‘We’ve covered some ground in six years’ – UFC stars encourage more women to take up MMA

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Could you last three rounds with a UFC fighter?

Molly McCann is proud to be a positive influence.

The Liverpool mixed martial artist was inspired by watching female stars from her home city and now wants to be a role model for the next generation of aspiring sportswomen.

At the age of 29, and as the first English woman to win inside the Ultimate Fighting Championship octagon, she is doing so.

“Fighting for me is now bigger than winning a UFC belt,” said McCann.

“Fighting is to ensure the next generation of females all get to have a go at this and get to have it change their lives as much as it’s changed mine.”

McCann joins UFC flyweight champion Valentina Shevchenko and Scotland’s Joanne ‘JoJo’ Calderwood to tell BBC Sport about their journeys and why they want to encourage more females to take up MMA.

‘There were grown men singing sign on, sign on’

Having played for Liverpool FC Women and pursued a career in boxing before making it professional in MMA, McCann has experienced her share of sports.

The flyweight says she was turned away from boxing gyms the length and breadth of the country as a youngster, until Irish Olympic gold medallist Katie Taylor “paved the way for women to start being taken seriously”.

On the football pitch, McCann says she witnessed “fully grown men singing ‘sign on, sign on'”.

“I have never been turned away from an MMA gym,” added McCann. “I have always been encouraged and I think that comes form the mix of different disciplines – people are a lot more open-minded to women, ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation.

“It all stems from Brazilian jiu-jitsu and the culture is ‘we are one’. The second you step on the mat you’re accepted with open arms.”

McCann became a world champion in Cage Warriors before moving to the UFC, where she bounced back from a debut loss to beat Brazil’s Priscila Cachoeira in London in March.

“It’s the discipline and respect I learned that has got me to where I am, not just in martial arts but as a human being,” she said.

“I try to give the best of me to someone else, it’s not just ‘I want to be a fighter’, it’s a lifestyle, bettering yourself.

“For a little girl, or any young person, if you can step on a mat every day and overcome your adversities then when you come to life it’s easy.”

I love to see more beautiful and confident girls – Shevchenko

Valentina Shevchenko will make the first defence of her flyweight title against Jessica Eye in June

Shevchenko, whose sister Antonina also fights in the UFC, calls herself a “second generation” mixed martial artist as their mother, Elena, is president of Kyrgyzstan Muay Thai Federation and a third-degree black belt in taekwondo.

“In my life I had all kinds of support if I ever needed to become a good fighter,” explained the 31-year-old, who says martial arts are the “number one” sport in Kyrgyzstan.

“Our national sport is Kulatuu and it has similar rules to MMA.”

Shevchenko now fights out of Peru and says female fights generate a lot of attention in South America, with Jessica Andrade and Rose Namajunas facing off in the main event at UFC 237 in Brazil earlier in May.

She hopes the high profile success of women on the promotion, such as her flyweight title victory against Joanna Jedrzejczyk at UFC 231 in December, will encourage more to get involved.

“I really hope so,” added Shevchenko. “Because I love to see more beautiful and confident girls in this modern world.

“MMA gives it all. Even if you are not going to be a professional fighter you have to try and practise martial arts.

“Sport gives to your body grace and equilibrium and to your mind, tranquillity and knowledge.”

‘I don’t look like a fighter, I don’t sound like a fighter…’

Joanne Calderwood beat Brazil’s Ariane Lipski in her last fight in January

As Scotland’s first professional MMA fighter, Calderwood says she had to earn the respect of the male athletes in the gym. It didn’t take long.

“I don’t look like a fighter, I don’t sound like a fighter – I’m soft and shy – but when I spar with a guy they soon realise I am a professional,” said the flyweight.

“This is my job and I take this very seriously.”

Calderwood moved to Las Vegas last year determined to shake off the past after issues with depression and alcohol. She now has successive UFC wins under her belt.

When she does return to Scotland, the 32-year-old makes sure to spend time with young female fighters at her old gym but pulls no punches about the dedication needed to carve out a career in MMA.

“When I was young I knew this was what I wanted to do and I was determined,” added Calderwood. “I can only hope I have inspired other kids.

“You have to know there is a lot of sacrifice. Even at the start when I was a professional I was still working a 12-hour shift. You make it work and because I found the thing I love to do, all the other things didn’t matter.

“I had to work 12 hours to pay for training, my petrol, everything that goes on behind the scenes that some people won’t understand or see.”

What is the UFC doing for female fighters?

The UFC celebrated its 25th anniversary last year but it is only since November 2012 that women have competed on the promotion, with American Ronda Rousey paving the way as the first female champion.

McCann says part of the attraction for women is being on the same pay grade as their male counterparts and being given equal exposure.

“Look how much we have come on,” added McCann. “The men have been around for 25 years. We’ve covered some ground in six.

“The girls have just got to keep on working, keep on showing up on fight night and everyone knows when a girl is on the UFC they are leaving everything in the cage – they tend to go for broke.

“You come and watch an MMA fight and there are kids, women, there are adults – it hits everyone and so many more demographics.”

Shevchenko says she enjoys the way the UFC promotes its female fighters.

“What I really love about UFC is that before each big fight they share a story of the fighters,” she said. “Not only to show them as a fighter but also show to the fans the human part of each person. What they do during their normal life, their hobbies, their lifestyle.

“And you are becoming more familiar with the fighter you like, start to know him or her as a person, and of course it creates a bigger connection between fighters and fans.”

Calderwood agrees: “They really focus in on our characters, lifestyles and do a lot of documentaries on us for the fans, they put it out there for the world to see.”

BBC Sport has launched #ChangeTheGame this summer to showcase female athletes in a way they never have been before. Through more live women’s sport available to watch across the BBC this summer, complemented by our journalism, we are aiming to turn up the volume on women’s sport and alter perceptions. Find out more here.

UFC: Molly McCann, Valentina Shevchenko & Joanne Calderwood encourage more women to take up MMA

Molly McCann is proud to be a positive influence. The Liverpool mixed martial artist was inspired by watching female stars from her home city and now wants to be a role model for the next generation of aspiring sportswomen.

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