tonya Evinger vs. Yana Kunitskaya
StrawW Championship: Angela Hill vs. Kaline Medeiros
AtomW: Herica Tiburcio vs. Simona Soukupova
StrawW: Ashley Yoder vs. Amber Brown
BW: Jessica-Rose Clark vs. Pam Sorenson
StrawW: Lynn Alvarez vs. JJ Aldrich
BW: Stephanie Egger vs. Alexa Conners
StrawW: Miranda Maverick vs. Samantha Diaz
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