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Restructured Invicta adding new women to its MMA stable

Photo: Jeff Chiu/AP

There's a chance Cristiane Justino may drop to 135 pounds for an Invicta fight this year.

Invicta Fighting Championships enters its third promotional year a little wiser and a whole lot more organized to handle the six shows it's slated to promote in 2014, beginning with a tentative event in late April.

Gone is co-founder and matchmaker Janet Martin. In her place, promotion veteran Shannon Knapp has taken sole proprietorship of America's only all-women's MMA league. Recently retired fighter Julie Kedzie has assumed the role of full-time matchmaker and more internal hirings are expected.

"Since the last event, it's been a continuing process to clean up, reorganize and restructure a game plan and get a handle on things," said Knapp, who's worked with nearly every top-tier MMA promotion stateside over the last decade.

"There were a lot of issues I inherited when I took over the whole company, a lot of loose ends, a lot left unattended to. Some of those issues were financial. Some of them were due to lack of organization, records not being kept properly, things of that nature."

The 32-year-old Kedzie (16-13), among the first batch of 135-pound women's fighters to debut in the UFC in 2013, joins Invicta with a decade's worth of competition experience. So far, she's dedicated three to four hours a day pouring over applicants's bios and fight tape; she expects that commitment to double as Invicta starts to roll out its 2014 schedule.

"When I was competitive in MMA, I was totally into women's MMA, but I also had a huge ego. It was really hard for me to look at fight tape and not think, I'm going to fight this girl. Now I can look at it and just enjoy it," said Kedzie. "There are some days my apartment is covered with dry erase boards with notes and arrows."

Knapp said Kedzie will continue to commentate at Invicta shows.

"She's going to have the tools to explain why these two are matched up, their strong suits," said Knapp. "I think that will be an interesting facet that we haven't seen before in commentating."

Kedzie has taken a more intricate role in the company at a pivotal time.

On its front end, Invicta has been tasked with rebuilding its deepest weight class. In December, UFC owners Zuffa acquired Invicta's 115-pound division for an upcoming season of its long-running reality series, The Ultimate Fighter. The talent transference was a validation of Invicta's efforts over just seven events and the blossoming women's MMA market. However, it also raised questions whether Invicta could hold its own now that the UFC had delved into promoting female fights itself.

"It's not like they came in in a hostile situation and just took all my athletes. They didn't come in Gestapo-style. It was nothing like that," Knapp said. "[The women] had contracts. I don't put 'UFC outs' in my contracts. We had some conversations and we were able to make an arrangement that worked for the women to go over."

Replenishing Invicta's strawweight ranks hasn't seemed to be an issue thus far. Last week, the promotion announced the signing of 15 athletes, with a third of them filling the vacant 115-pound category.

"That's the deepest division in the entire sport. The female athletes that we had who went over to the UFC, I could have filled the roster the next day," said Knapp. "It wasn't a bad thing for Invicta."

Invicta's latest acquisitions were a mix of new entries and talent the promotion had already earmarked, but couldn't fit into its ranks, said Kedzie.

"The roster of 15 women is not the end. There's more to come," said the newly minted matchmaker. "These were the names we released now to let people know we have some momentum building. That happening was a blessing. Now more women can come forward and show their talents."

Knapp said she and Kedzie hope to sign 8-10 athletes per division. There has also been discussion about adding a sixth division with a 155-pound class.

"We'll be a little top-heavy, but we also allow the athletes to do other things," said Knapp. "That's a difference in our model than what others do."

Even Invicta's marquee star, Cristiane "Cyborg" Justino, has ventured outside of the promotion to keep fine-tuned. On March 28, Justino meets Jorina Baars in a 145-pound muay Thai championship bout at Lion Fight 14 in Las Vegas.

Justino's 2014 schedule has become a hot topic in recent weeks. Last Friday, the Brazilian fighter told AXS TV's Inside MMA show that she plans to drop to the 135-pound division this year -- her aim to make a run at UFC bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey.

If Justino were to debut at 135 pounds in Invicta, Knapp said it could happen after the April event, which Justino might headline at featherweight barring any injuries from her scheduled March bout.

"She's communicating with me that there's a possibility that she'd like to try to see if it's possible to do a match at 135 in Invicta," said Knapp, "but it would have to be done the right way, with proper medical supervision."

Should Justino make a successful bid at bantamweight in 2014, Knapp said she wouldn't oppose Justino fighting in the UFC, even though Justino has multiple bouts left on her Invicta contract.

"I would let her go," said Knapp.

While that sizable hurdle has yet to be scaled, Knapp has found herself in the position of defending her star fighter.

Two weeks ago, Justino (10-1, 1 NC) was a target of UFC president Dana White's vitriol. When asked at a press conference for his thoughts on a possible Rousey-Justino bout, White exploded at the suggestion, citing her past transgression with performance-enhancing drugs. In December 2012, Justino was suspended for one year by the California State Athletic Commission after her pre-fight urinalysis came back positive for Stanzolol metabolites. In her unsuccessful appeal to the commission, Justino stated she'd unknowingly ingested the banned substance when a coach gave it to her under the guise of a supplement.

Of her two appearances in Invicta, Knapp said that Justino and her respective opponents were tested for steroids and drugs of abuse; she passed both times. Urinalysis samples were processed at an independent laboratory, said Knapp.

In preparation for Justino's attempt to make 135 pounds, Knapp said the fighter has already independently gone through a battery of tests with her physician and those results support Justino's claim that she's a clean fighter.

"They're sharing things with me and I saw her Feb. 8 doctor's report," said Knapp. "I saw all the hormone levels, and I can assure you, if she were doing steroids, those levels wouldn't be what they were."

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