Never tell Darrion Caldwell the odds.
Whether he’s expected to run through his opponents (as has been the case in the majority of the 29-year-old’s pro fights) or if the deck is stacked against him, Caldwell (10-1) always has the sense that people are looking for him to fall short.
That will likely be the prevailing thought as he heads into his first-ever title opportunity vs. bantamweight champion Eduardo Dantas in the main event of Bellator 184 at the WinStar World Casino in Thackerville, Okla., this Friday.
“Dudu” has been nearly untouchable, going 10-1 in Bellator with wins over Joe Warren, Marcos Galvao, Zach Makovsky, and Wilson Reis. By defeating Warren last December, Dantas avenged his lone loss and he is on his way to definitively clearing out the division.
Now Caldwell is getting his shot. And if it seems like he’s being lined up as just another victim for Dantas, well, it isn’t the first time he’s been in this position.
In 2009, Caldwell brought home an NCAA wrestling title to North Carolina State University, a feat considered all but impossible that year given the dominance of Iowa’s Brent Metcalf. Though Caldwell had actually managed to pin Metcalf when they were both sophomores, Metcalf manhandled him in their rematch and he was heavily favored to win his second NCAA wrestling championship in as many years when the two faced off again.
Metcalf had already knocked off a murderer’s row of wrestling luminaries (some who would become MMA standouts), so the result of the 2009 finals was considered to be fait accompli.
“You had Jordan Burroughs, you had Bubba Jenkins, you had Lance Palmer, you had all these high-level wrestlers, nobody could beat this guy,” Caldwell told MMA Fighting. “Dantas has taken some Ls along the way. … I just knew stylistically I matched up well against Brent.
“I don’t think they’re the same, but I can see why people would say that. Dantas is a great champion just like Metcalf was, but Metcalf was the ‘wrestling Heisman’ champion, hadn’t lost a match in high school, never lost a match in college except for me, so it was different I felt.”
Caldwell would go on to deliver a stunning performance in which he dominated Metcalf for three rounds, winning by a score of 11-6 (the triumph was marred slightly by Metcalf shoving Caldwell during the Wolfpack representative’s jubilant celebration):
Asked why the comparison doesn’t jump out him immediately, Caldwell explains that it’s because he was considered even less likely to beat Metcalf than he is to upset Dantas at Bellator 184.
“Absolutely, I was way more counted out against Metcalf,” said Caldwell. “But in my mind, I’m just as counted out in any fight. I don’t care what the odds say, if the odds say I’m the 2-1 favorite, to me, you’re counting me out, that’s just always the mentality I have. I don’t believe in me being the favorite, I’m always putting myself in positions where I’m the underdog and everybody is counting me out.”
With that mindset as motivation, Caldwell doesn’t need to know much about Dantas’ personality to get worked up to fight him. He learned a long time ago to put aside any vendettas or perceived grudges and to just focus on the task at hand. That single-minded approach led him to make a dramatic change in his training just a few days after suffering his first MMA loss at the hands of Joe Taimanglo.
Caldwell had won his first six Bellator fights including a submission win over Warren, and Taimanglo was supposed to be the last step towards a title clash with Dantas. Instead, Taimanglo pulled out a guillotine choke in the third round of their Bellator 159 bout that forced Caldwell to tap and convinced him that his fight preparation wasn’t at the level where it needed to be.
He joined Alliance MMA shortly after and then won a unanimous decision win over Taimanglo in their rematch five months later.
One of the training partners that helped him bounce back even stronger in defeat? Former UFC bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz. Caldwell is effusive about working with Cruz and the rest of the California-based camp.
“It’s been everything and more, not only inside the cage, just growing the IQ, building the IQ for this sport has been everything,” said Caldwell. “He sees things that most people, if not all people, won’t see. Being filled in on the gray areas where I didn’t know a lot. I knew I was tough, I knew I wanted to fight, I knew I can fight, but you’ve got to build that IQ and Dom is ready to go for it and my abilities are growing as a martial artist and I’m growing that cage savvy.”
“It definitely helps when you get to spar with Jeremy Stephens, you get to spar with Dominick Cruz, you’re going to build that confidence,” Caldwell continued. “I’ve always believed that I can beat anybody in the world in my weight class and so it’s just a matter of time until I prove it.”
Caldwell gets his chance to join the 135-pound elite this Friday. Should he knock off Dantas, it’s easy to imagine “The Wolf” letting his emotions run wild, even taking into account his post-match mishap at the 2009 NCAA wrestling finals and a scary Bellator incident that saw him collide with a camerawoman as he flipped off of the cage.
“I’ve worked so hard to get my name hung up on that Bellator banner and who knows what’s going to happen?” said Caldwell. “I might do three backflips off of the cage, I might step out the cage, run into the crowd, the only thing I can control is the fight and afterwards, I don’t know what I’m going to be able to control in terms of celebration.
“I’m just going to be excited about finally being the world champion. A champion on every level.”