“They’re going to charge admission by the time I’m done here. I put a**es in the seats.” — Darrion Caldwell
Some first impressions are hard to forget.
I’ll always remember my initial interaction with former NC State wrestler Darrion Caldwell after he arrived in Raleigh as a top-ranked recruit.
I was a redshirt freshman walk-on that nobody knew. He was the prodigy everyone couldn’t wait to watch. I knew it, he knew it, it was no secret to anybody. And he made that portending statement — the latter part was true from day one, though NC State didn’t start charging admission for wrestling matches until a few years after his graduation — during the first workout of his freshman year.
Caldwell was just different than any other athlete I had ever been around. He was supremely confident (rightfully so), his belief in himself topped only by his immense talent. When some wrestlers, especially freshmen, would just be looking to win any way possible, he went out there to pin and finish the match. He wanted to be exciting en route to leaving no doubt.
In his home state of New Jersey — notoriously one of the toughest prep states in wrestling — he was not only a three-time state champion who lost just once during his final three years, he did the unthinkable and wrestled up at 152 pounds as a senior.
To put into perspective how much weight he was giving up to his foes, he competed at 141 pounds as a Wolfpack freshman — and now he fights at 135, where he’s ranked as the No. 10 bantamweight in any mixed martial arts (MMA) organization by FightMatrix.com. He’ll get a chance to rocket up those rankings when he takes on No. 5 Eduardo Dantas tonight live on Spike TV for the Bellator championship (TV coverage starts at 9 p.m., but Caldwell isn’t likely to fight until around 11 p.m. or later).
During his wrestling career in Rahway, N.J., and Raleigh, Caldwell didn’t always win — although he usually did, especially when he was healthy — but he never failed to put on a show.
His first match at NC State in 2006 resulted in a 13-second pin — the fastest fall posted by a Pack wrestler since at least 1988. He went on to win an ACC title, and became the first to be named the conference’s Rookie and overall Wrestler of the Year.
The unseeded Caldwell stormed onto the national scene by pinning his ninth-seeded competitor in 28 seconds in his first bout at the NCAA Championships. Then, he became a YouTube legend — likely the first from college wrestling — in just one minute and 40 seconds of match time. He came out and went toe to toe against top-seeded and undefeated Ryan Lang of Northwestern in a bout that featured 16 points (most NCAA matches don’t reach that point total in seven minutes of regulation) and received a standing ovation from the crowd. He didn’t win, but the few who had not heard of the freshman from NC State yet were on notice.
He blew through the ACC once again and placed fifth nationally as a sophomore, racking up first-period pins at an unprecedented rate (21 of his 36 wins came that way). But the true breakout happened earlier in the regular season, when he did the unthinkable by beating Iowa’s thought-to-be-unbeatable Brent Melcalf with a spladle — a move I haven’t seen hit in a college match before or since Caldwell.
Throughout the year, he routinely made All-Americans look like walk-ons, including eventual four-time All-American Lance Palmer below:
Who just goes crossface-bundle-pin against freaking Lance Palmer?
Darrion Caldwell. pic.twitter.com/aC6gqgx7HR
— Christian Pyles (@CPyles8) July 12, 2017
The legend continued to grow the following year during the 2008-09 campaign. His only loss came by injury default. Then, in a loaded NCAA bracket — the 32 wrestlers combined to earn 27 All-America honors (a top-eight NCAA finish) and four NCAA titles in their careers — Caldwell treated it like the ACC Tournament, outscoring foes 52-12, and capping the tournament and winning Most Outstanding Wrestler honors with an incredible 11-6 victory over Metcalf for the national title.
However, he missed the next year due to shoulder surgery and although he became the fourth in school history to win four ACC titles as a fifth-year senior, he was never truly healthy and it showed when he did not place at the NCAA Championships for the first time since his rookie year. Despite the injury-plagued final two years, he finished his NCSU career with a mark of 109-13.
Health forced his wrestling career to end in disappointment, but Caldwell quickly shifted gears and started fighting MMA. His wrestling pedigree was so highly thought of that Legacy Fighting Championships made the rare move to sign him as a professional despite no amateur fights. After he started 3-0, he was signed by Bellator MMA, a move up to the “big leagues” — Bellator is the clear-cut No. 2 organization to the more-popular UFC, but one that is trying to close the gap on the backs of young stars like Caldwell.
Caldwell started his MMA career in impressive fashion, winning his first nine fights. His ninth triumph in March 2016 was a win over Joe Warren, a former two-division Bellator champion and Greco-Roman wrestling world champion, that earned him a title shot. In the bout, Caldwell looked like the world champion wrestler, throwing Warren around like a rag doll before submitting him in the first round.
— Bellator MMA (@BellatorMMA) September 27, 2017
However, Caldwell didn’t want to wait for the injured champion Dantas to return to full health to fight again. He wanted to get back to work inside the cage and faced dangerous veteran Joe Taimanglo, who had 28 pro fights compared to Caldwell’s nine.
Despite dominating the first two rounds, Caldwell was submitted nine seconds into the third frame and tasted defeat for the first time in his professional career (although Timanglo did not make weight for the fight). Caldwell was able to get revenge in dominant fashion during a rematch less than five months later, re-establishing himself as the No. 1 contender.
Friday will be the 29-year-old's chance to finally prove he’s the best in the world. And the loss has made him feel more prepared than ever to do exactly that.
“Even when I won a national title — I had that loss at Oklahoma,” Caldwell explained. “My dad, when I was coming up, he always said, ‘if you want to be the best … you have to take a L.’ We always would go out to the hardest tournaments, find the best competition and I would somehow always lose, similar to last year.
“Getting that loss under my belt has really fueled the fire, made me want to go even harder. … You’ve got to lose to be the best.”
The defeat reiterated to Caldwell that anybody can be beaten. But it also made him “go back to the drawing board,” and re-examine everything; he even changed his training home, which is now Alliance MMA in San Diego. He wasn’t interested in making excuses, just getting better before getting a chance at revenge … and then he would worry about a title shot.
After doing exactly that with a unanimous decision over Taimanglo, he feels more confident and ready than ever before.
“In this sport, you’re bound to lose,” Caldwell said. “… Even though everyone can be beat, I know I can beat anyone. I know I can lose to a Joe Taimanglo, but I also knew I could beat him given the right training camp and doing the right things.
“I think I can beat anyone in this division.”
He’ll get the chance to prove that Friday night, although he’s also quick to note the job doesn’t end with getting the belt around his waist for the first time. Being champion just means a bigger target on his back.
“Friday night is going to be a good night for me,” Caldwell said. “I don’t see Dantas going past three minutes. Obviously, I prepare for a five-round war, I’m training for 25 minutes inside the cage, but I just don’t see him stylistically matching up with me. He’s a great fighter, he’s a great champion who’s done some pretty big things in the sport. I’m not taking anything away from him; I’m not looking past the guy by any means — but I’m going to put the pressure on him and beat him up, take that title away from him.
“I truly believe I’m the best bantamweight in the world; it’s only a matter of time until I prove it.”
Even when fans got in free to NC State wrestling matches, Caldwell treated each outing like a prize fight and wanted to entertain all in attendance. So now with a title shot looming Friday night in Thackerville, Okla. — where everyone has paid admission — Caldwell won’t want to disappoint on the biggest stage of his life. He’s not looking to just win, he wants to finish the fight. And, of course, entertain the fans.
If the past is any indication, chances are good he’ll win and entertain.
“It’s a dream come true,” he said. “Everything that I worked for leading up to this point is finally here, it’s within my reach.
“There’s been a lot of ups and downs, but to just get back into this spot and fight for a world title, it’s right where I know I should be. It’s the opportunity of a lifetime.”
Update: Caldwell won the Bellator belt via unanimous decision.