Andrea Lee: Striving For Greatness

“I want to be a G.O.A.T.”

Without context — or at least an explanation of the acronym — you might think flyweight Andrea Lee has been punched in the head one too many times. But that’s not the case.

The 26-year-old Texas native is a determined fighter who wants nothing more than to achieve greatness in combat sports. Lee’s start in martial arts came while she was working as a waitress in a sports bar. It’s a far cry from where she is today.

“I didn’t expect to go this far,” explained Lee. “At first, I just wanted to do it as a hobby and learn to defend myself.

“But I learned to fight. And that was something I wanted to do as a kid. I started competing and fell in love with it. [Now] I want to be remembered as the greatest of all time.

“I’m a pretty competitive person, so it made me want to keep going.”

Keep going, she has. Lee was a natural in both the ring and the cage. With only a few years of training, she captured two Louisiana Golden Gloves titles. In 2013, she claimed the National Golden Gloves championship. However, her success in the boxing ring wasn’t enough to keep her away from MMA.

“We were thinking of going to the Olympics, which is why I was mainly focused on boxing at first, but we decided that MMA was our best route,” declared the fighter. “Women’s MMA was taking off and boxing was kind of dying.

“Plus, I was more attached to MMA from the beginning anyway.”

Despite a preference for the cage, Lee continued to develop her skills while competing in boxing, Muay Thai and kickboxing. Along the way, she married her coach, Donny Aaron. The pair’s relationship created an interesting dynamic to her training.

“Donny… he pushed me. It’s probably the toughest part of training. It’s more personal. When he’s getting on me about something or going harder on me than anybody else, sometimes he gets under my skin. I get angry ’cause he’s yelling at me to do something; I get frustrated,” revealed Lee candidly.

“It’s not easy to be married to your coach. The coaching never ends. It’s really hard for us to find any time for husband and wife. When we go home, he’s talking to me about things I did at the gym, in my fight… or he’s talking to me about what I’m eating, taking my protein shakes, taking my supplements. It’s constant, nonstop.”

The relentless coaching from Aaron, a former kickboxer, has turned Lee from a novice into a decorated combatant in every aspect of combat sports. And although the pair’s coach-student relationship is a huge part of their day-to-day life, they do their best to focus on something more important: their daughter, Ainslee.

“It’s amazing, but it’s not easy,” said Lee of raising her daughter. “I have a really great family, both mine and Donny’s. She’ll hang out at the gym while we train in the morning. Then they’ll pick her up after work and take care of her.

“They make it easy for us to train. It’s difficult because I’m always training and I want to have some mother-daughter time. I don’t always get that. I make a lot of sacrifices, but I make up for it too. Whenever I’m on my off days and we’re home, I’ll play with her, even when I’m tired.”

With both parents thriving in combat sports, it wouldn’t be surprising if Ainslee followed in their footsteps. But according to Lee, it may not be that straightforward.

“I would embrace it. I’d love it, if that’s something she wants to do. It’s definitely something that Donny wants her to do. He would like to push her into it, but I think the more that he pushes, she’s like, ‘I don’t want to do it.’

“If she sees other kids getting into it, she’ll be more apt to do it. Anything he wants her to do, she’s going to rebel,” Lee joked.

While her daughter’s future may still be up in the air, Lee’s is more clear. After a lightning-fast TKO win in her professional debut that saw her kick off her opponent’s finger, Lee was signed by Invicta Fighting Championships. “KGB” impressed in her promotional debut, edging out Shannon Sinn. Just a month later, Lee was called upon for a big step up in competition against Roxanne Modafferi at Invicta FC 10.

“I’m still happy about that fight. I don’t regret it at all,” said Lee of her first professional defeat. “It was a huge leap for me in my career. Being able to compete against Roxanne, it was an honor. The only way to get better is to compete at a high level. She’s on that level.”

Lee fell short on the scorecards in Houston against Modafferi, but the Louisiana-based fighter proved she’s much more than a striker by pushing the veteran for a full three rounds.

“It was a tough fight. I was able to give her a run for her money,” recalled Lee. “I ended up losing a split decision, so somebody thought I won the fight. There were a lot of things in my jiu-jitsu that I had been training and working on that I was able to apply in that fight. I found myself in good positions considering the level she’s on, so I was very happy about that.”

With so many accolades in the striking arts, Lee’s performance against Modafferi showcased glimpses of a different side of her fight game: her self-proclaimed “underrated” ground game. But, unfortunately for Lee, there was something amiss in the cage that night that kept her from proving just how skilled she really is.

“You know, I’m not making excuses, but I don’t feel like I was completely there that night,” she declared. “The performance against Roxanne, I didn’t really get to display anything against her.

“I’m not the type of person that will back out of a fight, especially the day of the fight or two days before. I ruptured my eardrum leading up to that fight. I knew going into the fight, it was going to be tough for me. She was already a tough opponent and being sick was going to make it even tougher. I wasn’t in the right state of mind. I wasn’t able to defend things that I should have been defending. I am better than that.”

Lee will have an opportunity to prove it on Sept. 12 in Kansas City, Mo., when she takes on Hawaii’s Rachael Ostovich at Invicta FC 14. The two fighters have fought on the same card in the past, but Lee has no problem setting aside their existing relationship to get back in the win column.

“Her and her family are so nice. It’s going to suck having to punch each other in the face,” Lee said with a laugh. “But at the end of the day, we’re going to be friends. Whatever happens, happens.”

A win against Ostovich would help Lee rebuild the momentum she needs to be considered for 125-pound title contention, as well as for her long-term goal of being the best in the sport.

“I still think I’m on the right track. Just a couple more fights,” said Lee. “Obviously, I have one with Rachael Ostovich. Then probably two or three more after that. If I continue to excel, impress and win, I think I’ll have the opportunity to be next in line.”

Being the greatest of all time may still be years away, but it’s clear that Lee has a plan to get there. Now her job is to go out and execute in the Invicta cage.

Andrea would like to thank: her sponsors: Carbonation Toy, Classic Sound, Martial Arts Life and Amber Sports. Also her head coach, Donny Aaron, all of her coaches and training partners from Karate Mafia and Elite Combat Academy, and the girls that came in for this camp: Sharon Jacobson, Amanda Bobby Cooper and Jinh Yu Frey.

Katja Kankaanpää: Exceeding Expectations

Sports, by their nature, are about the spirit of competition. Yet, the reasons that athletes choose to participate vary greatly from one to the next.

For some, it’s the drive for first place. Those are the same people that race from stoplight to stoplight like their life depends on it. Others seek an outlet from the daily grind, a way to separate from reality, even for a moment.

Then there’s the unexpected success stories. Where an interest turns into a hobby and before long, the hobby turns into a career. This is where you’ll find Finland’s Katja Kankaanpää.

The 33-year-old Invicta FC strawweight champion started her foray into martial arts with karate. Then submission wrestling. And finally MMA. But she never expected to stand atop the 115-pound division.

“My intention was to take just a few amateur fights,” explained Kankaanpää. “But plans changed along the way.

“I didn’t even dare to imagine that I would be fighting at such a high level and be a champion.”

Fighting professionally since 2010, “Killer Bunny” tore through the competition in Europe, earning her a place in the Invicta cage. In her third appearance with the promotion, Kankaanpää was tabbed to compete for the vacant strawweight belt.

The Finn battled opponent Stephanie Eggink into the fifth and final round at Invicta FC 8 last September. Even with the stakes at their highest, Kankaanpää remained calm, cool and collected.

“I had no pressure going to the fifth round. My corner gave me simple direction: just fight, not to give up,” explained Kankaanpää.

“I knew that I had to finish the fight to win. Even if I won the fifth round, I probably would’ve lost by decision.”

In the final round, Kankaanpää ensured there would be no need for the scorecards, submitting Eggink with a D’arce choke and capturing the title.

“It felt amazing,” recalled the champion. “It was something that I couldn’t imagine beforehand. Think I will never feel the same again cause it was something so unique.”

By winning the belt, Kankaanpää became not only the first Finnish title holder in Invicta history, but also the first European to wear gold. Despite the history-making performance, she humbly discounted the achievement.

“There are good fighters from Europe and Finland and I’m one them,” she declared. “When you have a good team behind you, you’re motivated and have high level skills, you will succeed wherever you’re from.

“[I] just want to show that dedication and hard work pays in the end; that I earned my place at the top.”

On Friday, April 24, Kankaanpää will again have the chance to showcase her skills and her hard work. She’ll defend her title for the first time against unbeaten Brazilian Livia Renata Souza in the main event of Invicta FC 12 in Kansas City, Mo.

“She’s a very good opponent for me and will put my skills to the test,” proclaimed the fighter. “I think there are no easy fights at this level anymore. She is very active and will want to submit me, but I’m not an easy win.

“I want to show that I’m the champion.”

Against Souza, Kankaanpää will find herself facing another grappler. It’s a change of pace after facing decorated stand-up practitioners Joanne Calderwood and the aforementioned Eggink in her last two Invicta contests.

“It’s nice to be able to fight against different type of fighters,” said Kankaanpää. “My last two fights have been against strikers and now I get to fight against same type of a fighter as me and I feel very good about it. I’m looking forward to the fight.”

To add to the challenge of defending her belt, the bout with Souza will mark the first time that Kankaanpää will headline an Invicta card. However, the bigger stakes aren’t affecting the champion.

“[There’s] no extra pressure. Actually I’m very excited about it and I’m very honored for this opportunity,” said the Finnish fighter.

“I hope to put up a good fight for all the fans. Hopefully I won’t be in such dangerous situations in this fight that I was in the last one, but hope the fight will be full of action.”

If Kankaanpää’s past fights are any indication, she’ll put on a show on April 24. And like so many aspects of her career, it’ll once again eclipse what she expects to happen.

Katja would like to thank all of her fans and family who have supported and encouraged her along the way. Also her teammates, manager and coaches, and her sponsors who have supported her throughout her career.

Roxanne Modafferi: The Happy Warrior Reborn

For thousands of years, there have been fables of the phoenix — a mythical bird of great beauty — that would burn into a pile of ashes at the end of its life and be reborn.

The notion of a new beginning has made the phoenix a popular symbol throughout history. From Ancient Egypt and Greece to numerous religions, it represented a chance to start fresh.

In modern times, the phoenix may just be another tall tale, but what it stands for has not been lost. It has become analogous with competition in many ways. As athletes taste defeat and look to rebuild their skill sets and confidence, the parallels to rebirth are ever present.

Few can relate to the notion more than Invicta flyweight Roxanne Modafferi. An 11-year veteran of mixed martial arts competition, the 32-year-old has experienced her fair share of ups and downs in the sport.

Despite staking claim to multiple winning streaks of five or more fights, Modafferi’s career took a turn between 2010 and 2013 that saw her drop six straight — not counting exhibition bouts — and truly tested the resolve of “The Happy Warrior.”

“That was a very difficult stretch for me,” admitted Modafferi. “After every fight, I tried to make some kind of change to my training. I tried different striking coaches, tried more weightlifting, dropped weight classes. It just wasn’t working. I kept hope alive that my next change in my training would be the key to let me win. It was really hard.”

The difficulties that Modafferi encountered during the six-fight skid were something new to the positive-minded fighter. She had begun fighting professionally when the sport was still evolving and, thanks to her upbringing with traditional martial arts and moving to Japan after college, Modafferi’s early career was very successful.

“The gym I joined had a lot of other female fighters — it was rare for that many female fighters to be in one group — and they trained really hard,” recalled Modafferi of her early days overseas. “There were smaller guys (compared to Americans), so I got really good training there.

“As the sport evolved, I think the Japanese style of training didn’t evolve as quickly as the American side did. Things shifted a little bit.”

Modafferi began to notice the shift long before her losing streak reached six. It wasn’t just a different approach to training, but weight cutting, strength and conditioning and dedicated cardio training that was largely foreign to the fighter.

“I remember fighting Sarah Kaufman in Strikeforce, and she was so much stronger than me,” explained Modafferi. “I saw her cutting all this weight, like 15 pounds, and I was walking around at 140ish, only five pounds over. I remember reading about how she was training three times a day, strength and conditioning, running.

“I was just going to class after work! It was not the same!”

The loss to Kaufman prompted Modafferi to drop to flyweight, but her fortunes did not change. She continued to face many of the sport’s elite, including Invicta veterans Hitomi Akano and Takayo Hashi, as well as current Invicta 125-pound titleholder Barb Honchak. Yet, even in the midst of her skid, Modafferi was invited to take part in the reality series, “The Ultimate Fighter.”

During her time on the show, Modafferi snapped her losing streak, but only unofficially, as the bouts were considered exhibition contests. However, it was something else during TUF that set the stage for her career resurgence.

“The whole experience was a definite turning point,” declared the veteran. “It really pointed out how different my training in Japan was compared to what I could be doing in the States. I realized that if I really wanted to continue MMA, I really needed to make a bigger change.”

Although Modafferi, still competing as a bantamweight, would fall short one more time in the cage, her opportunity to rise from the ashes was already set in motion. She moved back to the United States to train under the tutelage of John Wood at Syndicate MMA in Las Vegas and inked a contract with Invicta FC.

“I chose Vegas after debating between it and California. Bryan Caraway, one of the coaches on ‘The Ultimate Fighter,’ recommended Vegas because it’s the hub of MMA and there’s a lot of good gyms. I tried a few gyms and chose Syndicate,” said Modafferi.

One of the biggest perks of signing with Invicta was that Modafferi could again return to her natural weight class. With the benefits of her new gym, she quickly reeled off back-to-back wins in the Invicta cage over Tara LaRosa and Andrea Lee to complete her rebirth as a fighter.

“I think it’s been extremely important for me to return to flyweight,” proclaimed Modafferi. “I have a hard time gaining muscle mass; it’s not my body type. Now that I’ve learned American weight-cutting methods, I learned how to do flyweight properly. When I was in Japan, I didn’t know how to do it. In the past, I dieted it all away. I didn’t feel overwhelmed against my last couple of opponents.”

It’s more than just weight-cutting that has been the key to Modafferi’s rejuvenation. Her time with Wood at Syndicate has transformed her entire fight game in just over a year’s time.

“He was teaching me stuff from the very beginning that I was able to absorb very quickly,” acknowledged the flyweight. “That was different than all of my other training experiences. I’ve always had a hard time learning and absorbing the striking training. The way he explained it and had me do the techniques, it’s like magic.

“I’m so happy to have progressed to a higher level. I’m still not a kickboxing champion, but much better than before.”

Reinvented as a fighter and riding the momentum of the wins over LaRosa and Lee, Modafferi will rematch a familiar face, Brazilian Vanessa Porto, in the co-main event of Invicta FC 12 on April 24 in Kansas City, Mo. Modafferi scored the first and only TKO of her lengthy career when the pair met previously in 2008. She’s ready for a repeat performance.

“I’m pretty sure it’s going to be a new fight. Honestly, I don’t really remember the last fight that well,” admitted Modafferi with a laugh. “I know she’s evolved. I’ve watched tape on her. She’s very good. I’m excited to see what happens… other than me winning, ’cause I know that will happen.”

If Modafferi’s prediction holds true, she could find herself challenging for Invicta gold in the near future. After her struggles, that would exceed everything she hoped for when she joined the promotion.

“I didn’t think too much about a title shot. I just wanted to get some wins and show that you can teach an old dog new tricks,” she quipped.

However, the prospect of challenging the champion Honchak is certainly a motivator for the Delaware native. After all, Honchak is the only fighter ever to force Modafferi to submit to a choke inside the cage.

“I want to avenge all my losses, but especially that one. I didn’t perform as well as I could have,” stated Modafferi. “She was great. She choked me out, which makes me mad, ’cause that’s my favorite move. I really want to get a win against her.”

Modafferi will have to get past Porto first, but if her previous two fights are any indication, don’t count her out. She’s embodied the phoenix from the moment she first set foot in the Invicta cage and she’ll look to continue her ascension through the 125-pound ranks while leaving ashes in her wake.

Roxanne would like to thank her coach, John Wood, her training partners, her parents for always supporting her and her sponsors: Dragon Do Fighter, Remove It Restoration, Top Notch Fighter, Alienware, Okashi Connection, East & West, The Void, Killer Tendencies, Mei-Li Fighting, Lemon Badger, SkinnyFats, Herbal Papaya, Dominate Your Game, and WarTape.

Charmaine Tweet: Things Happen for a Reason

No matter what your philosophical approach might be in life, there’s no denying that some things are simply beyond our control.

Whether it’s the unexpected traffic jam that makes you late for a meeting or the snow storm that delays your flight, sometimes you just have to go with the flow.

Invicta featherweight Charmaine Tweet faced this reality recently.

As she prepared to take on Faith Van Duin at Invicta FC 10 in Houston in December, a medical concern identified by the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation led to the fight being scrapped at the last minute.

“That was so frustrating,” exclaimed Tweet. “There is nothing worse than knowing you are healthy and not being able to fight. I do say that everything happens for a reason though. The results of the electroencephalography (EEG) coming back as they did prompted me to get an MRI immediately after I returned from Texas. I am happy to say that the results of the MRI came back clean.”

The situation in Texas was difficult for Tweet, her opponent and the promotion. The 37-year-old Canadian, dubbed “No So Sweet,” was hoping to build on the momentum of her first-round TKO over Veronica Rothenhausler at Invicta FC 8 in September. Despite nearly a decade of Muay Thai competition, the win was her first finish by strikes in MMA.

“To be honest, at that moment, I wasn’t even thinking about the TKO,” recalled Tweet. “I was more focused on the fact that, even though some might consider me to be too old to be in this sport, I was able to pump the brakes on a young up-and-comer’s knockout streak!

“Later, however, it was interesting to take a look at what happened in the cage that night and see a switch in my brain flip and really notice the ‘not so sweet’ part of my personality take over and go for the KO rather than the submission.”

The win was Tweet’s sixth career victory in the cage, and her sixth inside the first round. Her knack for ending fights both quickly and emphatically helped earn the Saskatchewan native something she never expected when she was dealing with the issues in Texas: a shot at the Invicta 145-pound title. She’ll square off with Brazilian titleholder Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino in the main event of Invicta FC 11 on Friday, Feb. 27, in Los Angeles.

“I was shocked at first because so many people thought that there was already an opponent picked out for her and, since I hadn’t heard anything previously, I certainly didn’t think it was me,” admitted the challenger. “I was expecting to be offered a fight with her, but I thought it would be later in the year and was more prepared for that to happen. When I heard the details of the entire weekend, though, I knew that this was the time to reach out and grab the opportunity that was hovering in front of me. I said yes immediately and hit the gym a few hours later.”

Tweet’s journey to a title shot has been long, and although it might have been slightly unexpected, the timing couldn’t be better. As a mother of two boys, her commitment to both family and fighting has always required a level of sacrifice for everyone involved.

“The balancing act has gotten easier as my children and I have gotten older,” explained Tweet with a laugh. “My oldest son is 18 and has a driver’s license, so I can rely on him to ease some of the stress by taking my youngest son to the places he needs to go. I have been lucky in that my fighting career has become the most hectic in the last few years. If it had been like this from the beginning, when my children were small, I’m not sure I would have been able to balance working full-time, training full-time and being a mom.

“I have to give a huge shout out to both my children, Joshua and Christian, for the sacrifices they have made in order for me to pursue my dreams. I hope I have been able to inspire them to chase their own dreams!”

Although Tweet was an IFMA world champion in Muay Thai, the Invicta gold would mean much more to her.

“Being Invicta champion would add a legitimacy to everything I have been doing for the past four years,” declared the Canadian. “I have always strived to be the best, and winning a championship is a great way to prove that one is the best at something.”

Her opponent, Cyborg, has not tasted defeat since 2005 and has scored back-to-back TKO wins inside the Invicta cage. Despite the accolades of the Brazilian, Tweet isn’t intimidated.

“I have the size, the skill, the strength and the experience that is needed to beat her,” she proclaimed. “My team and I have been preparing for a year and a half for her. Everything we have been working on, while training for my other opponents, has been with her in mind.”

With that preparation, Tweet enters the title fight with a level of confidence that few of Justino’s challengers have had in the past. Tweet believes it will be the fans that will see the biggest reward come Friday night.

“Never underestimate me. Challengers have a hard time taking a decision win from the current champ, so I will be finishing this fight prior to the fifth round,” she boldly proclaimed.

“The fans should expect a war. It’s going to be dirty, vicious and bloody, and we will probably both leave the cage looking worse than we did going in. Only, I will be leaving with a golden glow shining off my face.”

Charmaine would like to thank her coaches: Jeff Wiley, Nolan Coller, Deryl Bangsund and Myke Yee, her sponsors: Stellar Gear, Virus International, London Jacks Authentic British Fish and Chips, Fight Chix, Night Vision Inspections, UFCW1400, X-Ion-X, Puget Sound Computer Repair, Dynamic Fastener, The Great Canadian Oil Change, Sports Food International, Jiffy Lube Weyburn, MMA Road Hog and Professional Events Sponsors, her husband/manager: Cord Crowthers, her children, family and friends, and last but not least, the fans.

DeAnna Bennett: The Tip of the Iceberg

Mixed martial arts is a serious sport.

It requires a level of focus and dedication beyond the limits of most athletes. With two combatants locked inside a cage aiming to separate each other from consciousness or twist each other’s limbs apart, the life of a fighter isn’t for the lighthearted.

And then there’s DeAnna Bennett.

“You know, I’m a little bit off,” declared the 30-year-old Utah fighter. “I’m okay with it. People are going to know it eventually if I keep fighting.

“I always tell people I want to hug them and it creeps them out apparently. Free hugs, all day, every day.

“But if I’m cutting weight and you want to keep all of your fingers, you should probably step back. I’ve got a snaggletooth and that thing is sharp. It’s a risk you take.”

If you manage to survive around Bennett long enough — with all of your digits — you’ll discover a level of honesty and directness unmatched by anyone in the sport. Although she’s already admitted a number of truths in the past, there are still more details to be unearthed.

“I’m like an iceberg,” she proclaimed. “You’re only seeing so much and there’s a lot more beneath the surface. I don’t think the world’s ready for it. No one can handle that. Brains would explode. Or people would run for their lives.”

Bennett’s demeanor is a stark contrast to most in the sport, but her journey to the cage is not. After her high school water polo coach convinced her to try wrestling, it wasn’t long before she was hooked on competition.

“If I hadn’t wrestled, I wouldn’t have made it into MMA,” explained the Pit Elevated product. “I wrestled for a few years during high school and absolutely loved it.

“[Later] I took a kickboxing class, liked it and figured I could do that for exercise — so I could not be a fat kid. I joined a gym, found jiu-jitsu and it reminded me of wrestling. It tied everything together.”

Now six fights into her professional career, Bennett has yet to taste defeat. With two straight wins under the Invicta banner, she was being mentioned as a potential threat to flyweight champion Barb Honchak.

“Honestly, that’s just crazy talk to me,” said Bennett. “The thought that things are going so great, I have to attribute that to my coaches. Jason Mertlich is amazing. I would never be where I’m at without his guidance and help in practice everyday and during fights. Without him, I wouldn’t have been as successful as I have been.

“I just love the sport. It’s my happy place to go to the gym and train and work hard for it. To do something I love, it’s just amazing.”

Although the gym might be Bennett’s sanctuary from day-to-day life, being locked inside a cage is another story. As she stood across the cage from Michelle Ould at Invicta FC 8 in September, she was forced to fight nerves, as well as her opponent.

“The fact that it was going to be streamed online [via UFC Fight Pass] for people to watch was frightening,” admitted Bennett with a laugh. “But I’m kind of a stress case. I play through every angle in my head of what can happen. If you’re not nervous going into it, you’re probably a crazy person. It keeps you on edge and motivated to go out there.”

Bennett earned her fourth career finish that night against Ould and set up a clash with Brazil’s Jennifer Maia at Invicta FC 10 in December. After three grueling rounds with Maia, she walked away with a decision win. However, immediately following the bout, her attention turned elsewhere: the strawweight division.

“In my last fight camp, I found myself walking around at 130 pounds, which was five pounds less than what I would normally cut from to make 125,” explained the fighter. “I thought if I’m walking around that low, that’s a small 125er. I could make 115. I want to be in the weight class where I’ll be the most competitive.

“I never thought it was a possibility for me… until now. Take that, fat DeAnna.”

Unfortunately for Bennett (and her teammates), dropping an additional 10 pounds meant more days of being hungry… and angry… or, as Bennett has dubbed it, “hangry.”

“Oh, man. It’s bad,” she joked. “I have a teammate that always slaps me on the shoulder, and I yelled, ‘Don’t touch me!’ and started screaming at him. Then I realized it was exaggeration and I probably shouldn’t have done that. I find myself getting a little snappy. I’m about to start biting people if they touch me.

“It’s all part of the sport, right? Maybe?”

If Bennett (and her team) survives the weight cut, she’ll make her 115-pound debut at Invicta FC 11 in Los Angeles on Feb. 27 against Norma Rueda Center. With a tough match-up in front of her, don’t expect “The Argentine Assassin” to say anything negative about her opponent. After all, that’s how she ended up with her nickname in the first place.

In her second pro bout, she squared off with eventual The Ultimate Fighter winner Julianna Pena — also known as “The Venezuelan Vixen” — and Bennett jokingly told the promoter about her mother’s Argentine roots.

“It’s a cautionary tale,” she stated with a laugh. “It’s terrible, but it’s never going away.”

It could be much, much worse. Bennett could be stuck with a moniker like “Free Hugs” or, even more deplorable, the product of an online nickname generator. Yet, her nickname serves as a warning to anyone trying to nonchalantly talk trash to an opponent.

“I’m physically not capable of trash talking,” Bennett acknowledged. “I get into that and I start giggling. No one would ever take me seriously, let alone myself. I’ve tried to trash talk my teammates and it ends badly for me. You’re not going to see that from me anytime soon.”

Instead of intimidating her foes with her words, Bennett is happy to let her in-cage performances do the talking. Or, she’ll settle for making them slightly uncomfortable.

“I’d love to be know as an entertaining fighter,” said a suddenly serious Bennett. “But if you take two seconds to talk to me and realize that I’m just a giant weirdo that wants to hug everybody, it kind of outweighs that.

“Awkward and weird… I’m pretty sure those are the two top descriptors that anyone who knows me uses. My teammates and closest friends would say that sounds about right.”

No matter what words you use to describe DeAnna Bennett, it doesn’t change what she’s capable of in the cage. And in a sport filled with an aura of seriousness, her quirks are welcomed. Let’s just hope the world gets to see the rest of the iceberg.

DeAnna would like to thank her coach, Jason, her team, and all of the staff at Pit Elevated, including gym owner Will Farrar, her chiropractor, Dr. Russell, her strength and conditioning coach, Austin Carter, Quest Training, Warrior Fuel and her boyfriend, Trevor Mellen.

Irene Aldana: Destined for Competition

Life’s journey is full of twists and turns. What lies ahead is not always expected.

Less than three years ago, Mexico’s Irene Aldana had never stepped into a cage as a professional mixed martial artist. Although she always had a passion for sports, the 26-year-old appeared destined for a career in photography and her own studio.

“I love photography,” declared Aldana. “I would love to continue with that plan in the future. If I’m good at something and if I really love it, I should do something with it.

“I set it aside to focus on fighting. Sometimes I take some shoots just for joy or I use my photography and design knowledge on gym work.”

Shooting photos and punching people in the face may seem like a contrast on the surface, but a deeper look at Aldana’s youth reveals someone destined for competition.

“I was very athletic since I was a little girl,” explained Aldana. “I always loved sports. I used to roller skate along Mazatlan’s Malecon for hours. I did gymnastics, ballet, karate, tennis, basketball, cheerleading. [I’d] spend hours in the gym.”

After moving to Guadalajara, Aldana discovered MMA and fell in love with the sport.

“The mix of all martial arts in one sport, I found fascinating; how distinct disciplines could be combined and how they complemented each other,” said the bantamweight. “Also the way you are able to connect your mind and body and go beyond your limits.

“After hours and hours of training, I started to feel well skilled for this sport. I competed for the first time in a national BJJ tournament and won first place. After that, I started to take it very seriously and was ready to try MMA.”

Her debut came in 2012 and lasted just 15 seconds. A year later, her second bout was over in 20 seconds and her third fight — which took place the same night as the second — ended with a violent wheel kick in just 43 seconds. Aldana’s career path was suddenly very clear.

Although she faced a setback in Brazil prior to signing with Invicta FC in 2014, Aldana and her Lobo Gym teammate, Alexa Grasso, have quickly become the faces of women’s MMA in their native Mexico. Now they’re out to set an example for their fans.

“[It is] very important and very satisfying,” proclaimed Aldana of representing her country. “It’s amazing that with such a short career, but so much work, we are now where we are. We love to share it with all Mexicans in or out of the sport. We’ve received messages from people asking our advice and sending us congratulations for our work. It’s great to motivate people to get up and work hard for what they want. The sport is relatively new in Mexico, but it’s getting bigger. Now is the perfect moment for Mexicans to accomplish their goals.”

With her country behind her, Aldana made her first appearance in the Invicta cage in September at Invicta FC 8, where she was pitted against UFC veteran Peggy Morgan. After rocking Morgan in the opening moments of the fight, Aldana coerced a tap via rear-naked choke in under three minutes. It’s a night that Aldana won’t forget anytime soon.

“I was really, really nervous,” admitted the fighter. “I tried to focus the best I could and channel that into my objectives.

“I knew Peggy is really strong and she is well known as a fighter almost impossible to knock out. I knew she always goes forward and resists damage. I was prepared for that and I didn’t get scared because she recovered. I knew that could happen.

“It was amazing. That was my first win by submission in MMA, and I was coming back after a defeat in Brazil. Professionally and personally, it was a big accomplishment.”

Aiding Aldana’s performance in Kansas City was the benefit of watching teammate Grasso earn a decision win just before Aldana stepped into the cage.

“I was prepared for whatever Alexa’s result would be,” said Aldana. “I went to do my job, but when I saw her winning, I felt so happy and full of good energy. Of course it motivated me. Then I thought, okay, one is done, it’s my turn so we get two victories.”

With four first-round finishes in her four career wins, Aldana was set to continue her early career momentum at Invicta FC 10 in December. However, a case of bronchitis forced her off the card at the last minute. Now, she’s slated to take on veteran Colleen Schneider at Invicta FC 11 on Feb. 27 in Los Angeles.

“I’m very excited. We always have something to improve. In every camp we get better than before, and being in the cage is the moment when we put in evidence all we have learned,” said Aldana. “It’s exciting to be growing up in the sport. After I needed to cancel my previous fight, I’m even more excited to return.”

Following her dominant promotional debut against Morgan, it would be easy to understand if Aldana felt obligated to repeat her performance when she goes up against Schneider, but she insists that’s not the case.

“[There’s] no pressure. I’m just going to do my job,” said the Lobo Gym product. “If the fight lasts a minute or three rounds, I’m prepared for anywhere the fight goes. I just hope it’s a great fight. None of my fights were planned to end in the first round, it just happened.”

Should Aldana get around Schneider in Los Angeles, the Mexican would be a prime candidate for a shot at the vacant 135-pound Invicta bantamweight championship. She’s confident she’d be ready if called upon and is anxious to share a title with her fans.

“I feel ready! I know I have a short career, but I always train like it’s for a title shot,” Aldana exclaimed.

“It would be a big deal! The honor to represent Mexico as Invicta champion would be great for Mexican MMA. I know Mexican fans are with me in my wins or losses. I’m really grateful for their love and support. I assure them I will always give my best and leave all my heart in the cage.”

If Aldana’s career to date is any indication, her aspirations of Invicta gold are likely right around the corner. It all starts on Friday, Feb. 27, in Los Angeles.

Irene would like to thank her MMA coach, Francisco Grasso, for who she is and who she will be in the sport, her physical conditioning coach, Fernando Quiroz, who knows how to train her effectively, her teammates for always being with her in good and bad times, her sponsors, they are like guardian angels for us in this sport, her family because she knows it’s hard for them to see her in the cage, but they have been very supportive with all their hearts, and all the fans for their support.

Michelle Waterson: Looks Can Be Deceiving

They say don’t judge a book by its cover. So don’t judge a fighter by their frame.

From across the room, Invicta FC atomweight champion Michelle Waterson is sure to catch the eye. But at 5-foot-3 and 105 pounds, it is Waterson’s natural beauty that tends to draw attention, not her muscles.

The 28-year-old, who first found her passion for martial arts in the form of karate, is aware of the perception surrounding her and her moniker. However, she’d prefer to turn heads and drop jaws with her actions in the cage, not just her looks.

“For a long time I feel like there was a misrepresentation of myself,” declared the champion. “I’m ‘The Karate Hottie’ and I love my nickname. I think it’s catchy and cute. [But] I’m serious about fighting.

“At the end of the day, I’m not in there to play around. I’m in there to fight.”

Waterson’s path to the top of the sport can be traced back to her adolescence, which was spent in Colorado. Although she may not have known it at the time, her desire to fight and compete was flowing through her veins.

“My brother is actually the one that got me into martial arts,” she explained. “My mom is Thai, so Muay Thai was always heavy in her culture. My dad was a wrestler in high school. It’s a good mix to have. It’s a fighting family.”

The influence from her family was merely the first step of Waterson’s fighting career, but they’ve been there every step of the way.

“Once I got a taste of martial arts and what it offered me in my life, I knew that it was something I wanted to be involved in as an adult,” recalled the karate black belt. “Fighting was just the next thing to fall into my lap. Everybody has been very supportive of my choices in becoming a fighter.”

With her mind made up to compete, Waterson’s next endeavor came in finding the right gym to help her round out her fight game. She left the Denver area and found her way to Jackson’s MMA in Albuquerque, N.M. From day one, she knew she had found her home.

“There are a lot of things that come into play when it comes to becoming a complete fighter. I think having a gym where you feel comfortable and where it feels like family, is important. That trust allows you to let your guard down and really open your mind up to the things you need to be learning as a fighter,” said Waterson.

“It’s important to keep an open mind. The sport of MMA is evolving and it will continue to evolve. There are always new things to learn.”

In 2010, Waterson was 11 fights into her professional career. She was quickly rising through the ranks. But that’s when her aspirations were temporarily put on hold.

Waterson gave birth to a daughter, Araya, in March 2011. The pregnancy led to nearly a two-year absence from competition.

“It impacted my fighting career more than I expected it to. During my pregnancy, I was going through a lot of self-doubt and a little bit of a depression because fighting was my job and I couldn’t work,” Waterson admitted with a half-hearted laugh.

Luckily for Waterson—and fight fans—she was able to overcome her doubts with the support of her family.

“I have a really supportive family. My husband knows how much I love to fight and how much I dreamed of it becoming this big thing for me. He supported me in my quest to get back into the cage,” explained Waterson.

“He understands the sacrifices it takes to be a fighter. When I was pregnant, he took it upon himself to take that financial burden. Taking care of family takes teamwork.”

Waterson’s extended time away, coupled with motherhood, helped her come back even more dedicated to her craft than before the pregnancy.

“I felt like the responsibility of being a mother and knowing that if I was going to continue to fight, it better be worth something for me, it added a little bit of pressure,” she said. “But it was good pressure, to make it a career and not just a side hobby.

“You can’t have fighting as a side hobby. It’s just too dangerous. It’s something you have to dedicate your time to.”

That dedication is a delicate balance for Waterson. Fighting is a full-time job, especially at the sport’s highest level, but so is raising a family.

“It’s really difficult,” acknowledged the champion. “The best way to break it up is to do just that. When I’m in training, I’m 100 percent in training. I’m not thinking about my daughter; I’m thinking about being a martial artist, a fighter.

“But when I’m done training, I’m at home with my daughter, being a mom. It is important to keep the two separate and take advantage of the time that you have when you’re training and take advantage of the time you have with your little one. That time goes by quick.”

Waterson’s career truly took off soon after her return to the cage. Her Invicta debut earned “Fight of the Night” honors and she captured Invicta gold in her second appearance with the promotion, submitting renowned grappler Jessica Penne.

The Jackson’s MMA product successfully defended her title at Invicta FC 8 in early September with a third-round TKO over Japan’s Yasuko Tamada. Now, as she prepares to headline the promotion’s 10th event on Dec. 5 in Houston against Brazil’s Herica Tiburcio, Waterson is carrying the torch as one of Invicta’s longest-reigning champions.

“It’s a huge responsibility,” she candidly admitted. “That’s kind of what you take on when you go for the championship belt. It gives me motivation, when I’m training, to be a better version of myself each day.”

During her stint with Invicta, Waterson has witnessed the promotion grow and evolve. Now, with Invicta events broadcast on UFC Fight Pass, the New Mexico-based fighter is thrilled to have a bigger reach.

“I think it’s great and I’m really grateful that I’m still along for the ride. I think nothing but great things about [Invicta President] Shannon Knapp and [matchmaker] Julie Kedzie,” said Waterson. “They’re really passionate about what they do. They’re not in it for the money. They’re in it because they know how hard us female athletes work. They just want to get us out there and expose us to the world. They’re grinding just as hard as we are.”

With the added exposure of being on UFC Fight Pass and being a titleholder, Waterson realizes that she’s one of the most recognizable fighters in women’s MMA. Yet, while many of her peers have resorted to trash talking and disrespecting their opponents, Waterson has chosen a different approach.

“There’s a time and place for everything,” she stated. “I think it’s important to stand up for what you believe in and be a strong role model for all of your fans. I hope that I can uphold my integrity. I think about my daughter and what I would like her to learn from. I think the best way to do that is through actions.

“It’s important to stand your ground and pick your battles. Do it the right way.”

Through 15 career fights and 12 victories, Waterson’s approach has worked just fine. And while she knows that her looks might be deceiving to casual fans, there’s only one thing she wants those fans to take away on Friday night.

“I want them to think that I’m one of the best female fighters in the world.”

Michelle would like to thank her husband and daughter, coaches Greg Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn, UFC Fight Pass, her fans and her sponsors: Onnit, Americana, Dragon Do Fight Gear, Caveman Coffee and

Herica Tiburcio: A Record-Setting Performance

Twenty-nine years: the average age of the seven women who have worn Invicta gold around their waists at the time they captured the belt.

Twenty-two years: the age of Herica Tiburcio when she makes her promotional debut on Dec. 5 at Invicta FC 10 in Houston.

The Brazilian will challenge current atomweight champion Michelle Waterson for the 105-pound title in the night’s main event live on UFC Fight Pass.

“I believe there is no age to be a champion,” Tiburcio proclaimed. “Jon Jones was a very young champion in the UFC and I want to be the youngest Invicta FC champion.”

The native of Bragança Paulista, which lies roughly an hour’s drive north of São Paulo, was originally tabbed to face Ayaka Hamasaki at Invicta FC 9 in November. However, due to issues with the visa process in her native Brazil, she was forced out of the bout. Little did she know that the unfortunate circumstances would be a blessing in disguise.

“I was disappointed,” recalled Tiburcio of the cancellation. “But sometimes bad things comes for better things in the future. I believe in God and I put everything in his hands. Look at the outcome: a title fight.”

With the stakes raised for her debut, it would be easy to understand if Tiburcio was battling nerves in anticipation of her first bout in the United States. Yet, the Gato Team/Inside Gold Team/Barbosa B9 fighter remains largely unfazed by the change.

“I’m a bit nervous, yes, but my happiness is much bigger,” quipped the Brazilian. “Whatever Shannon [Knapp] and Julie [Kedzie] wants me to do, I will. I have never chosen a fight in my whole life. I’ll fight anyone, anywhere.

“I’m very glad that I’m making my debut in a title fight. I’m very prepared.”

Although Tiburcio may be six years younger than champion Waterson, the Brazilian doesn’t lack experience. She’s already competed 10 times as a professional in her home country, winning eight times. And of those eight career victories, six have come by either armbar or guillotine choke. Similarly, Waterson has earned seven of her 12 career wins on the ground.

“I trust a lot in my BJJ, and her submission wins don’t affect me,” Tiburcio declared of her match-up with the champion.

Despite her confidence on the mat, Tiburcio isn’t underestimating the reigning queen of the 105-pound division. With both fighters possessing proven ground prowess, a battle on the mat would seem inevitable when the cage door shuts in Houston. However, Tiburcio is expecting Waterson to live up to her moniker of “The Karate Hottie.”

“She is the champion for one reason: she is very good,” admitted the challenger. “I guarantee there will be a lot of striking in this fight.”

Tiburcio may be a new face to Invicta FC, but it’s no surprise that she’s undeterred by her clash with the champion. After all, she’s spent a large portion of her career competing outside her natural weight class, even squaring off against former Invicta No. 1 contender Claudia Gadelha in her native Brazil.

“Most of my fights were at 115 [pounds], but I feel that 105 is a better weight class for me. I’m feeling very good, and I’ll be very strong on the day of the fight,” she predicted.

Just the opportunity to compete under the Invicta banner is something that Tiburcio is relishing. She’s determined to make the fans take notice of her presence with the promotion.

“[This is] the realization of my biggest dream. I always wanted to fight for Invicta and I plan to be here for a very long time,” said Tiburcio.

“I promise I’ll fight my heart out on Dec. 5. Count on a war, the ‘Fight of the Night.’”

So what does the young fighter think of her chances at leaving the cage as the youngest champion in promotional history?

“If God wants it, I’ll be the new Invicta FC champion.”

Herica would like to thank God, her family, all of her training partners, her team: Gato Team, Inside Gold Team, Barbosa B9, her manager: Stefano Sartori and all of her fans.

Alexa Grasso: For Family and Country

At 21 years of age, most young adults are uncertain of what their future holds.

Not Mexico’s Alexa Grasso.

The strawweight, who carries an unblemished record of 5-0, made her Invicta Fighting Championships debut in September and bested Ashley Cummins by decision. That experience was a life-changing event for the fighter.

“It was a shock wave; it was amazing,” described Grasso. “I was very excited to fight. So many times I dreamed of that day.”

Success in her first Invicta appearance, along with her early career triumphs, prompted Grasso to re-evaluate her career path.

“After my fourth fight, which was pretty hard, it made me wonder if [fighting] was really what I wanted,” admitted Grasso. “The days after [the fight], I had a beautiful feeling which made me realize that this is what I want.”

Once her mind was clear regarding her fighting career, Grasso took things a step further.

“I decided to pause my studies,” revealed Grasso. “I am in a very important part of my career as a fighter and I really want to put all my attention and efforts into my preparation.”

Instead of balancing homework with training sessions, the Lobo Gym product now finds herself following the same path many of her family members have already gone down inside the boxing ring.

“My family has been a very important part in my life as a fighter,” she explained. “They know exactly what it’s like being on a diet, they know how the body feels after hard workouts and they are always attentive to my needs for my preparation. They understand the passion that is felt being a fighter.”

So why did Grasso choose to blaze her own trail in the cage instead of the ring?

“Boxing is great and I love it, but I think it makes me a very complete fighter to use my whole body to finish my fights compared to only my fists,” said the Guadalajara-based fighter.

Under the tutelage of her uncle and father, Grasso has compiled a record that includes three sub-minute knockouts. She’ll return to action at Invicta FC 10 on Friday, Dec. 5, in Houston. Across the cage will be native Texan Alida Gray, who also possesses three career wins with her fists.

“I think she is an excellent fighter,” proclaimed Grasso of her opponent. “This will be a great show. I hope everybody can watch it on UFC Fight Pass.”

Although Grasso is still very young, she and her Lobo Gym teammate, bantamweight Irene Aldana, are already captivating Mexican fight fans with their talent. The pair both scored wins at Invicta FC 8 and will look to do so again in Houston.

“It was a very big achievement for both of us,” recalled Grasso of their September victories. “It was very important because we showed that there are also good-quality fighters in Mexico.

“We have all eyes on our performances. Invicta is the most important MMA league for women, and it makes me proud to be part of the event.”

If Grasso is able to get past Gray on Dec. 5, her perfect record will undoubtedly land her in title talk at 115 pounds.

“As a fighter, I should be ready for any opportunity that comes my way,” she declared. “So if I have the opportunity to fight for a title, it’s something I cannot let go.

“It would fulfill one of my biggest goals. That’s why I train so hard every day.”

With her country and her family in her corner, Grasso’s hopes for victory—and one day a championship belt—may soon be a reality.

“I do this because I love it. I really believe that when you do things with heart and enjoy them, wishes come true.”

Alexa would like to thank her coaches, Francisco Grasso and Tito Castro, for making her a great person inside and outside the cage, her teammates who have sweated every day with her, her sponsors for taking care of her health and always supporting her, and finally, her dad, who has been living this dream by her side.

Fighting Words: Barb Honchak

Fighting before a hometown crowd for the first time in her career, Invicta FC Flyweight Champion Barb Honchak looks to defend her title for a second time. Her Invicta FC 9 challenger; Japan’s Takayo Hashi.



Corey Smith: November 1st will mark the fifth time you have fought for Invicta FC, making you one of the longest tenured athletes in the promotion. Are your comfortable being one of the most well known Invicta FC athletes? How has your relationship been with the company?

Barb Honchak: InvictaFC has been good to me.  They are always accessible to their athletes and have always been honest and upfront with me.



CS: What were your thoughts when you first learned of the Inivcta FightPass deal?

BH: Job Security!  I had faith in InvictaFC’s longevity from the beginning, but the hiatus over the last year was a little unnerving.



CS: The UFC now has two female weight divisions, below and above your current weight class. Have you given any thought to potentially fighting for the UFC?

BH: Yes, I have thought about fighting for the UFC.  I think any and all fighters look for that opportunity.  I would certainly consider an offer from the UFC.



CS: You have a degree in Molecular Biology, along with a Masters degree in Ecology and Genetics. What job does one utilize those degrees in?

BH: The last job I held utilizing my degree was as a laboratory manager at Washington University in St. Louis.  I have held several positions as a lab technician.   The degrees are wide reaching in that the skills I acquired allowed me to have options of working in natural science or medical science.



CS: Your fighting career is very unique for the science field. Are your colleagues aware of your fighting career? What type of feedback do you receive from them?

BH: I no longer work in the field.  But when I did, I certainly had some awkward weeks trying to explain my black eyes, cuts or staph infections to people.   I got pretty talented with my makeup application but of course I had many mixed reactions regarding my injuries.  I initially did not tell anyone what I did, but as the injuries built up; more and more people became privy to what I did outside of the University.



CS: This will be the first time you fight before what will essentially be a hometown crowd. What advantages do you believe that brings? Any disadvantages?

BH: So far, I see no disadvantages.  I feel like my hometown crowd will provide amazing and exciting energy for me during the fight. I can cook in my own kitchen for my entire weight cut and will not have to find dog sitters!  I am very excited that after the fight, I will be sleeping in my own bed and will have no airport time to make the next morning.



CS: Your opponent on November 1st. Takayo Hashi, has won titles in two Japanese promotions, along with challenging for the Strikeforce title. Do you believe her championship experience will add to her in ring skills?

BH: Yes, having experience of championship rounds and how you perform during those rounds is an advantage that I am not sure all of my opponents have had.  She has been there so there is less fear of it for her.



CS: Backstage before your bout, how would you describe your mindest? We see some fighters quiet and nervous until they are in the cage, while others are loud and boisterous the entire night.

BH: Every fight is different, but I am usually pretty relaxed and quiet.



CS: What types of activities do you enjoy to help you recharge or keep focus during training camp?

BH: I like joking around with my friends and team but mostly I am a homebody and enjoy time with my husband and pets.



CS: Lastly, MMA takes a team to succeed alone inside the cage. Who would you like to thank?

BH: I have so many great teammates at MFS and could not be where I am with out them.  My coach Junior Hernandez gets the most credit for my success along with Josh Howatt, Pat Miletich, Nate Schroeder and Jens Pulver.


Invicta FC 9 takes place November 1st live from the  RiverCenter in Davenport, Iowa.

Tickets are on sale via the Ticketmaster link below.

The full card will air live via UFC Fight PassClick below to subscribe to UFC FightPass.