Julija Stoliarenko paid for her championship in blood.
The Ultimate Fighter 28 cast member became the first Lithuanian to win a world title in MMA, earning a split decision (48-46, 46-49, 49-46) over Lisa Verzosa (5-1) in one of the most violent fights in Invicta FC history. Stoliarenko (9-3-1) claimed a vacant bantamweight belt with her main event victory at Invicta FC: Phoenix Series 3 on Friday at Memorial Hall in Kansas City, Kan.
“I’m so thankful to Invicta for giving me that opportunity,” Stoliarenko said post-fight. “I know that I’m barely known for American public, but gosh, I wanted to be here so badly. I want to say one moment, in [this] arena there is a man who had a birthday yesterday and it’s my coach and that’s kind of a present for him.
“Two years ago I fought for a lethwei world title and he told me some inspirational words before the title [fight]. I was in Japan, he was in Lithuania and he messaged me, ‘I’m destined to be in martial arts and I should win the title for myself, for everybody who I love, for all my gym fighter house, and for him.”
With a world title on the line, Stoliarenko and Verzosa put on an instant classic.
The first minute of the fight saw the two immediately engage, which turned out to be just the start of a frantic opening round in which Stoliarenko went head hunting as well as limb hunting as she twice tried to submit Verzosa with an armbar. Both times Verzoa was able to rotate out of danger. On the feet, Stoliarenko landed more consistently, but a Verzosa shot made it through and soon Stoliraenko’s nose was bleeding.
Friday’s show included the historic implementation of open scoring so after one round, both fighters knew that Stoliarenko was up 10-9 on the judges’ scorecards. The pace slowed a touch in rounds two and three, but the intensity rarely waned and the two fighters were constantly in each others faces throwing punches. Near the end of round three, a nasty elbow by Stoliarenko sliced Verzosa open, which created the enduring image of what turned out to be a horrifically bloody fight.
Verzosa’s unwavering toughness kept her in the fight even as Stoliarenko slowed her attempts at generating offense with an accurate jab and short elbows that threatened to make Verzosa’s cut even worse. Heading into the final round, Stoliarenko was up on the open scorecards (39-37 Stoliarenko, 39-37 Verzosa, 39-36 Stoliarenko) and Verzosa needed a finish that never came.
After 25 brutal minutes, it was Stoliarenko whose hand was raised.
In the co-main event, the Cinderella run of Taylor Guardado (0-1) was halted in the bantamweight tournament finals by Taneisha Tennant (3-0), who used her sharp striking to make her way through an eight-woman field and claim the third Phoenix Series tournament crown.
In an odd quirk of scheduling, Guardado was actually making her pro debut despite fighting in a pair of one-round bouts earlier in the evening as the first two rounds of the Phoenix Series bracket were classified as exhibitions. Guardado compiled a 9-1 amateur record to start her career (which included wins over future UFC fighters Ashlee Evans-Smith and Raquel Pennington and a loss to Ronda Rousey), but put her career on hold to focus on family.
Guardado’s aggressive grappling strategy pushed her past Serena DeJesus and Claire Guthrie to put her in the finals, but once there she struggled to deal with the range striking of Tennant. After outpointing Hope Chase and Brittney Victoria, Tennant saved her best performance for last as she kept Guardado at bay for the majority of their fight with a strong jab and straight punches while stifling Guardado’s takedown attempts.
Afterwards, Tennant made it clear that she wanted to turn her tournament title into a shot at the top prize.
“As far as I’m concerned, I’m 5-0,” Tennant said. “I’m gonna sit back with some popcorn, watch the main event, and—Enjoy those few months while you have the title, whoever wins tonight, because I’m comin’.”
The first instance of open scoring being implemented in a North American MMA show actually happened two fights before the main event as 20-year-old strawweight Kay Hansen (6-3) won a commanding unanimous decision over Liana Pirosin (7-4), who fell to 0-2 in Invicta competition.
Both fighters were made aware of the scores between rounds, but there was little drama as Hansen took control of the bout with her grappling, repeatedly putting Pirosin on her back and stifling Pirosin’s scrambles. After two rounds, Hansen was up on all three judges’ scorecards (including one 20-18 score) and she stuck with the game plan in round three to take the decision.