Emily Ducote (Jeff Vulgamore/Combat Press)

Toe-to-Toe: Invicta FC 40 Preview and Predictions

It’s been four months since the Invicta Fighting Championships cage last graced the inside of Memorial Hall in Kansas City, Kan., and what a long four months it has been. The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic caused the shutdown of much of the economy, including the entire sports world, but MMA promotions have slowly made their way back while serving up fights behind closed doors. Invicta now follows in the footsteps of the UFC by hosting its 40th show on Thursday, July 2.

The lineup is brief even by Invicta standards. The docket features just six fights, including a strawweight headliner between UFC veteran Juliana Lima and Bellator vet Emily Ducote. Lima’s only recent win came in a split verdict against Danielle Taylor in May 2019. Outside of that decision, “Ju Thai” hasn’t had her hand raised since 2016. Ducote overcame a disappointing Bellator campaign at the flyweight level to return to 115 pounds and compile two victories leading up to a shot at the Invicta strawweight crown. Ducote came up short against Kanako Murata for the belt, but she was able to prove that she can contend for a title. Now, she looks to climb back toward another title bid.

The atomweight division is featured in the evening’s co-main event, where Alesha Zappitella meets Lindsey VanZandt. Both ladies have gained a firm foothold as top 105-pounders. Zappitella launched her pro career with five straight wins, but setbacks against Viviane Pereira and Kanna Asakura caused her to regroup. Now, she seeks to build upon her February victory over Kelly D’Angelo. VanZandt has different plans, though. The 26-year-old is in need of a rebound performance after throwing in the towel in a December fight against Rena Kubota.


The six-fight lineup also features a flyweight clash between DeAnna Bennett and Victoria Leonardo, featherweight newcomer Liv Parker’s promotional debut opposite Chelsea Chandler, a flyweight showdown between Laura Gallardo and Trisha Cicero, and the pro debut of Shelby Koren against fellow strawweight Genia Goodin. It all gets underway on UFC Fight Pass at 8 p.m. ET on Thursday night.

UFC veteran Juliana Lima has had quite a rough patch lately. She’s won just one of her last four outings, and that came via split decision. What are her chances against recent Invicta strawweight title hopeful Emily Ducote?

Kontek: Yes, Lima has won just one of her past four fights. However, look at who she has fought. Lima does not take easy fights, which is why her record is definitely not “padded.”

She owns a victory in Invicta over UFC veteran Danielle Taylor, while taking losses to fringe top-10 strawweight Tecia Torres, Invicta Phoenix Series winner Brianna van Buren and longtime vet Randa Markos. That is a murderer’s row of fighters that Lima has faced. It’s no wonder why she’s fallen on “hard times.”

In terms of her fight with Ducote, Lima still has her hands full against another fighter who does not take easy fights. In fact, these two ladies are similar in that they both have “not-so-sexy” numerical records, but they both have a very hard strength of schedule.

Ducote is a good, well-rounded fighter who is back in her obvious weight class of 115 pounds. She fought at 125 in Bellator, where she took two losses against Bellator’s current champ Ilima-Lei Macfarlane. Now that she’s back in the strawweight division, she looks like she could be ready to make a big run in the sport.

This will be a good match-up. In the end, though, Lima takes another loss, as Ducote is just hitting a stride right now. This is a definite “Fight of the Night” match-up, too.

Henderson: This is a tough call.

Lima has put up a better winning percentage overall, and her losses also include older setbacks against former UFC champs Joanna Jędrzejczyk and Carla Esparza. In addition, she’s recorded victories over the likes of JJ Aldrich, Ericka Almeida and Nina Ansaroff. Meanwhile, Ducote is only two fights above the .500 mark. Furthermore, only her win over Janaisa Morandin stands out as a triumph against a significant name.

Ducote did push Kanako Murata to a split verdict in a battle for the vacant strawweight championship, though. This is a strong indication that she’s ready to make the jump to the next level. As noted, she also has looked much better while competing at 115.

Lima is obviously no slouch, but she does seem to be settling in as a gatekeeper to the higher levels of the sport in this weight class. It wouldn’t be a shock at all to see her emerge with a victory here, but Ducote’s recent successes make her the favorite in what should be a close fight.

The co-headliner features a pair of atomweights in Alesha Zappitella and Lindsey VanZandt who were both rising contenders before recent stumbles. Does Zappitella continue to build off her rebound win over Kelly D’Angelo, or will VanZandt take the victory?

Henderson: The 25-year-old Zappitella appeared destined for atomweight supremacy after victories over Jillian DeCoursey and Amber Brown in 2018, but she was thrown off course by a loss to the much larger Viviane Pereira. Then, on a trip to Japan, she was narrowly edged by Kanna Asakura. Her February rebound against D’Angelo was a classic Zappitella performance, though.

VanZandt has consistency issues, which really makes her fights unpredictable. In a 2019 Bellator contest, she easily dispatched Rena Kubota within the first round. At the end of the year, her corner threw in the towel against Kubota in the third round of their Rizin encounter in Japan. She also suffered losses to D’Angelo and Jessica Delboni, but defeated the likes of Bi Nguyen and Shino VanHoose.

VanZandt’s challenge here is to stop Zappitella’s wrestling in its tracks. The 26-year-old stands 5-foot-2 with a 64-inch reach, which gives her three and four inches, respectively, on Zappitella. She has to use this length to stay on the outside and score points on “Half Pint.” Given Zappitella’s display against D’Angelo, who has nearly identical height and reach to VanZandt, it might be a long night for the “Damsel.”

Zappitella’s determined to re-establish herself after the disappointments in her bouts with Pereira and Asakura. She’ll find the win against VanZandt on the scorecards.

Kontek: I agree with much of what my colleague said in his thorough breakdown.

The biggest x-factor in this fight is Zappitella’s wrestling. Wrestling in women’s MMA is so vital to success, which is why many collegiate wrestlers that enter women’s MMA fight at the highest levels. There simply are not enough female wrestlers to populate the sport.

VanZandt is certainly a top atomweight and will continue to be so in the future. That said, Zappitella is going to grind on her and wrestle her from bell to bell. She’s so heavy on top, and it’s going to be tough for VanZandt to get out from under her.

Zappitella scores the decision.

Liv Parker, Trisha Cicero, Laura Gallardo and Shelby Koren — do we need to know these names?

Kontek: Parker is definitely a name to know right now, just based on the fact that she’s an undefeated featherweight in a division with a shallow talent pool. She’s scored some impressive finishes and has looked like she’s heading toward bigger things. That said, she’s already 38 years old, so her window is closing far more quickly than your average fighter. The time for her needs to be now.

Gallardo is another fighter who looks like she could be a good prospect that will have a career fighting in high-level promotions. She was undefeated as an amateur and has looked strong in her two pro bouts. She’s 5-foot-1 fighting in the flyweight division, though. She will need to look into going down to strawweight, which would likely be a better weight class for someone of her size.

Cicero has been a pro for about four years now and has pulled a .500 record. Her losses have come against solid opponents, so it’s not like she’s had an easy strength of schedule. She has a good camp in American Top Team behind her, but she’s 31 years old and has yet to prove she can fight at the next level. She’s a longshot and likely will be a regional-level talent.

Koren is just 23 years old. She’s undefeated as an amateur and has shown good grappling ability. With how young she is now and how much time she has to hone her craft/develop her skills, she could be a name to know down the stretch. If she beats Genia Goodin, that’s a good start.

Henderson: Parker was able to storm through four foes under the Valor Fighting Challenge banner, but only the most recent of those outings came at 145 pounds. She’s tipped the scales at far higher numbers before her featherweight debut, so the real question is whether this will be her consistent home moving forward. If it is, she could be a future star in the making. She has demonstrated a knack for finishing fights at both the amateur and pro levels, and Invicta has set her up with a solid first test in the form of Chelsea Chandler. Invicta fans should pay attention when this one gets underway.

Gallardo is undefeated but she’s only had two pro bouts thus far. It looks like she’s getting a showcase here against the .500 fighter Cicero. In the long run, my colleague’s suggestion of a move to strawweight for Gallardo is wise. She’s a good bet to at least become a fixture with Invicta, whereas Cicero should indeed land back in the lower regional circuit before long.

Koren is still a wild card. Her youth is a plus, but the solid 7-0 mark she put up as an ammy is what really cranks up the anticipation for her pro run. If she can continue to keep her finishing rate up and win fights, Koren will be an excellent addition to the Invicta roster.

Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?

Henderson: Liv Parker’s promotional debut against Chelsea Chandler.

We’ve already talked about Parker in the previous question, but she’s certainly one of the most intriguing talents on this card. If she can beat Chandler and then remain at 145 pounds, she could be a huge addition to a very shallow division. The drawback for Invicta is that any extended run of success for Parker could mean a quick departure for the UFC.

Chandler is a good first test at this level for Parker, too. The Cesar Gracie product has spent her entire pro career with the Invicta organization. She suffered a rookie loss to Kerri Kenneson, but she has bounced back with a decision over the formerly undefeated Mitzi Merry and a second-round finish of the previously unbeaten Brittney Victoria. Chandler’s obviously great at playing spoiler, and she could do so again when she fights Parker. This makes for an exciting match-up.

Kontek: I really like that match-up as well, but my sleeper pick is the clash between Laura Gallardo and Trisha Cicero.

The reason it’s a sleeper is not because it’ll be a bell-to-bell dog fight, but because it will be a coming-out party for Gallardo. She’s a solid prospect looking to get her foot in the door and gain national exposure. Invicta is a platform that can give her that exposure.

A win over a veteran with American Top Team in her corner would be a huge step for Gallardo. Would it get her signed by the UFC right away? No. However, it would definitely get her name out there to more fans, and, with more experience, you could see her in the UFC in no time.

Pair this card with…

Kontek: A six-pack of beer. Any beer. Why? Because Invicta has provided you with a six-pack of fights here. One beer per fight. Don’t overdrink — unless you’re me, because I’m a hypocrite that stays thirsty.

Henderson: Quality over quantity, my friend. This card is only six fights long, so it’s going to go by in fast order. However, it should provide us with a glimpse of future stars for the promotion, while also featuring some solid veteran talent. That means it’s time to pop open a bottle of a local favorite of mine, Tumbleroot Brewery and Distillery’s SMASH barleywine aged in agave barrels. They also have varieties of this lovely creation aged in whiskey, gin or rum barrels, but the agave option ranks as the best in my opinion. Two glasses of this very strong beverage will provide the perfect companion to a Thursday night of fights.

Fight Picks

Fight Kontek’s Pick Henderson’s Pick
Main Card (UFC Fight Pass, 8 p.m. ET)
StrawW: Emily Ducote vs. Juliana Lima Ducote Ducote
AtomW: Alesha Zappitella vs. Lindsey VanZandt Zappitella Zappitella
FlyW: DeAnna Bennett vs. Victoria Leonardo Leonardo Bennett
FW: Chelsea Chandler vs. Liv Parker Parker Parker
FlyW: Trisha Cicero vs. Laura Gallardo Gallardo Gallardo
StrawW: Genia Goodin vs. Shelby Koren Goodin Goodin