Jinh Yu Frey (second from left) (Jeff Vulgamore/Combat Press)

Observations in Women’s MMA: Invicta FC 30

On July 21, Invicta Fighting Championships held its 30th event. Now that we’ve had a couple of weeks to reflect on all the action, let’s take a look at the key stories to come out of the event, including what the results mean for two of the night’s winners.

The Problem with Heather Jo Clark

Clark’s problem isn’t a lack of experience. She is a 14-fight veteran who has fought on the regional circuit and in the two biggest organizations in North America. The majority of her fights have been won and lost by decision. She has spent an inordinate amount of time in a cage.

If you have ever seen Clark fight, you know her issue isn’t a lack of athleticism, either. She has flashed hand and foot speed, physical strength, explosiveness and agility against some of the best fighters in the world, albeit in losing performances. Clark isn’t a technician, but she has shown herself to be more than competent across the board in regards to her striking, wrestling and grappling. She’s not really dynamic or dominant in any one realm, but she’s good enough and balanced enough to get fights where she wants them and to give a good account of herself when she isn’t able to do so.


So, with all of these skills, physical gifts, experience and seasoning against high-quality opposition, why hasn’t Clark been able to do more as a fighter?

Well, she doesn’t have a go-to discipline or range where she can dominate. Clark can compete in multiple ranges, but she lacks the nuance and refinement to do so. She dominated against lower-tier fighters who lacked the athleticism and development to exploit her limitations.

In the realm of striking, Clark is more willing than she is technical or crafty. She strikes with good form and generates both power and aggression. Her jab is crisp, sharp and fast. Her kicks are explosive, well timed and hard. However, Clark is very predictable in what she throws, how she sets it, when she throws it and where she throws it. This highlights the biggest issue in her striking: a lack of layered defense. Clark tends to back straight up when under duress. She gets loose and wild in extended exchanges. She also tends to let her chin rise while leaving her head on the centerline when initiating, countering or exchanging.

When it comes to wrestling, Clark has natural instincts. She eagerly seeks to blend takedowns with strikes or defend takedowns off of strikes. She shows an innate ability to get into the positions necessary to get takedowns and control fighters in the clinch. Once she gets in these positions, however, she lacks the technique necessary to finish takedowns, maintain control in clinches and be defensively sound. This often results in her getting into trouble against opponents who punish her when she gets stuck in these positions.

As a grappler, Clark is tough on top. She can control and land strikes. She can also maneuver from the top position and work to an opponent’s back to fire strikes or threaten with submissions. Yet, when she can’t get superior position or maintain it, Clark can be outworked in scrambles. When her opponent can dominate positions, Clark seems unable to finish submissions, escape or create enough scrambles to win fights.

Clark hasn’t been fully exploited in large part due to her physical tools. She isn’t an elite athlete in the mold of Jessica Andrade, Angela Hill, Claudia Gadelha, Tatiana Suarez, Alexa Grasso or reigning women’s strawweight champion Rose Namajunas, but she is good enough to compete with these girls. However, at this level, even a good athlete can’t navigate the type of limitations Clark has in her game, whether it be lack of creativity, lack of defensive awareness or lack of finishing technique. At the lower levels, Clark’s athleticism was enough to manage these shortcomings. As the level of opposition rises, Clark’s physical tools allowed her to be effective in spots, but not good enough to take over a fight or turn one around once it started to go bad for her.

Clark’s biggest enemy is her inability to fight like a veteran. She hasn’t shown the ability to stick to a game plan when it’s working or to make an adjustment when it’s not. As a 14-fight veteran, there are very few things she hasn’t seen in the cage or in preparation to fight. However, Clark will often settle for positions — as she did against Kinberly Novaes at Invicta FC 30 — or take away her own weapons that have allowed her to make a fight competitive — for example, she abandoned a very effective jab in her UFC showdown with Karolina Kowalkiewicz.

An Honest Assessment of Jinh Yu Frey

Jinh Yu Frey finally emerged with Invicta’s atomweight gold following a close fight with Minna Grusander. Frey somehow managed a unanimous decision, despite numerous opinions to the contrary from members of the MMA media, including Invicta’s broadcast team. So, what can we say about Frey after this performance?

Frey isn’t a great striker. She is a big, long, strong athlete with very good athleticism that allows her to fight at a pace and a range that exploits the less-than-developed striking of the majority of her atomweight opponents. In MMA, the ugly truth is that wrestling and grappling are far and away more effective, more developed and more complete than striking. An athletic striker with some hand speed, mobility, conditioning and basic skills is going to seem dominant against the majority of their opponents. This was the case with Frey.

The biggest red flag in regards to Frey’s striking came when she faced Seo Hee Ham, the first legitimately high-caliber striker on Frey’s resume. Frey was summarily dispatched. She was unable to dictate pace or range against the Korean fighter, nor was she able to neutralize Ham’s aggression, limit or control Ham’s feints or show any responsible defense.

Frey had the same issues show up against Grusander, a much lower-class striker and fighter. In spots, Frey landed attention-grabbing single punches. She had noticeable but inconsistent success with long-range weapons and was able to get into and out of range without too much trouble. However, Frey was unable to effectively counter-punch, use organic striking combinations or generate enough footwork to get away from Grusander’s pressure and aggression on the feet. Frey showed herself to be an effective, but ultimately limited striker who can’t operate at optimal levels unless her opponent is fearful of her athleticism or offensive skill.

Frey isn’t a physical fighter, either. It’s not that she’s fragile or unwilling to engage, but if she isn’t dictating the pace or place of the fight, then she gets very skittish and defensive. Frey is best when she can gain or maintain control. When she is forced to fight at multiple levels, she begins to become more vulnerable defensively and gets much more cautious offensively.

Frey’s versatility is her second-best weapon. Her best weapon is her athleticism, but what allows her to compete at a truly high level is the fact that she is comfortable in a variety of ranges, positions and circumstances. Frey hasn’t been dominant on the feet or in wrestling and grappling exchanges, but she has enough balance and depth of skill that there isn’t any single place where a fighter can really dominate against her. She has the ability to compete in multiple areas, and when those ranges get too competitive, she has the skill and athleticism to transition to another area where she can exploit her opponent. This attribute was highlighted in the Grusander fight. Once Grusander’s physicality, aggression and pressure started to put Frey in trouble, Frey relied on other fighting modalities to disrupt Grusander’s rhythm, slow her pace and limit her ability to be an offensive threat.

Frey is a good fighter, but she might not be a great fighter. There are still questions about her durability and striking that make it difficult to say how far she can go as a world-class fighter. Frey’s loss to Ham may have been a blessing in disguise, especially if it causes Frey to continue to fight in a manner that makes the most of her skills and athleticism.