UFC 263: Will It Be Heartbreak or Breakthrough for Murphy and Calderwood?

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Lauren Murphy, UFC 263 weigh-in
Lauren Murphy, UFC 263 early weigh-in Credit: Alex Behunin/Cageside Press

After walking long roads that didn’t always look like they’d lead to the summit, Lauren Murphy and Joanne Calderwood are finally on the cusp of title contention at UFC 263.

It is one of the oddities in combat sports, that the biggest opportunities are sometimes earned on the smaller stage.  For a shot at toppling the flyweight queen Valentina Shevchenko, and having a title winning moment right out of Rocky, that opportunity will be earned hours before the end of the pay-per-view in Arizona this Saturday.

For Lauren Murphy, her time in the UFC did not get off to the quickest start.  Despite kicking off her professional career with a perfect 8-0 mark and a stint in Invicta, “Lucky” floundered at bantamweight in the Octagon as she went 1-3.  Opportunity would arise, with Murphy getting a second chance at flyweight through The Ultimate Fighter.  While she lost to the eventual winner (and inaugural champion) Nicco Montano during the show, Murphy got another shot at the UFC in her optimal weight class.

Though she stumbled against fellow cast member Sijara Eubanks following the finale, Murphy would go on to have the best run of anyone from her season by going on a four fight win-streak, notching victories over Andrea Lee, Roxanne Modafferi, and Mara Romero Borella.  A fight with Cynthia Calvillo was expected to be a title eliminator last October, but Calvillo was forced out of the bout on short notice and was replaced by newcomer Liliya Shakirova.  While Murphy impressed with a finish, she voiced her frustration at the title picture afterward.

Joanne Calderwood knows what it’s like to have done the work, and have it undone by her own hands.  Last August, she gave up a guaranteed title shot in order to stay active and took a short notice bout against ex-Invicta FC champ Jennifer Maia while Valentina Shevchenko was on the mend.  The decision proved disastrous as Calderwood found herself stopped by first round submission.  Maia was booked for a title shot against Shevchenko shortly afterwards, while Calderwood was left to watch from the sidelines.

At the time, it was believed that the bout might have been the undoing of her title aspirations.  When she was booked for a title shot in 2020, Calderwood was next by process of elimination.  Her upcoming foe Murphy was only on a three fight win-streak, future title challenger Jessica Andrade was still at strawweight, and Zhang Weili still had work to do before potentially moving up.  Considering Calderwood had struggled to put more than two wins together in her six years in the UFC, it was easy to think she may be overlooked in the now crowded flyweight division.

As luck would have it, timing would place Calderwood with another opportunity to get a title shot.  Shevchenko was booked and defended the title against Andrade after the Scotswoman had bounced back against former title challenger Jessica Eye.  Now, a bout with the surging Murphy is a chance to earn another shot at “The Bullet.”

The two have proven themselves to be well-rounded fighters, with finishes by TKO and submissions for both in their career.  The fight figures to be dictated by the one who attacks with higher volume earlier as neither woman is known for having one-shot knockout power.  Of the two, Murphy carries the momentum and slight edge in experience, but will deal with the more physical approach of Calderwood who does her best work when pushing forward.

Surveying the current landscape and dominance of current champion Valentina Shevchenko, it would be difficult to fathom the winner of Murphy and Calderwood not getting the next shot at the title.  Depending on the health of all parties involved, a late 2021 or early 2022 bout is expected.

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