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. Now, in part two, we continue our look at “The Calvary” by examining her second Octagon appearance, which came against UFC newcomer Pearl Gonzalez at UFC 210. 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.
Since Gonzalez’s Octagon debut came against Calvillo, let’s examine her second appearance in versus Poliana Botelho. Botelho was a once-beaten prospect who had lost to fellow UFC fighter and undefeated strawweight Viviane Pereira earlier in her career. Botelho won all of her fights outside of the UFC by some form of knockout stoppage.
The fight between Botelho and Gonzalez started off well. Gonzalez took the center of the cage and established her jab. She applied steady pressure as she walked in behind it. Gonzalez proceeded to attack the legs of Botelho with a series of inside and outside leg kicks. Instead of using punches to transition into the pocket to force exchanges, Gonzalez stayed at range and picked apart Botelho and eliminated her ability to counter or get her own forward pressure established. It was at this point the fight took a terrible, though unexciting, turn. Gonzalez, a former kickboxer and Golden Gloves champion, eschewed the success she was having on the feet to attempt a takedown.
Unfortunately for Gonzalez, the takedown was not effective and she spent the better part of the round controlling Botelho against the cage while repeatedly attempting to complete the takedown. Botelho is a big, strong, explosive strawweight, so Gonzalez wasted a lot of energy chasing the takedown and jostling for superior position against the cage. More importantly, as Gonzalez chased the takedown, she was strafed with elbows to the head. So, not only was Gonzalez burning through energy that would hinder her ability to win the fight, but she was being outworked and hurt, which hindered her ability to win rounds.
When the second round began, Gonzalez looked noticeably fatigued. The previously sharp leg kicks and stiff jab moved at a glacial pace. Compounding the problem, Botelho increased her aggression and began to throw with bad intentions. The Brazilian wasn’t landing, but she had turned the tide of the fight. Gonzalez got hesitant and became unwilling to engage on the feet. The previously effective combination of distance control, pressure, leg kicks and jabs was summarily taken away by Botelho’s increase in aggression and strikes.
From this point on, the fight followed the script of the second half of round one. Gonzalez chased takedowns and burned through energy as Botelho contested her for position while repeatedly punishing her with elbow strikes. The only moment of prolonged action came late in the third frame when a clearly gassed Gonzalez was on her back foot, poorly defending strikes. The American eventually sought safe haven in a takedown attempt before being strafed with knees and eventually taken down and beaten up to close out the fight en route to a unanimous decision in Botelho’s favor.
This fight in many ways reflected Gonzalez’s previous fights outside of the UFC. In her fight with Cortney Casey, Gonzalez’s forward pressure, durability and physical strength enabled her to have success against a higher tier of talent. However, she also showed how vulnerable she can be when being pressured and how offensively and defensively inconsistent she becomes when dealing with a superior athletic talent.
In fights in and out of the Octagon, Gonzalez has shown herself to be very durable, strong and a physical fighter. She often imposes her will on opponents. On the downside, she has not shown herself to be a particularly high-IQ or creative fighter, nor does she seem to possess particularly impressive amounts of athleticism or cardio.
Gonzalez is a good striker with a legitimate boxing background. She has competed in and been a champion of the Golden Gloves boxing organization. She has a very good jab, excellent distance control and efficient offensive footwork, which she uses to apply consistent pressure. Gonzalez has the ability to use effective combination punching and has a fairly wide punch selection, but she most often falls back on straight punches that are used to limit her opponent’s aggression, push them back and pick them off at range. Her straight punches set up her kicking game, too, which is of particular importance.
Gonzalez may not be a particularly crafty or varied kicker, but she is efficient, especially when it comes to her leg kicks. Her identity as a striker is clearly defined, which allows her to fight to her strengths and maximize the limited areas where she is effective. She has a defined game, but a painfully limited one. For example, let’s look at her overall footwork. As measured as Gonzalez is offensively, she is completely unmeasured and ineffective when constantly pressured by an opponent. Her defense, which is essentially her forward pressure and distance control, is inconsistent at best when an opponent has the willingness to strike freely and aggressively. Gonzalez’s lack of consistent head movement and defensive footwork forces her to rely on a double forearm of high guard when an opponent gets busy with a consistent and varied attack.
Gonzalez hasn’t shown the will to work at a good pace consistently, either. Instead, she chooses to favor low output. Gonzalez has been outworked more than once by less-accomplished strikers. She seems to have the poise to stay calm and make reads, but lacks the cardio or the aggression to take advantage of the information she has processed on the feet. In other words, she knows what to do and how to do it, but often won’t due to lack of skill or willingness.
Gonzalez has shown herself to be most comfortable in grappling and wrestling scenarios. The Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu purple belt has had 13 fights between her amateur and professional MMA career. She won 10 of those fights by submission, mostly via armbar. Gonzalez has competent wrestling. Her entries and setups aren’t great, nor is she particularly dynamic athletically, but she has size and her strength, as well as a dogged determination in getting takedowns. Think of her as a female equivalent to Jake Shields and Diego Sanchez. Gonzalez is active on the ground, very effective with ground-and-pound, and also very effective in setting up and transitioning to finish a submission. She can also survive in and work her way out of submissions.
Gonzalez’s biggest issue on the ground is that her lack of a dynamic or well-structured takedowns doesn’t always allow her to secure control or position completely. Opponents can reverse, sweep or escape out of the backdoor when she finishes takedowns. Even when she is able to maintain top position, she is often put into danger via submission, though she is usually able to work her way out of these bad spots. However, it’s concerning that she so often finds herself in these spots in the first place. Her inability to maintain any sort of pace when forced to fight for position via scrambles is also a weak spot. And when she tires, her submission defense, control and offense all suffer.
Gonzalez was a debuting fighter in the UFC when she was matched with Calvillo. Gonzalez was considered one of the better signings for the promotion. She had a 7-1 amateur record and a 6-1 pro record. She had won six fights in a row after a loss in her pro debut against Munah Holland. Gonzalez even managed to win the XFC flyweight title with a win over the aforementioned future ranked UFC strawweight Casey. Gonzalez’s fight with Calvillo was made as a result of Gonzalez’s record and as a step up for Calvillo. Gonzalez was a more accomplished, experienced and better all-around fighter than Calvillo’s previous foe, the aforementioned Cooper.
Given the quick and decisive nature of Calvillo’s win over Cooper, this was considered the fight that would provide a clearer picture in regards to who Calvillo was as a fighter and what she could do when facing someone with some seasoning, a varied skill set and clear physical advantages. It didn’t hurt that Gonzalez had an aesthetic appeal and, like Calvillo, is a member of the most powerful demographic, historically speaking, in combat sports.
This was a calculated risk in matchmaking. Here were two young fighters with legitimate all-around skills, experience and physical tools who were capable of beating each other. A loss for either fighter wouldn’t be crushing and a win for either fighter would be hugely beneficial from a promotional standpoint.
In Calvillo’s favor, Gonzalez, while bigger, stronger and more durable, didn’t have Cooper’s athleticism, rate of activity, keenly developed boxing game or cardio. This provided Calvillo clear avenues to victory on the feet and on the ground.
The fight took place largely at range on the feet. Gonzalez applied pressure early, while Calvillo used movement, athleticism and volume to relieve the pressure. Gonzalez was clearly outworked, but the amount of effective offense was close. Calvillo went with volume and obvious offense, whereas Gonzalez leaned on efficiency and power. Much like in her previous fight against Botelho, Gonzalez sought to transition from strikes to takedowns, working singles and doubles in hopes of gaining the takedown.
For large segments of the fight, Gonzalez, as she did against Botelho, jostled for position and burned energy chasing takedowns. She had some success in these extended tie-ups on the feet and was able to successfully complete multiple takedowns. However, her issues with clean and dynamic takedowns created multiple opportunities for Calvillo to reverse position and threaten for a submission. This wore Gonzalez down further and ultimately hindered her offense on the feet in the third stanza. It slowed her pressure and eventually resulted in her getting taken down and then finished by rear-naked choke.
Calvillo showed an ability to work at a higher rate in regards to the volume she generated. The Team Alpha Male fighter showed a lot of intelligence in her shot selection. Gonzalez came out with a combination of a high/double forearm guard that allowed her to stand her ground when Calvillo flurried with straight punches. Instead of spamming straight punches, Calvillo started to adjust. She diversified her strikes — she jabbed to the body, threw uppercuts, and used head and body combinations of hooks and kicks. Calvillo also showed some discipline in her footwork, circling and switching directions to keep Gonzalez from being able to put defensively responsible punches together. Calvillo also showed improved head movement, which helped mitigate some of the effectiveness of her opponent’s jab. On the ground, Calvillo flashed her prodigious scrambling ability and effective ground-and-pound. She once again showed herself to be one of the most creative and dynamic submission threats this side of Rose Namajunas, as she threatened with strikes and submissions every time the fight hit the ground, regardless of who was in what position.
Calvillo likes to play the outside and move around to draw opponents in for counter takedowns or strikes. She doesn’t like being pressured. Being pursued is one thing, but when she is pressured and has the cage cut off on her, the defensive lapses begin to show and her lack of seasoning as a striker becomes obvious. Calvillo is well conditioned and active, but her activity is set to allow her to control the pace and limit an opponent’s aggression to let her dictate the length and intensity of exchanges. Gonzalez applied a lot of pressure that, with the combination of her high guard, presented a threat that forced Calvillo to throw more than she had to and throw when she didn’t have to, all in the attempt to escape Gonzalez. Instead, Calvillo could have pivoted or stepped around Gonzalez as she finished her shots and had a whole cage full of room to maneuver.
The stance Calvillo uses to maneuver quickly is the same stance that makes her very vulnerable to leg or body kicks. She uses large movements to get away, which walks her into kicks when she looks to circle out. This happened repeatedly against Gonzalez. This pressure also hindered Calvillo’s ability to attempt or set up takedowns. She was too busy trying to get away to really attempt any takedowns until later in the fight.
Another area of concern is the frequency with which Gonzalez took the Team Alpha Male fighter down. Gonzalez isn’t known as any sort of takedown machine, either. This is especially damning in light of the Botelho fight, where Gonzalez was unable to finish even one takedown. In a division full of athletic, aggressive and powerful wrestlers and grapplers like Jessica Andrade, Tatiana Suarez and Claudia Gadelha, this could be a very big problem for Calvillo. This was the second fight in a row where a lesser wrestler was able to take down Calvillo without much trouble.
Calvillo took another decisive win in her fight against Gonzalez, a more seasoned and fully developed martial artist than the aforementioned Cooper. Gonzalez had a clear size, strength and durability advantage. Gonzalez also had a better striking pedigree, similar to Cooper, but with a good enough grappling game to defend, attack and counter the things Calvillo likes to do.
This was a main-card performance on a high-profile show that further established Calvillo as a fighter to watch and a potential star. More importantly, it set her up for the dreaded step-up fight, the fight all prospects must take to get to the point where they are considered legitimate top-10 fighters and potential title challengers.
In part three of this series, we’ll look at that step-up fight and Calvillo’s next opponent, Joanne Calderwood.