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Darrion Caldwell’s progression from prospect to contender to champion has been a smooth ride, for the most part; his few setbacks have seemed more like speed bumps than obstacles. The former NCAA wrestling champion began competing in MMA in 2012 and won nine straight fights to open his career before bumbling into a Joe Taimanglo guillotine choke just seconds into the final round of a fight he had been dominating at Bellator 159.
Caldwell avenged that loss in lopsided fashion in a rematch with “Baby Joe” a few months later, then resumed his winning ways, capturing the Bellator MMA bantamweight title along the way and making that lone loss look like an outlier in an otherwise uninterrupted run of dominant performances. That is, until New Year’s Eve, when Caldwell faced Kyoji Horiguchi in a cross-promotional superfight for the inaugural Rizin FF bantamweight championship at Rizin 14.
Caldwell lost to Horiguchi that night: once again by third-round guillotine, once again in a fight he had been winning, and once again he has the opportunity to even the ledger in an immediate rematch. The now 13-2 Caldwell faces Horiguchi this Friday at Bellator 222 in Madison Square Garden, this time with Caldwell’s Bellator title on the line. Asked what he needs to change in order to obtain a different outcome, Caldwell admits to frustration at having lost twice in such a similar manner.
“Making sure I stay focused throughout the course of the fight,” the 31-year-old told Sherdog.com. “I thought I’d learned my lesson when it happened with ‘Baby Joe,’ but [against Horiguchi] I had another hiccup. On June 14 I’m going to go out there and maintain that focus.”
Despite having clearly won the first round and probably the second, Caldwell claims he was unsatisfied with his performance that night, even before the fight-ending guillotine.
“Honestly, I don’t feel I did well in that fight,” Caldwell said. “It wasn’t a good fight [for me] or a good night. I’ve done everything to make sure that doesn’t happen again. I’ve stepped up my technical game. My mind is a lot more sharp. I’m going to go in there a different fighter and come out with a different result.”
One major distinction from their first fight is that the rematch will take place in Bellator’s cage rather than Rizin’s ring. Caldwell maintains that the most important difference on Friday will be an absence of mental lapses on his part, but concedes that his preferred style of attack is easier to impose in a cage than in a ring, where fighters can avoid takedowns and submissions, or force resets, by escaping.
“Absolutely [it makes a difference],” Caldwell said. “My game plan is pretty simple: use my range, jab guys, kick guys [and then] take them down and beat them up. So that’s what’s going to happen, but this time there’s not going to be a ring to stop me. This time when I take him down, I’m going to beat him up.”
As well as the differences, Caldwell appreciates the parallels between the first fight and this one. While Rizin 14 took place on New Year’s Eve in Saitama Super Arena, the time and place most emblematic of Japanese MMA, Bellator 222 will be in Madison Square Garden, a longtime mecca of prizefighting that, with the legalization of MMA in New York in 2016, has become a favorite destination for Bellator as well as the Ultimate Fighting Championship. For the native of Rahway, New Jersey, just across the river from the big city, it is a dream come true.
“It’s my first time fighting at Madison Square Garden, but it won’t be my last,” Caldwell said with a laugh. “Yeah, I’m pumped.”
Caldwell senses the buzz the Horiguchi fights have created in the sport, both on their own merits as one of the highest-level matchups that could be made outside of the UFC and as an example of promotions working together to put those matchups together. He plans on winning in resounding fashion -- his prediction for the fight is a terse “Kyoji, stiff as a board, first round” -- and is aware that should that come to pass, a rubber match would make sense on just about every level. Caldwell welcomes a trilogy, whenever it comes, but suspects it may not be immediate.
“I don’t think [Horiguchi] is going to want to fight me back-to-back-to-back,” Caldwell said. “I think he’s going to want to take some time off to gather himself after this loss [and] figure out what’s next.
However, once this weekend’s work is done, leaving “The Wolf” with no unavenged losses, he will be back on track, with designs on winning a second belt much closer to home.
“For me, getting that Rizin title is on the list,” Caldwell added, “but the Bellator 145-pound title is more my priority. I will have that trilogy fight in Rizin -- for the Rizin belt, if he’s still champion by then. But I have bigger things going on right here in Bellator, and that Bellator 145-pound belt is going to be around my waist by the end of 2020.”