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Women’s MMA 2015 Top 50: #30 – #16

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2015 has been a sensational year for women in mixed martial arts. More promotions than ever before have been promoting women’s fights and new champions have been crowned right, left and center. Bellator have begun to develop their featherweight division, Invicta FC have continued to promote outstanding shows — only not enough of them — and the UFC crowned two new champions in incredible fashion.

We saw Ronda Rousey receive unprecedented mainstream media coverage, Joanna Jedrzejczyk become the new favorite of MMA’s hardcore fans, and Holly Holm beat a seemingly unbeatable champion in Australia. With so much great action taking place throughout the year, here is my countdown of the top 50 women fighters in 2015. The criteria is simple, only their 2015 records, level of opposition, and performances are taken into consideration. If you missed the countdown from 50 to 31 be sure to check it out here, as we continue on towards the top 15.

30) Julia Budd (8-2)
2015 record: 2-0
Most notable win: Gabby Holloway (Bellator 133)
When Bellator entered the women’s featherweight market in 2014, Julia Budd was near the top of their priority list and understandably so. She is one of three women — Marloes Coenen and Cris Cyborg the others — who stand head and shoulders above the rest of their division. In 2015 Budd extended her win streak to six, first defeating top ten featherweight Gabby Holloway in February, then following that up with a win over highly touted Brazilian prospect Roberta Paim Rovel in November. Now we are left hoping that Bellator will make the one fight fans clamored for when the division was introduced, Julia Budd vs Marloes Coenen. With the 145-pound weight class fragmented across Bellator and Invicta, Budd vs Coenen in 2016 is as good as we are likely to get for the featherweights.

29) Poliana Botelho (5-1)
2015 record: 2-0
Most notable win: Silvana Juarez (XFC International 11)
The city of Muriaé in Brazil has few sports stars and before 2015 no mixed martial artist who had achieved international recognition and success. That changed when Poliana Botelho entered XFC’s season II flyweight tournament. Botelho won her quarterfinal in 2014, before receiving a bye in the semi-final when Taila Santos pulled out. In March, the Nova Uniao fighter starched Antonia Silvaneide da Silva to become the tournament champion. Botelho’s success was celebrated as the people of Muriaé welcomed her home as she toured the city on a fire truck. Her year only got better as Botelho was matched up with Silvana Juarez — XFC’s season I tournament winner — to crown an XFC flyweight champion. In a back and forth contest that saw Botelho dropped in the third and on the verge of defeat, the Brazilian eventually forced Juarez to retire on her stool at the end of the fourth round.

28) Daria Ibragimova (9-1)
2015 record: 3-0
Most notable win: Anastasia Kravets (RFP – Ibragimova vs Kravets)
Having last suffered defeat in 2010 when she was submitted by Cindy Dandois, Russian featherweight Daria Ibragimova made 2015 her most productive year yet and did so in rapid fashion. Over a period of only 21 days in March, Ibragimova defeated Mariam Khalilova, Anastasia Kravets and Anastasia Plisenkova. That improved her record to 9-1 overall and saw her signed by Invicta Fighting Championships. Sadly we would not see Ibragimova again in 2015, but she is now set to face Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino on January 16 at Invicta FC 15. The doubts raised about the Russian’s previous level of competition will not apply when she steps into the Invicta cage to fight one of the greatest of all time.

27) Andrea “KGB” Lee (4-1)
2015 record: 2-0
Most notable win: Ariel Beck (Legacy Fighting Championship 49)
If 2014 was the year that Andrea “KGB” Lee emerged as a prospect at 125 pounds, 2015 saw her display a level of in-cage ability that makes a mockery of her young 4-1 professional record. The most versatile and creative striker in all of women’s MMA, Lee’s two wins in 2015 proved that she is much more than just a Muay Thai wrecking machine. In September at Invicta FC 14, Lee outstruck, out grappled, and violently outworked Rachael Ostovich before mercifully submitting her with only two seconds left in the fight. In December, the Karate Mafia fighter made her debut in the Legacy Fighting Championship cage against Ariel Beck. With the promotion’s flyweight title on the line, Beck was all heart and determination, escaping from perilous positions on more than one occasion. Ultimately that only delayed the inevitable as Lee submitted her opponent by armbar in the third round. With Invicta running a flyweight tournament in 2016, and a Legacy title to defend, Andrea Lee’s 2016 promises much.

26) Sabina Mazo (2-0)
2015 record: 2-0
Most notable win: Reina Cordoba (Center Real Fights 19)
Before facing Colombian flyweight Sabina Mazo, both Reina Cordoba and Alejandra Lara held impressive undefeated records. Lara was an emerging prospect who had gone 4-0 since turning pro in 2011. Cordoba was a top ten ranked flyweight who had won eight straight and only once gone to decision. That would soon change. Mazo was only one day removed from her 18th birthday when she faced Lara in March. Three rounds later she had won her professional debut and handed her opponent the first defeat of her pro career. That earned her a far greater opportunity in November where she was matched with Cordoba. Mazo was taken down early by her much more experienced opponent, but remained calm, working for submissions off her back and picking Cordoba off with her jab on the feet. That remained the story throughout as the 18-year-old’s straight punches found a home in Cordoba’s face, and she posed a constant submission threat on the mat. The eventual decision victory announcing Mazo as one of the most exciting prospects in the division.

25) Ayaka Hamasaki (12-1)
2015 record: 1-0
Most notable win: Herica Tiburcio (Invicta FC 13)
Before Ayaka Hamasaki stepped into the cage to face Herica Tiburcio for the Invicta atomweight title in July, Japanese fighters had struggled to make an impact with the all-female promotion. Ten times they had fought on Invicta cards, only twice had a Japanese fighter been victorious. One of those was Hamasaki herself, defeating Lacey Schuckman back at Invicta FC 2. The signs were not good for Hamasaki, not least because in Herica Tiburcio she was facing a ferocious pressure fighter who many were calling the next Claudia Gadelha — a fighter who had defeated Hamasaki at Invicta FC 6. Tiburcio was coming off an outstanding dethroning of former champion Michelle Waterson in December 2014 and was not expected to lose her title. Over five tough rounds, Hamasaki was able to control the talented young Brazilian for long periods en route to a split decision victory. Hamasaki may only have won one fight in 2015, but it was a mightily impressive one.

24) Paige VanZant (6-2)
2015 record: 2-1
Most notable win: Felice Herrig (UFC on FOX 15)
With the favorable way that Paige VanZant has been promoted throughout 2015, it would be all too easy to overlook her in-cage talent. Until she faced Rose Namajunas in December, VanZant had done everything she could to ensure that did not happen. In April VanZant faced Felice Herrig, a fighter with ten more fights on her record than VanZant at the time they fought. After losing a competitive first round, VanZant completely overwhelmed Herrig with her energy and movement, winning by unanimous decision. In September she faced Alex Chambers, once again improving as the fight went on before eventually submitting her opponent in the third round. That earned VanZant her first main event slot at UFC Fight Night 80, however, an injury to original opponent Joanne Calderwood hurt VanZant’s hopes of making it a perfect 3-0 for the year. In an instant, VanZant went from a well-matched pick’em fight to a terrible style matchup that she should never have been favored to win. For almost five rounds, Namajunas derailed the hype train in a one-sided fight that forced people to view VanZant in a more realistic way. At only 21-years-old as 2016 approaches, a little bit of pressure removed might not be such a bad thing.

23) Livia Renata Souza (8-0)
2015 record: 1-0
Most notable win: Katja Kankaanpaa (Invicta FC 12)
Brazilian strawweight Livia Renata Souza is one of eight fighters on this list who, sadly, we only got to see fight once in 2015. Few of those had a win as impressive as Souza’s against Katja Kankaanpaa in April. Through a 12-fight professional career, Kankaanpaa had only been defeated once, against Joanne Calderwood at Invicta FC 7. The reigning Invicta strawweight champion held wins over Mei Yamaguchi, Aisling Daly and Juliana Lima, and was expected to make the first successful defense of her title when she faced Souza at Invicta FC 12. The Brazilian had an impressive 7-0 record but had faced nowhere near the same level of competition. After three competitive rounds, Souza locked on a triangle in the fourth that forced Kankaanpaa to tap. Disappointingly we did not get to see Souza defend her title against Alexa Grasso later in the year, however, we now have the prospect of a much more compelling fight against DeAnna Bennett at Invicta FC 15 to look forward to.

22) Jocelyn Jones-Lybarger (6-2)
2015 record: 2-1
Most notable win: Zoila Frausto (RFA 31)
Defeating a fighter once considered the top strawweight in the world, winning championship gold, and forcing her way into the UFC. Jocelyn Jones-Lybarger’s haul in 2015 was not a bad one at all. Already promoted by Resurrection Fighting Alliance as their top strawweight with back to back wins in 2014, JJL made it three straight when she defeated Maria Rios in February. Originally her next opponent was set to be Kinberly Tanaka Novaes, but when the Brazilian prospect pulled out of the fight after finding out she was pregnant, in stepped former Bellator champion Zoila Frausto. The two would meet in October for the RFA title. There, Jones-Lybarger outboxed her opponent and controlled her in the clinch for five rounds to win a one-sided decision. It was then Jones-Lybarger’s turn to step up on short notice when Michelle Waterson dropped out of UFC 194 through injury. It would not be a winning UFC debut for Jones-Lybarger, ultimately coming up short against Tecia Torres, but she proved that she can be a competitive force in the UFC’s strawweight division.

21) Sharon Jacobson (4-1)
2015 record: 3-0
Most notable win: Jamie Moyle (Invicta FC 14)
2015 was hectic, exciting and impressive for Sharon Jacobson. Three wins from three fights, a U.S. Open wrestling tournament win, and another year spent as a U.S. Army Sergeant. In January Jacobson competed in her third MMA bout, knocking out Ashley Deen in the first round. Invicta quickly came calling and at Invicta FC 12 in April Jacobson out-scrapped Delaney Owen to win a three round decision in a fight of the night effort. Only two weeks later Jacobson returned to the wrestling mat for the first time since a fourth-place finish at the 2012 U.S. Open. Competing as part of the U.S. Army’s World Class Athlete Program, Jacobson won the 2015 U.S. Open. The year was rounded off with another fight of the night effort back in the Invicta cage. Facing her toughest test to date, Jacobson squared off with Jamie Moyle at Invicta FC 14 in September. The two fast rising prospects pushed each other all the way to a decision, and it was Jacobson’s hand that was raised to complete an exceptional year.

20) DeAnna Bennett (8-0)
2015 record: 2-0
Most notable win: Katja Kankaanpaa (Invicta FC 14)
When 2015 began DeAnna Bennett was one of the most overlooked talents in women’s MMA. Despite holding a 6-0 record that included wins over Julianna Pena, Colleen Schneider, and Jennifer Maia, she was still not being talked about as a title contender. 2015 would be the year that changed that as Bennett made the drop to strawweight. After defeating Norma Rueda Center in February at Invicta FC 11, Bennett was matched up with former strawweight champion Katja Kankaanpaa at Invicta FC 14 in September. Three tough rounds led to a contentious decision that had some fans complaining, and pushed Kankaanpaa towards retirement. In reality, it was the second that was the swing round, with Kankaanpaa more often controlling the position, while Bennett worked for a number of submissions. All three judges scored the bout 29-28 for Bennett. All three judges got it right, and should be commended for favoring offensive submission attempts over positional grappling with no end product.

19) Marion Reneau (6-2)
2015 record: 2-1
Most notable win: Jessica Andrade (UFC Fight Night 61)
Marion Reneau had been considered too old to become a force at 135 pounds, overlooked for season 18 of The Ultimate Fighter. Two months into 2015 she had quickly proved any naysayers wrong. Reneau made her UFC debut in January against Alexis Dufresne in one of the year’s most one-sided beatdowns. Over three rounds Reneau landed 85 significant strikes, 64 of them connecting with Dufresne’s head as she was systematically dismantled. Reneau got a quick turnaround, returning to the octagon against Jessica Andrade in Brazil in February. After being dropped by Andrade early, Reneau was able to pull the Brazilian into her guard and lock on a triangle to get the submission. Then came a fight which makes more sense now than it did at the time. For three rounds in July, Reneau, who some had favored to get the win, struggled to deal with Holly Holm’s footwork and striking from range. It was a frustrating night as Reneau was clearly outpointed by the crafty striker. Now that Holm has gone on to defeat Ronda Rousey — within two rounds no less– Reneau taking her the distance doesn’t seem like such a bad effort after all.

18) Alexis Davis (17-6)
2015 record: 1-0
Most notable win: Sarah Kaufman (UFC 186)
Another one-fight-wonder in 2015, Alexis Davis claimed the most notable scalp of her career in Canada in April. Given that Davis would announce her pregnancy later in the year and go on maternity leave, submitting Kaufman was a fitting note to leave on. After all, it was Kaufman who Davis had made her professional debut against in 2007. That night Davis was stopped in the third round. The two would fight again on a much larger stage in 2012 when they met under the Strikeforce banner. In a thrilling contest, it was Kaufman who won again and moved on to a title shot against Ronda Rousey. When the two were matched up in Montreal in April it was a chance for Davis to get a win back against one of her toughest opponents. Not only did she do exactly that, but it was a victory snatched — quite literally — from the jaws of defeat. After a difficult opening round that saw Kaufman resist takedown attempts, and light Davis up on the feet, there seemed to be only one winner. The second round started in much the same fashion until Davis was able to toss Kaufman to the mat. As both fought for position, Davis first went for a triangle then transitioned to an armbar to complete the come from behind victory.

17) Julia Berezikova (10-4)
2015 record: 2-0
Most notable win: Juliana Werner (XFC International 9)
Julia Berezikova had not fought since June 2013 when she stepped into the XFC International cage in March. Her opponent, Juliana Werner, was an experienced top-five flyweight, but that did not stop the Russian making a winning return. Werner was dispatched with a second-round kneebar as Berezikova catapulted herself into the top half of the 125 pound top ten. Berezikova fought again in October under the Eurasia Fight Nights banner and proved that she was here to stay. Brazilian Rosy Duarte had won five straight with her most recent effort a win over fringe top ten flyweight Elaine Albuquerque, but she could not handle the Russian’s vicious striking. The end would come little more than a minute into the second round as Berezikova connected with power, often, punches and knees landing to finish the fight. Based on what we saw from her in 2015, the Russian is a threat to any flyweight in the world.

16) Taila Santos (13-0)
2015 record: 9-0
Most notable win: Gisele Moreira (Aspera FC 23)
While many of the fighters in the top 50 are there because they secured quality wins in 2015, Brazilian Taila Santos makes the list for sheer quantity. Nine times she fought from February 1 to November 21. Nine times she was victorious. Only two opponents made it out of the first round, and only one of those managed to take Santos to a decision. The 22-year-old did not face the toughest competition in 2015, but just consider the schedule. Santos fought once in February, twice in March, once in April, twice in May, once more in June, and then completed her year with fights in August and November. Nine straight wins, no slip ups, no getting caught in a bad position and submitted, no unlucky breaks, no punches, kicks, elbows or knees that she did not see coming giving her opponents a flash-knockout win. On top of that Santos has done what good fighters are supposed to do when they face sub-par opposition, she has steamrolled through them at the same pace that she has taken fights in 2015. Who could bet against her being 20-0 by this time next year?

 

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Exclusive: Mike Ekundayo, “He could come with anything, I don’t care”

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In a little less than a week, Rise of Champions crowns its inaugural bantamweight champion. The crowning of the first 135 lb. champion marks the young promotions first champion. It makes sense why the promotion owned and operated by UK MMA star, Brad Pickett, and Team Titan head coach, Mickey Papas plan to crown the promotions first champion in the bantamweight division. Pickett competed in the division throughout his tenure with the WEC, and ultimately the entity which absorbed the light weight promotion, the UFC. Even more-so, two young and rising prospects of the division. One undefeated in his professional and amateur career, the other riding a seven consecutive victories, five by submission. The two meet February 17th, Mike Ekundayo puts his career unbeaten streak up against Jonas Magard’s at ROC 5, for the aforementioned, inaugural bantamweight championship.

Speaking to the undefeated Ekundayo before his fight, he believes this opportunity to be inevitable. Born in Hackney, (a borough of London) early in life, Ekundayo was no stranger to cramming his belongings into large cardboard boxes. At the age of 7, he moved from Hackney to Herne Hill, a district located in South London. Two years later he found himself in similar situation, moving from his vaguely new home in Herne Hill to Brixton. A road trip in the car to his new home, took approximately 5 minutes.

It is admittedly, not an easy life. In a harrowing article describing the horrors of gang life in London by the metro.uk, former gang member turned community activist, made the claim, “When you are from Brixton, from Peckham, west London, anywhere in London, you are seeing hardship where a lot of communities can’t reach their full potential”.

In his own words, Ekundayo describes his home as, “not the best start to have in your life. It’s not the best upbringing”. But that couldn’t matter any less for him. Not only does the London resident consistently work to grow his potential, he gets to see it every day. His coaches Brad Pickett and Mickey Papas hold the knowledge as well as first-hand experience, increasing his limits with every session. “We’re all close”, speaking of his coaches and team. “My head coach is Mickey Papas, he’s very knowable in the game. He’s been around for a very long time. He teaches me a lot, I can learn a lot of stuff from Mickey Papas. Sometimes I just think, how does he know all of this? Where did he get this information from?”

He continued, “While I was coming up through amateur, Brad (Pickett) was still an active fighter, but nowadays he’s taken a coaching approach. So he’s coaching us prospects getting us to where he got to and further… He’s been through it all, gotten to the top, and stayed at the top”.

Further discussing his coach, “For UK MMA, you could definitely call Brad a legend. He’s done a lot in his career, and someone who I rate highly as an MMA fighter is Demetrious Johnson, and of course Brad has got a win over (him). I feel like just being surrounded by someone like Brad, you’re working towards the right things. When he passes information onto you, you respect it that bit more because of far he got in his career. He’s definitely given me the right guidance, I trust his guidance”.

When it comes to the upcoming title fight, confidence poured out from where praise and respect had once been. “I just think it’s my time, to be honest. I really do believe it’s my time for all of this. The work I put in, certain things become inevitable”, he said. “I actually called this after I won my third fight, I called for belts and big shows. I spoke it to existence”. He continued, “It’s my time to finally to get a strap of some sort. All the straps is what we’re going for, all of them. We’re going for every one”.

“Rise of Champions is my show… That’s how I feel when I’m performing on ROC, it’s just my show, it’s my time to shine. Everyone knows who there here to see, there not really there to see the other guys. It’s my time, it’s my show and I’m going to put on a show on February 17th and I’m going to win that belt”.

The infectious nature of his positive attitude was palpable. Although we only spoke through small rectangular devices, I could feel his energy in the room. His attitude shined brightest when talking about what it would mean to be the first ever ROC Bantamweight champion. Ekundayo claimed, “It just means a lot to have my first belt in anything to be honest… Within myself, I call myself a champion, every day. But now, other people would have to call me a champion because I’ve got a belt… And one thing I really want to do is, which sounds a bit weird, I just want to take the belt home to my area, to Brixton.”

“I just want to take it to my area, and just show the people of that area what hard work can achieve… I want to just take it to my people and show them that not for nothing, we are from Brixton, it’s not the best start to have in your life. It’s not the best upbringing but you can rise above it and you can achieve your goals and that’s what the belt will mean”.

When the conversation shifted to the topic of his opponent, Ekundayo had less encouraging words rolling off his tongue. Jonas Magard, the second half of the ROC 5 main event, holds a record of 7-4. Currently he owns a seven fight win streak after starting his career 1-3. Ekundayo thought, “He did fight quite decent guys in his three loses… but in the seven fight win streak, none of his opponents have been of caliber”.

He elaborated further, “What’s in my thoughts is more me, then it is of him. So, he could come with anything, I don’t care. I’m just focused on how I’m going to be picture perfect. How I’m going to paint a masterpiece, how I’m going to make it a beautifully perfect performance. That’s what my primary focus is on, so what he does to me is irrelevant, I’m just going to focus on how I’m going to be perfect on the night of February 17th”.

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UFC 222 Re-Worked with Cris Cyborg vs. Yana Kunitskaya, and Frankie Edgar vs. Brian Ortega

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UFC 222 has been saved, and it didn’t take a superhero to lift the burning boulder which was Max Holloway’s injury and withdrawal. All it took was a female named Cyborg and a man with a demeanor so smooth, he could be mistaken for an alter-ego. Cris Cyborg now serves as the UFC 222 main event when she defends her featherweight belt against Yana Kunitskaya. Frankie Edgar bumped down to the co-main event to face Brian Ortega in what is likely a title eliminator. The news of the UFC 222 revival originally stemmed from a report by MMAFighting.com and confirmed later in the evening by the UFC.

Over the course of the week, reports surrounded the Las Vegas card and whether it would survive. Multiple options were reportedly being mulled over; cancelling the card outright, changing the pay-per-view (PPV) to a ‘Fight Night’ with an Edgar vs. Ortega main event, Dillashaw vs. Garbrandt 2 main event, among others. Ultimately, the promotion landed on Cyborg vs. Kunitskaya as the new main event, while also booking Brian Ortega.

This adjustment of the card places their women’s Featherweight champion in the second PPV main event in three months. Cris Cyborg recently put her undisputed Featherweight title on the line against Holly Holm at the year ending card, UFC 219. She successfully defended her belt by unanimous decision, in what was an amazing technical display from the Brazilian. In her octagon career, Cyborg is undefeated in her four appearances with three KO/TKO stoppages.

The second half of the new main event, Yana Kunitskaya, makes her UFC debut against the scariest women on the roster. If the 145 lb. champion was not enough of a challenge, Kunitskaya also makes her first appearance in the division since defeating Cindy Dandois in December of 2010. Of Russia descent, her most recent performances came inside the Invicta FC cage. At the female-only promotion, she posted a record of 1-1, with 1 No Contest. Her loss and no contest, both came at the hands of former UFC Featherweight title challenger, Tonya Evinger.

Turning to the co-main event, both fighters have been relatively inactive but, for good reason. Brian Ortega amazingly forced perennial men’s Featherweight contender, Cub Swanson, to tap in the second round of their ‘Fight Night: Fresno’ contest. Ortega fought twice in 2017, but more-so stayed inactive following his stoppage victory over Swanson. The Californian contender announced his desire to wait in line for the next title shot following the recent victory.

For Frankie Edgar, his last fight took place at UFC 211 when he absolutely demolished young and rising star, Yair Rodriguez. A card which took place last May. While Ortega holds an undefeated record, Edgar is undefeated in his previous 9 fights, excluding people named Jose Aldo.

UFC 222 takes place at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada on March 3rd.

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UFC Middleweight Champion, Robert Whittaker Announces Birth of Third Child

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Times seem dull and dreary for the UFC’s Middleweight Champion, Robert Whittaker. The New Zealand born fighter withdrew from the promotions event debut in the eastern region of his residence, Australia. UFC 221, which takes place this Saturday, booked Whittaker to defend his title for the first time against former division champion, Luke Rockhold. His withdrawal was due to mistreatment of a serious staph infection inside of the Australians stomach.

It couldn’t get much worse, having to disappoint fans, and missing the first UFC event in eastern Australia. As it turns out, it could not get worse for Whittaker. Life only got better, as he had the pleasure of announcing the birth of his third child.

His new child is the champions third and first girl. Information regarding his child is limited as this moment is a tender and special time for the Whittaker family.

UFC 221 takes place in Perth, Australia at Perth Arena on February 11th. The cards main event features Whittakers short notice replacement, Yoel Romero taking on Luke Rockhold. Much to the satiety of fans, an interim belt is not in the equation in this instance.

Thank God. Excuse me, thank Dana White.

UFC 221 also features the ‘Super Samoan’ Mark Hunt vs. Curtis Blaydes, Tai Tuivasa faces Cyril Asker, Alexander Volkanovski vs. Jeremy Kennedy and more.

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