On May 4, the UFC announced the formation of a women’s flyweight division, with the champion to be decided on season 26 of The Ultimate Fighter. Later the same day, the company said the announcement was premature. On May 11, however, the organization confirmed that it will indeed move forward with these plans.
One thing is for certain, though. On May 20, Invicta Fighting Championships will return to the Scottish Rite Temple in Kansas City, Mo., and feature several of the world’s top flyweight ladies at its 23rd event.
The main event is the coming-out party for Polish flyweight Agnieszka Niedźwiedź, a young fighter with a perfect record. The 22-year-old has defeated some notable competition already, but this will be her chance to join the elite. She meets 25-fight veteran and two-time Invicta flyweight title challenger Vanessa Porto. Porto has long been a member of the flyweight’s top tier. Will Niedźwiedź steamroll her way into the group of elite 125ers, or will the savvy veteran slam the door in the youngster’s face?
In the co-headliner, top flyweight vets Roxanne Modafferi and Sarah D’Alelio go to war. The affable Modafferi has enjoyed a career resurrection under the Invicta banner. While she fell short against champion Jennifer Maia, “The Happy Warrior” remains one of the biggest threats to the crown. For now, Modafferi has to fend off another surging veteran. D’Alelio toiled away at bantamweight in Invicta’s early days. She won her first two promotional outings, but then went 1-3 over her next four fights. D’Alelio has since bounced across numerous promotions and made the switch to flyweight, where she has amassed a 3-0 mark with wins over Andrea Lee and Jenny Liou. Which veteran can step up and make the argument for another title bid?
Finally, Andrea “KGB” Lee takes the spotlight in a bout against Invicta newcomer Liz Tracy. Lee, while occupying a spot further down the card, is an intriguing future contender in the flyweight division. The 28-year-old has held amateur and pro titles with the Legacy Fighting Championships promotion and recently claimed gold under the Legacy Fighting Alliance banner. Will Tracy put an end to Lee’s rise, or will “KGB” add another victim to her list?
The Invicta FC 23 lineup is eight fights deep, with plenty of important fights to be found outside of the flyweight division as well. Former atomweight titleholder Herica Tiburcio collides with rising prospect Tessa Simpson, UFC veterans battle when Elizabeth Phillips takes on fellow bantamweight Kelly Faszholz, Tiffany van Soest continues her quest to finally find victory in a pro MMA outings when she meets Christine Ferea, featherweight Ediane Gomes returns from a lengthy hiatus to welcome Pam Sorenson to the 145-pound fold, and we get a look at fledgling bantamweight prospects Brooksie Bayard and Yaya Rincón in the evening’s opening contest.
Invicta FC 23 will air live on UFC Fight Pass at 8 p.m. ET on May 20. Combat Press writers Riley Kontek and Bryan Henderson preview the event in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.
Agnieszka Niedźwiedź isn’t an Invicta newcomer, but the undefeated up-and-comer is jumping into the headlining slot in only her second bout as she steps up from a victory over mid-tier fighter Christine Stanley and prepares to take on perennial contender Vanessa Porto. How will Niedźwiedź perform in the Invicta spotlight?
Kontek: Niedźwiedź is a UFC-quality fighter just looking for her chance to hop onto the roster. She will perform quite well under the Invicta headlining spotlight.
Niedźwiedź is one of the best fighters in any female division in Europe, period. She established as much when she was a bantamweight, and now that she’s a weight class down, she’s even more terrifying. She has a great takedown game and a savage top game. She uses massive ground-and-pound and strong submission skills to earn finishes in most fights. Niedźwiedź is just 22 years old and she took a year off due to pregnancy, but she is already 9-0. She has headlined in Europe, and while this is a bigger stage, she will not be a fish out of water.
Porto is certainly the biggest test of the Pole’s career. Niedźwiedź will pass with flying colors, either earning an Invicta title shot or catching the UFC’s eye to earn a contract with the big show.
Henderson: There’s no doubt that Niedźwiedź is one of the brightest up-and-coming prospects out there, but not every star European fighter jumps to the American MMA scene without a hiccup or two. The Joanna Jędrzejczyks of the MMA world are few and far between. This isn’t to say that Niedźwiedź is going to fall off the cliff when she clashes with Porto. She’ll still put up a competitive fight, regardless. However, this is a significant step up the ladder from the aforementioned Stanley or the Pole’s latest victim, Samara Santos.
Porto has been in Niedźwiedź’s shoes before. The Brazilian was a stellar 14-4 when she entered the Invicta cage at the promotion’s second event. Prior to her Invicta debut, Porto’s only losses had come against Carina Damm, Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino, Roxanne Modafferi and Amanda Nunes. She was a highly touted fighter when she locked horns with Sarah D’Alelio. However, D’Alelio emerged with the win. Porto bounced back against Tara LaRosa, but then fell to Barb Honchak in a title fight. It took her those first few fights with Invicta to find her footing before reeling off wins over Zoila Frausto and Modafferi to climb back to a title affair with Jennifer Maia, a fight Porto also lost.
Niedźwiedź might need to stumble a few times, too. Her fight with Stanley wasn’t exactly a gimme, but Stanley hasn’t been within shouting distance of the flyweight top 10. Porto has been entrenched in the top five for a while now. If Niedźwiedź can get past the Brazilian, then she’s the top contender in the division. If she can’t, which is my bet, let’s give her a few fights and she’ll be back in the mix.
Beyond the flyweights at the top of the card, we’ll be treated to an atomweight affair featuring former champ Herica Tiburcio and rising contender Tessa Simpson. Both scored victories over Simona Soukupova in their most recent outing, but which fighter is capable of keeping the momentum going and moving one step closer to a title shot?
Henderson: The 30-year-old Simpson has only six fights under her belt, but she’s made the most of them. “The Typhoon” debuted in 2009 and won two of her first three before going on a hiatus from the sport of MMA. The Texas-based fighter returned in 2013 and topped fellow prospect Paulina Granados under the Legacy Fighting Championships banner. She sat on the sidelines for another two and a half years. During this stretch, she did have slated fights with the PXC organization against Gina Iniong, Celine Haga and Mei Yamaguchi. However, all of those fights were scrapped. Simpson didn’t actually return to action until 2016, but she made fans take notice when she submitted veteran Satomi Takano and then entered Invicta with a decision nod over Simona Soukupova. The win thrusts Simpson into the contender mix in the atomweight division.
Tiburcio, 25, took a similarly quick path to the top of the division. The Brazilian debuted in 2011 and racked up an 8-2 mark on the regional scene, but the diminutive fighter was competing at strawweight against the likes of future UFC title challenger Claudia Gadelha. Tiburcio was able to defeat Kinberly Novaes and Aline Sattelmayer during her stay at 115 pounds. She then debuted as an atomweight in Invicta and immediately dethroned Michelle Waterson to claim the Invicta crown. Tiburcio stumbled against Ayaka Hamasaki in her first attempted title defense and was unable to rebound in her subsequent fight against Jinh Yu Frey. However, Hamasaki barely edged Tiburcio by a split decision and Frey needed all three rounds before posting a decision nod of her own against the former titleholder. Tiburcio has since bounced back with a decision win over the aforementioned Soukupova.
Simpson’s willingness to fight top talent, including Yamaguchi and Haga, is notable in a sport where fighters too often avoid tough fights while attempting to pad their resume. In the end, Simpson didn’t get to fight those two Asian stars, but she has compiled a solid record with the victories over Granados, Takano and Soukupova. Simpson is a strong finisher who, even at just 5-foot-2, will tower over the 4-foot-11 Tiburcio.
The Brazilian is a scrappy fighter with an excellent ground game. Her stand-up could use continued attention, but this could turn into a battle of scrambles on the mat between two fighters who tend to favor grappling over striking. Tiburcio has the big-time experience and an edge in the submission game. Simpson might be in for a setback here, but she’s a good bet to hang around the top of the division for at least a few years to come.
Kontek: Agreed. Both ladies are very talented and will hang around the top of the division for a while. However, Tiburcio is the name that is more likely to make a splash in the near future.
Tiburcio has higher-level experience and a sense of accomplishment. She’s a former champion that will certainly challenge for the belt again. Her skills, especially on the ground, are hard to match. Sure, she’s a tiny person physically, but she fights big.
Simpson is also a good prospect. She’ll stick around the top 10 for the near future, but she has some parts of her game that she needs to tighten up.
Liz Tracy, Brooksie Bayard and Yaya Rincón — do we need to know these names?
Kontek: Of course you need to know any fighter’s name under a major banner like Invicta, but these fighters are still in the embryonic stages of their career, so it’s not vital to know them before or after this event.
Tracy is likely the biggest name of the three, seeing as she’s been the most successful of the trio thus far. The Team Oyama rep is 3-1 as a pro, and while she lost a close fight to current UFC roster member Ashley Yoder, she earned the biggest win of her career when she took a split nod over Christine Stanley, an Invicta veteran.
Bayard had some scouts’ eyes a few years ago, but she has not competed since 2015 and has certainly fallen off the radar. She had a big amateur win over the sister of Sage Northcutt, but she is just 1-1 as a pro. She has a lot to prove before people start taking her seriously as a player in the bantamweight division.
Rincón looks to be a better prospect than Bayard at this point, though she has not fought professionally yet. As an amateur, she is undefeated. She works with the MMA Gold Fight Team, the same camp that houses Aspen Ladd. Clearly, the gym is underrated, and Rincón is going to try to follow in the footsteps of her teammate.
Henderson: Rincón is likely to be the one name we need to note from this trio. The 23-year-old took out four opponents during her perfect amateur run, and two of her victories came via submission. She’s a young fighter who could develop into a mainstay in either the bantamweight or flyweight division under the Invicta banner.
Tracy can’t be ruled out either. Invicta’s roster has been culled several times over by the UFC, and another wave of fighters is likely to exit once the UFC’s women’s flyweight division takes shape. This leaves plenty of room for Tracy to make her way onto future Invicta events. She did beat another Invicta staple in the aforementioned Stanley, and her only losses came to a UFC fighter during her pro run and another Invicta regular while she was competing as an amateur. Tracy might never be a dominant Invicta champion, but she’ll probably make numerous appearances with the promotion and act as a gatekeeper within her division.
Bayard has the worst odds of becoming a fixture with Invicta. She already has a loss to a mediocre fighter on her pro record, and she could end up on the wrong side of .500 against Rincón. Bayard hasn’t demonstrated that she’s a top fighter, and she’s competing in a very crowded division. If any of these ladies is one-and-done, it’s Bayard.
Who’s the biggest winner at Invicta FC 23?
Henderson: The flyweights.
This card, which appropriately features three high-level pairings of 125-pounders, could be viewed as the division’s victory lap following the recent announcement that the UFC will add a women’s flyweight division and crown a champion through The Ultimate Fighter 26. It wouldn’t be a stretch to think the UFC scoops up both headliners, both co-headliners and Andrea Lee for the show or shortly after the show concludes. These ladies have been overlooked while the UFC has concentrated on the divisions above and below 125. Now, it’s time for the flyweights to step up and take center stage.
While this could potentially be the Invicta farewell outing for one or more of these stars, fans will be treated to some great fights. Agnieszka Niedźwiedź has a chance to prove herself against the established Vanessa Porto, Roxanne Modafferi and Sarah D’Alelio clash in a battle of veterans with renewed title ambitions, and the aforementioned Lee gets a tough battle with Liz Tracy. Roughly a third of the card features flyweights on a night when these fighters and their fans have plenty to celebrate.
Kontek: It’s hard to see a big winner at this event other than the aforementioned flyweights.
I suppose you could say the prospects are the biggest winners here. They will get Invicta exposure on an otherwise not-so-stacked card. So, people like Yaya Rincón, Christine Ferea and Brooksie Bayard will benefit.
Who’s the biggest loser at Invicta FC 23?
Kontek: Oddly enough, the main event.
Invicta does marvelous things for the sport of women’s MMA. However, main events for the company either need to be title fights or fights involving a massive name in the sport. No disrespect to Vanessa Porto or Agnieszka Niedźwiedź, but their fight is better suited for a co-headliner than the main attraction.
I have a feeling this will be one of the lower viewed events in recent Invicta history.
Henderson: We’re going to see more of these types of headliners as Invicta transitions from its former perch as the final destination for female mixed martial artists and becomes more of a Triple A affiliate along the lines of the Legacy Fighting Alliance and its predecessor, the Resurrection Fighting Alliance. The shift has already started, and Porto and Niedźwiedź provide us with a strong main event under this scenario.
The real loser at Invicta FC 23 is going to be Tiffany van Soest. Don’t get me wrong — the 28-year-old is immensely talented. She just puts her skills to better use in the kickboxing and Muay Thai rings. Toss in wrestling and grappling, and van Soest is put at a severe disadvantage. Look no further than her fights against Jin Tang and Kal Holliday for proof.
Maybe Invicta is giving her a fighting chance by tossing her in the cage with 34-year-old Christine Ferea, a relative newcomer to the pro ranks herself. However, Ferea should have a sufficient wrestling and grappling game to target van Soest’s glaring weaknesses.
Van Soest became a draw through her numerous appearances on Muay Thai and kickboxing shows on American TV, but she has struggled in her move to MMA combat. If she loses three in a row, which is a fair bet, she might not be able to put as many butts in seats as she once did.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
Henderson: The featherweight showdown between Ediane Gomes and Pam Sorenson.
How quickly Gomes has fallen. Her name was once uttered in the same sentence with Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino and Ronda Rousey. She was a 145-pounder who had only suffered losses to Rousey and reigning UFC bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes, and she appeared to be the only other truly tough fight for Cyborg outside of Rousey. However, the wind was taken out of her sails first in 2013, when she fought just once before having numerous bouts, including one against the aforementioned Cyborg, scrapped.
When the Brazilian finally did return to action in 2014, she had moved to bantamweight in an attempt to chase after Cyborg and Rousey. It all backfired when she was submitted by eventual Invicta bantamweight champ Tonya Evinger and then lost a 135-pound outing to Raquel Pa’aluhi in early 2015. It’s been two years since Gomes last appeared in an MMA fight, but now she’s back.
Sorenson, meanwhile, is moving up to featherweight following a 5-1 run as a bantamweight. The former King of the Cage champion has claimed victories over previously undefeated Nicco Montano, fellow KOTC champ Brenda Gonzales and Invicta veteran Jessy “Jess” Rose-Clark. Her only loss came against the previously undefeated Shanna Young.
Gomes can be a complete nightmare at featherweight, but there are plenty of questions surrounding her return. Is she going to be at top form, or will this be yet another stumble for the former top fighter? Sorenson, too, has some questions to answer. Is she ready for this level of opposition? Can she successfully move up a weight class?
Regardless of the answers to those questions, fans can expect an early rush from Gomes. How Sorenson handles the rush will set the tone for this potentially explosive match-up.
Kontek: Sorenson and Gomes is a good match-up, but so is the pairing of Christine Ferea and Tiffany van Soest.
Both ladies like to strike, and when spontaneous kickboxing matches break out with MMA gloves, things get interesting. Both women can throw and do so with power, which could cause this to go into the running for “Fight of the Night.”
Ferea, who looked very good against Rachael Ostovich in her pro debut, has potential to break out at some point. A win for Ferea over a Muay Thai stud like van Soest could add to the developing hype.
Sure, van Soest has yet to win an MMA bout, but her striking makes her good enough to make her a draw. It also makes this an underrated match-up on the card.
Pair this card with…
Kontek: A bacon and sausage pizza, 30 Busch Light cans, Hootie and the Blowfish on the speakers and a friend who has no problem getting up frequently to snag you one of the aforementioned 30 Busch Lights. Why? I don’t know, but it sounds good for a suburban redneck like myself.
Henderson: Predictions for who takes part in and/or wins The Ultimate Fighter 26. Vanessa Porto, Agnieszka Niedźwiedź, Roxanne Modafferi, Sarah D’Alelio, Andrea Lee and Liz Tracy could be reality TV stars in the upcoming months. One could even emerge with a nice, shiny belt around her waist. We have to assume the door is open for all these ladies to move on to the UFC’s flyweight division, so consume this card as your preview for what lies in store for the UFC within a year’s time.
Main Card (UFC Fight Pass, 8 p.m. ET)
FlyW: Agnieszka Niedźwiedź vs. Vanessa Porto
FlyW: Roxanne Modafferi vs. Sarah D’Alelio
AtomW: Herica Tiburcio vs. Tessa Simpson
BW: Elizabeth Phillips vs. Kelly Faszholz
FlyW: Andrea Lee vs. Liz Tracy
FW: Ediane Gomes vs. Pam Sorenson
StrawW: Tiffany Van Soest vs. Christine Ferea
BW: Yaya Rincón vs. Brooksie Bayard
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