Like everyone when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Cynthia Calvillo was at a loss for what to do.
The strawweight contender had already made the choice to move back to the flyweight division after missing weight in two of her last three bouts, and she had an April 25 fight already lined up with Antonina Shevchenko. That bout was scrapped when the sports world went on pause, and while she was splitting her training time between Sacramento and San Jose, soon she had to follow her heart.
“With the pandemic hitting, I felt like it was better just to stay home and be with my parents,” said the San Jose native, who is now working full time with the American Kickboxing Academy (AKA) squad. “I hadn't spent too much time with them, and it just felt right. I didn't know exactly what was gonna happen, but considering everything, it feels like the right move was to come back home. And I think it was the right thing because it kind of reminded me of what I'm fighting for. I was gone for so long, and now I'm back home. So it definitely lit a new fire underneath me.”
So mom and dad aren’t tired of having her home yet?
“Oh no, they're trying to help,” laughed Calvillo. “They want to play mom and dad again, and it's good but not good at the same time because my mom just wants to feed me all the time. (Laughs) So it's a good thing that I'm moving up a weight class.”
It’s a good thing not just because she can indulge in some of mom’s home cooking, but because she has a fresh start on a career most have believed for a long time will one day result in a world title.
And if you didn’t think that when Calvillo started off her UFC career with a blistering 3-0 run in 2017 that saw her beat Amanda Cooper, Pearl Gonzalez and Joanne Calderwood, you were in the minority.
Then there were the bumps in the road. A controversial loss to former champion Carla Esparza that was followed by a positive drug test for marijuana metabolites that earned her a suspension. Upon her 2018 return, she beat Poliana Botelho and Cortney Casey and fought to a draw against Marina Rodriguez, but the battles with the scale put a cloud over her unbeaten streak.
Today, though, the 32-year-old has put those days behind her, and with a UFC Fight Night main event against number one flyweight contender Jessica Eye on Saturday, she has the opportunity to make an immediate impression in her new division.
“I really wasn't expecting it just because it was rocky, so I appreciate that the UFC can see that the fights and losses that I do have were questionable or close fights and not against easy fighters,” Calvillo said of getting a main event for her first UFC fight at 125 pounds. “Me moving up, I think they see that and I'm thankful. So when they gave me the opportunity to fight in the main event, that was amazing. Honestly, I had asked for Jessica, but I wasn't sure if I was gonna get it or not.”
She did, and it’s an important matchup not just for Eye and Calvillo, but for the division. And the way Calvillo sees it, in this sport, you don’t get anywhere by playing it safe. Calling for the number one contender right out of the gate is as gutsy as it gets, but she’s ready for Eye and for anyone else at flyweight.
“Closed mouths don't get fed,” she said. “There's a lot of fighters out there who are iffy about whether they're ready for that fight just yet. I'm ready for everybody in the division. Of course, I've got a lot to learn, but I can beat the best of the best and I think any matchup's gonna be good for me. I'm gonna be a bad matchup for everybody else.”
Even champion Valentina Shevchenko?
“With Shevchenko, especially with the division being fairly new, I don't think that there's anybody there with the ground game that I have,” Calvillo said. “I'm pretty excited and I think the UFC's really excited to have me in there. I'm completely grateful for this opportunity and I cannot wait.”
No main event jitters, then?
“I love it when it's about fighting because normally, I'm actually a very shy person,” she said. “But when it comes to fighting, I'm a whole different animal. Main event or no main event, I'm going to show up.”