Invicta brought back its one-night Phoenix tournament format for its second ever show on AXS TV. However, this time it had a twist—fan voting.
Fans were able to vote on the first round match-ups for the eight woman tournament, which was designed to determine the next title challenger for Invicta FC atomweight champion Alesha Zappitella.
And the winner of that grand prize was a fighter who challenged Zappitella just three weeks ago: Jéssica Delboni, who still swears she won that close split decision loss to Zappitella. To win the tournament Delboni defeated Tabatha Watkins, Marisa Messer-Belenchia and then a spirited Lindsey VanZandt in the final.
The format for the tournament included quarterfinal and semifinal fights that were just one round (due to Kansas commission rules on how many rounds a fighter can fight on a given night). The final was contested over three rounds.
The first woman to enter the cage this night was Tabatha Watkins, Zappitella’s training partner and roommate. According to the commentary Watkins entered the tournament despite having zero desire to fight Zappitella. Apparently there ‘was a plan in place’, which—if I were to guess—was one of them moving up to strawweight. Even so, it’s a little strange to give a spot in a number one contender tournament to a fighter who doesn’t want to face the current champion.
However, any awkwardness was resolved by Delboni. The Brazilian got an early takedown on Watkins and was able to pepper with ground and pound. Watkins was game off her back, throwing up submission attempt that had Delboni pretzeled up for most of the fight. Delboni got free with a minute left and was able to land a few elbows and punches before time expired. Those punches, and all the top control, were enough to win the round and the fight.
The second quarter final pit promotional newcomer Katie Perez vs. the far more experienced Lindsey VanZandt. This gave us the first and only finish of the night. VanZandt landed punches and kicks from the opening bell and caught Perez with a knee as she was attempting a takedown. VanZandt then sprawled on top of Perez, but then let her up when she had a chance. VanZandt landed more punches on the feet and forced a Perez into a desperate takedown attempt. VanZandt sprawled again, beat on her a little and then got on her back. From there she was able to secure an armbar and, after some scrambles, was able to get the tap.
The next quarterfinal was another match-up pitting a relative neophyte, in the 2-1 Linda Mihalec, against an Invicta vet, in form of the 4-3 Jillian DeCoursey. These two faced each other at Invicta FC 39 last year with DeCoursey earning the unanimous decision victory.
In the rematch Mihalec started off aggressively, taking the centre of the cage and throwing punches and kicks DeCoursey’s way. DeCoursey kept her chin tucked, though, and caught her opponent with jabs and leg kicks as she came in. Eventually DeCoursey was able to catch one of Mihalec’s legs and easily take her to the ground. Mihalec was able to get right back up, though. Mihalec then started finding a home for her shots, bloodying DeCoursey and also scoring a number of heavy leg kicks. The close fight was ruled as a split decision for Mihalec.
The next fight was the promotional debut of Combate veteran and Alliance MMA team member Paulina Granados. She took on late replacement Marisa Messer-Belenchia. Granados struck first in this one landing a takedown, but Messer-Belenchia was able to reverse the position and get on top. She then moved to Granados’ back, where she looked for a choke. Granados stayed calm, though, and was able to eventually turn her way out of trouble. With the fight back on the feet, both women threw combos and landed plenty of punches on each other. There may have been a clash of heads in their too. Both women looked bruised up after those exchanges. Messer-Belenchia appeared to carry more superficial damage, but she was able to land what looked like the heavier shots—dropping Granados on one occasion. That offence won her the decision on two of the three judges’ scorecards.
Before the semifinals were determined Kara Vislosky and Samantha Seff battled it out in a tournament reserve bout. That fight was ruled in favour of Vislosky by two out of the three judges. She clinched and grappled early on and was able to control Vislosky for most of the fight.
Thanks to being the only person to get a finish in the quarterfinals, VanZandt got to select her semifinal opponent. She declared that she wanted to “take out Linda [Mihalec].” That left Messer-Belenchia vs. Delboni in the other semi.
VanZandt vs. Mihalec was the first semi to get settled. Mihalec went into it still wearing a lot of the damage she received from DeCorusey in the quarterfinals. VanZandt came out headhunting, aiming for Mihalec’s swollen right eye. VanZandt was able to catch Mihalec off balance and push her to the ground. She landed some ground and pound and a knee as Mihalec got to her feet. The fight stayed on the feet from then on with VanZandt being able to use her speed advantage to fire off, and land, hard kicks to the body and legs. It was more than enough for the already beat-up Mihalec as VanZandt cruised to a unanimous decision win.
Like Mihalec, Messer-Belenchia entered her semifinal match looking still swollen up from her quarterfinal bout. Delboni, on the other hand, looked fresh as a daisy. Despite that Messer-Belenchia took the centre and looked ready for another scrap. Delboni started patiently, which is risky in a one round fight, but was able to score with leg kicks and counter punches. In the waning moments of the fight Messer-Belenchia controlled the clinch, but in the last few seconds Delboni finally let her hands go and caught Messer-Belenchia with some solid shots. In the end Delboni’s clinical approach won out over Messer-Belenchia’s aggressiveness, earning her a unanimous decision.
Based on their previous performances this night it wasn’t surprising how the final started, with VanZandt quick on her feet, darting in for kicks, while Delboni elected to wait and search for opportunities to counter strike. In the early going both found homes for their legkicks and Delboni was able to catch VanZandt on the chin with a right cross. After finding some success Delboni seemed to grow in confidence and began walking VanZandt back to the cage and unleashing hard combos in her direction, targeting the body and the head. Later, after stuffing a takedown attempt Delboni secured a clinch and then again landed combos against the fence. VanZandt was able to snipe away with some shots in the center of the cage, but when Delboni was able to catch her, she was sent reeling back to the mesh.
After perhaps feeling the power advantage Delboni had over her in the striking department, VanZandt again went for a takedown in the second round. But the Brazilian stuffed it again and was able to carry on throwing punches in bunches whenever VanZandt ran out of room and found herself near the fence. VanZandt did land a headkick and a few punches, but it was all off the back foot and lacking the kind of power needed to put Delboni down.
The third round was much of the same, only with Delboni—who knew she was winning on the scorecards—being more cautious. VanZandt tried to make something happen, but every time she came inside she was getting punished by Delboni’s combinations. In the third VanZandt probably landed her best shots of the fight, but it wasn’t enough to put the durable and canny Delboni away.
With the unanimous decision victory Delboni booked her rematch with Zappitella. Their first fight was a razor thin affair with Zappitella squeaking by on the scorecards, despite Delboni landing oodles of counter-punches (just like she did tonight). Having spent five rounds with each other in the past it will be interesting to see what tactics both fighters employ the next time they meet.
Jéssica Delboni def. Lindsey VanZandt by unanimous decision (30-27, 29-28, 29-28)
Jéssica Delboni def. Marisa Messer-Belenchia by unanimous decision (10-9, 10-9, 10-9).
Lindsey VanZandt def. Linda Mihalec by unanimous decision (10-9, 10-9, 10-9).
Marisa Messer-Belenchia def. Paulina Granados by split decision (10-9, 9-10, 10-9).
Linda Mihalec def. Jillian DeCoursey by split decision (9-10, 10-9, 10-9)
Lindsey VanZandt def. Katie Perez by submission (arm bar), round 1 (3:10).
Jéssica Delboni def. Tabatha Watkins by unanimous decision (10-9, 10-9, 10-9)
Tournament reserve bout:
Samantha Seff def. Kara Vislosky by split decision (9-10, 10-9, 10-9)