The flyweight division has become a centerpiece for the Invicta FC promotion. The last Phoenix Series tournament took place at 125 pounds, and now, as a result of an injury to atomweight headliner Jinh Yu Frey, the weight class also takes center stage at Invicta FC 37.
In a pivotal match-up that could serve to identify the next flyweight title challenger, UFC veteran Pearl Gonzalez meets undefeated prospect Brogan Sanchez. Gonzalez, whose pro record sits at 9-4, has experienced a career resurgence since her departure from the UFC. She reeled off three straight wins before suffering a technical-decision loss to Vanessa Porto in a fight for the then-vacant Invicta flyweight championship. The 31-year-old Sanchez is perfect through six pro outings, but she’ll take a step up in competition when she locks horns with Gonzalez.
This event features two additional fights in the flyweight division, including the co-main event between Mariya Agapova and Marilia Santos. Kazakhstan’s Agapova has just one loss through eight pro bouts. The 26-year-old Santos has has faltered in three crucial fights, including a Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series pairing with Lucrezia Ria.
In addition to all of the flyweight action, Invicta FC 37 also features a pair of atomweight contests — Shino VanHoose against Lindsey VanZandt, and Linda Mihalec against Marisa Messer-Belenchia — plus a strawweight affair between Kay Hansen and Nicolle Caliari. A bantamweight clash between Hope Chase and Megan Cawley rounds out the seven-fight lineup.
Invicta FC 37 takes place at Memorial Hall in Kansas City, Kan., and airs live on UFC Fight Pass at 8 p.m. ET on Friday, Oct. 4. Combat Press writers Riley Kontek and Bryan Henderson preview the action in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.
Following the injury to Jinh Yu Frey, flyweights Pearl Gonzalez and Brogan Sanchez have been promoted to the headlining spot for this Invicta event. Why should we care about this fight?
Kontek: This fight has big implications in the Invicta flyweight division. It’s clear that Invicta thinks highly of Gonzalez, given her UFC tenure and social-media following. Meanwhile, Sanchez is an undefeated top prospect for the company. With this contest now in the main-event slot, it should be considered a title eliminator with the winner possibly getting a crack at either Vanessa Porto or Karina Rodriguez, who fight for the belt in November.
It is an interesting match-up, too. Both women are well rounded. They’re more “jacks of all trades” as opposed to standing out in one area. Gonzalez is the more exciting of the two fighters. She has no problem going for broke, whereas Sanchez is more conservative and doesn’t mind grinding out fights.
When it’s all said and done, I really do believe we will have our next title contender. Even with the high level of competition Gonzalez has faced under the big lights, I have to go with Sanchez. Her grinding style, while not the most exciting, will be enough to keep Gonzalez at bay and allow her to score yet another decision victory.
Henderson: Sanchez’s undefeated standing makes this a very important fight. Not only could this affair result in a new title challenger, but it will serve as a great test for the prospect. Her current string of victories tops out with nods over fellow upstarts Cheri Muraski and Miranda Maverick. It also includes Kate Da Silva, but the New Zealander isn’t exactly a UFC-caliber fighter. Gonzalez surpasses all of these ladies in both skill level and UFC experience.
Sanchez is an excellent grinder, indeed, but Gonzalez is no slouch. The Chicago-born fighter holds submission wins over the likes of Cortney Casey and Barbara Acioly, and she’s decisioned Kali Robbins and Daiane Firmino. She flamed out in the UFC with losses to Cynthia Calvillo and Poliana Botelho, but those defeats came at strawweight. Her only other recent loss came via technical decision against the aforementioned Porto.
While Sanchez has a chance to neutralize Gonzalez and score points en route to a decision, it’s Gonzalez’s improved striking and submission game that could make the difference here. If she can keep range on the feet and attack on the ground, even off her back, then Gonzalez should be able to find a route to victory.
Co-headlining flyweights Mariya Agapova and Marilia Santos both stumbled in appearances on Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series. Which one of these ladies will break out under the Invicta banner?
Henderson: Well, Agapova has already gotten off to a great start in her Invicta tenure with a first-round submission of Alexa Conners at the second edition of the Phoenix Series. The Kazakh fighter is just 22 years old and suffered her lone defeat to Tracy Cortez, a seasoned Invicta veteran who is now UFC-bound. Agapova has finished several opponents, and she’s continuing to see gradual steps up in competition. This fight with Santos is the perfect next move.
Santos, 26, has more notable names on her resume than her upcoming foe. The Brazilian’s Contender Series loss came to Lucrezia Ria via split decision, but her other setbacks were a knockout to Weili Zhang, who is now the UFC’s strawweight queen, and a first-round retirement against Mayra Bueno Silva, a fellow Contender Series alum who is now perfect through one UFC appearance.
Unfortunately, those high-profile fighters who have beaten Santos account for almost all of the legitimately tough opponents on her record. Her wins, on the other hand, have come against a set of fighters with a combined 20-20 record when they encountered Santos. This includes two rookies, two winless foes, one .500 fighter, and three opponents with losing marks. Only Aline Sattelmayer and Kate Da Silva held more respectable records when they clashed with the Brazilian.
This leaves but one answer here: Agapova is the more likely breakout candidate. She has youth on her side and a commitment to challenging herself in every fight. Santos, a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu brown belt, could make it hard for her counterpart on the ground and might tough it out to the final bell, but Agapova should come away with another Invicta win.
Kontek: Agreed. Agapova has already broken out with her first Invicta fight, where she won quickly, impressively and in devastating fashion. A win here should further make her a breakout star in the company.
That said, Santos is a tough cookie. She showed in her Contender Series fight that she can brawl, grapple a bit, and take a big shot while giving one. Agapova is more of a technical striker, whereas Santos is a chin-down brawler. So even if Santos loses, she will continue to build a fanbase with her exciting style.
Agapova has the makings of a star. She will score an exciting win over Santos to put herself in position to challenge for a title sometime soon and continue to establish American Top Team as the best gym on the planet. ATT really has helped her improve dramatically in a short period of time.
Linda Mihalec, Marisa Messer-Belenchia, Hope Chase, Jordan Kaaze and Claire Johnson — do we need to know these names?
Kontek: The ones to watch are Messer-Belenchia, Kaaze and Johnson. Mihalec is in her late 30s, so there isn’t a huge window for her, and Chase has already fallen in her young pro career to regional fighter Heather Walker-Leahy.
Messer-Belenchia is 3-0 in a division that lacks depth. Atomweight is always in need of title challengers, so you’re never too far off from a title shot. Messer-Belenchia has finished all of her opponents as a pro, but the competition hasn’t been the stiffest. Her most recent combat-sports outing was a boxing match, where she defeated Invicta veteran Delaney Owen. She’s certainly talented. This is where she steps up in competition and proves her prospect status.
Kaaze and Johnson are both making their pro debuts after strong amateur careers. Kaaze’s only loss came at the hands of Invicta mainstay Helen Peralta. She was a mass finisher, mostly via TKO and knockout. Johnson has been similarly strong as an amateur, including in a win over recent Invicta debutant Josee Storts. These women are definitely still young prospects with a long way to go, but they have a chance to be somebody in this sport.
Henderson: I’d have to agree when it comes to Mihalec. Not only is she 37 years old, but she hasn’t exactly destroyed the competition so far. Her only pro win was a split decision, and she also delivered a split verdict and a loss via disqualification as an amateur.
Let’s not dismiss Chase so quickly, though. Yes, she fell in her pro debut, but she’s only 20 years old and won all four of her ammy bouts. It could just take an upgrade to a world-class camp to propel Chase’s career. She also has a very winnable fight against Megan Cawley, a winless pro, at this event.
Messer-Belenchia is certainly the standout among this group. Her undefeated mark as a pro consists entirely of stoppages, and she had a solid ammy showing as well. Her only setback came against Jillian DeCoursey, who is now an Invicta vet with a 2-2 mark. This might not seem like much, but DeCoursey’s only pro losses came against Alesha Zappitella and Kelly D’Angelo, both of whom are solid 105-pounders. She should be able to find a stoppage victory against the aforementioned Mihalec and continue to climb the atomweight ladder.
Kaaze and Johnson are more the wait-and-see variety. These two rookies delivered plenty of victories at the amateur level, but they each stumbled once. Kaaze’s knockout tendencies make her a very interesting addition to the Invicta roster. Johnson could have a bright future with the promotion, but Kaaze will spoil her debut.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
Henderson: Let’s go with Kay Hansen and Nicolle Caliari.
Hansen is somewhat of an odd emerging star for Invicta. She’s barely 20 years old and just one fight above the .500 mark, but she’s sure made things interesting. The young fighter should be winless through her last three official bouts, but instead she’s 1-2 thanks to a thrilling last-second armbar in which she capitalized on a huge mistake from Sharon Jacobson. Hansen recently added an exhibition win at the second Phoenix Series event, where she moved up to flyweight and decisioned Carolina Jimenez in a one-round affair.
Caliari makes for an interesting dance partner. At age 22, the Brazilian is also a young prospect, but she has a better winning percentage than Hansen. However, she’s also been inactive in the MMA realm for nearly two years now. Her only loss came to Syuri Kondo under the Pancrase banner. Caliari has stopped all her remaining opponents via strikes. Most notably, she appeared on Legacy Fighting Alliance’s 26th event, where she finished Itzel Esquivel.
Caliari’s absence from the MMA scene makes her seem like something of a gimme fight for Hansen, who has managed to stay front and center with Invicta despite a rather mediocre record. Hansen has a lot of areas where she needs work, but she’s also young enough that she’s still developing her all-around game. However, this isn’t the cake walk it might appear to be at first glance.
Caliari has a knack for knockouts, bolstered by a background in kickboxing. The Brazilian is just as capable as Hansen of scoring the big finish. It’s always fun when you truly cannot say with confidence which fighter will emerge victorious.
Kontek: That is definitely going to be a fun fight, but my pick is the showdown between Jordan Kaaze and Claire Johnson.
I’m a huge fan of scouting prospects and watching them step up to the pro ranks. A lot of times, especially with women’s MMA, these are not the greatest fights. However, both of these women have a good amount of experience and success at the amateur level, so this will not be two untested fighter going at it. It’ll be two women looking to jockey for position while establishing their name with the company.
This fight opens the card. That means you will need to tune in immediately for a battle that should set the table for the rest of the night.
Pair this card with…
Kontek: If you have been living under a rock, I must inform you that UFC 243 is also part of this weekend’s MMA lineup. For that reason, you need to have an Australian weekend while watching your fights. Pair this Invicta card with UFC 243 and some Fosters (Australian for beer!). Also, fire up the barbie and cook out with your mates. Blast the song “You’re Going Down” by Australia’s own Sick Puppies on repeat. Wear a Steve Irwin zookeeper shirt. Just go all out. Invicta may not be in Australia, but you might as well prep yourself for that UFC card and have some fun.
Henderson: Bellator 229. Don’t forget about the other big fight card of the weekend. Make sure to have a remote handy, unless you have the option of two screens to watch these events side-by-side. Outside of the headlining contests for both events, this is a night where fight fans will want to combine their viewing and hope for highlight-reel moments out of both shows.
Main Card (UFC Fight Pass, 8 p.m. ET)
FlyW: Pearl Gonzalez vs. Brogan Sanchez
FlyW: Mariya Agapova vs. Marilia Santos
StrawW: Kay Hansen vs. Nicolle Caliari
AtomW: Shino VanHoose vs. Lindsey VanZandt
AtomW: Linda Mihalec vs. Marisa Messer-Belenchia
BW: Megan Cawley vs. Hope Chase
FlyW: Jordan Kaaze vs. Claire Johnson
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