Sitting next to budding strawweight star Cynthia Calvillo on Saturday night, UFC president Dana White laid it on a little thick.
Calvillo had just won her second straight submission victory in as many pay-per-view events, as she finished the tough-but-overmatched Pearl Gonzalez on the UFC 210 main card at Buffalo’s KeyBank Center.
And with an undefeated young prodigy on his hands, White went straight to the top shelf in order to find comparisons to similar first impressions.
“The first time I met Conor McGregor, I called Lorenzo [Fertitta] and said ‘Man, I don’t even know if this guy can fight, but if he can throw a punch he’s going to be an [expletive] rock star.’ You know?” White said at the post-fight news conference. “Ronda Rousey, I had a 45-minute meeting with her and I decided to do women’s MMA. I feel pretty strongly about this one too. I loved her performance tonight.”
Sure, you may scoff at such high praise, but before you dismiss it, consider for moment that White has now been running the UFC for 17 years, and was a student of the fight game long before that. It’s not as if White, a man not known for understating things, throws out such comparisons left and right.
Perhaps that’s why White went out of his way to compare the 5-0 Sacramento sensation to another strawweight, Joanna Jedrzejczyk, who also entered the UFC an aggressive, unpolished, undefeated fighter, and is now well established as 115-pound champion.
“I was telling [Calvillo] tonight there were times in my career where I was sitting there, and two women fight, and when the fight was over I told one of my guys, I said, ‘When she’s done showering, when she’s ready, will you have her come sit out here,’ and she sat out there and came out with me and watched the rest of the fights,” White said. “It was Joanna Jedrzejczyk.”
So who is this fighter who has come out of nowhere to earn Flavor of the Month status? The 29 year-old is the latest product of the Team Alpha Male gym, which is still running on all cylinders after last year’s retirement of founder Urijah Faber. Calvillo went professional just last August, and has proven a dynamo since, taking four of her five fights by submission or knockout.
But Calvillo is also more polished than her five pro fights would indicate, as she had six amateur bouts before making the decision to go pro.
“I’ve been working for this for a long time,” Calvillo said. “I knew this day was going to come. I need to take a little bit of time off just to let this all sink in. I haven’t even been a professional for a year.”
Indeed, Calvillo had to take time off from a waitressing job at Cheesecake Factory when she got the call to make her UFC debut last month at UFC 209. Calvillo faced Ultimate Fighter 23 finalist Amanda Cooper in a bout which got bumped up to the evening’s PPV card when the co-main event of Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Tony Ferguson was scratched the day before the show.
Calvillo finished Cooper with a choke in just 3:19, which made a big impression on her boss.
“I love the way she eats pressure,” White said. “The first time she ever come into the UFC, we bumped her up onto the main card, and she performed very well.”
Calvillo quit her Cheescake Factory gig and accepted the short-notice bout with Gonzalez, making Calvillo the first UFC fighter since Tito Ortiz in 2011 to compete on consecutive PPV cards.
Again, the fight ended up being a bigger deal than it first looked on paper. This time, it was because Gonzalez, a San Diego-based fighter by way of Chicago, made national news. The New York State Athletic Commission initially pulled Gonzalez from the card after she made weight, citing a rule against fighters with breast implants, which Gonzalez had disclosed in her paperwork.
NYSAC later reinstated Gonzalez without explanation, which only put more attention on the fight with Calvillo. Gonzalez proved to be one tough customer, taking everything Calvillo could dish out for the better part of 13 minutes. But Calvillo persisted, and finally got the tapout via rear-naked choke at the 3:45 mark of the final round.
“I’m always expecting the finish,” Calvillo said. “I’m not the type to leave it to the judges, by any means. I have four finishes and only one decision. I knew I was going to get the finish. I knew she was going to be a tough, bigger opponent. She’s from Chicago. I knew she was going to be ‘hood. I’m from the ‘hood. I was ready for a three-round war, but I knew I was going to get that finish.”
If you’re expecting Calvillo to trot right back out there for UFC 211, well, sorry. Five fights in eight months is enough to earn anyone a break. But she likes the sound of getting in six fights in a year, so don’t be surprised to see Calvillo in action again before the summer is out.
“I made my professional debut in August,” Calvillo. “I’ve had five fights in eight months. I’ve got to have a little bit of downtime. But, I want to have another win before August or by August. I want to have six fights in a year.”
And when she does return, it’s most likely that her biggest cheerleader will be there, as well.
“Tonight, she went in there with a bigger, stronger woman with a reach who had a lot of experience and she conducted herself as the badass that she is. I’m very impressed with her performance and I’m a fan.”