She’s spent almost 14 years in the sport. Her list of past opponents includes Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino and Amanda Nunes. She’s twice fought for the Invicta title, but she’s never held gold. Now, she’s set to make her 10th Invicta appearance, and it’s yet another chance for her to finally claim the crown. Her name is Vanessa Porto, and she’s one half of the Invicta FC 34 headlining duo.
When Jennifer Maia departed Invicta to join the UFC, she left behind the promotion’s flyweight belt. Porto, who lost to Maia in an interim championship contest, gets her third crack at the now-vacant title when she meets Pearl Gonzalez in the evening’s main event.
Gonzalez, a Chicago native who now trains in San Diego with Team Hurricane Awesome, made huge strides in 2018 under the Invicta banner after a failed UFC strawweight campaign. She decisioned Kali Robbins in her promotional debut and then locked in an armbar to submit Barbara Acioly in her first fight at 125 pounds. Most recently, the UFC veteran added a decision over Daiane Firmino to further cement her spot as one of the best flyweights in the promotion.
Flyweight is a pretty deep division for Invicta, however, and this fact will be on display at Memorial Hall in Kansas City, Kan. The eight-fight lineup features an additional five flyweight scraps below the top-billed title fight. Fans get the opportunity to see veterans Milana Dudieva and DeAnna Bennett make their own cases for contendership in their respective fights against Karina Rodriguez and Miranda Maverick as part of a flyweight tournament. Meanwhile, Tracy Cortez takes on Erin Blanchfield, Victoria Leonardo locks horns with Jamie Milanowski, and Christina Ricker debuts against rookie fighter Caitlin Sammons in three contests that could serve as the launching pad for the next wave of flyweight stars.
Elsewhere on the card, Faith McMah (formerly Van Duin) takes on Helena Kolesnyk and Courtney King meets Holli Logan (formerly Salazar) in a pair of featherweight duels.
The entire card airs live on its usual home of UFC Fight Pass beginning at 8 p.m. ET on Friday, Feb. 15. Combat Press writers Riley Kontek and Bryan Henderson preview the action in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.
Will Vanessa Porto finally win an Invicta strap when she meets Pearl Gonzalez for the vacant flyweight title?
Kontek: It seems like Porto has been in title fight after title fight in Invicta, and yet she just hasn’t been able to strike gold. She now has that chance, but in her way will be a red-hot UFC veteran in Gonzalez, who has stormed her way into Invicta headlining status.
Porto is a top-15 — maybe even a top-10 — flyweight. Despite this, the Brazilian has failed to become Invicta champion multiple times. She’s a well-rounded veteran who has fought some of the best ladies the sport has to offer. She’s 34 years old and will likely reach the end of her prime in the near future, so she needs to score now.
Porto is on a two-fight winning streak. She scored finishes over Mariana Morais and UFC vet Milana Dudieva. However, previous to these wins, she was dismantled by Aga Niedźwiedź and Jennifer Maia. Is Gonzalez on the same level as the latter two ladies? We will see, but at this point I’m not so sure.
So, to answer the original question, yes, Porto will finally become Invicta FC flyweight champion. She has an experience edge, a more well-rounded skill set and a more consistent strength of schedule. Gonzalez will give her a run for her money, but Porto will pull away in the end.
Henderson: Yes, if there’s ever been an opportunity for Porto to snag the belt, this is it. Her first fight for the title came against Barb Honchak, a grinder who was at the top of her game when she beat Porto. The Brazilian’s second championship defeat came courtesy of the aforementioned Maia, another grinder who was on a roll. Gonzalez is a completely different type of fighter, and one against whom Porto should fare better.
Gonzalez isn’t the type to settle for domination from bell to bell. The Chicagoan has five submissions and one knockout victory, leaving only three of her winning efforts in the hands of the judges. She’s out to attack her opponent, primarily targeting the arms. If Porto makes a mistake, like she did years ago in her first Invicta outing against Sarah D’Alelio, then Gonzalez will be all over it.
The thing is, Porto’s misstep against D’Alelio can be chalked up to the Invicta equivalent of Octagon jitters. Porto fought wild and paid for it. Her subsequent fights were far more conservative performances in which the Brazilian, win or lose, went the distance in seven straight fights. Only more recently has Porto found the confidence to truly go for the kill again, as she did with strikes against Dudieva and with a submission against Morais.
It’s been a long time since Porto has flashed so much finishing instinct, but her confidence is growing. Gonzalez, despite her rise with Invicta, is probably still an overlooked fighter as a result of her winless UFC stint. She will indeed provide a strong challenge to Porto, but the Brazilian will prevail when all is said and done.
This show is very heavy on flyweight competitors. Which non-headlining flyweight will separate herself from the pack and make a case to become the next challenger for the 125-pound title?
Henderson: The remaining flyweight fights on this card can be split into two categories. Three of these five contests feature developing prospects. We’re not going to see Tracy Cortez, Erin Blanchfield, Victoria Leonardo, Jamie Milanowski, Christina Ricker or Caitlin Sammons in a title fight anytime soon. All of these ladies have five or fewer fights, and none of them has put together an Invicta campaign that forces Invicta to push them into a title bout.
This leaves the remaining two contests, which conveniently happen to be semifinal bouts in the flyweight tournament to determine the next challenger. One, the co-headliner of the night, features Milana Dudieva against Karina Rodriguez. The other pairs UFC veteran DeAnna Bennett with up-and-comer Miranda Maverick. Either of these affairs could produce the next contender.
Dudieva’s case is perhaps the hardest to make. The Russian fighter washed out of the UFC after a 1-2 stint, and she’s also 1-2 since joining the Invicta roster. Her lone Invicta win came against a sub-.500 fighter, too. Her UFC-veteran status has lifted her to the co-main event here, but she needs to absolutely demolish Rodriguez and then win in the finals, which is a huge ask.
Rodriguez won her first two fights with Invicta, and she fought to a split decision in a losing effort against the aforementioned Bennett. This loss was in her most recent fight, but the fact that she kept it close against a UFC veteran is likely to earn her some kudos. She’d also need a big victory here and in another tough fight regardless of who advances to the finals in the other half of the bracket.
Bennett has to be Invicta’s favorite choice here, but she also has had a rough go of it recently. She is a UFC veteran and a member of The Ultimate Fighter 26 cast, and she has a very fan-friendly personality. All of these things are selling points. However, Bennett, who won her first four Invicta fights, failed against Livia Renata Souza in a strawweight title challenge that sparked a losing skid that also included split-decision losses to Roxanne Modafferi and Jodie Esquibel. She went just 1-1 on TUF before fighting to a majority draw against Melinda Fabian at the live finale event. Bennett did defeat Rodriguez, but she lost to Kelly Kobold in a recent fight with the Tuff-N-Uff organization. If she gets past Maverick, then she’ll have an arguably easier fight in the finals.
This brings us to the dark-horse candidate, Maverick. The Missouri native is just 21 years old and followed up a successful amateur career with wins in her first three pro fights, all of which came under the Invicta banner. She just barely lost in a close fight with Brogan Walker-Sanchez, but she rebounded by handing the aforementioned Leonardo her first career defeat. Maverick isn’t the flashiest flyweight out there, but she’s a homegrown talent, a local favorite and has built a steady, growing resume that would certainly be bolstered by a win over Bennett. She might not be as clear of a favorite in a finals match-up with either Dudieva or Rodriguez, but Bennett will likely serve as her toughest test in the bracket.
Kontek: Out of the four tournament participants, I will go the underdog route and say Rodriguez. She’s a striker who has only lost to fighters who have been in the UFC. Rodriguez has quick hands and good variety, which allows her to score damage on opponents. She’s 2-1 under the Invicta banner, with victories over Barbara Acioly and Christine Ferea, and makes for a tough match-up for any lady in this tournament.
Rodriguez matches up favorably with Dudieva, a UFC veteran who has not exactly lit the world on fire. This would bring on the winner of the fight between Bennett and Maverick. Though Rodriguez recently dropped a split decision to Bennett, she could very easily score a revenge win. Maverick would be a tougher match-up, but Rodriguez could still prevail.
Jamie Milanowski, Caitlin Sammons and Christina Ricker — do we need to know these names?
Kontek: Both Milanowski and Ricker sit at .500 records as pros, which is not a strong start. It doesn’t mean they cannot turn it around, but early indicators suggest they will never sit atop of an MMA card.
Ricker, who is 28 years old, had an unimpressive amateur record and is just 1-1 thus far at the pro level. Milanowski, who is 2-2, had a strong amateur career and her only two career losses come to notable Invicta vet Cheri Muraski and former UFC champion Nicco Montaño. So, perhaps, she will use that experience and build herself toward the top of the card at some point.
Out of these three women, though, just one is a fighter to keep your eyes on. That woman is Sammons. She is making her pro debut after a 6-1 run as an amateur. She fought some solid competition along the way, too. Sammons beat notables Lindsey VanZandt and Jessica Borga. She has a solid Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu background and is just 25 years old, meaning she has plenty of room to grow.
Henderson: Sammons has a number of stoppages as a pro, too, which is always a good sign. She didn’t just beat VanZandt and Borga; she finished both opponents with submissions. She also benefits from a match-up with Ricker, another of Invicta’s newcomers.
Ricker wasn’t stopped in any of her amateur outings, but she did lose four of her eight fights. One of her defeats came courtesy of a fighter who is now winless through two pro bouts. Ricker has continued to struggle as a pro. Sammons should also hand Ricker a loss, likely via stoppage.
Milanowski sparks a little more confidence, as my colleague suggests, but she’s tasked with a fighter in Leonardo whose only pro loss came to Miranda Maverick. Leonardo is going to make things tough for a fighter who is just trying to keep her head above water.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
Henderson: Faith McMah’s return to action against Helena Kolesnyk.
McMah, formerly Van Duin, last fought in 2016. The New Zealander went just 1-2 under the Invicta banner, but her losses came to Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino and Irene Aldana. She holds victories over Arlene Blencowe, Kate Da Silva and Amanda Bell. In a 145-pound division that is seriously understaffed, McMah is a welcome addition back into the fold.
Kolesnyk hasn’t fared well in her own Invicta tenure. She lost her promotional debut to Pam Sorenson and then stumbled yet again when she collided with Felicia Spencer. Kolesnyk is a good-but-not-great featherweight, but she does have a lot of stoppages prior to her Invicta run.
Both ladies tend to lose via stoppage, but they are also more than capable of bringing an early end to the evening for their opponent. This creates the perfect recipe for an exciting fight midway through the evening.
Kontek: That’s a great fight and all, but what about Tracy Cortez and Erin Blanchfield? Wait, why I am writing this like I’m reading it off a teleprompter?
All unfunny jokes aside, Cortez, 25, and Blanchfield, 19, are prospects to keep an eye on. These are two ladies you can bet your bottom dollar have bright futures in this sport.
Cortez is an Arizona native who has righted the ship since dropping her pro debut. She’s mashed out four straight wins, including victories over Monica Medina and Kaytlin Neil. She has shown a strong ground game, which should mesh interestingly with Blanchfield’s style.
Blanchfield is a New Yorker who has yet to taste defeat as either an amateur or a pro. The knock on her so far has been her lack of finishing ability. That said, she has a strong ground game of her own, which paired with Cortez could lead to quite the entertaining little grappling match. Blanchfield’s biggest win to date comes over fellow youngster Kay Hansen, which is a big feather in her cap.
Simply put, this fight has implications for the future and should be quite good.
Pair this card with…
Kontek: The first-ever UFC event on ESPN, which takes place the same weekend on Sunday. It will be a weekend chock full of quality MMA that should bring you great entertainment. Also, for this card specifically, get a case of light beer. It will be a long weekend of drinking and spectating sports, so you need to pace yourself, especially on the first night of the festivities.
Henderson: The buffet line. No, this isn’t a joke about the weigh-ins. It’s a fitting analogy for a weekend of fights that, as my colleague notes, is overflowing with action. In addition to the Friday card from Invicta and the Sunday UFC show, Bellator MMA has two events lined up. Fans also have access to offerings from ONE Championship and the Legacy Fighting Alliance. Buffets are all about picking and choosing. You’re probably going to get stuffed and regret it later, but you’re still going to be selective about what you pile on your plate. The same applies here. Grab what you can and get ready to have more than you can handle this weekend.
Main Card (UFC Fight Pass, 8 p.m. ET)
FlyW Championship: Vanessa Porto vs. Pearl Gonzalez
FlyW Tournament Semifinal: Milana Dudieva vs. Karina Rodriguez
FlyW Tournament Semifinal: DeAnna Bennett vs. Miranda Maverick
FlyW Tournament Reserve Bout: Tracy Cortez vs. Erin Blanchfield
FW: Faith McMah vs. Helena Kolesnyk
FlyW: Victoria Leonardo vs. Jamie Milanowski
FW: Courtney King vs. Holli Logan
FlyW: Caitlin Sammons vs. Christina Ricker
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