Darrion Caldwell has his eyes on a new piece of hardware. | Photo: Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com
There is an obvious storyline heading into the Bellator 143 matchup between Darrion Caldwell and Shawn Bunch, a pair of decorated wrestlers looking to translate their athletic pedigrees into mixed martial arts success.
Caldwell is a former NCAA national champion at North Carolina State University, while Bunch was a two-time All-American at Edinboro University and a two-time Olympic alternate. However, Caldwell appears to be a little bit more advanced thus far in his MMA tenure.
In his first appearance since dropping from featherweight to bantamweight, Caldwell relied on his grappling roots to outpoint former title challenger Rafael Silva at Bellator 137 on May 15. While “The Wolf” didn’t showcase much beyond his trademark skill set, it was still a significant victory over a veteran foe. Bunch, meanwhile, has competed exclusively for Bellator since making his pro debut in 2012, compiling a 4-1 mark that might be most notable for his upset loss to Steve Garcia a little less than two years ago.
Caldwell will lock horns with Bunch on Friday during the Bellator 143 preliminary card, which streams on Spike.com beginning at approximately 7 p.m. ET/6 p.m. CT. The event takes place at State Farm Arena in Hidalgo, Texas, and is headlined by a 135-pound showdown pitting Joe Warren against L.C. Davis. The main card airs on Spike TV beginning at 9 p.m. ET/8 p.m. CT.
Caldwell is cognizant of the narrative in play but doesn’t believe it’s as simple as wrestler vs. wrestler. In many ways, he feels that Bunch is a step back from his previous opponent.
“This isn’t wrestling, this is fighting. This is MMA. Obviously Shawn’s a world class athlete,” Caldwell told Sherdog.com. “I feel like Rafael was a little bit further along than Shawn is right now in terms of his MMA career and development. I’m just excited to step back into the Bellator cage and show what I got. And show what I didn’t get to show on May 15.”
What Caldwell means by that is that he believes that the matchup with Bunch is tailor-made for him to display tools other than his wrestling, despite that fact that previous experience gives him confidence should the bout head to the mat.
“I wrestled with Shawn plenty of times, and I feel very good against him wrestling-wise. He’s a little shorter than I am. He doesn’t have the reach; he doesn’t have the speed; he doesn’t have the abilities that I have. I feel confident wherever we go, whereas the last fight, I was a little hesitant with the standup,” Caldwell said. “I still know I’m gonna dominate on the ground if the fight happens to go there. Whenever you get two wrestlers, you’re more likely to see a standup fight. I respect Shawn’s wrestling and the fact that he took this fight, but I’m confident everywhere we go. I feel like I’m going to dominate him wherever we go.”
Caldwell’s first three Bellator triumphs came at featherweight, but after vanquishing Silva, the 27-year-old New Jersey native is satisfied that 135 pounds is the right place for him. His size advantage figures to be more prevalent against Bunch, whom Caldwell says feels “like a 125-pounder.”
“I felt strong [in my last fight]. I never felt like there was a time where I was outmanned. Where the fight before [against Anthony Dizy], my gas tank kind of fell off on the third round,” Caldwell said. “I felt like his size was definitely an advantage for him. I didn’t feel like that when I fought Silva. When you’re cutting two pounds for a fight as a opposed to cutting 12 pounds for a fight, it just makes a huge difference on size.”
For all intents and purposes, Caldwell seems to have fully moved on from his collegiate wrestling glory days. While past accolades will likely be revisited come Friday night, Caldwell is focused on what he says is a more valuable prize than an NCAA championship trophy.
“Being a Bellator champion is so much more impressive for me. It’s so much more prestige in that belt than winning a national title,” he explained. “I’m not wrestling college kids anymore. College is one thing, but when you’re fighting grown men who’re trying to take your head off, it just brings a whole different element.
“I feel like once I’m the Bellator world champ I’ll be established across the world. The wrestling thing was only national. Bellator is global. Anytime you can make a statement and win a world championship on a global stage it’s much more prestigious.”