Cynthia Calvillo once felt trapped, now finds a home inside the octagon

Cynthia Calvillo has broken into the ranks of the top 10 in the strawweight division with an unbeaten 3-0 record in UFC. Per Haljestam-USA TODAY Sports

"Fighting saved my life." –- Cynthia Calvillo

There's a thrill in finding one's true purpose, mixed martial artist Cynthia Calvillo has discovered, which is all the more meaningful because of the dark times.

"I spent a long time in my life in a situation that wasn't very positive and I didn't care about myself too much. That all finally changed."

The change affected not only Calvillo, but those who care about her most, her family.

Calvillo now knows how proud her father, Toribio, is of her and how happy her mother, Maria, is that her daughter loves what she is doing.

"[Fighting] saved the relationship I have with my family," Calvillo said.

When she first started training, Calvillo was embarrassed to even tell people about her involvement with MMA. As a protective mother, Maria worried about her daughter's choice and wanted her to give it up.

"If I don't make it by the time I'm 30, I'll stop," Calvillo remembered promising.

Now 30, Calvillo is ranked in the top 10 of strawweight fighters, unbeaten in her three UFC fights, with a fighting style that is deceptively well-rounded. She has confidently predicted that she will be the first strawweight fighter to dethrone longtime champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk.

Calvillo was up against long odds for success in a sport where many begin training as children. Her parents, immigrants from Mexico, didn't have the money to put their youngest into organized sports. Growing up in San Jose, California, Calvillo developed toughness by playing in the streets after school with neighbors and her older brothers.

After high school, against her parents' wishes, she rushed into marriage at 19 to her high school sweetheart.

"It wasn't a healthy relationship," Calvillo admitted. "I hit rock bottom. He didn't support me in anything."

She dropped out of college and had no direction. Calvillo is baffled, today, about how she let herself get so low back then.

"It was just an insecurity thing that I had. I didn't have a connection with my parents where I could talk to them about my personal life and how I felt. In Mexican tradition, you don't talk about feelings. You suck it up."

She finally decided to leave after four years. As her divorce was in process, Calvillo worked in a traffic ticket office, trying to cope with the angry people who would call in daily to contest citations. She needed her own outlet to vent.

"I wanted to do something for myself," Calvillo said of her somewhat impulsive choice to go to a small MMA gym located a block away from her job. "I walked into the gym at 23 years old and just never looked back."

Fighting gave Calvillo more than something to look forward to, it also gave her a taste of her own power and rewarded her fearlessness and dedication to training.

After her first fight, savoring a third-round knockout, Calvillo was hooked.

"I never felt so at home," she said.

"Cuando ella se tiene algo en su mente, lo logra," Toribio said, explaining how once his daughter has something in mind, she is likely to achieve it. "We all support her now."

A few more fights followed, then Calvillo chose to take the next step up, moving from San Jose to Sacramento to train with one of the top MMA teams in the country, Team Alpha Male.

"I worried about her a lot when she went to Sacramento," Toribio said. "But I told her to keep going. She has that courage."

While Calvillo may not have started young in MMA, in certain ways, she is an ideal fit for the sport, according to Justin Buchholz, the head coach at Team Alpha Male. He explained the greatest fighters, like Calvillo, push to improve around the clock.

"Her evolution has been incredible," Buchholz noted. "If you have a team with training tools, and a fighter who will train herself to death, that's a recipe for success."

Except, of course, when it isn't. Calvillo's intense work ethic became something of a detriment when she broke a forearm in 2014 while training. Her arm was twice re-injured because she returned too early. She was sidelined until 2016. Calvillo watched in frustration as other female strawweight fighters, like Paige VanZant, who had started training at Alpha Male around the same time as Calvillo, went on to success and renown.

Patience didn't come easy.

"Everything happens for a reason," Calvillo mused. "I spent two years just sitting there, watching everyone else take off. It made me strong, physically and mentally."

Calvillo unleashed her pent-up emotions and all the work she had put into training during her UFC debut in August 2016 against Amanda Cooper, winning by submission in the first round. Calvillo had taken the fight on only 10 days' notice, but was unfazed by the limited preparation time.

"It was probably the easiest fight of my life," Calvillo said.

Another short-notice fight and submission win against Pearl Gonzalez followed in April 2017 before a tougher test came in July against Joanne Calderwood in the hostile environment of Calderwood's native Scotland. Calvillo was booed so loudly during her entrance that she couldn't hear her walkout song (House of Pain's "Jump Around"). She won by unanimous decision.

"I could have been a little more aggressive, but it was a great learning experience," Calvillo said, admitting to being bothered by the booing that greeted the decision announcement. "Obviously, I would want to finish and leave no question and doubt."

Buchholz was puzzled anyone would think the fight was a close contest.

"At the end of the fight, there was a clear winner."

Now ranked No. 8 in the strawweight division, Calvillo is ready for the next challenge, anticipating she'll fight again fairly soon, putting her undefeated UFC record at risk before the year ends.

"I'm looking at No. 6 or No. 7, either Michelle Waterson or Carla Esparza," Calvillo said.

Whoever she fights, her family will be watching eagerly. It's become their new tradition to gather together to watch any of Calvillo's fights that they're unable to attend.

"We have friends over, make food and celebrate," Toribio said.

His daughter's ambitions go beyond beating whoever is her next opponent.

"I want to take over the strawweight division and then move up to the flyweight," Calvillo said. "Two weight classes would be great. I want to be a freaking legend. I want to be considered one of the best in the whole world."

Buchholz compared Calvillo's swift ascent up the rankings to another Alpha Male fighter who is now a champion, bantamweight Cody Garbrandt, and once told her she was on the same plan.

"She said, 'F--- that,'" Buchholz recalled. "'We're on the Cynthia Calvillo plan.'"

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