By Alistair Hendrie
I was dreading flying to Krakow, Poland by myself. I’d only ever flown with friends and family before, so I had no idea where to go or what to do once I arrived at the airport – I’d always just copied what everyone else did. I’d always been slow to pick up new skills so I was worried I’d go to the wrong gate or forget something. Even when I was a child, I was late to begin walking and talking and had a memory like a sieve.
Once I’d landed in Poland, I thought the John Paul II Krakow-Balice International Airport looked a bit like a shed, which didn’t put my mind at rest. Thankfully the driver who took me to my hotel spoke fluent English and was friendly enough. We bonded by chatting about football, although for some reason, neither of us could remember the name of Poland’s most famous player. Black hair. Deadly finisher. Scored thirty a season. I couldn’t think of his name to save my life. We got to the hotel and it came to us – Robert Lewandowski! Only one of the finest strikers on the planet, then.
It was April 2015 and I’d travelled the 1,030 miles from Heathrow to report on UFC Fight Night 64. There was a lot of interest in the heavyweight main event between Gabriel Gonzaga and Mirko Cro Cop. Gonzaga had won their previous meeting in 2007 with a head kick heard all over the globe. However, I was more concerned about chatting with the second British female to enter the UFC, Glasgow’s Joanne Calderwood, who would go up against Maryna Moroz on the night.
Born on December 23, 1986, Calderwood worked as a nurse before focusing on a muay Thai journey that yielded British, European and World titles. Her dynamic fists and feet would make a natural MMA striker, and she turned pro in 2012 before appearing for Invicta, Cage Warriors and, ultimately, the UFC.
She did her talking in the cage and rarely spoke to the media. One of her mottos was: “You don’t have to be loud to be heard,” and when she competed on season 20 of the UFC’s reality series, The Ultimate Fighter, she barely appeared on camera unless she was fighting. I spent a year trying to arrange an interview with her with no luck. She was the most talented, exciting female in Britain at the time, and I wanted to learn what made her tick. I’d get my chance soon enough.
Guy Ramsay was one of the most pivotal members of the Scottish fight community, having earned Scottish and World muay Thai titles after practising martial arts for almost 30 years. He had a passion for fighting, and it was he and his partners who developed The Griphouse in Glasgow into the breeding ground for Scotland’s first and finest mixed martial artists. Graduates from the gym include blossoming lightweight Stevie Ray, renowned featherweight Robert Whiteford, and, of course, the one-of-a-kind Calderwood.
So, how significant was Calderwood’s arrival in the UFC? “Oh it’s huge, absolutely huge,” said Ramsay, gushing with pride. “Not just for women’s MMA but for Scottish MMA. A lot of Scottish mentality is quite negative and cynical, so to see her come from not a very advantageous background, move to a rough area in Glasgow and get to the UFC, there’s no secret to it… It’s just hard work. Scottish people can reach the UFC – it’s not a pipedream, it’s a reality. It’s doable and you can realise the dream.”
Talk to Ramsay for any amount of time and you couldn’t help but feel as if life was smiling down on you. He was a sunny-side-up personality, and although we only spoke once, I admired him for how he had a vision of where he wanted to take the sport and never gave up.
“When I was in my early 20s I was training in traditional kickboxing and karate,” said Ramsay, “but then I saw this little Royce Gracie guy and I was like: “Who the hell’s this guy? What’s he got going on?” The early UFC events showcased Gracie submitting far bigger men by using technique over force. The little Brazilian and his family changed martial arts forever, and Ramsay was captivated. He took it upon himself to round up Scotland’s most talented competitors and try to make a go of it.
“I opened the gym with (featherweight) Paul McVeigh because I was stunned some of these guys were still working in regular jobs. I was like: “Paul’s the most talented fighter in the country – what the hell’s he doing working in a coffee shop?” It was the same with (bantamweight) James Doolan – he was stacking shelves in Tesco. I was like: “This is fucking insane, let’s start a gym and see if we can make a living doing this shit”.”
He put it in unusual terms, but eventually Ramsay and his charges in Glasgow were able to make careers for themselves. Ray became one of the most dangerous lightweights in the UFC, while Whiteford, a hard-hitting featherweight, went 3-2 with the UFC. Elsewhere McVeigh won the Cage Warriors bantamweight title and Doolan, another bantamweight, racked up a record of 17-9. However, The Griphouse’s most renowned female product was Calderwood – who later relocated to Tristar MMA in Montreal, Canada.
“It’s quite strange because Jo actually fought two of our girls in muay Thai before she joined our gym around 2006,” said Ramsay. “Even though she beat both girls, I think she saw something in what we were doing as a group or a team. She saw we were trying to develop our fighters, and that’s why she decided to jump ship.”
Still, was it strange for Ramsay to welcome a former opponent into the gym? “It was quite hard for us to corner against her and then take her on board,” he admitted. “But when we started to apply our work to her over the first couple of years, she enjoyed a crazy ascendancy into top level muay Thai. She peaked at 23-0, and it wasn’t as if she was fighting nobodies - she was fighting real, top-quality opposition. She beat Karla Benitez from Spain, a top level muay Thai girl.”
Gina Carano and Joanna Jedrzejczyk stood out in muay Thai before switching to MMA, and Calderwood was no different. “That style Joanne came from is very light and bouncy, and whether it’s kicks, punches or knees, she can bang for days. She’s always got the potential to stop her opponents without a doubt. When she first joined us, like most people back then, her style was a bit all over the place but she’s always had that attitude of wanting to get better – that’s probably the most important part of her mind-set.”
Although Calderwood took to striking like a duck to water, modern MMA is a wide-reaching beast. Both male and female fighters must learn how to strike, grapple on the ground and wrestle against the fence. I’d heard Rosi Sexton and Danielle West talk about how they struggled with exchanging punches, but of course that was where Calderwood excelled. In that case, how did Calderwood unlock grappling techniques?
“She was a stand-up person initially, but as soon as she started to learn basic defence and offence in Brazilian jiu-jitsu she was going to grappling competitions. She travelled the length and breadth of the country with the rest of our Brazilian jiu-jitsu squad, going to both gi and no-gi tournaments. She’s constantly trying to test what she’s got.”
Read more about the professional and personal lives of Britain's finest female MMA combatants with Alistair Hendrie's Kindle book, Fight Game: The Untold Story of Women's MMA in Britain
Calderwood made her MMA debut in February 2012 at On Top 4 in Glasgow. She took out Noelia Molina by knockout – what else? – in round one. She had the advantage of entering MMA in the YouTube age, so she had already built a following before joining up with the UFC. However, finding competitive match-ups for her, Ramsay admits, was a challenge.
“The girls weren’t there – that was it. She was already at such a high level that there wasn’t a Scottish or English fighter out there for her – it was constantly foreign opposition like we’d brought in for her in muay Thai. At the time On Top were friends of ours so they were prepared to say: “It’s going to cost us but we’ll bring someone over for Jo to fight.” If it wasn’t for guys like them and Cage Warriors taking the risks, we wouldn’t be where we are today.”
Ramsay also mentioned The Griphouse’s wider coaching staff when charting Calderwood’s growth: “When Doolan and McVeigh went across to Thailand they came back with some really cool striking techniques. Joanne was a part of that coaching process and after a while, Doolan took over a lot of her coaching. It’s the people you’re surrounded by that make you a better fighter. You can take in all the information but if you don’t have a team to try it against, or you don’t have anyone to give you that environment, that’s very much a key structure that makes that happen.”
Indeed, MMA training had moved on from when West struggled to gain respect at Stratford Judo Club. And when you see how much Calderwood developed at The Griphouse, it’s incredible to think that Kelli Salone travelled to California to learn boxing from an old man clutching a bottle of whiskey. Today, MMA stands in the mainstream and, of course, Scotland has provided plenty of success for British fans.
“A while ago we were talking about all these crazy things that young girls and boys want,” said Ramsay. “The thing that struck me about Calderwood is that she said: “All my friends had a My Little Pony and that kind of shit, whereas I had a pull-up bar in my room.” This is someone who from day one wanted to fight. She’s got the mental potential to be an incredible fighter. You don’t get to tick all the boxes as a fighter – if you’re lucky, you can be successful as a seven out of ten. But there’s a few fighters who are an eight, nine or ten out of ten. Joanne is one of those.”
One of my favourite things to do when writing this book was finding out more about the newer fighters on the scene. I loved discovering hot prospects from Britain and expanding my knowledge of the world of women’s MMA. YouTube was my friend at the time, and it was there that I came across Calderwood’s three round beatdown over the Austrian, Livia von Plettenberg, at Invicta 4 in 2013.
Although her rival took the bout on ten days’ notice, I was stunned by the range of strikes Calderwood was able to land. Jedrzejczyk was the more powerful and gifted fighter, but Calderwood threw different types of strikes and looked at muay Thai as if it was an art. Her style of combat reminded me of Jon Jones, only she was female, a foot shorter and Scottish.
A Calderwood kick snapped von Plettenberg’s head back in round one and the Irvine-born fighter scored knees and fluid one-twos in round two. Again, the third was all Calderwood as she marched forward, dipping into her endless vocabulary of strikes. Credit to von Plettenberg, who never gave up, but nobody could doubt the scores of 30-26 (twice) and 30-27 in favour of Calderwood.
I shut my laptop, processing what I’d just seen. I was stunned. I tried to keep in mind that von Plettenberg was a late replacement, but I was sucked in by Calderwood’s level of timing, speed and accuracy in the stand-up department. West and Sexton began very much as grapplers, but Calderwood – along with Kate Jackson - was the first British female to enter MMA with such esteemed striking credentials.
I was determined to interview Calderwood. We messaged each other for a few weeks on social media, and I fell into the familiar routine of daydreaming at my office, wondering whether or not this fighter or that fighter would have replied to me by the time I’d checked my mobile during my break. After a while, her replies became the same – “Yeah, we’ll speak soon.” “I can speak to you in a bit.” She was always friendly but whenever I pushed to arrange an interview, she’d turn to silence. I felt like giving up after a while.
By 2014, Calderwood was 8-0 and had made her way to the UFC by way of series 20 of The Ultimate Fighter. The show followed Calderwood and 15 other strawweights as they moved in together and took part in a tournament to decide the UFC’s first women’s strawweight champion. Adding to the mix, lightweight king Anthony Pettis and challenger Gilbert Melendez would coach the women in opposing corners, with Calderwood on Pettis’s team.
Emotions ran high in the house as Team Melendez began to fall apart, with Bec Rawlings and Angela Magana striking up a feud with their team-mate, Heather Jo Clark. Calderwood, ever the introvert, avoided the playground bullying and reached the semi-finals where she was submitted by Milwaukee’s Rose Namajunas.
In the end, Carla Esparza won the belt against Namajunas, but the show’s finale was more memorable for Calderwood’s decision over South Korea’s Seo Hee Ham. In something I’d never seen before in a women’s fight, Calderwood landed a push kick to the face, pinging Ham’s head back and drawing gasps from the Las Vegas crowd. Indeed, for an MMA athlete to even think of throwing a push kick to the face – let alone land one – was almost unheard of. More importantly, Calderwood was still undefeated, Esparza was then brutalised by Jedrzejczyk, and a Polish-Scottish clash was on the cards if Calderwood beat Moroz.
Once I’d left the taxi driver who forgot Lewandowski’s name, I checked in to our Krakow hotel and met my MMA Plus colleague for the week, Jorden Curran, an excellent broadcast journalist who harboured a love for the comedian Peter Kay. Jorden was hilarious company throughout the trip, although he did keep me awake every night because of his relentless quoting of Kay.
It seemed my journalistic career was heading on the same upward trajectory as Calderwood’s fighting career. I’d met Roberto Reid, the owner of MMA Plus, at a BAMMA Fight Night card in Liverpool and we hit it off immediately. He was passionate about mixed martial arts and kickboxing. I was flattered when he said he enjoyed my work and wanted me on board as a reporter. Soon enough, I’d agreed to cover UFC Fight Night: Krakow for his website. Finally, my first UFC event as press. This was all I ever wanted from my career and to make the journey even more worthwhile, Calderwood’s bout with Moroz was announced. Game on.
On the Wednesday afternoon, we attended the fighters’ media scrums at the Tauron Arena. A huge, circular block sitting by the Vistula River, the arena commanded respect and stood out for miles. Once we walked upstairs to the press suite, I looked out of the window towards the interior bowl. I saw the empty UFC Octagon beneath me. “I’ve made it,” I thought, and so had Calderwood.
By the time I’d got round to speaking to Joanne I’d already interviewed Ray, so I’d got rid of the on-camera interview jitters. At first, I couldn’t believe how tiny Calderwood looked hunched up in a black hoody with a black trucker cup obscuring her eyes. She’s billed at 5 foot 7, but I reckon she’s a lot smaller. Or maybe it was just because she was sitting between two man mountains in Gonzaga and Jimi Manuwa.
Despite her reserved appearance, Calderwood was friendly and wore a smile throughout our interview. “I know what everybody else knows about Moroz,” she said. “She’s got good submissions, she’s got four armbars in the first round and she’s going to be dangerous going into her UFC debut. She’s going to want to make a statement, but I’m looking forward to Saturday.”
I’d heard that last phrase so many times in the last hour as the fighters – champing at the bit to make weight – trotted out well-worn clichés. Don’t get me wrong, the access journalists get during a UFC fight week is excellent, but I’d become used to hearing the same platitudes over and over again. However, I’d come all this way, so I was keen to dig into Calderwood’s background and secure more material for my book.
“I got to a point in my muay Thai career where I couldn’t keep working full-time as a nurse and training on top of that,” she told me. “It was so hard. But Guy (Ramsay) gave me a job at the gym so I could fight full-time, and I haven’t looked back since. Quitting my nursing job meant taking a pay cut, but that didn’t bother me – as long as I made enough money to take my career to the next level that was fine by me. The next step was convincing my mum. At first she was like: “Whoa, what are you doing?” But now she supports my career one hundred and ten per cent.”
I’d heard the same story from Kate Jackson, whose parents didn’t want her to take up fighting as a career. I thought this would be the time to dive into the controversy of singling out women from men in MMA. After all, every woman I spoke for this book revealed their battle for acceptance.
So, did Calderwood want to act as a female role model, and did she want to attract more young girls to MMA? She raised her eyebrows. “Not just girls,” she shot back with a wry smile. “I’d like to get more people into MMA, but it doesn’t have to be just girls. But it’s important to me that the scene in Scotland grows and it would be a dream come true to be a part of that.”
Ten minutes later I’d finished my first interview with “JoJo” and we shook hands. I wished her good luck for Saturday and told her I was writing a book on women’s MMA in Britain. I didn’t want her to think that I viewed women’s MMA as some kind of novelty. Calderwood laughed and apologised for rolling her eyes at my questions.
The Glasgow 115lb-er would be in no mood for laughs on Saturday when taking on Moroz though. The reigning champion, Jedrzejczyk, would be watching at cageside and Moroz brought a strong jiu-jitsu game, excellent armbars and a knack of finding success from the bottom. Whichever you looked at it, it was a classic striker versus grappler conundrum - the muay Thai weaponry of Calderwood against the maze of submissions from Moroz.
Eventually, Calderwood’s title dreams would come crashing beneath her by way of another Moroz armbar in round one. Watching from press row, the action flashed before me in what felt like the blink of any eye. Joanne started tentatively, playing chess with the jab. Nothing out of the ordinary then. But suddenly, a volley of hooks from Moroz backed her up to the fence. Quickly.
Calderwood got tied up in the clinch and, with the speed of a cat, Moroz pulled guard and hurled herself to the mat, causing a thud which travelled to my desk a couple of feet away. With Moroz on her back, Calderwood tried to wrench herself up. No use. The armbar was clamped on. With only ninety seconds gone, Calderwood tapped. It was a devastating defeat. I was beginning to wonder if I’d ever see a British woman win live.
While Moroz celebrated by shouting across the floor at Jedrzejczyk, Calderwood missed the post-fight presser and the media started an inquest. Here was one of the best strikers in the strawweight division, a semi-finalist on The Ultimate Fighter, losing to a UFC debutant.
Why didn’t Calderwood pull the trigger from the off? Was she mentally prepared? Had her visit to Allstars MMA in Sweden done her more harm than good? As I boarded the plane back to Heathrow the next morning, I struggled to process the questions over Calderwood’s career in my mind. I was hooked on MMA and it was beginning to take over my life. It wasn’t long before I reported on another UFC event.
Sometimes I felt like my forgetfulness was a jinx, so you could imagine my annoyance when I arrived at Glasgow airport in June 2015 without my debit card. I was looking forward to covering Scotland’s first ever UFC event, headlined by Michael Bisping against Thales Leites, so leaving my card at Heathrow was far from the best start to the trip. I rang my MMA Plus colleague, Andreas Georgiou, who agreed to let me transfer him some cash and withdraw it from his card. What a relief. After all, what are friends for? That hiccup aside, it was time to cover another show and await Calderwood’s crunch match with the late replacement, Cortney Casey-Sanchez.
It was the first time “JoJo” had fought in her home country since April 2013 and she was hot property with the local press. At Wednesday’s media day the queue to interview her snaked to the back of the room. She told me she was “gutted” that her original opponent and rival from The Ultimate Fighter, Bec Rawlings, had pulled out of the bout injured.
“Bec’s not a nice person and she didn’t come across well on the show,” she said. “Everyone who watched it saw that. At first when she pulled out I was gutted. I was like: “What?” Everyone was looking forward to the fight. But I’m done worrying about it and I’m kind of thinking: “Fuck it, as long as I’m on the card that’s the main thing.” I actually wouldn’t mind fighting any of her TUF team-mates. I’d like to punch all of them.”
Not only did Calderwood have the local crowd putting their dreams in her hands, she was now the number one British female. It was new territory for her with Sexton and West retired and Jackson still fighting with Cage Warriors. I thought about the pressure she must have been feeling, especially for someone who shied away from the spotlight.
Then there was the danger of Casey-Sanchez stepping in at the last minute. “I think she’ll be more dangerous than Bec and I’m actually looking forward to it,” countered Calderwood. An excellent amateur, Casey-Sanchez developed with the Tuff-N-Uff promotion before winning grappling tournaments against the likes of Esparza. “From everything I’ve seen she’s a good fighter and I’m looking forward to Saturday. I see it being a pretty fast-paced fight but we’ll have to wait and see what happens. I’m sure it will be a good fight.”
If Calderwood was relaxed, Casey-Sanchez was so cool she was almost horizontal. Dressed in a pink fleece and ripped blue jeans, she laughed and joked with journalists who, with all due respect, had probably never heard of her until the UFC had signed her two weeks earlier. Andreas and I walked over her, with me on camera duties.
“Do you want to sit down, just to get into the shot more?” I asked her. “No,” she smiled back. “I’m good.” “Fair enough, but you’re almost nose to nose with Andreas,” I thought. Ever the professional, Andreas carried out the interview standing close enough to lock lips with the UFC’s latest recruit. You could cut the awkwardness with a knife, yet Casey-Sanchez refused to step backwards.
“When the UFC comes you have to take it,” she said, gazing deeply into Andreas’s retinas. “These kinds of moments don’t come often so you have to take them. At first I thought it was short notice, but I was like, hey, it’s the UFC, so here I am.” We finished the interview and as soon as we were a safe distance away, Andreas and I exchanged looks of horror. “Was that weird for you then?” I asked him. Andreas nodded: “Very.”
By now, I felt at home reporting on live UFC events, and I was pleased to catch up with the friends I’d made on previous press trips. Once I’d taken my seat on press row at the SSE Hydro, the atmosphere was red hot as Whiteford and Ray both grabbed wins. What would else would make it a perfect night for the Glaswegians? A Calderwood win.
As Grant Waterman, the referee, stood between the fighters Casey-Sanchez hopped up and down in her corner directly in front of me. I loved the intimacy of being cageside. You could see every punch land. You could hear the fighters gasp for air. You could almost feel every leg kick as if it were slapping against your own shin. There really is nothing quite like it.
Calderwood got off to the worst possible start as Casey-Sanchez pulled guard and came very close to sealing an armbar. “For fuck sake,” I thought, “not again”. Still, the home favourite pulled off a series of scrambles and the pair ended up exchanging hammer fists in a 50/50 position. It became a chess match on the ground as the Scottish fans belted out: “Let’s go Jo Jo!”
However, Calderwood gained control of the contest in the middle round with a series of lovely, measured muay Thai rallies. As she began to land strikes at will, the Glasgow crowd almost took the roof off. The SSE Hydro holds 13,000 but because its walls are so tall, the audience sits on top of the cage, adding to the frenzied atmosphere. I’d covered shows in Glasgow and Dublin – not a Conor McGregor fight – and I have to say although both crowds were electric, on this night Glasgow produced levels of decibels I don’t think I’ll hear again.
By round three, Calderwood looked as if she could have run through walls for her home nation. Jabs, leg kicks, spinning back kicks, Calderwood threw everything and looked a class above. She ended up on top and despite a flurry of hammer fists, Casey-Sanchez hung in there. Calderwood came through with scores of 30-27 (twice) and 29-28 and her nation loved her for it.
The press conference felt surreal. Bisping was the biggest name in British MMA, and although he’d just outscored Lietes, it was the three Scots – Calderwood, Ray and Whiteford – who everyone wanted to speak to. It’s worth mentioning that they all spoke with the kind of humility and passion that Ramsay radiated. Whiteford called the night a dream and expressed his pride at what he and his colleagues had done for Scottish MMA. As I watched Rob and Ray pose for photos standing either side of the UFC’s most successful British female, I couldn’t help thinking Ramsay would be proud too.
With its intimate take on the growth of the scene, landmark moments and the personalities within the sport, FIGHT GAME is an inspiring tale of dedication, sacrifice and, ultimately, acceptance.