Jessica Penne. Michelle Waterson. Herica Tiburcio. Ayaka Hamasaki. Jinh Yu Frey. The list of former Invicta atomweight champions is brief, but it already includes three ladies who have gone on to compete inside the UFC, plus one of the greatest atomweights of all time. On Thursday night, a new name will join this list. With Frey having departed for the Octagon, the vacant atomweight title is on the line in the main event of Invicta FC 42 when Alesha Zappitella meets Ashley Cummins.
Zappitella has been a terror to anyone who lacks strong takedown defense. The wrestling powerhouse used her skills to score unanimous verdicts over Jillian DeCoursey, Amber Brown and Kelly D’Angelo in her time with Invicta. However, the blueprint to victory over Zappitella is starting to form. She only managed a split-decision win over Lindsey VanZandt in her most recent appearance, and she has also suffered losses to Viviane Pereira and Kanna Asakura. Can Zappitella continue to evolve and demonstrate new facets to her game, or will Cummins prove that “Half Pint’s” rise has already stalled?
Cummins is a former strawweight who struggled against the likes of Joanne Calderwood and Alexa Grasso. She also came up short in her appearance on The Ultimate Fighter 23, where her only in-cage action resulted in a stoppage loss to Lanchana Green. However, it’s been a different story since “Smashley” moved down to 105 pounds. The 33-year-old has posted decision nods over the aforementioned Brown, Stephanie Alba and Jéssica Delboni. Her only setbacks have come against Frey, including one championship affair. With Frey now residing in the UFC, the time could be here for a Cummins title reign.
The atomweight championship headliner caps off a Thursday night of fights that also includes such notable names as Lisa Verzosa, Raquel Canuto, the aforementioned Delboni and Tiburcio, Victoria Leonardo and Liz Tracy. The six-fight lineup kicks off at 9 p.m. ET on UFC Fight Pass. Combat Press writers Riley Kontek and Bryan Henderson preview the action in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.
The vacant atomweight strap is on the line in the main-event clash between Alesha Zappitella and Ashley Cummins. Can Zappitella claim the belt, or will Cummins be the latest fighter to thwart “Half Pint”?
Kontek: This is a very interesting fight stylistically, and fans will be happy with the performances when it’s all said and done.
On one end you have Zappitella, a power wrestler who, despite standing only 4-foot-11, fights much bigger than that. Her striking is improving, but she mostly uses her hands to set up takedowns. On the mat, she is heavy and can keep opponents on their back. She has tripped up a couple times when stepping up in competition, so we will see here if she’s shaken off those previous jitters.
On the other side, there’s Cummins, who is coming off an atomweight title loss to Jinh Yu Frey. In that fight, Cummins was very competitive, showing off solid striking and clinch work. She has solid takedown defense, which she will definitely need to show off here against Zappitella. If she can keep this fight on the feet, her chances of winning drastically increase.
Will the takedown prevail here for Zappitella, or will Cummins sprawl-and-brawl her way to victory? It could play out either way, but Cummins has more tools and will finally achieve her goal of becoming an Invicta champion.
Henderson: The 25-year-old Zappitella has appeared to be a star in the making for the division, but her reliance on wrestling and her small stature, even by atomweight standards, have led to some struggles. She couldn’t gain the upper hand against UFC veteran Viviane Pereira, a strawweight who came in heavy for their 105-pound affair. Then, she dropped a split verdict in Japan to Kanna Asakura, who has begun to establish herself among the elite in the weight class.
“Half Pint” can dominate with her wrestling, but even her July contest with Lindsey VanZandt only resulted in a split verdict. Her fellow atomweights are starting to figure out how to combat her style, which makes it a bad time for Zappitella to encounter Cummins.
“Smashley” struggled against the upper tiers of the strawweight division, but she has found far more success at 105. Her only losses in the division have come to the former Invicta titleholder Frey, who is now in the UFC. This leaves the door open for a fighter who has the proper skill set to counter Zappitella’s wrestling-heavy approach.
Cummins has the more rounded game, which will provide her with a route to scoring points as Zappitella continually hunts for the takedown with only moderate success. This one goes the distance, and Cummins will indeed finally acquire the belt.
Raquel Canuto returns to the MMA realm for the first time since 2017. Can she get past Lisa Verzosa and rocket into immediate bantamweight title contention?
Henderson: Before taking her leave from the MMA world to focus on grappling competition, Canuto — nee Pa’aluhi —only managed a .500 record. However, her strength of schedule was tremendous. She fought Sarah D’Alelio in her sophomore outing as a pro and then experienced a three-fight skid in which her losses came to the elite trio of Sara McMann, Amanda Nunes and Raquel Pennington. Under the Invicta banner, she even managed to notch victories over Kaitlin Young, Ediane Gomes and Pannie Kianzad while only falling to the always-tough Colleen Schneider and future UFCer Yana Kunitskaya.
Verzosa, meanwhile, has had a meteoric rise since her 2018 pro debut with Invicta. She put together a run that culminated with consecutive victories over Shanna Young, Katharina Lehner and Kerri Kenneson that led to a crack at the vacant belt opposite Julija Stoliarenko. Verzosa put up a solid effort despite ultimately dropping a split verdict.
Verzosa is a total grinder. The 24-year-old has not scored a finish since her amateur days, and she even had a few split or majority decisions back then. She’s managed to put up a tough fight against everyone she’s fought, including Stoliarenko, but her close calls in victories over Kelly Clayton and the aforementioned Shanna Young leave plenty of room for improvement.
However, Verzosa could benefit from Canuto’s ring rust. The native Hawaiian has remained active as a grappler, but MMA is a whole different ball game. Throw in the striking aspect, and Canuto could be in for a tough night. Canuto, now 29, has an incredible amount of experience against top talent though, so she certainly cannot be counted out. This figures to be another close one, and it wouldn’t be one bit of a surprise to see the judges divided on the outcome once again. Yet, Verzosa should continue her habit of squeaking by with the win.
Kontek: This is a fight that has a chance to be “Fight of the Night,” and for good reason.
Canuto, despite the long layoff, should be noted as a wild brawler. She has no problem engaging in striking dog fights, a scenario that could develop here. Her improved grappling is the real thing to watch, as she could give Verzosa a tough challenge on the ground.
Verzosa is another fighter who doesn’t mind getting in firefights, but her submission wrestling is her biggest weapon. She is coming off a title loss, so she has big fight experience, but her strength of schedule doesn’t match that of Canuto.
Will ring rust be a factor for Canuto? Or can the young, top prospect Verzosa notch the biggest win of her young career? I say Verzosa wins in a viewer-friendly fight.
Jennifer Chieng — do we need to know this name?
Kontek: Chieng is a former Olympian, which jumps off the page right away. However, is she a fighter that has a chance at longevity in this sport at a high level? All signs do not point in the right direction for Chieng. Her pro boxing record isn’t exactly the best — it stands at 2-7. She has just one pro MMA bout to this point, and she’s already 34 years old. The window is closing rapidly for her. She’s set to fight Flore Hani, a fighter who has already defeated Chieng in a pro-boxing bout. The ceiling is low for Chieng.
Henderson: At first glance, Chieng’s Olympic credentials and her 82-second finish of Jessica Ruiz under the Bellator banner are enough to make her seem like a no-brainer pick to start off well in her fledgling MMA career. However, my colleague made a strong argument for why this is not the case. Not to pile on, but Chieng’s ammy MMA resume is heavily bolstered by two victories over the same winless foe, who held an 0-7 mark by the time they had their second encounter. None of this bodes well as Chieng heads into her fight with Hani, who has even managed an amateur win over Victoria Leonardo. Chieng could feed on low-level talent, but that’s just not Invicta’s booking strategy. Instead, she’ll struggle to find a win inside the organization.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
Henderson: It’s too bad the scrap between Jéssica Delboni and Herica Tiburcio is set to take place at strawweight rather than atomweight. Tiburcio is a former champion at 105 pounds, and Delboni has been competitive against some of the world’s best in the weight class. However, these two ladies should still combine for an exciting little tilt at 115.
Tiburcio has four losses on her record, but the three most recent setbacks came to Claudia Gadelha, Ayaka Hamasaki and Jinh Yu Frey. If you’ve lost track, that’s one perennial UFC strawweight title contender and two of the world’s top atomweights. The diminutive 28-year-old has gone the distance a lot lately, but she did surprise Michelle Waterson with a guillotine choke to capture the Invicta atomweight crown in 2014 and has a tally of seven submission finishes total as a pro.
Delboni has bounced between 105 and 115. At the lower weight class, she fell to current title hopeful Ashley Cummins and just eked out a nod over Lindsey VanZandt. She has spent more time at 115 than her counterpart, but she won’t hold too much of a size advantage over the 4-foot-11 Tiburcio.
Delboni has never submitted an opponent, nor has she been submitted. This will make Tiburcio’s job all the more difficult. These two ladies should turn in a war en route to a decision that will favor Tiburcio.
Kontek: That figures to be a good fight, but my sleeper bout on this card is the bantamweight affair between Auttumn Norton and Brittney Cloudy.
Norton is an exciting fighter who will bite down on her mouthpiece and slug away. In her most recent outing, she bested top prospect Yaya Rincon. The win has her on the upward trajectory.
Cloudy, on the other hand, is an outstanding natural athlete with Golden Gloves boxing credentials and a history of fun, competitive pro fights. Her two losses were split decisions against top fighters, which she could have arguably taken.
These two will meet in the middle of the cage and swing for the fences.
Pair this card with…
Kontek: The UFC Fight Night: Covington vs. Woodley card, a full pint of beer, and some wings. You can smash the wings (as we say in Illinois) in honor of “Smashley” Cummins, have two half pints for “Half Pint” Zappitella, and enjoy another UFC card being brought to you courtesy of ESPN+. It should be a good little weekend.
Henderson: A desire to see Invicta go all-out with the atomweight division. The 105ers are the only fighters for whom the top of the ladder resides in Invicta rather than the UFC. While the promotion should continue to provide a platform for ladies from all weight classes, the atomweight division deserves a huge spotlight as the true calling card for Invicta. Cummins and Zappitella should make that obvious on Thursday night.
|Fight||Kontek’s Pick||Henderson’s Pick|
|Main Card (UFC Fight Pass, 9 p.m. ET)|
|AtomW Championship: Alesha Zappitella vs. Ashley Cummins||Cummins||Cummins|
|BW: Lisa Verzosa vs. Raquel Canuto||Verzosa||Verzosa|
|StrawW: Jéssica Delboni vs. Herica Tiburcio||Tiburcio||Tiburcio|
|FlyW: Victoria Leonardo vs. Liz Tracy||Leonardo||Tracy|
|BW: Auttumn Norton vs. Brittney Cloudy||Cloudy||Norton|
|StrawW: Jennifer Chieng vs. Flore Hani||Hani||Hani|