Two years ago, when the UFC scooped up a host of strawweight talent and threw everyone together on 'The Ultimate Fighter 20,' Joanne Calderwood entered the house as one of the early favorites to win the inaugural UFC strawweight title. But it was never meant to be. Calderwood lost in the season's quarterfinals, then lost her undefeated record with a stunning 90-second setback against Maryna Moroz in her second fight under the UFC umbrella.
Calderwood rebounded to pick up a decision win over Cortney Casey in front of her hometown crowd in Glasgow at UFC Fight Night 72, but even that performance was shaky, and the popular Scottish fighter looked nothing like the killer who romped through the ranks of Invicta FC and amassed a cult following of fans. As it turns out, there was a reason for Calderwood's struggles. On Monday, fresh off a new start at Tristar Gym, the 29-year-old Calderwood opened up about the problems in her personal life that has led to a series of major changes in her fighting career.
"I think everyone knows I had been in a relationship with my head coach for like seven years," Calderwood said Monday on The MMA Hour. "We've been separated for a few years now, but at the same time we were still trying to work together. And then we weren't working together. Like, four weeks before my Scotland fight, there was completely going to be no working together, so that was hard for me to move on with my career because I've always had someone there telling me I should do this and do almost everything. So I just felt like I needed a new team around me.
"Everyone at Griphouse understood and everyone wants me to do well over here. I'm sure there was a few people who thought it was a bit sh*t and stuff, but at the end of the day, I've learned I have to do what's best for my career. It wasn't (good for me to be there) at that time, and even now it's not good. I need to be the best, and to be the best you need to have the best people around you."
A split with her longtime boyfriend and team was not the only recent hurdle Calderwood has been forced to overcome. Calderwood was expected to face Paige VanZant last December during the three-fights-in-three-nights extravaganza that preceded UFC 194. The opportunity was a massive one, considering that VanZant is one of the division's most popular stars, but once again luck was not on Calderwood's side. She ultimately withdrew from the contest after suffering a sprained MCL in training and was replaced by Rose Namajunas, who went on to hand VanZant the first loss of her UFC career.
"This was my first, kind of, major injury," Calderwood said. "All the things were going on, so this was kind of just like a cherry on the top. I've been going in a spiral, being off and then something happens and going down. I've managed to do this vicious circle. ... It's sh*t talking about it. I felt like I had let a lot of people down, not only myself, but my fans and everyone who was so excited about the fight. I was like, I've blown this amazing opportunity."
Six months after her injury, Calderwood now hopes her tough times are over. She is back healthy and slated to face Valerie Letourneau in a one-off flyweight bout on June 18 at UFC Fight Night 89. Not only that, but she has a new team as well. Calderwood recently spent several months training in Montreal at Tristar under the direction of head coach Firas Zahabi, and after bouncing around camps for much of the past few years, she is grateful to have landed somewhere that felt like a good fit.
"I just decided that I needed a more professional team around me," Calderwood said. "I wasn't really getting the MMA (training). I needed my jiu-jitsu more MMA-based, my wrestling more MMA-based, and I was just kind of looking to go to Canada because it's a place I want to go. I've been watching Firas' instructionals on YouTube, his YouTube channel, and I spoke to Joe Duffy at the Glasgow card and he said ‘why don't you come over and try it?' Obviously, Stevie Ray, one of my teammates, has been there and he [liked] it, so I was like, you know what, I've got nothing to lose. It just seemed like they had the dorms and stuff, so I was like, f*ck it, I'm going to go and see what happens."
Calderwood expects to return to Tristar within the next week to begin her training camp for Letourneau, and she spoke glowingly about her time in Montreal. Between friendly sparring sessions with Rory MacDonald to learning in classes led by legendary welterweight Georges St-Pierre, Calderwood said she knew right away that the gym was exactly what she was looking for to help her begin this new chapter of her fighting career.
"It was amazing," Calderwood said. "The first two days at Tristar, I felt like I was at home. Obviously I love training and I would train with anyone, but within two days I was like, yeah, I'm in the right place. I just felt like I settled in and anyone was really nice and I got on well with everyone. Firas, the head coach, I connected with him and knew that we would get on well in a working relationship."
For Calderwood, her dance date at UFC Fight Night 89 represents a fresh go in the UFC after the rocky start that she never could have predicted. She knows she has her hands full with Letourneau, who took UFC champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk to a decision last November, but she also knows that a victory would throw her right into the mix of title contention, and she is excited to show that the old "Dr. Kneevil" is still around and as dangerous as ever.
"The past two years since I came out of the TUF house, it's just been one thing after another," Calderwood said. "But now everything is good and I'm focusing on the future. I had a few counseling sessions and stuff, and I think that's done me well because I was always thinking about the past and I was always thinking about what people were saying, that kind of stuff. It really hurt me that I couldn't be part of the team anymore, and yeah, you know what it's like. Everyone's got their sh*t to deal with, but now I just want to concentrate on the future.
"Everything happens for a reason. It just took me longer than I wanted to, and I took obviously a loss in a stupid fight. My last fight, I was a bit kind of over-keen and extra maddy, as one of the guys says at the gym, so obviously you have to be smart in this game and I don't want to do that again. But everything happens for a reason. Everything is looking up now."