Karina Rodríguez (R) (Jeff Vulgamore/Combat Press)

Invicta on AXS TV: Rodriguez vs. Torquato Preview and Predictions

Invicta Fighting Championships has been around for just over nine years now. The popular all-women’s promotion has seen a number of broadcast outlets over that time. Its early shows were at times hampered by the amount of demand for the content exceeding the capabilities of the streaming service the company chose. That finally changed when Invicta joined forces with UFC Fight Pass. Now, for the first time since Invicta FC 8, the organization has a new broadcast home. Invicta, which was recently acquired by Anthem Sports & Entertainment Inc. will now air its shows on Anthem-owned AXS TV. It’s the dawn of a new era.

Invicta’s debut on AXS serves as a platform for the crowning of a new flyweight champion. The former titleholder, Vanessa Porto, vacated the belt to sign with Bellator MMA. This has left the door open for veterans Karina Rodriguez and Daiana Torquato to vie for the throne.

Rodriguez’s last appearance actually came against Porto. The Mexican fighter was able to hold her own against Porto, who was not yet the champion at that time, but still fell on the scorecards. The loss snapped a two-fight winning streak for Rodriguez.


Advertisement

Brazil’s Torquato is no stranger to the Invicta cage, but she is in a unique situation here. This will be her first official fight with the company after her participation in two exhibition bouts as part of the Phoenix Series with the promotion. Torquato advanced past her first Phoenix Series foe, Milana Dudieva, before succumbing to a rear-naked choke from DeAnna Bennett.

Of course, the flyweight belt isn’t the only championship on the line at Invicta’s AXS TV debut. Atomweight titleholder Alesha Zappitella will attempt to defend her crown when she meets Jéssica Delboni. Zappitella claimed the strap in her last appearance when she found a late submission to finish fellow title hopeful Ashley Cummins. Her first defense comes against a Brazilian who has bounced between the 105- and 115-pound weight classes for much of her career. Can “Half Pint” succeed against yet another fighter who might bring a size advantage to the cage against the champ?

Invicta on AXS TV: Rodriguez vs. Torquato takes place at PAL KC in Kansas City, Kan., on Friday, May 21. The preliminary card, which consists of the evening’s first two contests, can be seen on all of Invicta’s social-media platforms at 7 p.m. ET. The four-fight main card airs live on AXS TV in the United States, the Fight Network in Canada, and on all of Invicta’s social-media platforms with a start time of 8 p.m. ET. Combat Press writers Riley Kontek and Bryan Henderson preview the action in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.

The vacant flyweight belt goes to the winner of the headliner. Will it be Karina Rodriguez or Daiana Torquato?

Kontek: Invicta has gone international to fill the vacancy at the top of the 125-pound division. The company picked two strong contenders to duke it out in Rodriguez and Torquato, who should combine to put on a helluva fight.

Rodriguez, a pro since 2012, has been with Invicta since 2017. She has fought some very strong competition while going 4-2 in her six-fight tenure. One of her losses came to former Invicta queen Vanessa Porto and her other setback was handed to her by DeAnna Bennett, a loss she later avenged. Rodriguez brings some good boxing to the cage, as well as underrated grappling. This overall approach will make her a tough out.

Torquato is no pushover, though, and could be just as well rounded. The veteran is a bit of a decision fighter, but she has solid kickboxing and good submission grappling. With Invicta, she went 1-1 in the Phoenix Series while beating Milana Dudieva and falling to the aforementioned Bennett.

These ladies match up well, but it is Rodriguez who is the better equipped and experienced fighter. She has a superior track record and strength of schedule. Her combination of boxing, defensive grappling, and grit will allow her to get her past her Brazilian opponent.

Henderson: Invicta’s flyweight division has one of the shortest lists of champions on record for the organization. The league has only known three queens in the weight class: Barb Honchak, Jennifer Maia and the aforementioned Porto. So, the winner of this fight will join a rather exclusive club. Furthermore, they’ll do so in the spotlight of a huge premiere for Invicta on AXS TV.

Mexico’s Rodriguez certainly has seen some tough competition in her 12-fight pro campaign. The problem is that she hasn’t exactly excelled in these spots. She suffered losses to Alexa Grasso and Poliana Botelho, in addition to the aforementioned stumbles against Bennett and Porto. She also just barely squeaked by Milana Dudieva on the scorecards.

Torquato may not have the same strength of schedule — Dudieva, Bennett, Sarah Frota and a rookie Ariane Lipski are the most notable names on her 13-fight resume — but she does have a stronger winning percentage. Yet, she has struggled to put away even the lower-level fighters she’s encountered.

These ladies are essentially benefitting from the UFC and Bellator raids on the Invicta roster. Bellator scooped up the last champ, Porto, and the two top orgs have signed away many of the most deserving contenders that Invicta had. It’ll be Rodriguez who seizes this opportunity and turns in a grinding decision to capture the crown. The bigger question will be whether she can take the next big step and become a dominant champion for Invicta.

The co-headliner is another title affair, this one in the atomweight division. How likely is Alesha Zappitella to retain the belt when she clashes with Jéssica Delboni?

Henderson: The champ is a top 105-pounder, but she has occasionally run into adversity in her career. She dropped back-to-back fights at one point to Viviane Pereira and Kanna Asakura. The biggest hurdle she has to overcome is her size, though.

Yes, that’s right, Zappitella is even somewhat small for the atomweight division. Against Pereira, a former strawweight, she gave up two inches in height and three inches in reach. Asakura was similarly bigger than “Half Pint.” Delboni will be yet another competitor with a size edge on Invicta’s titleholder.

Delboni was able to use her length and striking well against Herica Tiburcio in the pair’s September encounter. She was also able to stuff Tiburcio’s takedowns. The Brazilian held her own on the ground with Ashley Cummins as well. That will be the key here against Zappitella. If Delboni can keep the fight standing or return to the feet quickly once she has been taken down, then she can frustrate the champ and score points with the judges. On the other hand, if Zappitella can put Delboni on the mat repeatedly, then it’s likely to be a long night for the challenger.

Zappitella has improved since her two previous setbacks. She was able to top Kelly D’Angelo and Lindsey VanZandt on the scorecards, and she stopped the aforementioned Cummins late in their fight. She’s a better wrestler than Cummins and should be able to dominate Delboni on the mat and keep a hold of that strap.

Kontek: A lot of what I wanted to say was already touched on by my colleague, so, like a tailor making a single piece of underwear, I will keep this brief.

Zappitella is somewhat undersized even by atomweight standards, but she makes up for it with pure grit, a relentless wrestling game and underrated power. She consistently gets better each time she steps in the cage. Even her striking, which was once very basic, has evolved greatly in recent matches.

Delboni is actually a solid match-up for Zappitella. The Brazilian is not much taller than the champ, so size doesn’t figure to be a huge factor. Delboni will want to keep this fight on the feet, for sure, even despite the fact that her jiu-jitsu is good. Wrestling with Zappitella would be a mistake. If she can strike with the champ, especially from a distance, then she can certainly outpoint her.

Zappitella will close the distance and wrestle Delboni, not giving her much room to breathe. “Half Pint” will walk away once more as the champion.

With the UFC, Bellator, ONE and even the Legacy Fighting Alliance devoting more resources to bringing in established women’s talent, Invicta has evolved and now showcases more rookies than ever. There are three such ladies on this card: Fatima Kline, Elise Pone and Chrissy Yandolli. Which of these fighters has the most future potential?

Kontek: Yes, Invicta is going to have a slew of new faces in the upcoming years due to the popularity of women’s MMA in other promotions. This card is certainly an example of that.

Kline, while a limited amateur MMA fighter, is an accomplished and experienced BJJ player. She is known to be an aggressive submission hunter and is likely to be so when she steps into the cage. With that background, she has a good amount of time to develop into a solid MMA fighter. She’s definitely one to watch.

Pone is already 36 years old, so it’s difficult to envision an extremely high career trajectory for her. She has a rounded background, but there isn’t much of an ammy record to go off of to know where her skills are at right now for MMA.

Yandolli, Pone’s opponent, has pro kickboxing experience and a short amateur record. Her earliest known ammy fight was in 2015, so she’s been training for some time. She may have a higher ceiling than Pone given the circumstances, but more needs to be seen from here before we can make a stronger assertion of her ability.

Henderson: Kline had a very active grappling run in 2020, but it included losses to Juliana Miller, Brittney Elkin and two additional opponents. That’s not to say she won’t bring over a solid background into her MMA campaign, but she’s not a dominant competitor even in her own realm. She’s also charged with an opponent in Ariana Melendez who has one pro MMA victory and a handful of submission finishes spanning her ammy and pro careers. Kline is likely to get off on the wrong foot in her pro debut, but her submission skills do indeed make her a potential future fixture in the division. Whether she’s a gatekeeper or a champ is another story, though.

Pone and Yandolli are longshots for any significant success at a high level. Pone has worked under the tutelage of Erik Paulson, which is a plus, but age is definitely an issue. However, it’s not unheard of in the world of MMA for someone to make their debut in their mid-30s and still make a mark. Yandolli, meanwhile, suffered a loss to an amateur foe who entered the bout at 0-3. While you never can rely on ammy records alone — it’s like using Spring Training stats for baseball players — Yandolli hasn’t demonstrated anything yet to suggest that she’s a breakout candidate. Maybe that will change this week, but don’t count on it.

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

Henderson: Claire Guthrie and Juliana Miller. This one has the potential to be a fun little flyweight scrap.

Miller made her promotional debut in November and tapped opponent Kendal Holowell in under three minutes to live up to her “Killer” moniker. The 10th Planet San Diego representative is now perfect through two pro fights with two first-round stoppages. She also had a number of quick finishes as an amateur.

The 25-year-old Guthrie should provide Miller with a tough fight. In her amateur days, she was able to put away several foes with strikes. While she hasn’t done anything like that yet at the pro level, she’s won two fights while only barely losing to Caitlin Sammons in official action and to Taylor Guardado in an exhibition bout as part of Invicta’s Phoenix Series.

Guthrie will serve as the first truly tough fight for Miller at this level. Perhaps we’ll even get to see what Miller has left in the tank when a fight goes beyond the first round.

Kontek: That fight should be fantastic. That said, my sleeper pick is the battle between Josee Storts and Maria Jose Favela.

At age 22, Storts is the definition of a prospect. The Jackson-Winkeljohn fighter is 2-0 thus far as a pro, with both victories coming via triangle choke. Those wins come against lower-level fighters with a lack of experience, which makes sense for a young prospect building her cage time. Storts is exciting and looks to be a fighter to keep an eye on going forward.

Favela is a few years older than Storts, and she is also two fights into her pro career. She represents the underrated Entram Gym in Mexico. She had a solid ammy career, where she even bested Cara Greenwall. Favela clearly has the skills to hang.

These ladies can both throw a bit on the feet and are capable grapplers. This is a great prospects fight that could harvest an eventual title contender a year or two down the road.

Pair this card with…

Kontek: Thin Lizzy and a bottle of champagne. Thin Lizzy for their classic hit “The Boys are Back in Town” — just sub in the word “girls” instead — and the champagne to commemorate this new chapter in Invicta history under Anthem’s ownership and its broadcast on AXS TV. It should be a fun little night!

Henderson: “Money” from Pink Floyd. The headliner provides an opportunity for either Karina Rodriguez or Daiana Torquato to make a serious impression. With the UFC and Bellator often snatching up Invicta champions, a big payday could await one of these ladies.

FIGHT PICKS
Fight Kontek’s Pick Henderson’s Pick
Main Card (AXS TV, 8 p.m. ET)
FlyW Championship: Karina Rodriguez vs. Daiana Torquato Rodriguez Rodriguez
AtomW Championship: Alesha Zappitella vs. Jéssica Delboni Zappitella Zappitella
FlyW: Juliana Miller vs. Claire Guthrie Miller Miller
FlyW: Josee Storts vs. Maria Jose Favela Storts Storts
Preliminary Card (Invicta social media, 7 p.m. ET)
StrawW: Fatima Kline vs. Ariana Melendez Melendez Melendez
FlyW: Elise Pone vs. Chrissy Yandolli Pone Pone