History Lesson: The Journey of the Invicta Strawweight Title
On Friday, Nov. 20, Invicta Fighting Championships will host its 43rd event from Kansas City, Kan. The event will crown the eighth strawweight champion in promotional history. Let’s take a look back at the belt’s history.
SETTING THE PACE
Invicta FC 4 was the stage where the first-ever Invicta strawweight champion was crowned.
The main event was expected to feature Carla Esparza and Claudia Gadelha. Unfortunately, Gadelha was forced from the bout because of a broken nose and needed to be replaced.
Also training for a fight that night was Australian Bec Rawlings — neé Hyatt. Rawlings was set to take on Joanne Calderwood on the undercard, but got the call to face Esparza.
Rawlings was the underdog in the fight, especially considering the late notice. However, Rawlings showed up to fight the highly touted Esparza.
While Rawlings proved to be a tough opponent, Esparza proved why she was regarded as one of the best 115-pounders in the world. For five rounds, Esparza used her solid boxing and vastly superior wrestling to stifle Rawlings. When the buzzer went off at the end of round five, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that Esparza was the first-ever Invicta strawweight champion.
It was a short run though…
FINNING THE VOID
Esparza’s championship win was quickly followed by the UFC opening its own women’s strawweight division. With that, the champion decided to join the new season of The Ultimate Fighter, where they had a tournament to crown the first-ever UFC strawweight titleholder (which Esparza would go on to win).
Esparza’s departure left a void. And that void was to be filled at Invicta 8.
Europe’s top 115-pounder, Katja Kankaanpää of Finland, was matched against top American prospect Stephanie Eggink. The bout was paired with an atomweight title affair for championship doubleheader.
Kankaanpää’s experience figured in heavy into this fight by many, and their assertions proved to be correct. Kankaanpää, the tough and gritty vet, was able to mostly stifle Eggink throughout the fight. The big X-factor was her grappling.
The fight went into the fifth round and Kankaanpää decided to hit the gas, preferring to score a finish over letting the judges decide. She got Eggink to the ground, slapped on a D’Arce choke and tapped out Eggink just over two minutes into the final round.
The title win was huge, but she was then tasked with being the first strawweight champ to defend her title.
Kankaanpää’s win was huge, but she had a big task ahead of herself, as the Invicta strawweight division was brimming with talent. Her first challenger would be a highly touted newcomer from Brazil named Livia Renata Souza, the self-described Brazilian gangster.
The struggle for the champion would be matching her ground game with that of Souza, as Souza is known for her top-level submission grappling. Unfortunately for the champ, that would be on display in this match-up.
After four rounds of fighting, Souza was able to slap on a triangle choke, forcing a tap from Kankaanpää, thus ending her brief championship run. Kankaanpää would retire from the sport a few fights later with that championship accolade to her name.
Now, it was the task of Souza to be the first strawweight champ to defend the belt. Her first opponent as champ was DeAnna Bennett, a respected veteran that has been in the position of big fights more than a few times. Bennett also happened to be 8-0 at the time, making this a battle of the unbeatens.
The co-main event of Invicta 15 figured to be the BJJ of Souza vs. the boxing and wrestling of Bennett. However, just 1:30 into the first round, Souza landed a brutal body kick that folded Bennett. Souza followed up with several punches and just like that, she had defended her title with a highlight-reel finish.
The UFC would eventually be in the future of Souza, but not before her next fight at Invicta 17.
QUEEN OF THE HILL
Souza would be matched up in her second title defense against Angela Hill, a young fighter in the sport that had made The Ultimate Fighter despite having just one pro fight. Hill had washed out of the UFC not long after, and was ready to regroup under the Invicta banner.
Hill had begun her comeback with Invicta, scoring TKO victories in two bouts over Alida Gray and the aforementioned Eggink. Those two wins allotted her the resume to warrant a title shot against Souza.
Invicta 17 came around with Souza and Hill populating the co-main event in support of the bantamweight title in the main slot. Fans anticipated a clash of styles.
What they saw was a highly competitive bout. Hill used her solid Muay Thai skills and excellent athleticism to contrast with the top-level ground game and strength of Souza. Both fighters had their moments, but after 25 minutes it would come down to the judges’ scorecards.
The judges were split in who they thought took the victory; with two judges scoring the fight in favor of Hill, netting her the title and dethroning Souza in an upset.
Hill’s first title defense would take place at Invicta 20 against powerhouse Kaline Medeiros. The Brazilian Medeiros was known for her fierce knockout power and was a threat to put Hill out with one shot.
In a more clear-cut title fight for Hill, she was able to outpoint Medeiros on all the scorecards, defending her title and continuing her career resurgence after her initial UFC ouster.
Hill vacated the title after the win and headed to the UFC, as she received a late-notice opportunity. She’s been there ever since.
BLACK BELT, TITLE BELT
With the departure of Hill, Invicta again needed to fill a vacancy. So, the company looked to two of it’s top international stars to fill that need: Mizuki Inoue of Japan and Virna Jandiroba of Brazil.
Invicta 28 was the site where that vacant title would be filled. Mizuki was known to Invicta fans for her exciting style and impressive resume, while Jandiroba was an undefeated 13-0 Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt looking to make a name for herself.
Like many of the title fights before it, Mizuki-Jandiroba was a competitive fight that had fans in attendance on their feet. Mizuki’s striking and Jandiroba’s grappling were both on display, in a great contrast of style.
For the second time in Invicta strawweight championship history, the judges were split on their choice for the winner. However, it was Jandiroba who got the judge’s tilt, making her the second Brazilian champ in the division’s history.
With that win, Jandiroba was then matched up with a fellow Brazilian Janaisa Morandin at Invicta 31 in her first defense of the gold. However, this time, she made sure to leave no doubt in the minds of the judges and fans.
In the second round, Jandiroba really made the grappling disparity apparent, as she dominated her countrywoman. She secured a beautiful arm-triangle choke, coercing a tap from Morandin and successfully defending her title.
As with the previous champ, Hill, Jandiroba would be offered a UFC contract and would then vacate the title to pursue that endeavor.
ONE NIGHT, THREE FIGHTS, ONE BELT
To fill the void left behind by Jandiroba, Invicta decided to hold an eight-woman, one-night tournament to crown a new champion. The tournament would consist of UFC veterans Kailin Curran, Juliana Lima and Danielle Taylor; international stars Sunna Davidsdottir and Manjit Kolekar; Invicta mainstays Sharon Jacobson, Amber Brown; and top regional fighter Brianna van Buren.
Each quarterfinal and semifinal bout was one round, with the final being a three-round affair. The winner of that three-round fight would earn the Invicta gold.
The opening round saw Curran and Lima score split decisions over Davidsdottir and Taylor, respectively. Jacobson defeated Brown by unanimous decision and van Buren scored an armbar finish over Kolekar.
The semifinals saw two more definitive wins than the first round, though there were no finishes. Van Buren bested the favored Lima by unanimous verdict, while Curran did the same over Jacobson in what was seen as an upset.
The main event came and both fighters could taste victory. It was just 15 minutes (or less) away.
In what was an outstanding performance, van Buren completed the Cinderella run in which she outlasted UFC veterans and other top prospects to dominate Curran in the finals and choke her out in the second round. With that, the championship void was filled with a young, exciting star.
However, we would never see van Buren defend that title, as the UFC offered her a fight on late notice, effectively vacating the belt.
LAND OF THE RISING STAR
With the belt without a home, Invicta again had to put together two stars to square off for the gold. Invicta 38 was the site, and competing for the title would be Japanese phenom Kanako Murata and scrappy veteran Emily Ducote.
Murata had gained fame fighting for top Japanese organization Rizin and was known for her excellent wrestling. Ducote, on the other hand, was a former Bellator MMA flyweight championship challenger who had ransacked Janaisa Morandin in her Invicta debut to earn this slot.
This was another great fight. Murata had her moments where she showed off underrated striking and good grappling. Ducote showed off her good striking as well, as well as her scrappiness. They threw down for five rounds, warranting a call to the judges.
In what we can call another piece of brilliant matchmaking by Invicta FC, we saw another split decision decide the Invicta 115-pound strap. That decision went the way of Murata, making her the first Japanese strawweight champion in Invicta. It also, in the process, proved the worth of Ducote, who is now one of the best 115-pounders.
Murata never defended the title, though. She vacated the title and signed with the UFC, leaving the belt without an owner once more.
That’s where Ducote and Montserrat Ruiz come in. The belt is on the line at Invicta 43. Who will add to the rich history of Invicta’s strawweight lineage?
This piece is a special contribution from Riley Kontek, a veteran combat sports writer whose work has appeared on Bleacher Report MMA, Combat Press and the MMA Intel Blog. You can follow Riley on Twitter.