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Joanne Calderwood, The Soft Spoken Assassin



One my favorite things from Scotland is their whiskey. There is something about a Scotch neat with a fire on a cold night to warm you up from the inside. One of my favorite fighters is also from Scotland, Joanne Calderwood. She is one of the better and more creative strikers in MMA today with several highlight reel KO wins in her young career. As the number two seeded fighter on TUF 20 this season she is many fans favorite to win the whole thing. In the second episode of the season, the soft speaking Calderwood took care of business and got the important first win against Emily Kagan.

This could have been the second upset of the season as Kagan is the type of fighter who is difficult to beat. She is tough, fights with a lot of heart and is well-trained coming out of the Jackson/Winklejohn camp. Her teammate, Norma Rueda Center, had fought Calderwood at Invicta FC 6 with Calderwood taking a UD. Kagan knew just how daunting of a task she was facing in the dangerous Calderwood and she fought a cerebral defensive fight.

Back to Calderwood and Scotch Whiskey

Scotch is a good way to describe Calderwood and her fighting style. When you say Scotch whiskey there is a large range of flavor profiles and types of Scotch. From the smoother blends to distinctness of the a single malt it encompasses a large range of tastes.  Just as there are many sides to Scotch Whiskey – the same can be said about Calderwood.

There is the sly, and sometimes shy sense of humor from her that reminds me of a Johnny Walker Blue. A Scotch so smooth, subtle, nuanced and easy to drink. There is the little, “bake you a carrot cake after I beat you up,” comments that reveal her sense of humor. There was also a little bit of the “Blades of Glory” exchange with Urijah Faber. Her eyes in these moments are playful, almost impishly elf like.

Then there is the other Calderwood. The one that steps into the cage, and this one is much different. This version of Calderwood is more like a Laphroaig single malt from the Islay region that is known for its smokey and peaty flavors. It is much rougher and packs a punch like the strikes that she used to destroy Sally Krumdiack at Cage Warrior Fighting Championship 53. It was a brutal display by Calderwood.

There is the violent knee to the body KO that left Ashley Cummins crumpled over in excruciating pain. One that came as Calderwood was coming in. Cummins was concerned about Calderwood’s hands and did not see the knee coming. Much like a Springbank single malt. It is something special and sophisticated as was that knee. It was a perfect moment of the fighter seeing the opportunity unfolding and seizing it. A sip of Springbank is like that, it is something surprising and special. It is the only single malt that has refused to cut corners to meet an increasing demand. They have stayed true to the original and that is something rare and special. Watching Calderwood work at her best is also something rare and special. The knee against Cummins is one of those moments.

It is those kind of moments, the highlight reel stoppages along with her perfect 8-0 record that have made her a big fan favorite coming into this season of TUF. It has also garnered the notoriously shy Calderwood a reputation with the fans and her opponents. The fans all want to see the next big knockout from her while her opponents want to make sure they are not on her next highlight reel. The result is Calderwood is often facing a very cautious opponent in her fights. This opening fight with Kagan was a perfect example of that.

Winning or surviving

You could almost call Kagan’s approach against Calderwood a smart one. It was clear that she did not want to get caught in mid-range and out exchanges. The other danger to guard against was Calderwood’s strikes as she attacks coming in. It was a knee as she closed the distance against Cummins that ended that fight. Calderwood had Cummins ducking down from a hook and she was wide open for the knee. Kagan seemed to make sure she was not going to end up being another highlight reel victim. The reason why you cannot really call her approach smart is that it did not provide a way for her to win just a way to survive.

The first round was one of little action. Kagan was looking to counterstrike and find a way inside. Calderwood spent most of her time in the center of the cage stalking Kagan, searching for an opening. There seemed to be little interest in Kagan to engage too much as she was more concerned with not getting caught with a big strike. This forced Calderwood to pick away at Kagan landing several solid low kicks to the legs and caught her several times in the head with some clean strikes. It would have been easy for Calderwood to get frustrated but she instead stayed patient.

It looked like the second round was going to be a rinse and repeat of the first. After about a minute and a half though Kagan almost got a takedown. They went to the ground but neither fighter could get control and they were back up to their feet. From there it was Calderwood who got the semi-slam takedown.

On the ground Calderwood did some damage while Kagan tried to escape. Calderwood went for a kimura and Kagan was able to defend it and get Calderwood up off of the ground and stood up. She got a decent slam takedown but it did not jar Calderwood and she was able to get legs around Kagan’s head. It was not quite a triangle choke but it kept her trapped there for the rest fight.

It was a strange position where Kagan’s body was on top but her head trapped on the bottom. She did little to no damage from the position and while she was on top technically, it did not mean that she winning the fight. Calderwood had won the fight in most areas up to that point.

It is hard to see how Kagan won the first round or the first part of the second round. Calderwood was the aggressor in the fight pushing the action and controlling the octagon. When it came to the striking Calderwood was the most effective both on the ground and in the standup. The grappling was the closest with again the edge going to Calderwood.

All three of Calderwood’s last three opponents; Kagan, Katja Kankaanpaa and Center tried to make the fight ugly and get it to the ground. What they found out was Calderwood has a good ground game and it continues to get better. Of the three only Kankaanpaa clearly won a round and battled the best in the two she lost to Calderwood. That was a title eliminator to see who would challenge Esparza for the belt. Then the UFC stepped in and everything changed. Kankaanpaa recently defeated Stephanie Eggink in a FOTN to become the new Invicta champion. Kankaanpaa also holds a win over the fifth seeded Aisling Daly.

The Complete Package

It is easy to see Calderwood winning the season and becoming the first UFC strawweight champion. Many fans would love to see her and Esparza square off in the finals. It would harken back to the early days of the sport with a classic grappler versus striker battle but with a new school twist. They both are evolving fighters that are getting better in the other fighters areas.

Now, Esparza is probably not going to win a striking war with Calderwood while a pure grappling battle favors the wrestler. It will come down to which one can do enough in the other area to control the fight and keep it in their world. Esparza has not faced a striker like Calderwood, while she has not faced a wrestler like Esparza.

Calderwood has worked to improve her grappling and it shows in her recent fights against grapplers like Center and Kankaanpaa. As Calderwood continues to improve in that area it makes her even more formidable as an opponent. When you look at ways to attack Calderwood she does not leave a lot open.

As one of the taller and longer fighters in the weight class she does an excellent job of utilizing those advantages in her fights. Along with a good jab she uses various front and push kicks to punish her opponents from distance and making it dangerous for them to come in on her. If you are going to shoot in it has to be timed perfectly or run the risk of her knees.

There is a lot standing between Calderwood winning the title and she is equipped to handle them. It is the little intangibles that make her a complete threat to win it all. The show, the house and winning three fights in six weeks have combined to derail many fighters. Calderwood has the right makeup to get through the minefield that is TUF.

TUF, the house, the right mindset and the belt

The show brings its own unique pressures and for some fighters it gets to them. Many fighters have stumbled on TUF and gone on to have great careers. The two round format changes the fight and how you approach it for many fighters. They changer their style to either be more aggressive or conservative and lose the fight. This season the winner is the new champion and that is a different kind of pressure.

The show also takes a fighter out of their routine. There is no crowd and the atmosphere is different that a normal fight. For some fighters this does not matter but for those that thrive on the crowd’s energy or are very routine oriented it can affect their performance. For others not having their own coaches in their corner is enough to bring about an upset.

The more a fighter relies on a game plan the tougher the show can be for them. Even this season where they know who they are fighting they still do not have enough time to really game plan and then work on it for weeks in practice. The quicker a fighter picks things up the better they will often do on the show.

Another asset for Calderwood is that she does not like to game plan as she told us during the episode. Instead she looks to see what it is in front of her and deal with the moment in the moment. It is something that you can do when you have a strong well-rounded base and are extremely quick like Calderwood. It also allows her to see an opening as it is unfolding and land the strike.

On a show where every fight is a short notice fight the one that can adapt the quickest in the fights and get the others timing down will often win the season. Calderwood has shown an excellent sense of timing in her past fights. She is also dangerous because she can fight effectively at all ranges. The mid and outside are her best. From there she will land her power strikes via kicks or punches. On the onside she has a strong clinch using her elbows and knees well. The best one of those was her knee against Cummins.

It is because of finishes like the one against Cummins the fans expect it every time they fight. For some fighters they will alter their fighting styles to satisfy the fans desire for the big KO. This can result in losing fights they should win. Calderwood consistently fights smart and patient. This does not mean she avoids action just the opposite she is always willing to trade strikes. Her problem is finding other fighters willing to engage her in exchanges. There should be several opponents ahead for her that will give her better fights than this one.

One area she has no interest in engaging in a fight with her opponents is in the drama department. Calderwood has no interest in a lot of the outside drama and distractions. Some fighters on the show are thrown off by living in the house with their opponents or letting their personal feelings get in the way. Not Calderwood, who is focused on winning the title. With her sly sense of humor and soft-spoken nature combined with her KO ability, she is poised to become the next big UFC star.

 image credit – Sandee Boxing



An avid lifetime fight fan who loves to write about it. So kick back, get comfortable and let's have some fun! "Wants me to tell him something pretty." Al Sweargen "Going wrong is not the end of fucking things, Johnny. Fuck no! I have comeback from plenty of shit that looked like it was going wrong." Dan Dority "Deserve's got nothin' to do with it." Bill Munny