First, it was Megan Anderson and Helena Kolesnyk. Then, it was Kolesnyk and Tonya Evinger. When the wheel finally stopped spinning, it turned out that Milana Dudieva and Mara Romero Borella would be the headliners of Invicta FC’s 24th effort.
The merry-go-round of main events for Invicta FC 24 was brought about by the UFC’s attempt to get Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino a legitimate opponent for UFC 214. The organization whisked away Anderson and then Evinger, leaving Invicta to look to a completely different division for its headliner. Enter flyweights Dudieva and Borella.
This will mark Dudieva’s long-awaited entrance into the Invicta cage. The 28-year-old Russian was set to make her Invicta debut way back at the promotion’s second event, and she was to meet future UFC champion Amanda Nunes. The fight was scrapped, and Dudieva went on to lose to Jessica Andrade and Pannie Kianzad over her next two outings. She eventually righted the ship and signed a contract with the UFC. After winning her Octagon debut against Elizabeth Phillips, Dudieva struggled against Julianna Peña and Marion Reneau, both of whom finished the Russian with strikes. Now, Dudieva seeks redemption in her Invicta debut.
Dudieva’s opponent in this flyweight showdown is another Invicta newcomer. Borella is an Italian fighter who has bounced around Europe and Asia for 14 fights since debuting in 2014. She has suffered losses to the likes of Anna Elmose, Stephanie Egger and Jin Tang, but she has gone on to win four of her last five fights.
The flyweight headliners top a bill that includes seven additional fights. Among the highlights of the evening, Ashley Cummins gets a chance to prove herself as a top atomweight when she meets Jinh Yu Frey, and the aforementioned Kolesnyk retains a spot on the card in a battle against Pam Sorenson.
As usual, Invicta sets up shop in the Scottish Rite Temple in Kansas City, Mo., for this show. The entire event airs live on UFC Fight Pass beginning at 8 p.m. ET on July 15. Combat Press writers Riley Kontek and Bryan Henderson preview the card in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.
After posting a disappointing 1-2 mark as a UFC bantamweight competitor, Milana Dudieva is switching to flyweight for her long overdue Invicta debut. She’ll meet promotional newcomer Mara Romero Borella. Can Dudieva impress at her new weight class?
Kontek: I certainly think she can impress in the flyweight division. Dudieva had all the tools to be successful in the UFC, and to an extent, she did find some success under the world’s largest MMA promotion when she won her UFC debut over Elizabeth Phillips.
Dudieva subsequently took losses to top-15 bantamweights Marion Reneau and Julianna Peña, though. The losses led to her release, which was somewhat harsh considering the lack of depth in the division and the quality of her opponents.
My concerns come with making weight at flyweight in her first attempt. During her UFC tenure, Dudieva took time off for a pregnancy. She’s never fought below 135 pounds, and before her UFC employment, she took catchweight bouts above 135. That said, she’s just 5-foot-5, so perhaps flyweight was always the proper fit for her.
The fight with Borella is intriguing. The Italian has trained with American Top Team and improved steadily in recent times. She’s also stayed busier in the last two years than Dudieva, though I would still give the Russian an edge in skill and experience.
Dudieva will announce her arrival to the Invicta flyweight division and try to make the short run up the ladder to an eventual title shot.
Henderson: Dudieva has to hope for a bit of a career resurrection, but that’s something we’ve seen a few times now with veterans fighting under a banner that features imagery of a phoenix rising from the ashes. Right now, the Russian is probably best known for coming out on the losing end to the aforementioned Peña and Reneau. She also fell to Jessica Andrade, Pannie Kianzad and Julia Berezikova. Meanwhile, her most notable victories came against the likes of Sheila Gaff, Danielle West and the aforementioned Phillips. She really is in the same shoes that Roxanne Modafferi and Tonya Evinger filled before entering Invicta.
Perhaps a new employer and a new weight class — assuming she really can make that cut — will serve Dudieva well. She does have the chance to get off on the right foot against an improving, but largely unheralded European fighter. Despite any strides the Italian Borella has made, this is her first Invicta outing and her first trip across the Atlantic. European prospects often struggle in this situation, and it’s difficult to picture Borella bucking this trend.
Dudieva’s going to come out on top in this fight, but she’ll need to prove a lot more before she gets a whiff of title contention. Let’s get her in the cage with someone like Modafferi or Vanessa Porto first.
The co-headlining slot goes to atomweights Jinh Yu Frey and Ashley Cummins. Cummins struggled to find success as a strawweight, but she looked great in her first atomweight affair. Is Cummins poised to conquer the division?
Henderson: She very well could be. Cummins worked her way past Amber Brown with relative ease at Invicta FC 22. She took all three rounds on one scorecard and two of the three rounds on the remaining two scorecards. This is the same fighter who couldn’t get past Emily Kagan or Lanchana Green as a strawweight. It’s clear evidence that Cummins belongs at 105 pounds, not at 115.
The fight with Frey will certainly show everyone how much of a contender we have in Cummins. Frey holds a victory over former Invicta atomweight champ Herica Tiburcio and has only lost to top contender Jodie Esquibel and current champ Ayaka Hamasaki. Despite Frey’s solid record, she doesn’t seem like an insurmountable obstacle for Cummins. Frey primarily owns victories against mediocre opposition and even suffered some setbacks as an amateur. Cummins has the tools to bully Frey for three rounds and emerge as the clear-cut victor once again.
Will Cummins make it to the top of the Invicta atomweight mountain? It’s possible, but Hamasaki might be the one lady who can edge Cummins for five rounds. What is likely, though, is that Cummins makes it past Frey and at least gets her crack at the champ.
Kontek: Conquer the division? Highly unlikely. Emerge as a long-term contender that wins some and loses some? Far more likely.
Cummins juggles a career in MMA with a career in law enforcement, which means she’ll always have work on top of training for fights. Will this affect her growth in this sport? Maybe not, but it’s certainly tougher to make massive strides when you’re not completely focused on this sport.
Luckily for Cummins, the atomweight division is shallow. Outside of the top 10, there are not a ton of fighters in the division that can contend with the best fighters at 105. Cummins will beat the fighters she needs to, and fall to fighters like Hamasaki, Tiburcio and, yes, Frey.
Cummins will fall to Frey, but don’t expect this to be the last we hear from her. Cummins will stick around the top end of the division for some time to come.
Mara Romero Borella, Helena Kolesnyk, Karina Rodriguez, Bárbara Acioly, Gabby Romero, Kelly D’Angelo and Tiffany Masters — do we need to know these names?
Kontek: Of course you want to known anybody’s name in women’s MMA, as the talent pool is always a tad shallow and a couple of wins in a row will put you either in contention for a title or a spot in the UFC or Bellator.
That said, of the names mentioned, the top three are Borella, Kolesnyk and Acioly.
Borella, who is headlining in her debut, is one of the top flyweights in Europe and one of the few Italian women making waves in the sport. Her improvements have been noticeable in her recent fights, so she could have some longevity at a higher level, whether it’s with Invicta or a higher calling.
Kolesnyk, who was supposed to fight for the featherweight title before the main event changed, now faces Pam Sorenson. Kolesnyk is undefeated and marketable due to her looks, so she could be one that catches the eye of the UFC if she can win a couple of fights with Invicta.
Then there’s the undefeated Brazilian Acioly. The 24-year-old looks to be a solid fighter who is poised to make an impression in the United States. After two wins in Brazil, she signed with Titan FC and won a fight there before winning her most recent contest in America over Jamie Thorton. At her age, Acioly has a lot of time to continue developing into a contender.
Henderson: I’m not so high on Borella right now, but I’ll second my colleague’s picks of Kolesnyk and Acioly. Let’s also add in D’Angelo and Masters, though.
The 30-year-old D’Angelo has stopped most of her opponents, both amateur and pro, and enters an Invicta division that has become a revolving door that leads directly to the UFC. All D’Angelo has to do is win a few fights and she can become a perennial Invicta contender at the very least. She probably won’t start down this path against Davíðsdóttir, but it will only be a minor setback.
Masters also offers hope for the future of the strawweight division. The “Rainbow Renegade” has quite a few first-round finishes on her resume, and she could turn out to be a highlight-reel contributor for the entirety of her tenure with Invicta. Her fight with Mallory Martin won’t be a cakewalk, but she can can get the job done and remain undefeated.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
Henderson: The flyweight clash between Miranda Maverick and Gabby Romero.
These two upstarts have only combined for five pro fights, but there’s a lot of potential here. The 20-year-old Maverick has earned two first-round submission finishes under the Invicta banner, and she was a lethal grappler as an amateur, too. The 29-year-old Romero suffered a decision loss to rising flyweight Brogan Walker in her pro debut, but she responded with two first-round submissions of her own, including a recent victory over star Chinese flyweight Bo Meng. Romero, too, has a history of submission stoppages that extends back to her amateur days.
Whenever two fighters with strong submission games clash, there’s the potential for the grappling version of a slugfest, full of transitions, sweeps, scrambles and reversals. This bout between Maverick and Romero has the potential to deliver if it turns into a battle on the mat.
Kontek: I like the Maverick/Romero match-up as well, but the sleeper bout on this card has to be Sunna Davíðsdóttir’s strawweight showdown with Kelly D’Angelo.
Davíðsdóttir, the No. 2 Icelandic fighter in the MMA game behind Gunnar Nelson, has proven in Invicta to be a legit prospect with some marketing value in the impending future. She’s 2-0 as a pro, and she was undefeated as an amateur. Her pro career has been exclusively with Invicta, where she’s earned unanimous nods over Ashley Greenway and Mallory Martin. D’Angelo is a step up in competition for Davíðsdóttir, in my book.
D’Angelo is a 2-0 prospect. She, too, was undefeated as an amateur. D’Angelo knocked out Invicta vet Samantha Diaz in February, and she choked out Emily Whitmire in the Resurrection Fighting Alliance organization in her pro debut in 2016. She’s a finisher and can knock out opponents or submit them. D’Angelo is a good prospect in the strawweight division. She’s exciting and could be one in consideration for the UFC in the next few years.
This will be a great chess match. Whether it’s contested on the feet or on the mat, this could turn into a very entertaining contest.
Pair this card with…
Kontek: Natty Ice baby! Oh and Bellator 181, as well as the UFC card in Scotland. That’s all I got.
Henderson: A game of musical chairs. The main event of Invicta FC 24 has changed several times, but we’ve landed on a solid card that could produce a number of future contenders. It’s too bad there’s no title fight, but there will still be a few big winners when the dust settles and the music stops.
Main Card (UFC Fight Pass, 8 p.m. ET)
FlyW: Milana Dudieva vs. Mara Romero Borella
AtomW: Jinh Yu Frey vs. Ashley Cummins
FW: Pam Sorenson vs. Helena Kolesnyk
FlyW: Karina Rodriguez vs. Bárbara Acioly
FlyW: Miranda Maverick vs. Gabby Romero
StrawW: Sunna Davíðsdóttir vs. Kelly D’Angelo
FW: Felicia Spencer vs. Amy Coleman
StrawW: Mallory Martin vs. Tiffany Masters
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