JoJo 2.0: The Rebirth of Joanne Calderwood
By Keith Turrell
Let’s go back to September 10th, 2016. Stipe Miocic and Alistair Overeem were preparing for their heavyweight championship headliner at UFC 203, while in the main card opener Joanne ‘JoJo’ Calderwood (then 11-2) was tapping out to a rising Jessica Andrade in a match that exposed Calderwood’s weakness in terms of grappling. The powerful Andrade had twice slammed her to the mat and taken a number of dominant positions before snatching up the neck and finishing the fight at the end of the first round with a guillotine choke.
It had been a turbulent couple of years for the first Scottish woman to turn pro in MMA. JoJo had left her original gym due to personal issues for what appeared to be a reinvigorating new start at the famous Tri-Star gym in Montreal. On the surface it looked like an immediate success, a TKO victory over Valerie Letourneau in the UFC’s first women’s flyweight bout, but this turned out to be less impressive than the scorecard would suggest. Letourneau clearly had a problem with her fight kit and this was a noticeable distraction, one which allowed Calderwood to swarm the Canadian and score the win.
Unfortunately for Calderwood two losses would follow and offer a more sober assessment of the situation. The submission defeat to Andrade and a close but ultimately clear decision loss to another surging prospect, Cynthia Calvillo, in July of 2017. It was at this point that Calderwood’s Canadian adventure ended and she once again set out in search of a new home. There are many pro fighters at various stages of their career training in Montreal under the tutelage of Tri-Star’s revered head coach Firas Zahabi and it can be tough for a fighter who is outside of that type of system because they can find themselves left out. Not receiving the individual support they need to rebuild their confidence and put a good run of form together. This is not a fault of the gym per se, but more an issue of a fighter being the right fit for that organisation at the right time in their career.
But that is from the outside looking in; JoJo herself had this to say about her time there:
“I kind of forced it too much, Kind of like when you’re in a relationship and you’re trying too hard. I really wanted to make it work there and I loved the guys there. I loved training with the guys but to be honest, when I did take a step back, something had to change there. Looking back, it was just not the gym for me.”
Fast-forward to August 25th 2018, Lincoln, Nebraska. Justin Gaethje and James Vick are preparing to throw down while in the third fight of the undercard JoJo is about to surprise everyone with the first submission victory of her career. After being taken down almost immediately by Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu specialist Kalindra Faria, things must have felt eerily familiar for fans of Calderwood.
However this was a different JoJo and there were new faces in her corner. Staying busy from her back with elbows and solid defense, frustrating Faria for the whole first round, she locked up a triangle with the clock winding down. With Faria struggling in the hold, JoJo isolated an arm and forced a tap from the resulting armbar with 3 seconds left to go, stunning the crowd who greeted the submission and subsequent outpouring of emotion from the cult icon with an eruption of cheers.
JoJo had recently moved to Syndicate MMA in Las Vegas, a gym which has a history of rejuvenating fighters who looked like they might be down and out. Led by head coach John Wood, Syndicate is the home of other female MMA veterans such as Sarah Kaufman and Roxanne Modafferi. Modafferi is a similar case, an underground fan favourite who has been around the sport for many years but could never quite hit the top-level.
However, through her development at Syndicate she was able to challenge for the UFC flyweight title in 2017 after finding new inspiration with Wood and flourishing under the camaraderie built between the athletes there. Many would argue that it’s the perfect environment for a fighter struggling to find their place.
Never one to claim all the credit, John handed the praise to JoJo when speaking to MMA Fighting after the Faria win:
“She wants to be a champion, she wants to be one of the top. If you’ve got that kind of mindset and you’re willing to work through it and prove things, you’re willing to make some changes and open to ideas, it makes it easy for all of us. She just needed a nudge in the right direction and now I think we’re there. She came out here with the right mentality and the right idea of wanting to make those changes. Maybe she hadn’t been in the best place before mentally, physically. Whatever. And as soon as she started to see the pieces to the puzzle and things turn around, I think she could see the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s tough having that much time off, for any fighter. Sitting on a couple of losses, it’s horrible.”
JoJo 2.0, a moniker she has given herself to signify the start of a new era, is a fighter with a new mentality, confidence and hunger to compete. It’s hard to think of a better camp for her, or a better training partner than Modafferi, someone who has been through similar experiences and is naturally warm, helpful and supportive to fellow athletes. Roxy doesn’t carry the nickname ‘The Happy Warrior’ for nothing, and her ground game heavy style means that she has a lot to offer Calderwood, and a lot to learn from her, in turn, about striking.
While it’s easy to say with hindsight, the two of them certainly appear to be the perfect fit, reflecting the long-held understanding that it can take experiencing struggle and difficult times to recognize when a new situation feels right for you.
As JoJo herself stated:
“I’m just happy that I found a place that I can call home and take my fighting to the next level. I think every fighter looks for that home and that gym that can take their career to the next level. I feel at ease and at peace here. I wasn’t in the best mindset in Montreal. I was homesick and I was focused on negative things. My mindset has changed and I am more positive. Everything is coming together and it’s the way I want it.”
If she can turn this positive approach into a strong run of form it’s not hard to imagine a title run inside the next two years. With a wide open flyweight division all chasing the recently crowned champ Valentina Shevchenko one or two impressive wins could put a number of fighters right in line for a shot, but an advantage JoJo has above others is fan support and a name behind her. This support is something well-earned over her career with her grinding performances and often strong finishes and was further demonstrated by the hero’s reception she received for her victory over Cortney Casey-Sanchez at UFC Glasgow back in July of 2015.
The first obstacle to this renewed ambition is a date with Ariane Lipski which will feature on the UFC’s ESPN debut, taking place in Brooklyn on January 19th. Lipski (11-3 in her pro career) is ominously known as ‘The Violence Queen’ and will be making her debut for the MMA leader after gaining popularity and showing strong performances in Polish MMA promotion KSW. Lipski will certainly provide a stern stand-up challenge for Calderwood and gives us a chance to see if her ground game improvements at Syndicate have been matched by a further sharpening of her already dangerous Muay Thai skills.
The highly anticipated scrap, which had been slated for UFC 233 but was moved to Brooklyn to strengthen the inaugural ESPN card, will give us a clearer picture of both fighters and where they stand as the recently formed flyweight division shakes out. The resurgent veteran facing the blazing prospect is a matchup as old as combat sports, and this iteration of it is not one to miss.