Today, let’s take a look at streaking strawweight prospect Cynthia Calvillo.
Over the course of this three-part series, we’ll look at “The Calvary” through the lens of the three fights that have tagged her as a future star, eighth-ranked strawweight and potential title challenger. Is “The Calvary” for real, or is she a product of a still-developing division and deft matchmaking?
We’ll try to answer this question by taking good, long, detailed look at her opponents and some of their fights, skills and attributes. This will tell us more about Calvillo and help us in our discussion of her upcoming fight against former Invicta FC and UFC strawweight champion Carla Esparza at UFC 219, which takes place at the end of the year.
They always say you don’t know someone until you fight them, so let’s understand Calvillo better by breaking down her opponents and using that to frame who she is as a fighter. We’ll start with her UFC debut against Amanda Bobby “ABC” Cooper.
The 30-year-old Calvillo was undefeated through three fights when she first entered the Octagon at UFC 209 in March. Calvillo’s first opponent in the UFC was the aforementioned Cooper, who was coming off a stint on The Ultimate Fighter, where she lost by submission to wrestling and athletic wunderkind Tatiana Suarez in a fight that was tremendously one-sided. As Suarez took down Cooper and proceeded to alternate between controlling and beating up Cooper before eventually setting up a fight-ending D’arce choke.
Due to Suarez’s top-end athleticism, physicality, wrestling and grappling pedigree, Cooper was never able to showcase her own athleticism, footwork or well-developed boxing skills. She was unable to control the range or pace of the fight on the feet and was reduced to trying unsuccessfully to survive on the ground. Cooper made things difficult via sweeps, guard play and a sneaky armbar attempt, but, outside of making Suarez work to establish and maintain position, Cooper was almost exclusively on the defensive and never was able to develop any legitimate momentum on the ground. This could have been a foreshadowing of the issues Cooper would face versus Calvillo, a less accomplished grappler, wrestler and athlete than Suarez, but still far superior to Cooper and 85 percent of the fighters populating the division.
Outside of the UFC, Cooper’s loss to Aspen Ladd was another highlight of the issues she had when she couldn’t consistently establish her striking and was drawn into extended exchanges on the ground.
In her second outing underneath the UFC banner, Cooper faced Denmark’s Anna Elmose. In this fight between the two once-beaten combatants, Cooper got the match-up she wanted. She was up against a fighter who would strike with her for extended periods. Elmose wasn’t a finely tuned specialist or dominant athlete in the realms of wrestling and grappling. Instead, Cooper and the former UFC bantamweight engaged in a spirited affair which consisted of Elmose applying pressure, throwing a high volume of varied strikes to bridge the gap in hopes of entering or collapsing the pocket, where her tight punches, physicality and clinch work would be able to turn the tide. Cooper used deft defensive footwork, stance switches, a busy one-two and a sprinkling of kicks, as well as her length and superior athleticism, to stymie Elmose. This forced Elmose to exert a lot of energy while trying to apply pressure. Elmose was the more physically durable fighter and the bigger hitter, but the price for that success was short lived.
Elmose was unable to maintain the pace or consistently get into the range where Cooper’s advantages would be neutralized. Cooper initiated and won multiple exchanges on the ground. It was not so much through cleaner technique, but through a combination of awareness, aggression and activity. She made Elmose work and therefore was able to highlight the technical and strategic shortcomings Elmose had on the ground.
In the two aforementioned Cooper fights, a few things should be highlighted. Cooper was clearly one of the better athletes in the division as a result of her length, athleticism, agility, activity and balance. On the other hand, it was established that she was not a particularly strong fighter or one who possessed a high level of explosiveness as it pertains to punching power.
Cooper is a very good boxer. She has very good footwork, feints, parries, punch placement, setups and shot selection. She can lead, defend and counter on the feet in an efficient and consistent manner. The two biggest weapons for Cooper are her ability to throw sharp combinations and counter aggressively. She has a clearly nuanced system of footwork that allows her to press, cut the cage, set traps, enter and exit on angles, and use stance switches to create angles. Cooper has shown some craft in the pocket and the clinch, though she prefers to work a ranged game where she alternates between moving in and out depending on how quickly she can get her opponent to chase her.
Cooper’s kicking game is competent. She has good snap, placement and range of kicks. On the downside, she isn’t a balanced striker in amount of strikes thrown, setups for strikes and execution of strikes. “ABC” is a willing kicker more than a technical one. She is also painfully one-sided, almost exclusively using the left leg. This makes her predictable and easier to counter, as could be seen in her fight against Elmose.
As good and experienced a boxer as Cooper might be, she is better on the counter than on the lead. She can tend to reach a little bit with her shots. And as good as Cooper’s footwork is when she controls the pace and place of a fight, her footwork has broken down when under extreme duress, as in her fights against Ladd and Suarez.
As far as wrestling and grappling, Cooper has shown legitimate chops. Her game is much more tricky than it is technical. Cooper’s takedown defense and offense is heavily reliant on her footwork. Her ability to navigate distance and work angles allows her to control range and get off the centerline, which forces opponents to work hard to get in range and limits their opportunities to get takedowns. Her offensive takedowns are tied to her skill in setting traps as a result of her movement and footwork. In the Elmose fight, Cooper got her opponent to overpursue when she extended distance, before she quickly entered for a reactive takedown.
There are two sides to Cooper’s grappling game, as shown in the Elmose fight and in Cooper’s time in the TUF house. When allowed to dictate when and where the fight takes place, Cooper is good in regards to control, improving position and applying submissions. When she is placed on the defensive, however, Cooper becomes an active but ultimately survival-based grappler who works a busy guard game and controls posture to limit ground-and-pound opportunities while also hunting for sweeps, as shown against Elmose and Suarez.
When a clear advantage on the ground doesn’t exist, Cooper’s game can be much more opportunistic than offensive. In situations that lack the demand for a certain seasoning or layered approach, Cooper is fine. She can escape, defend, tie up or reverse. However, she is really unable to present a consistent offensive threat, which is as much a hindrance to her ability to defend herself against submissions as it is in her ability to successfully use them.
When Cooper fought Calvillo, Cooper was coming off a win. It was an exciting one, too. Cooper had just won three fights on TUF before losing in the finale to Suarez, one of the best prospects in the history of women’s MMA. Cooper is a good athlete and a very skilled and experienced boxer. She is a limited all-around striker, though, and a fighter who’s grappling and wrestling is more opportunistic than it is legitimately good. All of Cooper’s losses have come by submission. Even in her last win, she was controlled and beaten up on the ground for extended periods.
So, Cooper was tasked to face Calvillo, a young, athletic wrestler with excellent skills and awareness in scrambles, superb transitional skills and top-end finishing ability. Cooper’s worst performances were against fighters who fit this same description. This was a fight Calvillo was supposed to win.
The Californian Calvillo has the potential to appeal to a certain demographic that is invaluable in combat sports. The UFC needed to gauge where “The Calvary” was, so the company gave her a familiar face with a fairly high profile. Cooper lacked the power to really hurt Calvillo. Cooper utilized a style and pace that would create opportunities for Calvillo to exploit the boxer’s biggest weakness.
The fight between Calvillo and Cooper was fairly uneventful. The two fighters exchanged early, before Cooper was swiftly taken down. A brief scramble ensued, and “The Calvary” took Cooper’s back and finished the fight with a rear-naked choke. The brief and one-sided encounter didn’t tell us much — or at least that is what most fight observers would say. They’d be wrong, though.
Calvillo is much like former UFC and WEC lightweight champion Benson Henderson in how she fights. On the feet, she likes to play the outside, alternating between standing her ground, circling the cage to get position on her opponents, or fighting off the back foot to draw opponents into counter shots, takedowns or clinches. Much like Henderson, “The Calvary” likes to work at distance. She is a much sharper and more powerful kicker than puncher, and she’s a fighter who works best off the counter, whether it be takedowns, positioning or submissions.
The strength of Calvillo’s game is her ability to control pace, place and terms of engagement. On the ground, she is also similar to the former champion Henderson, in that her flexibility and awareness in scrambles allow her a lot of freedom regardless of how she gets to the ground, who is in a superior position, or who is the aggressor.
The difference between Henderson and Calvillo is Henderson’s physicality and focus on tying up and controlling opponents against the cage or one the ground. Calvillo is less about control and physicality. Instead, she focuses on athleticism, activity and movement to control opponents, which masks her lack of legitimate defensive responsibility, whether it be parries, slips, pivots or angles. It also hides her less-than-efficient striking, as her activity and athleticism allow her to bury a lack of refinement.
On the feet, Calvillo is a willing striker. She is an effective and powerful kicker, but she is very busy with her hands. This allows her to maintain the distance her footwork and defense don’t provide. They set up her kicks and, as a result of her movement and tendency to counter, she scores points via her jab and straight punches. Calvillo isn’t a nuanced technical striker, but she is a smart one, as noted by her willingness to commit to the jab, move in and out, use punch/kick combinations, and attack the entire target instead of one specific area.
In regards to her wrestling and grappling, the Team Alpha Male fighter’s strength is based on her ability to counter. Whether getting a takedown, a good position or a submission, her best success comes when she can find openings based on what her opponent has given her. For example, she scored a takedown off an ill-advised body kick from Cooper. “The Calvary” didn’t really flash the positional or physical dominance Suarez or Ladd did when they took Cooper down. She really shined when she was taken down by Cooper. Calvillo was able to create scrambles through which she eventually attempted an anaconda choke before transitioning to the back and finishing Cooper with a tight rear-naked choke.
Calvillo showed that while willing and busy as a striker, she is not particularly sharp technically. There are bigger windows to counter her than there are in most fighters. This lack of precision execution offensively highlights her lack of overall defense, especially when she initiates. She was hit quite often by a fairly one-dimensional striker in Cooper.
There are also some concerns regarding her effectiveness in the pocket, especially in exchanges. Another area of concern was her inability to blow through Cooper on a takedown that was served up to her. Her inability to secure position and keep the fight on the ground is also worrisome. Elmose, Ladd and Suarez all were able to get Cooper down and maintain position much much more easily than Calvillo could. They all did more damage on the ground as well. It was only one fight — and one where Calvillo held her own on the feet and showed great transitions, scrambles and finishing ability — but the result of a fight never overshadows what happens in the fight. The best analysts and coaches know that.
Calvillo had a high-profile win on the main card. The victory stamped her as a fighter to watch. She showed athleticism, competency on the feet, and some of the most creative transitions on the ground this side of Rose Namajunas. Team Alpha Male had a new female star establishing herself, and the UFC had a fighter who had the potential to cross over into the demographic the company has been trying to get into for at least a decade. It’s the same demographic that has buoyed boxer Saul “Canelo” Alvarez into superstardom and has made a Kazakhstan middleweight into one of the biggest names and needle-movers in the world of combat sports.
In part two of this series, we are going to take a look at Pearl Gonzalez, the second of Calvillo’s opponents on her way to her current position in the division and the sport as a whole.