2013 was quite a monumental year in the world of Mixed Martial Arts. It was the year that both Anderson Silva and Georges St-Pierre’s legendary reigns finally came to their respective ends … both of which concluded in completely differing fashions. Meanwhile, champions like Cain Velasquez, Renan Barao, and Demetrious Johnson were early into the primes of their runs and putting on stunning performances each time out.
Former UFC light heavyweight titleholder Quinton “Rampage” Jackson made the jump to Bellator thus making him one of the very first big-name transitions between promotions. The inverse to Jackson would be Bellator lightweight icon Eddie Alvarez avenging his loss to Michael Chandler. A win that would be his last in Bellator as he reclaimed the title before jumping ship to the UFC. It was a rather fitting end in the Alvarez-Bellator saga as it released him of the stranglehold that former president Bjorn Rebney had held him under.
While this is just a condensed sample size of the many new major unravelings that 2013 produced, the largest was undeniably the beginning of the female competitors getting their largest spotlight. As of the upcoming Feb. 23 date, it will have been seven years ago that the UFC officially introduced the women to the Octagon.
And while that went down in 2013, the year also carried out as the first full calendar year of existence for the all-female fight promotion known as Invicta FC. Therefore leading to several champions and divisional greats being crowned. From names like Cris “Cyborg” Justino, Carla Esparza, and Michelle Waterson … to a “Little Warrior.”
“I do feel like I made my mark,” Barb Honchak told MyMMANews, “I ran dominant for three years. I was in the top 10 for such a long time but it was such a small subset of fans that paid attention to women at the time that I guess I never really felt like I left that big of a mark.”
Invicta FC 5 acted as the coronation of the promotion’s very first flyweight champion. Dueling it out for the gold would be the pairing of Miletich Fighting System’s Barb Honchak and the Brazilian future champion, Vanessa Porto. In the end, the American would write her name into the MMA history books with a clear cut unanimous decision win.
Beginning her professional career at age 30 in 2009, the midwest native would battle her way to a 5-2 start before getting an opportunity in Invicta. Little did Honchak and her fellow Invicta stablemates know it, but they were building the foundation for the future of women in combat and each’s divisional growth.
Honchak accrued two victories in the upstart promotion to earn her crack at the title with a solid six-fight winning streak overall. After the title win over Porto, two successful defenses would follow and help establish the champion as the world’s first consensus No. 1 ranked flyweight.
However, that label wouldn’t last forever.
After Honchak’s dominant defense against Takayo Hashi at Invicta 9, on top of the world, she would then vanish from the MMA world. A three-year absence led to Honchak being stripped of her title in late 2016. And at that point, it just was what it was for the “Little Warrior.”
With some injuries as a result of her departure, there was also the adjusting that had to be done as she and her husband Timm made the move from St. Louis, Missouri to Lake Stevens, Washington. What was assumed as a hiatus or recovery period for one of the world’s best at the time, was actually the first of two retirements.
“For the first time, I mean, that goes with the moving out here [to Washington from Missouri] – the first time, and I kind of consider it two retirements in a way because … I moved out here and things didn’t play out exactly as I wanted them to and I was struggling,” Honchak explained, “It took me a long time to find a gym that I felt like I was cohesive with and that was a good fit for me. By the time I did, I’d been out for a long time and I was basically ready to start on the coaching path before TUF (The Ultimate Fighter) and all of that. And I was working a little bit with that and started training with another fighter and then I found Eddie Grant out here. He owns Catalyst Fight House which is a pretty new gym as gyms go. Especially for someone who is at my level.
“It’s kind of a gritty old school style that was somewhat like what I was used to from Miletich. He and I just hit it off really well and I wasn’t really officially with him or really even looking to start fighting again until I saw the advertisements for TUF in my weight class. When I saw it, I was like, ‘Nah, I’m not gonna do that. I’m not gonna do that, whatever.’ And then I just remember feeling like … almost like blowing up about not doing it. I don’t know, something about it was just like, ‘you have to go do that.'”
The flyweight queen who never lost her crown returned to MMA after three years as part of the UFC’s introduction of the weight class. For what was one of the strongest divisions in totality, it would end up being the most recent of the first four that the UFC has added to their roster since 2013.
The Ultimate Fighter season 26 would crown the first UFC champion at 125-pounds among the women. Being the poster girl for the class at the boom of everything, it just felt right to see Honchak get her shot at becoming the world’s biggest MMA organization’s first champion. And perhaps knowing that in the back of her mind is what spoke out.
“So I called Eddie and just asked him, ‘Hey, do you want to help me get ready for tryouts?’ And him and I – we had not really worked together yet, but I’d seen him coach his people,” Honchak detailed, “He’s watched me coach somebody at his gym and he was like, ‘Yeah, sure, we’ll do that.’ I was like, okay, cool. Not even expecting him to come out with me. He offered. He was like, ‘Hey, I’ll go with you and hold pads and we’ll do it together.’ I mean, he was by my side from day one willing to help and be a great coach. So I guess that was kind of the beginning of I guess what you could call ’round two’ of my career. Or I guess the last little go.
“I didn’t really mean to retire the first time. It was just sort of how life went. And I found Eddie just in time for TUF which meant that I hadn’t really been training super hard for those couple years that I was out. But it was also one of those f*ck it moments, you know? Where you’re like, this is something I need to go do and I don’t know how it’s gonna turn out … but I just felt like it was something I had to go do.
“The house was fun. It was a good experience,” she continued, “I was happy to get a couple of fights in the UFC and at least, you know, for everything that I did in my career, it was nice to at least be able to put the UFC veteran notch on my belt so I think I really wanted to do that before I officially retired.”
While there was no big announcement to be made about it, Honchak can now say that she is indeed retired from MMA competition.
Going through the wringer of TUF 26, the former top flyweight did rebound successfully looking like her old self with two good wins over Gillian Robertson and Rachael Ostovich. Unfortunately, a subsequent trio of losses starting with the eventual inaugural champion Nicco Montano on the show before facing Lauren Murphy and Roxanne Modafferi followed.
The UFC didn’t pan out as one would have hoped, but it’s better to have tried than not tried at all.
Honchak’s official UFC debut against Murphy came with some controversy as the community, and Honchak herself believes she should have come out victorious. Murphy was awarded the split decision win in the eyes of the judges. Per MMADecisions.com, 10 of 13 media members scored the bout for the former Invicta flyweight champion with 80.4 percent of the fan votes in her favor as well.
With the thought of calling it a career still in mind for the 37-year-old, there just was no way she could go out like that. However, the rematch with Modafferi would be a lot more decisive – but not in Honchak’s favor like their first meeting in 2011.
A second-round TKO loss essentially spelled the end for Honchak. But ultimately, it was her release from the UFC which followed the bout a month later in August 2018.
“I guess I haven’t fully come full circle like that yet,” Honchak said in reflection on her career, “I have come to terms with it because I feel like had I not had a loss like that [to Modafferi], I think it would have been harder to call it. I’ve never had a loss that was that dominating before. All of my losses were split decisions. So I feel like as much as that hurt at the time, I still haven’t watched that fight. I probably never will.
“It’s like one of those things that if it didn’t happen, I think it would have been a lot harder to walk away. Even before I got the call [to release me] … I mean, had the UFC offered me another fight, I would have fought again. But after that fight, I already pretty much knew that it was time to call it.”
Now a year and a half removed from fighting in MMA, the former scientist still trains at Catalyst Fight House in Everett, Washington. It’s just a little less frequently than in the past, of course.
Honchak also does some corner work and coaching for the gym from time to time but has most recently gotten her personal training certificate. She runs her own set of group training classes and does some one-on-one coaching.
Although she may not fully realize the impact she has left in an ever-evolving flyweight division, those that have been paying attention know exactly how important Honchak’s influence was. Most obviously, those would be the fighters themselves.
“That’s a crazy huge compliment [to be recognized as one of flyweight’s pioneers] and, you know, I didn’t really even realize it at the time,” she recollected, “I mean, I had my people that I always looked at and looked up to and thought one day I’m gonna fight them or you think I’m gonna be like that someday. I guess when you’re in the middle of it you never really stop to think, ‘I am that person.’ I am ‘that person’ for somebody else. That’s a huge compliment and I think the first time I kind of realized that I had become that to some people was when I was in the house. And some of the comments of the girls would say to me or the fact that all of a sudden I realized people were eyeballing me as the one to beat in the house. Even though I’d been gone for three years.”
Despite Honchak’s lack of activity in those three years following her reign, she was seeded as No. 2 out of the 16 competitors. Not only showing respect from her peers but the UFC as well.
It was a unique and successful career for the “Little Warrior” who went 10-4 and paved a path for many of the young fighters trying to make their names today. But it’s easy to forget that the ones we idolize had to start somewhere as well.
For Honchak, TUF 26 actually wasn’t her first time competing in a tournament styled format. As an amateur, she won the GFight Rising Star Championship at Jeff Osbourne’s Hook’n’Shoot 14th Year Anniversary Super Show. Fighting twice in one night, she would earn a unanimous decision to get to the finals then find a submission to cap things off.
That night on May 30, 2009, was just one that Honchak looked back on fondly as one of her favorite moments.
“For my early fights, my fight with Cat Zingano sticks out still, for a lot of different reasons,” shared Honchak, “She was – I feel like the first real fight I was in. The first person who was as game as I was. She was bigger than me. She’s super talented, and she was pretty much the first time I felt like I got my ass completely whooped in a fight. And then we became great friends after that fight, too. We became training partners, which led to a friendship so that one is a pretty big one in my career. And of course, all of the title fights. The one with Porto was a huge moment. But for some reason, the one with Leslie Smith also always sticks out in my head I think because I was a fan of hers before I fought her. So I think that was a huge victory for me for that reason, too. They were all different and important.”
As Barb Honchak prepares for a May marathon down south of her resident Lake Stevens in Vancouver, she’ll continue expanding on her new role post-MMA.
Having done as much as she possibly could have with the time given to her in the sport, she has nothing left to prove. But if there is one thing that we’ve come to know as almost an inevitability in MMA … it’s that retirements do not last forever.
Thankfully for Barb, she’s technically gotten that part of an MMA career out of the way already.
“It would have to be a lot of money [to fight again],” she said with a laugh, “It would have to be super worth it because even my little stint in the UFC, you go in and I mean, I was over the age of 37 which meant extra medicals just to be there and basically my purse barely covered the cost of my medicals. At some point you’re like, I’m 40. I’m putting my body through this, and I’m breaking even. I’m walking out and by the time I pay my coaches and my medical bills I’m empty-handed. So it’s just not lucrative anymore for me. Invicta was. They paid me well, but then starting over in the UFC you start with a different contract and it just wasn’t worth it.
“I’m really just focused on growing my athletic conditioning and personal training business. I started running more so finishing a marathon and finishing it and not dying at the end of it [is a goal]. And I don’t know, just like, really starting something new. It’s always super challenging, but it’s also very exciting. So I’m sure I’m about to learn a whole lot of new lessons and hopefully get a few victories along the way while I’m starting up this new path.”