Yana Kunitskaya is an Invicta FC champion. For real, this time.
After a false start with the title last year, Kunitskaya beat Raquel Pa’aluhi by unanimous decision (50-45, 50-45, 50-45) to win the vacant Invicta women’s bantamweight title Thursday night in the main event of Invicta FC 25 at Tachi Palace Hotel & Casino in Lemoore, Calif.
Kunitskaya dominated most of the fight with Pa’aluhi with her strength and striking in the clinch, especially hard knees to the body. The Russian fighter blooded Pa’aluhi with an up kick in the first round and stymied the Hawaiian every time she shot in for a takedown. Pa’aluhi is an excellent ground fighter with good boxing, but Kunitskaya’s technique in every aspect, strength and guile gave her the edge from almost bell to bell.
Last November, Kunitskaya seemed to win the Invicta bantamweight title with an armbar victory over Tonya Evinger. But the result was overturned to a no contest and Evinger was given back the belt when the Missouri Athletic Commission determined the referee had made an error in telling Evinger to move from a legal position.
Kunitskaya (10-3, 1 NC) got a rematch against Evinger in March, but fell by second-round submission to the grizzled veteran. Evinger left Invicta for the UFC last month, vacating the belt.
After the first fight against Evinger, the 27-year-old Kunitskaya moved to JacksonWink MMA in Albuquerque, N.M., to train and Thursday night she credited that transition to helping her game. The lengthy and strong 5-foot-8 fighter seems to have a real foothold in the division now.
Pa’aluhi (6-6) has now lost two of three fights, in between a first-round submission victory over Pannie Kianzad in January that set up this title shot. Though she’s been fighting for seven years, Pa’aluhi, a Las Vegas resident, is still just 26 years old and a brown belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu under Robert Drysdale.
In the co-main event, Livia Renata Souza put on an impressive performance just 19 days after the death of her father. Souza, the former Invicta strawweight champion, had a tough time with the striking of Janaisa Morandin, but got the fight to the ground and did work there when needed en route to a unanimous decision (30-27, 29-28, 29-28) victory.
Souza (11-1) found creative ways to get the very game Morandin down to the ground in the first and second rounds. In the third, she let her hands go and took Morandin down again in what was the clearest round win of the night for her. Souza, 26, was supposed to fight Thursday night for for the vacant 115-pound title against Jodie Esquibel, but Esquibel withdrew due to injury and Morandin stepped in.
Morandin (9-1) had a ton of success on the feet against Souza, lumping her up with boxing and landing a big knee. She also nearly had Souza in a triangle choke at the end of the second round. Morandin is just 22 years old and seems like a top prospect in either the strawweight division or atomweight, where she missed what earlier this year in what was supposed to be her Invicta debut.
Katharina Lehner made news with her outlandishly funny bout agreement signing photo. Then, she missed weight by 4.5 rounds Wednesday. In the end, though, it was a happy first foray into Invicta for the German.
Lehner impressed with an aggressive, high-pressure style in finishing Alexa Conners by TKO at 4:21 of the first round. Lehner (6-0) remained undefeated with the victory, lumping Conners up with her boxing and not letting her get any space whatsoever. Conners (3-2) came in on a three-fight winning streak.
It looked very quickly like Sharon Jacobsen would roll in her return to the cage. She landed hard punches on an incoming Kali Robbins to begin the fight, then launched her with an incredible hip toss to the ground. From there, it seemed like Jacobsen would have complete control.
Of course, this still MMA, though. And Robbins is a strong grappler. She grabbed onto Jacobsen’s arm, held onto it in transition and finished via armbar at just :42 Thursday night to remain undefeated.
Robbins (5-0), who missed weight for a second straight time Wednesday, has won all five of her fights by finish, including four by submission. Jacobsen (4-2) had won four straight coming in, but has not fought since September 2015, a unanimous decision win over current UFC fighter Jamie Moyle.
At 38 years old, Cheri Muraski might not be the typical women’s MMA prospect, but she has gotten off to an impressive start to her career. Muraski finished debuting Tracy Cortez by guillotine choke submission at 2:42 of the first round to move to a perfect 3-0. The flyweight fighter Fort Collins, Colo., is a brown belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and now has two out of three career wins by submission.
Also on the card, Yaya Rincón finished Courtney King by TKO at 3:41 of the second round via some ground a pound; Sarah Kleczka defeated Amberlynn Orr by split decision (29-28, 28-29, 29-28); Shino VanHoose inched out Alyse Anderson by split decision (29-28, 28-29, 29-28)
In the opener, Jillian DeCoursey defeated Ashley Medina by split decision (29-28, 28-29, 29-28) in a fight that marked both their pro debuts. DeCoursey dedicated the victory to her late father, as this was the anniversary of her final conversation with him and it was about one day fighting for Invicta.