Interview: Joanne ‘Jojo’ Calderwood, MMA fighter

Fearless in the ring with an unblemished record, Joanne ‘Jojo’ Calderwood is Scotland’s Ultimate Fighter. By Claire Black

MMA fighter Joanne Calderwood. Picture: Getty

Jojo Calderwood has the softest speaking voice. More than that, she sounds young, very young. Not like a woman who is 28, never mind someone who happens to be a Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighter with a fearsome reputation. Ranked six in the world in the strawweight division of her sport, with her half shaved head and a tattoo that covers the whole of her right shoulder, Calderwood looks fierce. She is lean and strong, as fit as a flea and utterly determined; her trademark approach in the ring is relentless attack. She has a professional record of nine wins and no defeats. In the ring, only a fool would underestimate her. Out of it, it just so happens that she is as sweet as pie.

Calderwood is not an easy woman to track down. Originally from Kilmarnock, she is still based in the west. She trains in the Griphouse Gym in Glasgow. “I’m in the gym 24/7,” she says by way of an explanation as to why it’s been so hard to get hold of her. It’s true, too. Calderwood’s training regime is gruelling. But she also travels a lot – her fights are usually in the States, where MMA is massively popular. She even had a recent bout in India. We’re speaking over the phone because she’s in Sweden preparing for a fight in Poland next week, the first Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) bout in Europe. These intensive preparation periods are called “fight camps” – they ramp up her already hardcore training regime and ensure that she’s at the optimum weight for the competition.

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“I’ve had a good camp up until now,” she says, explaining that with just another couple of weeks to go, she’s now starting to cut weight. “That makes things a little bit harder but everything is where I want it to be.” Calderwood and her team change both the kinds of exercise and the routine she follows during preparations for fights. The aim is always to make it more of a challenge, to push her harder. “You can’t do the same stuff all the time because your body gets used to it,” she says. “I try to make every camp harder than the last. They’re always hard but I want to push myself. I want to get better as a fighter.”

Joanne Calderwood enters the Octagon before facing Seohee Ham in their strawweight fight in Las Vegas. Picture: Getty

The softness of the voice might jar with the clarity of the sentiment but make no mistake, Calderwood is a serious athlete. She went to her first Thai boxing class to keep her brother company when she was 13. By the time she was 16, she was specialising in Muay Thai, going on to win 18 out of 20 professional fights and bagging the British and European titles. 
She then made the move into the hi-octane world of MMA.

Emerging from the controversial sport of cagefighting, MMA has a huge following. It’s shown in 36 countries and attracts big-name sponsors. Combining techniques from boxing, wrestling, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, judo and Muay Thai among others, the sport is intense and can be brutal. But bouts are also controlled under a plethora of rules. Prohibited activities include: hair pulling, biting, spitting, eye gouging, fish hooking, groin attacks of any kind, small joint manipulation, striking downwards using the elbow, kicking to the kidney with the heel, holding the fence, holding the opponent’s shorts or gloves, using abusive language and putting fingers into orifices. It’s a contact sport, though, a gladiatorial battle which usually ends in a knockout.

I ask Calderwood to describe her training but she says that she wouldn’t really know how to. “I’m training for MMA so it’s hard to tell you everything I’m doing,” she says. “There are so many different disciplines I’m working on, as well as keeping fit and strong.” So what might an average day include? She might start with some wrestling and then hit some pads. Then she will head back to her base, eat some food and take a nap to recharge. She is eating a “clean” diet at the moment – high protein meat (chicken or fish) and salad. “Nothing exciting,” she says. Then it’s back to the gym in the evening for more pads before she finishes off with some cardio. I feel knackered just thinking about it, but she sounds a little sheepish. “I can understand why people might think it’s a bit repetitive,” she says. “But I’m only in a fight camp for six to eight weeks, the rest of the time, I’m in the gym but I’m having fun and I’m learning.” She pauses and it feels like she’s almost embarrassed by how much she enjoys what to the rest of us sounds like a punishing regime. “I’m not going to lie, a fight camp is a real grind. You have to push yourself. You wake up sore. So you need to push yourself to get out of bed and get on with the day. But it’s all worth it in the end. This is what I do for a living and it’s what I love.”

Calderwood’s profile is growing in Scotland, but she’s still not as well known as plenty of other athletes who don’t enjoy her elevated position in the world rankings of their sport. Things may change this summer when UFC comes to The Hydro in Glasgow in July. Maybe Calderwood will wear the mini-kilt in the ring that she’s previously worn. Maybe she’ll swap her Kanye West theme song for a homegrown tune. Either way, fighting in front of a home crowd is a tantalising prospect for her. “It’s really exciting,” she says. “I really love fighting in my hometown. Usually I have to travel, which means coping with jet lag and staying in hotels and being away from family. Being in Scotland is going to be so special.”

It’s fair enough that MMA isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but the fact is, Calderwood is a dedicated athlete who is brilliant at what she does. And for that, she deserves respect. Certainly within the world of MMA she enjoys a loyal fan-following as well as respect from the opponents she meets in the ring. Beyond that world, she’s viewed as a more intriguing, slightly baffling prospect. What explains the fact that she chooses to fight for a living? Was she bullied? Can she really be as sweet as she seems out of the ring? Does she have anger issues? Is she somehow settling a psychological score? She lets out a tiny laugh as I list the questions. “It’s a sport like any other sport,” she says. “This started as a hobby for me. I had tried running and gymnastics. I think that everyone has got something that they click with and I clicked with Muay Thai. It was my hobby which rolled into me always thinking about it and researching it. Every bit of free time that I had I wanted to be in 
the gym.”

She’s not lacking in introspection; she understands perfectly the release that her sport provides for her. “Girls get stressed a lot,” she says. “And angry. I got rid of a lot of stress and tension from hitting pads. It’s not about sparring or fighting. There’s so much more to it than that. It really does make you feel better.” It just so happens that Calderwood found the sport just when she really needed to feel better. “At school I was very frustrated. School pushes you to know what you’re going to be or what you’re going to study. At the time, I really didn’t know and that frustrated me. My sister was good at maths and she ended up being a maths teacher. I didn’t know what I wanted to do and it put a lot of pressure on me. When I went to training it took that pressure off.”

Calderwood’s relationship with her family – her mum, brother and sister – is hugely important to her. They’re tattooed on her arm, part of the elaborate design on her shoulder. Alongside her coaching team, they are her support network. She credits her mum with giving her the work ethic that she still relies on. “I watched my mum going to her work an hour before everyone else and usually being the last one out. That’s worked well for me. Now I want to give it everything, not just because I’m going into a fight and my opponent has probably done the same, but for me. I need to know that I’ve given everything, that I’ve done absolutely everything I could. I’ve got hard work in my blood.”

The main downside of travelling a lot is that she can’t be as close to her family as she likes to be. Technology helps. She speaks to her mum on Facetime when she’s away and if she can’t do that, she texts. “I am in touch with my mum every day,” she says, “even if it’s just a text to let her know that I’m thinking about her. My family support me 110 per cent. That’s all that really matters.”

The vital support role her family plays was in part what made her recent appearance on The Ultimate Fighter so testing. A reality TV show created by UFC, TUF 20, saw 16 women MMA competitors live together in a house in Las Vegas for weeks while training and eventually competing against each other to be crowned the first ever strawweight women’s champion with the added bonus of a six-figure contract with UFC. Calderwood reached the quarter finals of the show, submitting to a kimura – a jiu-jitsu arm lock – at the hands of competition runner-up Rose Namajunas. It doesn’t strike me that the physical pain she experienced gave her her any pause. But it wasn’t the bouts in the ring that were the most bruising part of the experience. “It was very intense,” she says, her voice even softer than it was when we started to speak. “I didn’t have any contact with my family or team that whole time. That was very, very hard. I knew it was going to be hard but I also knew it was my path. I tried to be positive but it was a tough experience in my life. I don’t regret it and I got through it in the end.”

It was when Calderwood got back home that she realised how hard the experience had been.

Maybe she relaxed a bit, away from the glare of the cameras, freed from living with 15 other women, any one of whom could have been her opponent, finally she could let her guard drop. “I was around a lot of negativity,” she says. “The girls were showing their emotions as girls do, but I tried my best to stay out of it. If I needed a cry I made sure I was by myself. I felt I was positive for the whole experience. When I was on camera I was saying I was good even though deep down I was missing family like crazy. You are a fighter and you’re there to do your job.” She lets out a shy laugh. “I spoke to one of my other teammates who did a kind of reality show. He told me that no matter who I speak to they won’t understand unless they’ve had a similar experience, or they’ve been in a similar position. It’s the same as any kind of hard life experience – people think they could do it, they think they’d be alright. I was one of them. I thought, I’m a positive person, I’m tough, I don’t show any emotion. I can be away from family for seven weeks. But as the weeks went on I was slowly, slowly dying inside.” She pauses. “But there are worse things that can happen.”

And that, I think, is what you call the pick yourself up, dust yourself off and start all over again school of thinking. And in Calderwood’s line of work I’m guessing it’s a pretty essential tool to ensure that she keeps on going when things get tricky. The UFC experience might have been tough, but she’s clear that she’s learned from it and she certainly doesn’t regret it. “It’s shown me exactly where my focus needs to be,” she says. “I’ve come home and I feel even more motivated.”

That’s probably not great news for Maryna Moroz, who is Calderwood’s next opponent. Calderwood has watched a few of her fights and she knows her record. Of course she is confident, but she’s taking nothing for granted. “I just make sure that I don’t underestimate her and I concentrate on myself,” she says. “I need to be fitter and stronger and a better fighter than I was the last time.”

It might seem a strange question to ask someone who makes their living from stepping into a ring with an opponent who is looking to knock them out in the quickest time possible, but I’m genuinely interested as to whether Calderwood gets nervous before a fight? “Nerves always creep into your head,” she says. “I don’t care who you are, you’re going to get nervous. You’re fighting in front of so many people and most of the time it’s on the telly – who’s not going to be nervous? You could let down your family, your team, yourself.”

The trick, she says, is not allowing the nerves to impact this far out from the bout. If she did, it would distract her from her training and disrupt her focus. Calderwood understands exactly when she can allow herself to acknowledge that she’s scared. “I leave it until the very last minute when I’m in the cage and I can use my nerves to my advantage. Sometimes in between training sessions when I’m resting I might start thinking about the fight, but then I push it away and think about other things because there’s nothing I can do about the fight just now. I can do something about it when I step into that ring.”

The voice is just as quiet as when she picked up the phone, but the determination rings loud and clear. I don’t doubt a single word.

• Watch Joanne in action at UFC Fight Night: Gonzaga vs Cro Cop 2 from 11pm, Saturday 11 April on PICK, available on Sky (152), Freeview (11) Freesat (144) and Virgin Media (123). Joanne hopes to appear at Scotland’s first UFC Fight Night on Saturday 18 July at the SSE Hydro in Glasgow. Tickets go on sale in May for the event, which will air on BT Sport.