To UFC fans, Tonya Evinger was just the latest victim on a long list of kills for newly minted UFC women’s featherweight champion Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino. To Yana Kunitskaya, though, the scrappy veteran Evinger was the roadblock standing in the way of a title belt. Kunitskaya beat Evinger once, only to have the result overturned and the belt returned to Evinger. Kunitskaya’s second meeting with the champ ended with far less controversy when Evinger submitted the Russian to notch a successful title defense. Now, however, Evinger is out of the way, her further employment coming under the UFC banner. Kunitskaya has an opening to gain the Invicta crown once again.
Kunitskaya’s latest bid for Invicta gold comes against fellow contender Raquel Pa’aluhi. Don’t let the 26-year-old Hawaiian’s unassuming 6-5 mark fool you. She’s legit. Pa’aluhi went just 2-4 through her first six pro outings, but her losses came to the likes of veteran Sarah D’Alelio, Olympic wrestler Sara McMann, future UFC champion Amanda Nunes and future UFC contender Raquel Pennington. She’s gone 3-1 in her most recent stint with Invicta, which includes a split-decision loss to Colleen Schneider and wins over Kaitlin Young, Ediane Gomes and Pannie Kianzad.
Can Kunitskaya finally claim gold? Will Pa’aluhi take Evinger’s place as the thorn in the Russian’s side?
The bantamweight title hopefuls top a bill that also includes former Invicta strawweight queen Livia Renata Souza in a non-title affair against late replacement Janaisa Morandin. Other highlights include a bantamweight clash between Alexa Conners and Katharina Lehner and a strawweight scrap between Sharon Jacobson and Kali Robbins. In all, the lineup totals nine fights.
Invicta FC 25 delivers a rare Thursday night of action to MMA fans. The event takes place at the Tachi Palace in Lemoore, Calif., on Aug. 31. The entire show will air live on UFC Fight Pass beginning at 9 p.m. ET. Combat Press writers Riley Kontek and Bryan Henderson preview the event in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.
With Tonya Evinger in the UFC, Yana Kunitskaya gets yet another crack at the Invicta bantamweight championship. This time, her opponent is Raquel Pa’aluhi, who stands just one fight above the .500 mark. Will Pa’aluhi dash Kunitskaya’s hopes once more, or is this finally the Russian’s time?
Kontek: Kunitskaya gets another chance here, and I hope she gets another chance in the future, considering the lack of depth in the bantamweight division overall.
Sure, you can look at Pa’aluhi’s record from a pure numbers standpoint. It isn’t exactly sexy. However, upon closer inspection, you’ll realize that Pa’aluhi was forged through fire and brimstone, taking on tough opponents throughout her career.
Most of her losses came to top UFC fighters. This includes UFC champ Amanda Nunes, as well as top-10 fighters Raquel Pennington and Sara McMann. She also fell to Colleen Schneider in her most recent loss, and Schneider went on to challenge for the Invicta belt in her next fight.
Pa’aluhi’s wins, like her losses, have come against top fighters. Pannie Kianzad and Ediane Gomes are a part of her resume. Both ladies signify big wins for Pa’aluhi under the Invicta banner. It shows she can hang with the best and beat the rest.
It’s not that Kunitskaya isn’t skilled. Far from it. The fact is, though, that few are as physically tough as Pa’aluhi, and the Hawaiian’s aggression is good at making opponents uncomfortable. That goes for this Russian opponent, who will fall in what should be an entertaining scrap.
Henderson: Pa’aluhi’s resume certainly is filled with stars, and she’s even defeated a number of them. Yet, I can’t overlook Kunitskaya’s challenges to Evinger. Nobody is as tough as Evinger — she even proved as much by putting up a strong fight in a doomed outing against Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino. Kunitskaya almost overcame Evinger’s scrappy style and having her face literally stepped on to become champion in the pair’s first fight. It could be argued that the referee’s interference is the only thing that cost the Russian the belt. The 27-year-old didn’t fare as well in the rematch, but she still did well in the opening moments of the bout. I’ll take that over an up-and-down run from Pa’aluhi.
However, just like my colleague, I will throw in a caveat that Pa’aluhi is by no means unskilled or outclassed here. This is going to be a close and tough fight. Pa’aluhi has a ton of experience against extremely tough competition, and this should help her to put the pressure on Kunitskaya. It’s just that the Russian is coming off of two tough outings against Evinger, and no amount of aggression from Pa’aluhi is going to deter Kunitskaya from claiming the strap this time around.
Former strawweight titleholder Livia Renata Souza was set to battle for the vacant belt at this event against Jodie Esquibel, but Esquibel suffered an injury and has been replaced by Janaisa Morandin. The bout has been downgraded to a three-round, non-title affair. Will the late change in opponents cause Souza to stumble? Is this an easier fight for the former champ?
Henderson: Late-notice replacements can wreak havoc on a fighter’s game plan and their ability to emerge with the victory. However, it does look like Souza is going from a tough title bout against Esquibel to a more winnable fight against a fighter who is technically an Invicta newcomer (Morandin missed weight for her scheduled promotional debut in March and had her fight with Jinh Yu Frey scrapped).
Morandin is a largely unproven talent who holds a head-turning 9-0 pro mark, but a resume filled with rookie fighters and .500 opponents. In fact, the “Evil Princess” faced her best opponent, the now 4-3 Thaiane Souza when both ladies were amateurs. As a pro, Morandin picked up her first two wins against Thayani Cristine, who has never faced another pro opponent. She then edged out Helaine Ribeiro, who now holds a 2-8 mark, via split decision. From there, the Brazilian’s list of victims includes debuting pros Ana Luiza de Jesus, Mariana Oliveira, Cynthia Candido and Lavinia Ione, as well as the previously 2-2 Arielle Souza and the previously 4-4 Paula Vieira. She stopped six of her nine opponents, but she lacks a true signature win on her resume.
Souza, meanwhile, was prepping for Esquibel, a seasoned vet who excels at outpointing foes in grinding stand-up battles. Esquibel would have joined a list of opponents for the former champ that includes Aline Sattelmayer, Katja Kankaanpää, DeAnna Bennett, Angela Hill and Ayaka Hamasaki. Souza’s only loss against this group came in a close fight against Hill. The former titleholder is a skilled member of the strawweight elite, in other words.
Morandin is a wild card. She could come in there and blow away Souza. However, there’s not much evidence to support this outcome. Souza was able to destroy Bennett and Hamasaki with strikes. She submitted Kankaanpää, Sattelmayer and Camila Lima. Souza won’t stumble, unless she takes this fight too lightly, given its non-title nature. That would be a disappointing approach for the Brazilian, and it’s not a mindset she’s likely to bring into the cage. Souza will impress once more, while exposing Morandin as a fighter with a padded record.
Kontek: Mr. Henderson said it best. Morandin is a wild card. Not only is she a wild card, but she’s a natural atomweight, meaning she’s coming into this bout not only on late notice but as a much smaller fighter than Souza.
Souza is a top strawweight. Despite her one hiccup under the Invicta banner, she is still a world-class fighter at 115 pounds. Morandin has ruled the 105-pound division with an iron fist in Brazil, but the competition there has been suspect at best. This is a real test. Can she pass it? Absolutely. Will she? I have a hard time buying that.
Souza is too good and constantly improving. Size, skill and experience are a huge factor here, and all of those fall on the side of the former Invicta champion.
Katharina Lehner, Kali Robbins, Alyse Anderson, Cheri Muraski and Courtney King — do we need to know these names?
Kontek: I am sure all of these ladies will have a good run during their careers. However, if I had to pick one woman of the bunch that has the potential to be a top player for the company and the most immediate UFC potential, it has to be Kali Robbins.
Anderson, Lehner and Muraski certainly have potential, but I just don’t think they’re at a high enough level yet. King, despite beating the sister of Sage Northcutt, still has a ton to prove, too.
That’s where Robbins comes in. Undefeated and training with former UFC fighter Eric “Red” Schafer, Robbins is not only tough as nails, but underrated when it comes to skills. I talked to a member of the camp, and they called Robbins a “savage” and a “beast.” It’s shocking she didn’t make it onto The Ultimate Fighter 26 cast.
All four of Robbins’ wins were finishes. Three of those finishes came in the first round, with one taking just eight seconds. “Savage” and “beast” are perfectly suitable words to sum up Robbins, who can have a coming-out party by beating top strawweight Sharon Jacobson, which is no easy task in and of itself.
Henderson: These prospects sport a combined 16-0 record. Toss in Janaisa Morandin, who is also making her Invicta debut at this show, and that’s a cast of six undefeated fighters who will make their first Invicta appearance on Thursday night. That’s not a bad booking feat for Invicta matchmaker Kaitlin Young. I concur on this group’s ability to put up good career numbers. We might even catch an early glimpse of a future champion among this group.
Who might that champion be? Robbins does have a chance, but she competes in arguably the toughest division within Invicta. Lehner needs more seasoning, for sure. King was inconsistent as an amateur. It’s too early to tell on Muraski, whose signature win came against sub-.500 fighter Shannon Sinn. This leaves us with Anderson.
The Michigan Top Team fighter competes in the atomweight division, which is another very stacked weight class for Invicta. However, atomweight is also a very turbulent division that has experienced a lot of turnover as fighters move up in an attempt to punch their ticket into the UFC’s strawweight division or suffer a string of tough losses, as we’ve seen from former title challenger Amber Brown and recent atomweight arrival Ashley Cummins. Anderson could easily capitalize on this turbulence and squirm her way into the title picture with a few impressive wins.
Furthermore, Anderson, 22, is a young fighter with plenty of room to grow. The high school soccer standout is a proven athlete, too. More than perhaps any of the other fighters in this group, she has the pedigree to rise to the top of the mountain.
Will any of the debuting pros — Sarah Kleczka, Tracy Cortez, Ashley Medina and Jillian DeCoursey — make an immediate statement at Invicta FC 25?
Henderson: None of these young fighters jump out as an immediate killer.
Kleczka went the distance in four of her seven amateur bouts. She draws Amberlynn Orr, an 0-1 fighter who was put away in the first round by Sijara Eubanks in her pro debut, but who also finished quite a few foes while competing as an amateur. “Chucky” could engage in a great grappling battle with Orr, but the 24-year-old’s lack of finishes is concerning.
Cortez draws Cheri Muraski, an undefeated pro with three fights under her belt. Cortez has a better finishing rate through her six-fight unblemished amateur run, so there’s definitely future potential here. However, she’s likely to make mistakes in her pro debut against a fighter who has pro experience on her side.
Finally, there are Ashley Medina and Jillian DeCoursey, a pair of atomweights. Someone has to win this battle of rookies, but that someone is likely to have to wait for the scorecards before they have their hand raised. The 21-year-old Medina’s 4-1 amateur run included two split verdicts, only one of which went her way, and a unanimous-decision win. The 33-year-old DeCoursey went the distance seven times in nine ammy outings and emerged with five unanimous nods and one split decision, while also losing via a unanimous verdict. These two ladies will push each other the distance, but it could turn into a grinding affair.
Three of these women are young enough to be counted on for another decade-plus of fighting, and they have the potential to emerge as future stars. However, it’s doubtful that any of them will deliver a highlight-reel finish or a one-sided drubbing on Thursday.
Kontek: I, too, share the idea that, on the surface, none of these fighters look like immediate blue-chippers. They all look like solid hands that still need a lot of development.
The DeCoursey/Medina fight looks like a real potential clunker, although it could devolve into a brawl, especially since the lack of experience is mutual. On paper, they need a lot of work. We will see if that’s true in practice.
Kleczka has potential, but that lack of finishing ability does leave question marks. If she can’t finish the lower-level fighters, how will she do against more skilled competition? She needs some more development, but her success indicates that, despite her decision-heavy ways, she could grow into something bigger.
Then there’s Cortez. A finisher in four of six of her amateur wins and just 23 years old, she has real potential in the next couple years to develop into a strong fighter. She draws a very tough opponent in Muraski for her debut, but it could be iron sharpening iron. Cortez might lose, but she will get valuable experience out of this effort. Out of the four fighters, Cortez has the most potential.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
Kontek: I mentioned her earlier, but I will mention her fight again here. The sleeper match-up on this card has to be the bout between Kali Robbins and Sharon Jacobson.
Jacobson is a fantastic wrestler, but Robbins is known to have a very dangerous ground game. If the fight hits the mat, we could see a very high-level grappling exchange between two absolute killers. On the feet, where both are a little less skilled, it could turn into a dog fight if they don’t want to mix it up on the mat.
Will it get “Fight of the Night” honors? Probably not — I reserve that for the night’s main event — but due to the high-level action and exciting spots, it will certainly give the headliner a run for its money.
Henderson: My attention turns back to the bantamweight showdown between Sarah Kleczka and Amberlynn Orr. As I already suggested, there’s probably not a finish in store here, but there’s certainly plenty for the grappling fans among us.
The Georgia-born Kleczka did flash her submission prowess in three amateur finishes. The American Top Team Tampa fighter doesn’t have a lengthy combat-sports background — she started training as a way to stay in shape and eventually decided she wanted to fight — but she has excelled on the mats.
Orr experienced a rough start to her pro career when she was put away via strikes by Sijara Eubanks at Invicta FC 18, but the 25-year-old registered seven submissions, plus two knockouts, during her amateur run. Orr, like Kleczka, got her start in MMA after visiting a gym in an effort to stay in shape.
Two fighters with a healthy number of submission wins? Count me in.
Pair this card with…
Henderson: The first week of The Ultimate Fighter 26. The latest season of the reality show kicks off just one day prior to Invicta FC 25, and it features plenty of names that will resonate with the Invicta fanbase. The season is meant to crown the inaugural UFC women’s flyweight champion, and its cast includes inaugural Invicta flyweight queen Barb Honchak, perennial Invicta flyweight contender Roxanne Modafferi, former Invicta bantamweight titleholder Lauren Murphy, and Invicta veterans DeAnna Bennett, Sijara Eubanks, Rachael Ostovich and Ariel Beck. The week is poised to be a big one for fans of the women’s side of mixed martial arts.
Kontek: In addition to the first week of TUF 26, as my esteemed colleague points out, you should pair this will several things. First, you should get a 30-pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon Light, because you should really watch your carbs and it’s never a bad thing to look for a lighter, more redneck option of low-grade beer. Second, you should get some pulled pork sammiches from your local barbecue hole. Make sure it’s nice and smothered in sauce; have plenty of napkins or else whoever cleans up will want to overhand right you like Chuck Liddell. Finally, you should have over some buddies — maybe the same ones who joined you to watch Floyd Mayweather Jr. box Conor McGregor — to show them the ladies can scrap too. That, and there’s nothing like watching a fight with a bunch of dumb, drunk idiots with BBQ sauce on their faces and dirty napkins all over your man cave.
Main Card (UFC Fight Pass, 9 p.m. ET)
BW Championship: Yana Kunitskaya vs. Raquel Pa’aluhi
StrawW: Livia Renata Souza vs. Janaisa Morandin
BW: Alexa Conners vs. Katharina Lehner
StrawW: Sharon Jacobson vs. Kali Robbins
AtomW: Shino VanHoose vs. Alyse Anderson
BW: Sarah Kleczka vs. Amberlynn Orr
FW: Shaianna “Yaya” Rincón vs. Courtney King
FlyW: Cheri Muraski vs. Tracy Cortez
AtomW: Ashley Medina vs. Jillian DeCoursey
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