Tournaments can create stars. The first edition of Invicta FC’s Phoenix Series certainly did, paving the way for a mid-tier fighter to claim a championship and then depart for the UFC. Along the way, the competition delivered a number of entertaining strawweight fights. Now, the Phoenix Series is back. Can the flyweight ladies match the intensity and excitement we saw out of the strawweights? We’ll find out on Friday, Sept. 6, when Invicta FC returns to Memorial Hall in Kansas City, Kan., for Phoenix Series 2.
The eight-woman field features both familiar and obscure names. UFC veterans DeAnna Bennett and Milana Dudieva are featured alongside Invicta standouts Miranda Maverick and Victoria Leonardo. The always scrappy Liz Tracy and recent Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series participant Shanna Young are also in the mix. Meanwhile, Daiana Torquato and Maiju Suotama will try to put their names on the map as the unproven members of this group. The quarterfinal match-ups for the tournament will be announced as part of Invicta’s ceremonial weigh-ins the day before the event. As with the first Phoenix Series card, tournament bouts consist of just a single five-minute round in the quarterfinals and semifinals. The tournament championship is a three-round fight.
In the evening’s non-tournament co-headliner, Alexa Conners meets fellow flyweight Mariya Agapova. Conners, who sports a 5-3 record, has lost two of her last three fights, but a victory here could turn her fortunes around. Agapova is also looking for a rebound performance, but it comes after she suffered only her first pro defeat in late July.
The lineup also includes one additional non-tourney affair and two tournament reserve bouts. Kay Hansen meets Carolina Jimenez in one of the reserve entries, while Chantel Coates clashes with Flore Hani in the other. Meanwhile, the non-tournament contest pits Josee Storts against 41-year-old debuting pro Helen Lucero.
The entire Phoenix Series 2 card airs live on UFC Fight Pass at 8 p.m. ET on Sept. 6. Combat Press writers Riley Kontek and Bryan Henderson preview the event in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.
With the tournament pairings not announced yet, let’s take a look at the field in general. The bracket consists of Daiana Torquato, DeAnna Bennett, Liz Tracy, Maiju Suotama, Milana Dudieva, Miranda Maverick, Shanna Young and Victoria Leonardo. Which fighter should be considered the favorite?
Kontek: This is a pretty solid field where picking a single favorite is tough. So, let’s go with two: Bennett and Leonardo.
Bennett is a favorite for a couple of reasons. The first reason is her high-level experience. She’s fought in the top organizations — Invicta and the UFC — for years. This pressure cooker should not affect her. Also, she has a good style for a one-night tournament. She’s a grinder who tends not to take a great deal of damage, even in losses. Bennett will be able to push that grinding style into overdrive in these short tournament bouts, thereby preserving herself for her subsequent fights.
Leonardo is coming in hot. The Bellator, Legacy Fighting Alliance and Invicta veteran is on a roll right now and really coming into her own. Her recent win over top prospect Stephanie Geltmacher in an absolute barn-burner serves as proof that she’s ready for top competition and is nearing her peak as a fighter. Leonardo will continue to get better and is a real threat to take the tournament.
Henderson: Bennett is definitely the most well-known in this field, but she’s also just 2-5-1 over her last eight official bouts. Granted, she’s fought stiff competition during this stretch, but it’s hard to back someone who has shown zero consistency over the last three-plus years. Leonardo’s a solid pick as well, but she has suffered a previous loss to fellow tourney participant Maverick. Yet, when we look at the rest of this field, how can those ladies not stand out as favorites?
However, I’ll throw Maverick into this group as well. The key in this tournament format is to have a strong single round, and Maverick is quite capable of this. She armbarred Leonardo within the first frame of their Invicta FC 31 showdown, and she has three other first-round submissions on her resume. With only five minutes per fight, expect the 22-year-old to turn up the aggression and look for finishes while avoiding damage. She could beat Leonardo for a second time or stop Bennett in her tracks.
In the first edition of the Phoenix Series, Brianna Van Buren seemingly came out of nowhere and marched through the field. Who is the potential Van Buren of this flyweight field?
Henderson: When Van Buren took to the cage at the beginning of Invicta’s strawweight tournament, she was just 5-2 and hardly seen as a landslide of a favorite within the field. She took advantage of the format, though, and truly impressed against some tough competition. It’s quite possible that a flyweight follows the same path this weekend. The best bet to come out of nowhere and win it all is Liz Tracy.
Now, this doesn’t mean she’ll make highlight reels. That’s just not the 31-year-old’s style. However, Tracy has been a tough grinder throughout her pro career. She only losses came via split verdict to Ashley Yoder and Andrea Lee. It’s been a struggle at times for Tracy to put together three strong rounds, but those split verdicts show that she can deliver a very competitive performance. Perhaps the shorter fights will allow her to shine.
Kontek: If somebody is going to come out of nowhere and shock us, it will be Daiana Torquato. She’s a relative unknown in this tournament, yet has just as much experience as much of the field, if not more.
Torquato’s losses have come to low-level competition, but those were four years ago. Since then, she hasn’t lost while upping her competition, which is saying something for the Brazilian regional scene. She trains with UFC fighter Marina Rodriguez, and as they say, “Iron sharpens iron.” With the right match-ups in this tournament, Torquato could surprise us and establish herself in the Invicta promotion.
Finally, who is the biggest longshot among the eight ladies vying for this one-night championship?
Kontek: Maiju Suotama.
Even though she’s a longtime veteran who has fought since 2009, Suotama has not fought great competition. Even when she has gone up against notable opponents, she’s been defeated handily. Her last bout came against Lucrezia Ria, who choked out the Finn very quickly.
Given the amount of talent in this tournament, Suotama has an uphill battle. She’s not a bad fighter, but she’s simply lacking in comparison to the rest of the field. The 33-year-old has something to prove come tournament time.
Henderson: In terms of recent setbacks, anyone looking at this field might be tempted to see Milana Dudieva (1-5 over her last six fights) or Shanna Young (just 2-2 over her last four outings) as a longshot. However, Dudieva and Young have suffered their defeats against strong competition. Suotama’s recent loss to the aforementioned Ria is cause for concern, but her remaining stumbles came against Aisling Daly, Miesha Tate and Hanna Sillen. That’s a pretty solid set of fighters, too.
While Suotama is arguably the biggest longshot, there’s a case to be made that the label really belongs with Daiana Torquato. The 28-year-old Brazilian once suffered through a three-fight skid. She’s now on a seven-fight winning streak, but there are no real head-turning names on that list. Her most notable victories came against veterans Arielle Souza and Aline Sattelmayer, both of whom hover around the .500 mark. She’s fed on a lot of unproven talent and scored her most recent victory over a fighter with a losing record. The Thai Brasil Floripa product could be in for a reality check when she collides with the better fighters in this bracket.
The evening’s co-headliner is a non-tournament affair between Alexa Conners and Mariya Agapova. Agapova is looking for a rebound after her first pro loss, but Conners is hungry for a win after losing two of her last three fights. Which woman emerges with her hand raised?
Henderson: This fight is hardly your typical co-main event, but it serves to space out the tournament contests, giving the fighters a break in between their matches. If this was a typical Invicta card, Conners and Agapova would likely appear in the middle of the bill instead. This is because both ladies have had some recent struggles.
Conners, an Invicta mainstay, followed a 4-1 start to her pro run with a 1-2 rough patch. The 28-year-old suffered her recent defeats at the hands of Katharina Lehner and Julia Avila. She does hold significant wins over Stephanie Egger and Carina Damm, though.
Agapova was rolling right along through six pro bouts, which was enough to earn a shot at the UFC via Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series. However, the 22-year-old Kazakhstan native couldn’t get past Tracy Cortez, who took the judges’ nod.
Despite their recent setbacks, Conners and Agapova are solid flyweight members of the Invicta roster. Conners’ losses came to very strong prospects while she was competing as a bantamweight. She has a chance to reboot her career as a flyweight. Meanwhile, Agapova has only lost one fight, and it was essentially a tryout for a UFC contract. The Kazakh fighter was just one win away from the Octagon, in other words, which is quite an achievement for such a young prospect.
While Agapova shows promise, it’s tough to overlook the experience that Conners carries to the cage. Conners will also enjoy the comfort of fighting in the familiar surroundings of Invicta FC. It should be a close fight, but Conners will grind out the decision.
Kontek: I have to disagree. Agapova will be the one to walk away the victor here and re-enter the conversation as one of the top female flyweights in the world. My colleague is right in predicting that this will be a pretty close fight, though.
Conners is no pushover. She has a good amount of experience against solid opposition. The native Virginian has shown some holes in her striking, though. If Conners’ striking defense is not up to snuff come fight time, then Agapova is going to dissect her on the feet.
Agapova, a very skilled striker, is long and solid at staving off takedowns. The Kazakh fighter can pick opponents apart from the outside. On the inside, she causes damage through her clinch striking. If Conners tries to engage in any of these areas, then Agapova is going to have a picnic beating up her face and body.
Pair this card with…
Kontek: A busy weekend of high-quality MMA, an array of hors d’oeuvres, and a sampler of good beer. The various appetizers and cervezas should be served in waves; I would do mozzarella sticks and potato skins for the quarterfinals, chicken wings for the semifinals, and spare ribs for the finals. As for the beers, do the stouts and porters for the quarterfinals, the ambers and mid-colored beers in the semis, and the lighter beers and lagers for the finals. None of that IPA garbage, though.
This should be a gluttonous, enjoyable endeavor. Combine it with the UFC, Bellator and the Legacy Fighting Alliance, among many others, and you have yourself a very good set of weekend nights full of MMA.
Henderson: The hope that the flyweights can follow the lead of their strawweight counterparts. The first event in the Phoenix Series was a breath of fresh air for Invicta. The fights were intense, and nearly all of the women seemed motivated to lay it on the line for five minutes. The pacing was fast and the fights fun. Here’s hoping these flyweights deliver more of the same. Now, pass me some of those chicken wings and a stout, please.
[Editor’s Note: Since the tournament pairings will not be announced until the day before the event, the below fight picks are only for the tournament reserve bouts and other non-tournament fights on the card.]
Main Card (UFC Fight Pass, 8 p.m. ET)
FlyW: Alexa Conners vs. Mariya Agapova
FlyW: Josee Storts vs. Helen Lucero
FlyW Tournament Reserve Bout: Kay Hansen vs. Carolina Jimenez
FlyW Tournament Reserve Bout: Chantel Coates vs. Flore Hani
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