She’s one of the last members of the first wave of Invicta strawweight stars to still reside in the promotion. Her name is Mizuki Inoue — or just MIZUKI, as she now prefers to be known. She started fighting professionally at a young age and made her first Invicta appearance at the promotion’s sixth event. Now, after watching her Invicta sisters — Carla Esparza, Tecia Torres, Joanne Calderwood and so many more — exit the promotion, the Japanese star finally gets her chance for strawweight gold at the promotion’s 28th event. Perhaps Inoue can finally punch her ticket to the UFC.
It won’t be easy, though. Inoue’s opponent is an undefeated Brazilian named Virna Jandiroba. The 29-year-old submitted nine of her first 11 opponents before entering the Invicta cage against Amy Montenegro. Jandiroba added to her submission tally when she finished Montenegro with an armbar in less than three minutes. Now, Jandiroba is out to add Inoue to her list of victims and perhaps snag her own spot on the UFC roster.
The strawweight title showdown between Inoue and Jandiroba headlines a nine-fight card for Invicta that also features DeAnna Bennett in a flyweight co-headliner against Karina Rodriguez. Other notable names in the lineup include Milana Dudieva, Kali Robbins, Minna Grusander, Kay Hansen and Kerri Kenneson.
Invicta’s 28th event takes place at the Union Event Center in Salt Lake City, Utah. The entire card airs live on UFC Fight Pass on Saturday, March 24, at 8 p.m. ET. Combat Press writers Riley Kontek and Bryan Henderson preview the event in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.
Mizuki Inoue is one of Invicta’s longest-tenured stars. Now, she gets a crack at Invicta strawweight gold, but her opponent is the undefeated Virna Jandiroba. Does Inoue finally capture an Invicta crown? If she does, will the young Japanese star graduate to the UFC for her next fight?
Kontek: It’s hard to have confidence in Inoue right now, because she’s been away from the cage for some time. That said, she’s a very good fighter that is on the UFC level.
She has a tough match-up here with Jandiroba, an accomplished Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu artist and an undefeated mixed martial artist. On the ground, Inoue will be incredibly disadvantaged. Her striking is better than the Brazilian’s, however.
If Inoue wins, she will be signed by the UFC. There is no doubt about that. However, I think she falls here, while Jandiroba continues her undefeated ways. With the win, Jandiroba will score the UFC roster spot over Inoue.
Henderson: Inoue has only fought once in the last two years, but she’s a skilled 23-year-old fighter who has been competing in MMA since she was a mere 16 years old. She was already in action with Ayaka Hamasaki within the first year of her career, and she was beating the likes of Alex Chambers and Bec Rawlings soon after. She’s a solid fighter who will eventually land a UFC deal.
However, as my colleague suggests, now might not be the time for Inoue. The Japanese fighter did in fact lose that early contest to Hamasaki. She also stumbled against Karolina Kowalkiewicz and Alexa Grasso. That sums up the top competition she’s met. Inoue’s biggest wins, meanwhile, have come against Chambers, Rawlings, Emi Fujino (twice), Emi Tomimatsu, Lacey Schuckman and Lynn Alvarez. While all of those ladies are recognizable names in the world of women’s MMA, none of them are top fighters.
Jandiroba has posted an excellent mark through 12 fights. Along the way, she’s topped the likes of Aline Sattelmayer, Lisa Ellis, Ericka Almeida and Amy Montenegro. None of those fighters are among the elite, either, but Jandiroba has a chance to announce her arrival with a win over Inoue.
The one area where I disagree with my fellow writer is in Inoue’s disadvantage on the mat. The Japanese fighter is an underrated grappler who can fend off Jandiroba. The problem is that Inoue will likely spend much of her time on the defensive, thereby allowing Jandiroba to take the judges’ nod.
Outside of the top few fights in the lineup, many of these fighters are relative unknowns, even within the Invicta fan base. Will we see any star turns at this show?
Henderson: A lot of the fighters on this card are still in the earliest stages of their careers, which makes a star turn unlikely for them. However, there is a five-fight veteran sporting an undefeated record who is set to make her second Invicta appearance.
Kali Robbins delivered a 42-second submission finish of Sharon Jacobson in late August at Invicta FC 25. The appearance was the first for Robbins in nearly a year and a half, following a bout in early 2017 that was scrapped when Robbins had issues during the weight cut. However, prior to her long layoff, “Pop Tart” had cruised through four fights, including a pro debut with the Resurrection Fighting Alliance and two stops with King of the Cage. Along the way, she collected an eight-second knockout finish, two first-round submissions and another sub in the second round.
Robbins makes quick work of her opponents, and she’s put together a resume that’s just long enough to make her a potential future star for Invicta. She’s up against the 6-3 Pearl Gonzalez at Invicta FC 28.
Gonzalez was good enough to have landed in the UFC. On the downside for the nine-fight vet, she lost both of her Octagon outings. Gonzalez should provide a tough test for Robbins, but it’s one that could lead to a star turn for the undefeated fighter. If Robbins can make quick work out of an opponent who made it to the third round with Cynthia Calvillo and lasted the distance against Poliana Botelho, then the question will be whether she sticks around to become an Invicta star or gets scooped up by the UFC.
Kontek: I agree with Mr. Henderson. Robbins is a promising fighter who has UFC written all over her. I expect her to score a big win and ink a UFC contract not long after.
For the sake of not parroting my colleague’s talking points, I will also assert that Jillian DeCoursey will have a breakout performance in a division that is short on bodies. Atomweight always needs fighters to step up and get into the spotlight. DeCoursey looks like the type of fighter that could step up and get herself into contention in the division at some point.
Either way, this is definitely one of the less impressive cards Invicta has put on. There isn’t much in terms of star power or future contenders competing on this show.
Minna Grusander, Fernanda Priscila, Chelsea Chandler, Kerri Kenneson, Rebekah LeVine and Kaytlin Neil — do we need to know these names?
Kontek: These ladies are all relatively unknown except to women’s MMA fanatics. In studying these fighters, I don’t see a whole lot to get stoked about. These ladies are average, and although they are getting better, the only one I see potential in is Kerri Kenneson.
Kenneson is a bantamweight, a weight class that has seen a mass exodus of fighters who have made their way down to flyweight. That makes Kenneson a commodity in a division which badly needs talent. She could make it to the big leagues.
Outside of Kenneson, though, there’s not a whole lot to get excited about. Minna Grusander looks to be a solid prospect, but that’s about it.
Henderson: Grusander and Kenneson are certainly the cream of this crop. Kenneson posted a solid amateur mark before turning pro and scoring victories in her first two outings. Grusander, whom I’ll discuss in more detail later in this preview, is doing well for herself through six fights, but she did lose to Syuri Kondo, who stands as Grusander’s toughest test to date.
Of the remaining newcomers, Priscila and Chandler will likely emerge on the losing ends of their contests with Grusander and Kenneson, respectively. This leaves us with LeVine and Neil. LeVine is undefeated through one pro outing and had a strong amateur run, but she’s tasked with her own tough test against Jillian DeCoursey, who is likely to hand her a loss. Neil, meanwhile, is just 1-2 out of the gates, and she’s lost to a sub-.500 fighter already. Don’t count on her to make too many waves either.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
Henderson: This is a tough pick, but for all the wrong reasons. Many of the fights further down the card feature inexperienced fighters who haven’t quite hit their groove yet. Unfortunately, there aren’t many established finishers among this group either. For that reason, let’s go with Minna Grusander’s fight with Fernanda Priscila.
Grusander has one of the better finishing rates of this undercard crew. The Finnish fighter has picked up four stoppages in the course of building her 5-1 pro record. She also claimed a few submission victories at the amateur level. The 28-year-old isn’t getting pushed into the deep end by Invicta, either. Her opponent is at a similar level to the last couple of opponents Grusander met in Europe.
Priscila suffered her only loss to Viviane Pereira in a fight where Priscila was definitely out of her depth. However, the Brazilian also barely eked by in her first pro fight, where she edged Luana Marrentinha by split decision. Priscila did finish her most recent opponent with a choke, but that fight took place in 2015.
Grusander should be able to entertain the crowd in this one on the way to another victory.
Kontek: The sleeper fight of the card is between UFC veterans Milana Dudieva and Christina Marks.
Both obviously didn’t cut the mustard in the UFC, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t good or exciting fighters. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Both are very capable and are known to engage in entertaining bouts.
If there is a Fight of the Night, this will definitely be in contention. Expect 15 minutes of back-and-forth action that should be more than entertaining to those in attendance and at home watching.
Pair this card with…
Kontek: Some more March Madness mayhem. With the UFC off for a couple of weeks, you can take a quick break from the company’s onslaught of programming. Watch some basketball in unison with women’s MMA. It’s a good combo that could lead to an exciting weekend.
Henderson: The realization that Invicta FC is now to women’s MMA what the Legacy Fighting Alliance is to men’s MMA: a developmental league for the UFC. We’re not going to see “stacked” cards from Invicta anymore in the same vein as the promotion’s early offerings. Invicta head Shannon Knapp and company have come to realize that they can’t count on their biggest stars to stick around. Instead, they’ve shifted focus to trying to unearth future stars. This card is a sign of this new mindset, with even one of the headliners — Jandiroba — standing out as a fresh fighter auditioning for the UFC.
|Fight||Kontek’s Pick||Henderson’s Pick|
|Main Card (UFC Fight Pass, 8 p.m. ET)|
|StrawW Championship: Mizuki Inoue vs. Virna Jandiroba||Jandiroba||Jandiroba|
|FlyW: DeAnna Bennett vs. Karina Rodriguez||Rodriguez||Bennett|
|FlyW: Milana Dudieva vs. Christina Marks||Dudieva||Dudieva|
|StrawW: Pearl Gonzalez vs. Kali Robbins||Robbins||Robbins|
|AtomW: Minna Grusander vs. Fernanda Priscila||Grusander||Grusander|
|StrawW: Kal Schwartz vs. Kay Hansen||Hansen||Hansen|
|BW: Chelsea Chandler vs. Kerri Kenneson||Kenneson||Kenneson|
|AtomW: Jillian DeCoursey vs. Rebekah LeVine||DeCoursey||DeCoursey|
|FlyW: Tracy Cortez vs. Kaytlin Neil||Neil||Cortez|