Invicta FC President Shannon Knapp (pictured, center) and the lineup for the Phoenix Series 3 one-night tournament | Dave Mandel, Invicta FC
2020 was a wild year for MMA, that feels like it lasted a lifetime. With all the action that took place over the year, it’s hard to remember what took place. This series looks to help out with that, providing an overview on what happened in each weight class, and a look at what we can expect to come in 2021.
Year in Review
I’m gonna shoot you straight here, 2020 was not a good year for the women’s bantamweight division. There just wasn’t a ton of activity. UFC champion Amanda Nunes only fought once in 2020 and that was to defend her featherweight title. Bellator doesn’t have a women’s bantamweight division at all. But there was another organization that did something awesome: Invicta FC.
In 2019, Sarah Kaufman vacated the Invicta bantamweight title to sign with the PFL and so to crown a new champion in 2020, Invicta put together a fight between Julija Stoliarenko and Lisa Verzosa for the vacant belt at Invicta FC: Phoenix Series 3. That fight ended up being one of the absolute best fights of the entire year but it wasn’t just the stellar main event that made Phoenix Series 3 so good, it was that Invicta brought back the one-night tournament!
At Phoenix Series 3, Invicta held a one-night bantamweight tournament featuring seven total tournament bouts and two reserve bouts. To conform to commission rules, the quarterfinal and semi-final tournament bouts were restricted to one round, and the final bout was a three-rounder. While those restrictions took some shine off the event overall as almost every fight went to decision, it also meant that every minute of every fight was seriously important and that added drama to the whole thing. Then when you add in that the event as a whole featured open scoring (for the non-tournament bouts that were longer than one round), Invicta really stole the show in 2020.
The Bad and The Ugly
As mentioned above, on the whole 2020 was a terrible year for the bantamweight division largely because so few fights actually took place in it. In the UFC there were only 16 women’s bantamweight fights all year long, with the top ten of the division only competing seven times total. To make matters worse, not one of those 16 fights yielded any Performance of Fight of the Night awards. To put that in context, the men’s bantamweight division had nearly that many fights occur before COVID-19 hit and totaled 36 Fight Night bonuses on the year. Those are rough, rough numbers to consider.
Realistically, not every division is going to be as good as men’s bantamweight, but we aren’t far removed from when the women’s 135-pound division was the marquee women’s division in the sport! The top of the division still has big names and there are some young prospects coming up at 135, but the UFC seems to have let the division fall by the wayside, despite it being championed by the greatest female fighter of all-time.
For a division to have any kind of interest, you have to keep putting on fights at a consistent clip. Not every division is going to be exciting all the time, but if you don’t give them a chance then they will never be exciting. The UFC has dropped the ball with 135 for some time now and in 2020, those chickens came home to roost.
The MVP of a division is not just a question of “Who is the best fighter in the division?” Instead, it looks at who provided the most entertainment in the division over the course of the year, win or lose.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
As you might have a guess, a year which only featured 16 divisional bouts inside the UFC and not that many more outside of it did not offer many excellent MVP candidates. There was however one fighter who bucked the trend of not competing in 2020 and that was Sijara Eubanks. Though her record in 2020 was middling, the one-time would-be title challenger competed four times, making her responsible for literally a quarter of all women’s bantamweight fights in the UFC last year.
Eubanks started the year out strong, winning good decisions over Sarah Moras and Julia Avila but she then faltered in back-to-back fights against Ketlen Vieira and Pannie Kianzad. Still, altogether Eubanks provided fans with one hour of quality fight time in 2020 and though there is a decent argument that Julija Stoliarenko deserves to win this award for her Fight of the Year contender alone, ultimately Eubanks should be rewarded for competing as often as she did in a year where few did so at all.
Highlights to Watch
Julija Stoliarenko and Lisa Verzosa put on a Fight of the Year contender, Invicta FC: Phoenix Series 3
Looking Ahead to 2021
Unfortunately for the bantamweights, 2021 might not be a great year either.
In recent years we’ve seen bantamweight talent abandon the division to move down to flyweight and the UFC has not done a good job of bringing in new talent to bolster the division. Sure, there are some contenders gaining ground like Pannie Kianzad and Macy Chiasson but currently the division seems to have a clearly defined pecking order, with champion Amanda Nunes firmly entrenched at the top. Things will probably improve somewhat in 2021 as Nunes will defend her featherweight title in March and then likely come back to bantamweight for later in the year and the UFC does at least currently have a half-dozen fights already scheduled for the division, but overall they are really in need of some new blood at the top.
Add in the fact that neither Bellator nor the PFL seem intent on adding a women’s 135-pound division in the near future and things are looking grim for what at one time was the most notable women’s division in the sport.