In part one of this three-part series, we started our examination of UFC strawweight star Cynthia Calvillo through the lens of current unranked strawweight Amanda Bobby “ABC” Cooper. In part two, we continued our look at “The Calvary” by examining her second Octagon appearance, which came against UFC newcomer Pearl Gonzalez at UFC 210. Now, in the third and final part of this series, we’ll examine her most recent outing, a July fight against Joanne Calderwood at UFC Fight Night 113.
This exploration into Calvillo’s UFC run will serve to give a better sense of who Calvillo is, how she fights, and what we can expect when she faces off with former Invicta and UFC strawweight champion Carla Esparza at UFC 219, which takes place at the end of the year.
“JoJo” Calderwood had overcome slow starts to pound out wins over seasoned veteran and current Bellator flyweight Valérie Létourneau and current strawweight up-and-comer Cortney Casey. On the heels of that two-fight winning streak, Calderwood was entrusted with being the first “test” for former bantamweight Jessica Andrade. The fight, which was expected to test the resolve, aggression, durability and physicality of Andrade instead turned into a decisively one-sided fight that the Brazilian finished via submission.
The contest took place on the feet for a brief period of time. Calderwood came out wary of the takedown and chose to work at range to take advantage of her opponent’s lack of height and reach. Calderwood flashed a jab to maintain distance and kicks to the legs, body and head to punish her opponent. Unfortunately, a lot of her offense fell short or was blocked by Andrade.
Once the Brazilian had Calderwood’s timing down, she starting mixing up her shots, alternating between leading with the right hand and leading with a left to the body, punctuated by a right hand over the top. Once the hyperkinetic Andrade got going, the fight was lost for the notoriously slow-starting and defensively challenged Calderwood. Andrade forced Calderwood to the cage before taking her down, a feat which Andrade repeated a time or two before she got “JoJo” on her back closer to the center of the cage and mauled her with a combination of grinding control and punishing hammerfists.
To her credit, Calderwood managed to look for a submission from the bottom and work an active guard game. However, Andrade shut both things down before deftly snagging a fight-ending guillotine choke when Calderwood attempted to work her way back to her feet.
Calderwood, much like previous Calvillo opponent Cooper when she fought Tatiana Suarez, was essentially on the defensive the majority of the fight against Andrade. This is problematic because of Calderwood’s history of notoriously poor defense. It highlighted her less-than-stellar athleticism, too. The combination of these two things has been disastrous in Calderwood’s run in UFC properties. She was soundly defeated by Rose Namajunas, Maryna Moroz and Andrade.
In Calderwood’s previous fight, she faced off with the aforementioned Létourneau. In this match-up, Calderwood got the fight she wanted against an opponent who would engage her in gritty exchanges. Létourneau possesses some athleticism, but she is a fighter with clear limitations in regards to her own defensive skills and awareness. Calderwood applied steady pressure, using her long weapons, such as the jab-push kick, to push Létourneau back, transitioning from range striking through the pocket and on to the clinch in hopes of taking advantage of her superior physicality, punching power and strength. Calderwood used a variety of strikes, including step-in knees, jabs, push kicks, backfists, leg and body kicks, and elbow strikes. Létourneau, on the other hand, sought to force a pace where her activity and volume would bring her into the pocket and overwhelm the Calderwood.
Calderwood got caught early by Létourneau, but the Canadian’s lack of power and inability to fight with controlled aggression resulted in extended grappling exchanges on the feet and repeated takedowns. Létourneau sought to impose her will and pace on Calderwood, but once that proved ineffective, the fight turned. Calderwood took full control, dictating the pace and initiating all exchanges, which exposed Létourneau’s own defensive deficiencies and put a spotlight on her defensive footwork. With an inability to slow or deter Calderwood’s forward pressure, Létourneau eventually succumbed and was stopped early in the third round.
Calderwood used the advantages she had in the technical and physical realms to keep Létourneau out of the ranges where she works best. Calderwood limited Létourneau’s ability to make her activity and volume into an effective weapon. This allowed Calderwood to slowly chip away at Létourneau, eventually breaking her down and stopping her.
These two fights highlighted some positives and negatives that have repeatedly shown up in Calderwood’s fights, especially since she came to the UFC. She has shown to be a powerful striker, blessed with physical durability, strength and natural physicality. On the opposite end of the spectrum, she hasn’t shown any standout ability when it comes to explosiveness, mobility and hand or footspeed. She’s often beat to the punch and hasn’t shown the athleticism necessary to make up for the lack of technical acumen, something other fighters like Phil Davis and Calvillo have done on more than one occasion.
Calderwood is very much a pure Muay Thai fighter. She is effective at both kick and clinch range, but she is offensively limited and defensively vulnerable in the clinch. This results in her often staying at range or trying to quickly phase through ranges so as not to get stuck in an area where her ability to generate or navigate damage is a liability. She has shown versatility, range and excellent timing in her kicking game. She has also developed an effective and consistent long jab on the feet. In the clinch, her combination of length and strength allows her to impose her will on opponents and break them down with knees and short punches.
In the grappling and wrestling phases, Calderwood is best when she is initiating. She has shown nifty takedowns when she can gain the clinch position and work through trips and body-lock takedowns, as well as the occasional double leg. She works best from top position, usually grinding on an opponent and wearing them out through extended time on the mat and ground-and-pound. Her defensive game on the ground is limited to control and regaining her feet. Her takedown defense is well above average, but far from bulletproof. When forced into bad positions, she isn’t able to be offensive, which further highlights her somewhat opportunistic all-round grappling game.
Calvillo had essentially beaten two rookies. One was Cooper, a comparable athlete with a striking pedigree. Versus Gonzalez, Calvillo faced a version of herself: a bigger, stronger and more durable grappler type with an established resume on the feet. Gonzalez presented problems as a result of the width of her technical skill and physical tools. In both fights, Calvillo was able to fight the right fight that put her in position to finish when her opponent slowed a step, as in Gonzalez’s case, or became overzealous, as was the case with Cooper. Against Calderwood, Calvillo once again faced a fighter with a far superior striking pedigree, an opportunistic grappling/wrestling game and loads of experience against quality opposition with a variety of physical and technical tools. Essentially, Calderwood had been there, done that.
Calderwood had the potential to be a handful for Calvillo. She represented “The Calvary’s” first step up in opposition on paper and in the minds of the media and fans. However, as seasoned as accomplished as Calderwood was, she still was painfully average in her athleticism. And as diverse and punishing as she could be offensively, she was still painfully wide open defensively. Calderwood’s rather unseasoned ground/wrestling game, defensive liabilities and lack of legitimate athletic ability provided clear paths to victory for Calvillo.
Calvillo’s fight against Calderwood echoed previous fights “The Calvary” was involved in against Cooper and Gonzalez. The majority of the fight took place on the feet, but it was truly decided on the ground. As is typical of Calvillo, she worked the outside, using a combination of clever footwork and constant foot movement to evade Calderwood while attempting to set traps that would allow her to land clean and big counters.
Calderwood set up shop at kicking range, using a combination of high variety and a volume of kicks to maintain the distance. She came behind a long jab to apply consistent pressure on Calvillo. Both fighters were effective. Calvillo had standout moments, especially in the second round when she landed a right over the top that busted “JoJo” open. The American landed short bursts of clean offense on the counter as Calderwood pursued.
But those were only moments of success. The rest of the fight was filled with volume from Calderwood. A lot missed, and much of it wasn’t definitive. Nonetheless, the Scot generated a lot of attempted strikes and landed a hell of a lot more. Yet, the combination of Calvillo’s mobility, athleticism and counter-based striking essentially neutralized any attempt to trap her on the cage, tie up in clinches or set up for the power shots of Calderwood.
Where the fight turned in Calvillo’s favor due to sheer dominance and activity was on the ground. The fight only visited the grappling realm on two occasions, as the forward pressure behind the jab and front kicks of Calderwood limited Calvillo’s ability to get clean entries. This nullified Calvillo’s penchant to use reactive takedowns by keeping her outside and disrupting her range and rhythm. When Calvillo was able to get past those tools, “The Calvary” got clean takedowns and immediately began looking for positions to land strikes and to lock up submissions. This took place In the first round, which could have gone to Calderwood based on volume and forward pressure.
Calvillo repeated it in the final round, getting the takedown and securing the back before locking on a rear-naked choke. The bell saved Calderwood from being finished, though. The scores didn’t reflect the fight, but they came to the correct result: Calvillo by decision.
In this fight, Calvillo showed improved, tighter footwork. She didn’t allow herself to be forced to the fence, nor did she allow Calderwood to consistently get to work in the clinch. These were two things she was unable to do against Gonzalez. It’s doubly impressive when you consider that Calderwood was much busier offensively and was much more versatile in the strikes she used. Gonzalez didn’t have a quarter of the offense used by “JoJo” and yet was repeatedly able to push Calvillo to the cage. Gonzalez was also much more effective with her strikes when she asserted herself offensively. Against a more experienced, more active and better all-round striker, Calvillo was able to use movement, feints and switches in direction that limited Calderwood’s ability to put shots together.
Calvillo lowered her work rate, which allowed her to navigate the issues with physical exhaustion that appeared in her fight with Gonzalez. Of greater importance, she made all the shots she threw count. Though she didn’t get a lot of takedowns, the ones she did score were clean and explosive takedowns. Unlike when she fought Cooper or Gonzalez, it was clear Calvillo was looking to get the fight to the ground and had gotten more precise in executing takedowns. Her scrambling ability, positioning and finishing instincts remain world class.
However, Calvillo’s ability to lead in regards to her striking and her grappling seems suspect. The majority of what she does is based on counters where she sits back and looks to set traps. Given her lack of power, her ability to initiate and build upon offense is concerning. She can be outworked and pressured, spending most of her time watching and waiting for openings. The second half of this problem is how vulnerable to strikes she is whenever she attempts to assert herself offensively. Though she won, some questions have to be asked in regards to her cage IQ.
Calderwood is a notorious slow starter and has been historically vulnerable to athletic fighters who sought to impose themselves offensively. Early in the fight when Calderwood is most vulnerable to strikes, takedowns or submissions, Calvillo chose to take a step back and circle rather than come right in and flex her athletic muscles to test Calderwood’s awful stand-up defense. This is a move that seems to be the complete opposite of intelligent or efficient. This fight ended up being a close but clear win, but it could have been a dominant showing for Calvillo had she at least attempted to try Calderwood early.
This was Calvillo’s third UFC win in a row. She now officially considered a legitimate fighter after having beaten three different tiers of fighters and winning an outing against the most experienced and accomplished opponent she had faced in MMA. Concerns arose regarding her ability to initiate offense on the feet and to maximize her wrestling/grappling ability. Nonetheless, she has won three in a row against an ascending caliber of opponent and looked good doing it.
This win stated that Calvillo didn’t just have star potential as a result of the demographic she appealed to. Instead, it showed she was really a viable contender for the belt. This realization set the table for her biggest fight in December, when she will face former Invicta and UFC strawweight champion Esparza.