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Tonya Evinger: Past UFC criticisms ‘lit a fire under my ass’

Tonya Evinger isn’t completely clear on what exactly Sean Shelby said to her years ago. In the past, Evinger has said that the UFC matchmaker dubbed her “unimpressive” with regards to in-fight performances in a past conversation.

Shelby has never confirmed that (he doesn’t do media interviews) and whether or not the comments were ever made in that context remains up for debate.

Evinger is adamant that it’s true, though. And, for her, that’s all that really matters. Because since they were allegedly levied, Evinger has been nary unstoppable and she doesn’t regret discussing it.

“What’s there to really take back?” Evinger said. “It was a real occasion that happened. I’m not saying it helped or didn’t help my career, but it obviously lit a fire under my ass, because I’ve done nothing but win since.”

Evinger (19-5, 1 NC), the Invicta FC women’s bantamweight champion, has not lost a bout since 2011, a span of 11 fights in a row. In that span, the Houston area resident has finished seven opponents. Evinger, 35, added to that total by beating Yana Kunitskaya in a rematch of a controversial finish last Saturday night by second-round submission at Invicta FC 22.

A few years ago, Evinger was a journeywoman, competing for multiple organizations with varying degrees of success. She was always very solid, but not good enough to beat the Gina Caranos or even the Alexis Davises and Sara McManns.

Now, “Triple Threat” is regarded as perhaps the best female fighter not currently competing in the UFC. Women she has finished, like Irene Aldana and Cindy Dandois, are on the UFC roster, and Evinger has still not gotten a call. But she continues to dominate in Invicta. Evinger, a durable, grinding wrestler, has held the title for almost two years.

“I just kind of had to find my own way and figure out the mistakes I was making and obviously my losses have shown that,” Evinger said. “And figure out how to make my style work for me. I think that’s where I am. I think I’m really smart about the way I fight. I know my body is gonna perform a certain way and my reactions are gonna be a certain way. So I had to learn to get my style in with that and make it work.”

Kunitskaya got Evinger to tap in their first fight back in November. The result was overturned, though, because referee Mike England incorrectly told Evinger to move from a legal position she was using to try and get out of Kunitskaya’s armbar. Evinger was stepping on Kunitskaya’s head for leverage, which is not a foul. England told Evinger to move and Kunitskaya was able to get the armbar in deeper. The Missouri Office of Athletics changed the bout to a no-contest two weeks later and Evinger got her title back.

That is why the victory over the Russian fighter meant as much to Evinger as any in recent memory.

“I just got tired of her fans and her coaches and her team, all the stuff they were saying,” Evinger said. “It’s just always good to shut some people up.

“I obviously don’t want another belt running around, an Invicta belt running around in somebody’s hands who didn’t win it.”

Evinger got caught in an armbar in the first round in the fight last Saturday, too. She was also in a guillotine and multiple leg lock attempts. Evinger didn’t tap to any of them, though some appeared close. She didn’t have the most technical submission defense, but gutted her way out and ended up sinking in a rear-naked choke of her own in the second round, finishing the bout.

“She wasn’t choking me enough to tap,” Evinger said. “Her submission attempts throughout the whole fight were mediocre at best. She didn’t have the actual right techniques to finish any of them.”

The questions will now arise yet again as to why Evinger is not in the UFC. Evinger says she doesn’t know the real reason, but it burns her up a bit that women she has beaten end up getting the opportunities that she feels she has earned in 11 years as a pro fighter.

“It’s always bothered me,” Evinger said. “I work hard for whatever I’ve got. Same thing in wrestling and now this sport. The recognition comes from the people in power, I guess. They can make anybody a star. These kids, they’re a hype train, man. They don’t know how to fight like they can sell a pay-per-view. It sucks, but there’s nothing I can do.”

Evinger joked that maybe the UFC is waiting until she gets so up in age that she won’t be able to knock off members of its women’s bantamweight division. Not going to happen, Evinger said.

“They want me to get real old so I can’t compete,” Evinger said. “They’re wrong, man. I’m gonna keep on going. I’m gonna be a 60-year-old out there still beating up 20s.”

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