One night. Eight competitors. A gauntlet of three fights for the eventual winner. Yes, it’s time for another edition of the Phoenix Series from Invicta Fighting Championships.
This third edition of the Phoenix Series takes place in the bantamweight division. The field includes Brittney Victoria, a 3-1 pro who is coming off her first defeat. There’s also Claire Guthrie, who won her pro debut in October. Hope Chase enters the fray while riding a two-fight winning streak. Julia Ottolino, initially one of the evening’s reserves, steps up after a successful August pro debut. Kerri Kenneson, the veteran of the group, seeks to snap a two-fight skid. Taneisha Tennant tries to build on her perfect 2-0 mark. Meanwhile, Taylor Guardado attempts to shake off years of ring rust and join the pro ranks following a head-turning resume on the amateur circuit. Serena DeJesus, who was initially slated to compete in a tournament reserve bout, became the latest fighter to join the group of eight. On Friday night, one of these ladies will claim a championship trophy and put her name on the bantamweight map.
Speaking of bantamweights and championships, the other focus of the evening centers on the division’s title. Lisa Verzosa carries a perfect 5-0 record into the Invicta cage on her quest for gold. The upstart is tasked with taking out former The Ultimate Fighter contestant Julija Stoliarenko. The Lithuanian has been on a rampage lately, but her victims weren’t exactly Invicta-caliber fighters.
Invicta heads back to Memorial Hall in Kansas City, Kan., for its latest offering. The entire card streams live on UFC Fight Pass at 8 p.m. ET on March 6.
Julija Stoliarenko meets Lisa Verzosa in the main event to decide a new bantamweight champion. The Lithuanian fighter has submitted her last three opponents in less than 30 seconds each. Is Verzosa destined to suffer a similar fate at the hands of the armbar master?
Kontek: Until The Ultimate Fighter, I was skeptical of Stoliarenko. When I saw her compete on that season of the now-dormant show, I was impressed by her skills, specifically her submission grappling ability. The runner-up on TUF is now on a streak. She has earned this shot at gold and looks to climb to the top of the mountain for Invicta and eventually make it to the UFC.
Stoliarenko is running into another top 135-pounder outside the UFC. Verzosa is my top-ranked bantamweight prospect. Stoliarenko is a top-notch grappler, but Verzosa has good wrestling and submission grappling of her own. She may have the takedown advantage over the Lithuanian, too. Verzosa also likely has the better striking.
Stoliarenko won’t have as easy a time with Verzosa as she has with her other recent opponents. In fact, Verzosa, although more youthful and less experienced, is the better, more rounded fighter in this bout. Verzosa will win and likely get signed by the UFC within six months.
Henderson: That’s the new struggle for Invicta. Just like the Legacy Fighting Alliance, Invicta has to contend with any crowned champion getting scooped up by the UFC in no time. Given the UFC’s thinning women’s bantamweight division — a result of the opening of the flyweight and featherweight classes in the sport’s top company — it’s even more likely that the winner of this bout will vacate the title before long.
The 26-year-old Stoliarenko still has some doubters to convert. Count me among them. The Lithuanian has had her moments, but have they really been head-turners? Her only TUF win came against Marciea Allen. That’s not bad, but she failed to follow up when she met Pannie Kianzad and Leah Letson. It only goes to reinforce the concerns brought on by a resume that also includes losses to Aga Niedźwiedź and Lucie Pudilová. She’s largely preyed upon rookies and low-level opponents, while losing whenever she’s met a notable opponent.
Verzosa, 24, hasn’t made a huge name for herself yet, but she is already an established presence in Invicta following wins over Shanna Young, Katharina Lehner and Kerri Kenneson. She’s proven herself in ways that Stoliarenko has not. This will continue on Friday night when she becomes the latest accomplished fighter to hand Stoliarenko a setback.
The title fight may be the headliner, but this is a Phoenix Series event, which means that a one-night, eight-woman tournament takes center stage. This time, it’s a bantamweight bracket featuring Brittney Victoria, Claire Guthrie, Serena DeJesus, Hope Chase, Julia Ottolino, Kerri Kenneson, Taneisha Tennant and Taylor Guardado. The quarterfinal pairings will be randomly drawn on the day of the weigh-ins, but who do you have as the strongest contenders to make it to the finals? Who wins it all?
Henderson: The playing field looks pretty even here. These ladies are all in the early stages of their pro careers, with Kenneson checking in as the most experienced — with all of five pro bouts — and Guardado joining the competition as a rookie. The length of their resumes can be deceiving, though.
This is especially true for Guardado. The 28-year-old previously fought under her maiden name as Taylor Stratford, and she has quite the head-turning record as an amateur. She went 9-1 between 2009 and 2011. Her only loss in this stretch came via armbar against future UFC superstar Ronda Rousey. Meanwhile, she defeated future UFCers Raquel Pennington and Ashlee Evans-Smith, as well as future Bellator and Invicta standout Amanda Bell. She was even slated to compete at one of the earliest Invicta cards before suffering a knee injury. So, while Guardado may be the least experienced pro in this group, she might just be the best fighter in the bunch.
In terms of pure experience, Kenneson and Victoria have the edge. Kenneson’s five pro appearances include three Invicta fights. She suffered her most recent loss to Lisa Verzosa, who is now fighting for the gold. Victoria is 3-1 overall, and she’s already made two appearances with Invicta. These two are used to the pressure of fighting in the Invicta cage.
That leaves the five remaining fighters. Chase has only beat winless opponents thus far, while Guthrie, Ottolino and DeJesus picked up their wins against fellow rookies. Tennant is probably the strongest of this bunch, and her striking game could carry her to at least one victory on the night, especially given the one-round format of the evening’s early action.
Obviously, a lot will depend on the match-ups that are decided on the day of weigh-ins. Overall, though, I like Guardado, Kenneson, Victoria and Tennant as semifinalists. Of this quartet, Guardado and Kenneson seem the most likely to advance to the finals. Guardado’s history of wins over fighters who went on to become big names is too much to overlook, even if she’s taken more than a few years off since then. Guardado will have a breakout night and take home the tourney championship. Maybe this time she’ll even stick around to become a big name herself.
Kontek: While there are more experienced fighters in this tournament like Kenneson and Victoria, the three fighters to keep your eyes on are Ottolino, Guthrie and Tennant.
Ottolino is one of the best grapplers in this tournament, which will come in handy in one-round fights. She will try to get fighters to the mat quickly and then use her jiu-jitsu to keep position and score points. She’s also one of the biggest fighters in the tournament. Her only pro win is over Megan Cawley, but it was a fight she won convincingly.
Guthrie will be well equipped on a night that requires much stamina to win three fights. This is because she trains with the Elevation Fight Team in Colorado. She will likely be among the most conditioned. Guthrie was immensely successful as an amateur, which helped her transition to a submission win in her pro debut. The 25-year-old may be a little undersized, but she can use her quickness more effectively against bigger fighters.
Then there is Tennant, a striker with good power and technique. She is one of the best athletes in this field and definitely the dark-horse candidate to win it all. Tennant will be most successful when she’s striking from a distance and accumulating damage.
In addition to the title bout and the tournament, the event features a strawweight contest pitting Kay Hansen against Liana Pirosin. Will Hansen impress yet again?
Kontek: Whether she wins or loses, Hansen always brings it. The youngster improves every time we see her and always has an exciting fight. She never takes an easy fight either, which definitely continues to be the case here against Pirosin.
Pirosin is a good prospect out of Brazil. She is well rounded and impressive. She matches up well with Hansen, which is why this is going to be yet another great fight that should contend for “Fight of the Night” honors.
Wins and losses matter, but in the minds of those who watch it, it really won’t at the end of the day. These women will leave it all in the cage, utilizing wild striking exchanges and fun grappling spurts on the mat. Pirosin will likely edge out Hansen, but Hansen will continue to grow her skill set and fan base.
Henderson: Hansen will always be remembered by Invicta fans for her last-second armbar to finish Sharon Jacobson at Invicta FC 33. Up until that moment, Hansen was on the losing end of a wrestling clinic from Jacobson. If not for that sudden turnaround, Hansen would now sit at 4-4 in official competition. For every time she impresses, there’s another time where she disappoints. This has been a trend throughout her Invicta appearances — a pro debut win was followed with a sophomore loss; a stoppage win followed by a dropped decision on two occasions.
So, it might actually be bad news that Hansen is coming off a strong showing against Nicolle Caliari and and exhibition nod over Carolina Jimenez. Yes, things are looking up for Hansen, but that typically means it’s time for the other shoe to drop.
Hansen’s ability to buck this trend will be put to the test by Brazil’s Pirosin. The veteran is a solid fighter, but she’s also stumbled against her three most notable foes: Viviane Pereira, Jéssica Delboni and Kanako Murata. Still, those three fighters are all arguably better than Hansen. Pirosin isn’t a big finisher, so it’s all about whether she can control and outpoint Hansen through three rounds.
Hansen is still only 20 years old. She’s learning and improving, just as my colleague noted. However, she’s not quite there yet. Pirosin will do just enough to edge the youngster on the scorecards and take the victory.
Pair this card with…
Henderson: Praise for Invicta boss Shannon Knapp and the rest of the company’s brass. The organization didn’t opt to dig up UFC castoffs and veteran journeywomen for the bantamweight tournament. Instead, it went with a ton of young blood. There’s a good chance that at least a few of these ladies could be in the UFC title hunt a few years down the road. Invicta’s doing the right thing by giving a bunch of up-and-comers a chance for a breakout night.
Kontek: Ecto Cooler and Pixie Sticks. Getting hyped for fight night should be a priority. If you’re not hyped after guzzling sugar like a Hummer does gasoline, check your pulse. To be fair, you could be dead from this sugar overdose.
Main Card (UFC Fight Pass, 8 p.m. ET)
BW Championship: Lisa Verzosa vs. Julija Stoliarenko
StrawW: Kay Hansen vs. Liana Pirosin
BW Tournament Reserve Bout: Mitzi Merry vs. Morgan Hickam
BW Tournament Reserve Bout: Kelly Clayton vs. Florina Moeller
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