John Wood doesn’t necessarily want the credit. He made it a point to write as much on social media this week.
The Syndicate MMA head coach begrudgingly had to admit, though, that his abilities had to factor into Joanne Calderwood’s first-round submission win over Kalindra Faria at UFC Lincoln last Saturday, though.
Calderwood had been coming off two straight losses and was at a crossroads in her career. Her situation was not far off from where Roxanne Modafferi was when she came to Syndicate four years ago, following a stint on The Ultimate Fighter 20. Both were down and out, written off by many as essentially irrelevant in women’s MMA.
Fast forward to 2018 and the supposedly meek Modafferi just competed for a UFC title and is coming off a violent TKO win over former Invicta FC champion Barb Honchak. Calderwood, meanwhile, submitted an opponent with a triangle armbar off her back when her entire career she’s been known for her devastating Muay Thai and a soft ground game.
In other words, there’s something cooking in the Vegas desert. Whether Wood wants to fully embrace it or not.
“Roxy was a little more of an extreme case,” Wood told MMA Fighting. “Roxy hadn’t been to the UFC and she got to The Ultimate Fighter and failed. So it was a little more extreme on her end. For JoJo, I think this was definitely make or break in the UFC, as far as that goes. But they kind of had the same story. Jo is definitely an athlete. Realistically, it’s just kind of mindset with her, giving her the tools. As long as she’s in a good mindset, I think she can beat anyone in the world.
“The same thing with Roxy. Roxy is just one of those ones, she’s just a worker, man. Both of these girls, they just come and in and probably out of all of my fighters, the girls are really hardcore. Just dedicated to training. Thy grind every day. They’re hard on themselves. I have to tell them to let me the coach more than anything else, not let them nit pick and be hard on themselves.”
Calderwood, 31, was once a top strawweight prospect, much in the same way that Modafferi used to be one of the best in the world, long before women’s MMA was widely practiced. After a stint at Tristar Gym in Montreal, Calderwood decided to leave her home country of Scotland (Modafferi left her adopted home of Japan) for Las Vegas.
The facilities and technology at the free UFC Performance Institute was too tempting to pass up for Calderwood. She figured she would decide on the MMA training aspect one she got to Vegas. Calderwood ended up settling on Syndicate based on the recommendations of former training partners, Instagram conversations with Wood and the luxury of having female training partners in Modafferi and Jessica-Rose Clark.
Once Calderwood got into the building, Wood said, it didn’t take a whole lot to turn the switch on. The natural ability was already there, he said. This was still the same “Bad Mofo JoJo” who went 19-2 in kickboxing and violently finished the likes of Valerie Letourneau and Ashley Cummins.
“She wants to be a champion,” Wood said. “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.”
More than anything, Wood said he worked on the mental game of both Calderwood and Modafferi. Wood said he believes Modafferi was always told by coaches that she’ll never be a striker. She is now a pretty proficient one with an impressive, newly formed killer instinct. Calderwood, Wood said, was not confident in her grappling. That certainly appears to have changed, if the submission of Faria is any indication.
“One of my major things, I believe fighting has such a big mental part of it,” Wood said. “It doesn’t matter how talented you are, it doesn’t matter how strong, how athletic you are, if you don’t have the mindset, the mind for it, you’re not gonna go very far. Both those girls have amazingly tough minds and they’re very, very mentally strong. It was just about a matter of them discovering that.”
In an age of specialization and fighters having different coaches for every part of their life — from striking to grappling to nutrition to mental — Wood fancies himself as a jack of all trades, a Swiss army knife of sorts.
“The one thing I pride myself as is an MMA coach — top to bottom,” Wood said. “I’ve been doing jiu-jitsu for 20 years. I’ve been doing striking for over 20 years. I’ve been doing wrestling, all that stuff for 25 years almost. I started as an MMA guy, so I have an eye for picking out and fixing things. A lot of it is patience, too, with coaching.
“When people come to me, like Roxy or JoJo, they’re all super talented. They’re just missing a couple of little holes and little things. And I think that’s where my forte is, patching those up for them. I’ve always had a good, natural eye for that.”
Now, with both Calderwood and Modafferi thriving in the women’s flyweight division, Wood might have another problem on his hands: too many good 125-pounders. That list includes Clark. Wood said he could see either one of Calderwood and Modafferi winning the title relatively soon. That belt is currently held by Nicco Montaño, who defeated Modafferi in the inaugural championship fight last December.
“I think by the end of next year, Jo will be ranked within the top five, if not contending for a title,” Wood said. “I really like her skillset that I’ve seen and the drive and the ability she has. And she’s still getting better. There’s so much room to grow. There’s not gonna many girls that are gonna be able to compete with her. There’s a toughness thing that a lot of people don’t have. So when we keep just adding tools, adding the mental toughness and the belief, I definitely see her contending for a title in the near future.”
Certainly there is something clicking at Syndicate MMA. Calderwood is the latest example of Wood’s ability to find whatever those missing pieces might be in talented fighters. Don’t expect him to shout that from the mountaintops, though.
“I’ve kind of gotten into this thing where I’m resurrecting careers, I guess,” Wood said. “Or whatever.”