Since April of this year, a new player has emerged in women’s MMA that has quickly captured the attention of fight fans of both genders. With just two events in the books, Invicta Fighting Championships has already established itself as the go-to destination for up-and-coming female fighters looking to make the next step in their careers. The promotion’s third event, taking place this Saturday in Kansas City, Kan., will feature 14 fights, including the promotion’s first atomweight (105 pounds) championship bout between Jessica Penne and Naho Sugiyama.
Invicta President Shannon Knapp and her team have truly kicked it into high gear when it comes to expanding the popularity of women’s MMA in America, even going so far as to book fighters from other, more well-known promotions to add some name recognition to the company’s earliest cards. Invicta’s first card was headlined by former Strikeforce bantamweight champion Marloes Coenen, and its second offering featured Shayna Baszler—another former Strikeforce bantamweight—taking on Olympic medalist Sara McMann.
What was interesting about the Baszler/McMann fight, as well as the bout between Hitomi Akano and Alexis Davis that also took place on Invicta FC 2, was that they were ostensibly title eliminators meant to set up the first Invicta bantamweight championship fight. In the time since those fights took place, however, McMann has been called up, so to speak, to fight Liz Carmouche at Strikeforce’s Nov. 3 event, leaving Invicta without a title fight.
Presumably, McMann will remain the top contender to the yet-to-be-established Invicta bantamweight belt and the promotion will set up additional fights in the weight class to determine a suitable opponent. With this latest development, and the high likelihood that many of its top fighters will continue to fight for other organizations as their schedules and health allow, Invicta officials must ask themselves whether establishing a bantamweight title is even worth their while as they continue to plan for the future of their promotion.
While the rapid rise in popularity of the newest all-female MMA promotion is certainly heartening for fans of the sport—after all, good fights are good fights, no matter the weight class or gender—the fact remains that Ronda Rousey, the queen of the 135-pound division, is set up pretty well in Strikeforce and will likely not be migrating to Invicta anytime soon. This reality makes any Invicta bantamweight champion, no matter how successful, only the second-best in the world. In addition, there’s nothing to stop Strikeforce from simply poaching any Invicta champions (who have non-exclusive contracts with the promotion) as soon as they ascend to the top of the ladder and tossing them in with Rousey.
Taking the longer view, though, it might still serve Invicta FC well to establish a bantamweight champion, even if whoever holds the belt might be splitting time between multiple promotions. Let’s be real: Even though Strikeforce has been snatching up some of Invicta’s top draws with the lure of larger audiences and more lucrative paydays, no one knows how much longer Strikeforce will continue to exist.
With a diminishing roster coupled with the ongoing migration of some of Strikeforce’s top talent to the UFC, it’s probably only a matter of time before the promotion is shuttered altogether. When that happens, one of two things happens to female fighters, neither of which would really diminish the credibility of an Invicta bantamweight title:
1. The UFC finally integrates female divisions into its rank. While this would certainly not lend any greater credibility to an Invicta bantamweight title, it would allow Invicta to establish itself as the destination for female fighters who are not quite ready for the UFC, but are looking to make a name for themselves. In essence, Invicta would then effectively serve as the minor leagues for female MMA, which certainly isn’t a bad spot for the promotion or its fighters. Yes, the promotion would probably frequently lose title-holders to the UFC, but as the UFC would discard perhaps less successful female fighters, those fighters would be able to continue to ply their craft in Invicta. Not a bad situation for an upstart MMA promotion.
2. The UFC continues to shut out female fighters. This is actually the ideal scenario for Invicta, as it would basically force Ronda Rousey and any other Strikeforce female mainstays to fight under the Invicta banner. If Invicta is able to further its reputation as the destination for female MMA, its bantamweight title would then become the most prominent among females at 135. As such, Invicta’s cards would attract a wider audience (especially if Rousey is incorporated into its ranks) and the promotion would continue to grow. Pretty good outcome as well.
It’s always tough to judge whether new promotions should bother establishing championships, given the UFC’s standing as the unquestionable top dog in MMA. For Invicta, it might seem like the establishment of a bantamweight title would be superfluous given the frequency with which we’ll likely see its fighters be scooped up by Strikeforce. Nevertheless, Invicta must think of its own long-term future. Strikeforce might be the primary destination for elite female MMA fighters today, but who knows how long that promotion will even be around and what will become of women’s MMA if its shut down.
If that happens, and regardless of whether the UFC incorporates women’s divisions, Invicta would serve itself well to have a bantamweight belt for its fighters to chase, even if we never see Ronda Rousey competing for it.
Photo: Sara McMann (R) talks with Shanya Baszler following Invicta FC 2 (Jeff Vulgamore/The MMA Corner)