Yana Kunitskaya (bottom) submits Tonya Evinger (Jeff Vulgamore/Combat Press)

Toe-to-Toe: Invicta FC 22 Preview and Predictions

It’s all about redemption. It’s about proving that one can overcome anything thrown their way.

For Invicta FC bantamweight champion Tonya Evinger, this means erasing the memory of an initial submission loss that was later ruled a no-contest. Evinger fell via armbar when she met Yuna Kunitskaya at Invicta FC 20, but one mistake from the referee led to an outcome that otherwise could have been very different. Can Evinger redeem herself and serve up a beating to her opponent, the aforementioned Kunitskaya?

Meanwhile, the Russian Kunitskaya’s redemption comes in the chance to prove she can do it again, and without the referee’s assistance. The striker exposed a long-running hole in Evinger’s game when she snagged the submission, but the veteran champ should be prepared to avoid a similar fate in their rematch. Can Kunitskaya’s skill set stand the test of a second meeting with the determined and scrappy Evinger?


The championship bout tops an eight-fight lineup that also includes Invicta atomweight champ Ayaka Hamasaki in a strawweight bout against former Invicta 115-pound titleholder Livia Renata Souza. The festivities take place at the Scottish Rite Temple in Kansas City, Mo. The card 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 briefly lost her Invicta bantamweight crown to Yuna Kunitskaya when the Russian tapped Evinger in their November outing at Invicta FC 20, but the verdict was overturned because referee Mike England warned Evinger about stepping on Kunitskaya’s face, despite it being a legal maneuver. Can Evinger prove the submission loss was all the ref’s fault by winning this rematch?

Kontek: Evinger can prove that it was a fluke by getting the win back here. In fact, I think she comes out super motivated and ready to prove that she truly is the better woman.

While Kunitskaya is undoubtedly underrated, Evinger has ruled the Invicta 135-pound class for a long time. Her wrestling is better than Kunitskaya’s wrestling and she can dominate the Russian with her brand of blue-collar grind and aggressive ground strikes. On the feet, it is likely closer in skill, but Evinger has proven she can brawl with good bangers.

There will be a finish in this fight, but it will be Evinger finishing Kunitskaya. This will lead to her continued dominance as champion and a hopeful, long-overdue call from the UFC to bring her entertaining personality and rugged brand of fighting to the Octagon. Time will tell, though.

Henderson: Evinger’s a gritty fighter who has really improved over the last few years. Her loss was largely attributable to England’s screw-up, so we certainly need this do-over now that the first fight has been ruled a no-contest. Who knows what would have happened if Evinger had not been repeatedly shouted at to end what was a perfectly legitimate position. She might have forced Kunitskaya to release her arm. She might have followed up with a barrage that ended the fight in her favor. Or, she might have still eventually succumbed to Kunitskaya’s hold. All we know for sure is, Kunitskaya was able to lock in the sub at that exact moment because Evinger was shaken from her game by the referee’s actions.

Evinger’s fate in this rematch is going to depend on how much she learned from the first fight and whether Kunitskaya’s submission attack was a fluke. Kunitskaya has scored a majority of her wins by knockout or technical knockout. She’s not known as a submission specialist, but Evinger has a history of falling victim to submissions. Evinger needs to take a more measured approach and avoid trouble spots on the mat.

Despite her previous near-loss to Kunitskaya, Evinger’s resume continues to impress me far more than the resume of her Russian counterpart. Evinger has shown a remarkable amount of progress since her days as a 9-5 mid-tier fighter, and even from her failed run in The Ultimate Fighter. She made an eye-opening march to an Invicta crown, and she continued to turn heads with her subsequent wins over Pannie Kianzad and Colleen Schneider.

Evinger’s veteran presence will show against Kunitskaya. She’s certainly pissed off about the outcome of their first meeting, and she’ll channel that into a career performance en route to a decision win over Kunitskaya.

As for a move to the Octagon… Never say never, but Evinger’s not on the best of terms with UFC President Dana White and company, which makes me think we’re more likely to see Fedor Emelianenko in the Octagon than we are to see Evinger take to that particular eight-sided cage.

Four of the eight fights on this card will be contested in the strawweight division. This includes the co-headliner between Invicta atomweight champion Ayaka Hamasaki and former Invicta strawweight titleholder Livia Renata Souza. Is the winner of this fight the most deserving title challenger of the 115ers in the lineup? If not, which fighter, with a win, should be considered for the honor?

Henderson: The biggest problem for any promotion that tends to serve as a developmental league for the UFC — and let’s face it, that’s Invicta’s predicament now for the strawweight and bantamweight divisions — is that the UFC will come calling for any champion not named Tonya Evinger. In the case of the strawweights, this means Invicta titleholder Angela Hill is now fighting inside the famed Octagon. Meanwhile, a current 105-pound champ and a former 115-pound champ will combine for what could be considered the biggest strawweight fight under the Invicta umbrella. Yes, it’s a good candidate to crown the next title challenger.

Hamasaki, who has been plying her trade at atomweight lately and made two successful defenses of her Invicta crown, is moving up to strawweight for this contest. As a reigning champ, Hamasaki is a no-brainer to move up and immediately enter the title fray. The Japanese star actually started her career by making a run to the top of the Jewels promotion’s 115-pound ranks, so there’s an additional argument to be made for her worthiness as a title challenger in the division.

Souza, meanwhile, lost a split decision to the aforementioned Hill and thereby relinquished her crown. It wasn’t an one-sided drubbing, and Souza has been perfect outside of the razor-thin decision. She’s a solid fighter with a number of titles already under her belt. It makes sense for Invicta to give her a path to avenging her prior loss. She’s a strong grappler who should push Hamasaki en route to another close decision. Size and strength could be the big factors in which way the verdict reads. Hamasaki has looked stellar outside of a loss to Claudia Gadelha, but her best work has come against smaller fighters and mostly at the 105-pound limit. Souza, who will tower four inches over Hamasaki, could prove to be too much for the former Jewels champ to handle.

When it comes to the rest of the 115ers on this card, we’re not really talking about any immediate threats to the title. Jodie Esquibel lost her The Ultimate Fighter 23 strawweight fight to Ashley Yoder and followed up by losing her official strawweight debut to Alexa Grasso. She belongs at atomweight, where she could be a contender. Her opponent, DeAnna Bennett, can’t seem to find consistency. She’s lost two in a row, including a strawweight fight against Souza. The other strawweight pairings — Sunna Davíðsdóttir/Mallory Martin and Kal Holliday/Miranda Maverick — feature a quartet of fighters who each has had only one pro appearance. There may be a future contender or two among the group, but none of those ladies will vault into title contention immediately after this card.

Kontek: Mr. Henderson broke down everything pretty well. And yes, I echo much of what he says.

Yes, the winner of Hamasaki/Souza should be challenging for the Invicta strawweight championship and inevitable roster call-up to the UFC. However, outside of them, and maybe Esquibel/Bennett, the strawweights on this card are developing prospects that will be sticking around for a little while.

Expect the strawweight bouts to be a glimpse into the future of Invicta, not the UFC. Martin, Davíðsdóttir, Holliday and Maverick may be the prospects that Invicta develops and eventually has in the title picture. But for now, they are projects that are just trying to work their way up the Invicta ladder.

Janaisa Morandin, Mallory Martin and Madison McElhaney — do we need to know these names?

Kontek: Morandin is definitely a fighter that you will need to know. While I do believe she will lose her debut to Jinh Yu Frey, she will matter big time down the line. She’s too big a talent not to matter in the Invicta atomweight division. It’s too bad she wasn’t given a welcome fight instead of a fight against the last title challenger.

Martin has a lot to prove, but beating Heqin Lin in China in her pro debut is a promising piece of evidence that she could eventually develop into a contender. As of now, there are just too many question marks with her. Those question marks can be erased with Saturday’s performance.

As for McElhaney, it’s tough to say she’ll be a fighter you need to know when the featherweights rarely make an appearance, not only in Invicta, but in women’s MMA in general. Yes, she’s talented and can be a great prospect, but I just don’t know if there will be enough consistent work for her to establish herself and run in a barren featherweight division.

Henderson: Morandin needs to prove herself — I’ll get into this more in the next question of this preview — as more than just a Brazilian regional prospect who feeds on inexperienced, mediocre opponents. Her nine-fight undefeated mark should be enough to give her at least a few appearances to do so, though, and I feel that some tests against Invicta competition could help her development. I, too, see her dropping the fight to Frey, but the Brazilian will be in the mix for a while.

Martin’s win over Lin is indeed a good start, but China isn’t exactly a hotbed for MMA at the highest levels. My colleague is right to suggest that we’ll get more answers when the Colorado native clashes with Sunna Davíðsdóttir, who is already a proven Invicta fighter. Martin did have a pretty good run as an amateur, too, which adds to her promise as a fighter to watch in Invicta’s strawweight division.

Where I differ the most from my fellow writer is in my opinion on McElhaney. Yes, the featherweight division isn’t exactly overflowing with talent. However, the UFC has crowned a 145-pound champion. There were plenty of ladies, Holly Holm and Ronda Rousey included, who spent their earliest fights at featherweight before dropping down for the greener pastures of the bantamweight division. If the UFC has a home for 145ers, then we might see some of these women return to their former division, just like Holm did for a run at the aforementioned UFC championship. McElhaney could be among the next wave of featherweight fighters, and a couple of impressive wins under the Invicta banner could result in a quick move to the Octagon for McElhaney. Sometimes it pays to be in a division that’s relatively barren.

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

Henderson: Janaisa Morandin’s Invicta debut against Jinh Yu Frey.

Morandin’s record is perfect through nine fights, but she hasn’t really been tested. The Brazilian’s most notable victories came against .500 fighters Arielle Souza and Paula Vieira. However, this woman is a finisher. The “Evil Princess,” who trains with the Academia Killer Bees, has five wins via some form of knockout and one win by way of submission. She could deliver a finish against Frey, who even succumbed to strikes against Ayaka Hamasaki.

Yet, Frey is a former Sugar Creek Showdown champion and Invicta title challenger. She’s no slouch and provides a great first test for Morandin. If Morandin can get past Frey, we could be looking at a quick jump into title contention. If she can’t, then, well, we’ll know her record was inflated.

Kontek: I definitely like the Frey/Morandin showdown, but I have to say that I am looking forward to the match-up between Mallory Martin and Sunna Davíðsdóttir.

Davíðsdóttir gets a ton of hype because she’s from Iceland, like countryman Gunnar Nelson. It’s almost like the Conor McGregor effect that benefited Catherine Costigan. She’s talented and exciting, no doubt, but she still has a ton to do going down the line to prove she’s legit.

Martin opened her pro career by beating Heqin Lin in Lin’s native land of China. It was a major upset in this writer’s humble opinion. Martin certainly has all the tools to become a top strawweight prospect, and she can prove it by knocking off the Davíðsdóttir hype train.

It should be fun.

Pair this card with…

Kontek: Pabst Blue Ribbon, Snyder’s Sourdough Pretzels, a My Pillow®, three to five of your buddies and Stevie Ray Vaughan’s greatest hits blaring through your Bose speakers. Why? Because I suck at this question, to be quite frank with you. But that sounds like a good time, especially if you are watching some of the toughest ladies in the world throw down on UFC Fight Pass. Now, about that endorsement check…

Henderson: Give me a Monk’s Cafe Flemish Sour Ale, because PBR really does nothing for me and I’d prefer a beer that keeps me interested, just like this card is apt to do. I’ll take some chips and salsa over any sourdough pretzels, because this lineup features the ingredients to bring some fire, especially in the strawweight division. Pillows are great, and so is the idea of watching a night of fights with some friends. Finally, while the late Stevie Ray Vaughan is a true legend, I’d lean toward blaring something like Scott H. Biram’s “Blood, Sweat and Murder,” which brings the type of energy and anger we should see out of Tonya Evinger in the night’s headliner.

Fight Picks

Fight Kontek’s Pick Henderson’s Pick
Main Card (UFC Fight Pass, 8 p.m. ET)
BW Championship: Tonya Evinger vs. Yuna Kunitskaya Evinger Evinger
StrawW: Ayaka Hamasaki vs. Livia Renata Souza Souza Souza
StrawW: Jodie Esquibel vs. DeAnna Bennett Bennett Bennett
AtomW: Jinh Yu Frey vs. Janaisa Morandin Frey Frey
AtomW: Amber Brown vs. Ashley Cummins Brown Brown
StrawW: Sunna Davíðsdóttir vs. Mallory Martin Martin Davíðsdóttir
StrawW: Kal Holliday vs. Miranda Maverick Maverick Maverick
FW: Felicia Spencer vs. Madison McElhaney McElhaney McElhaney