Reigning Bellator MMA champion Darrion Caldwell will let his title rest on his mantle, as he moves up to 145 pounds to challenge Noad Lahat in the Bellator 204 main event on Friday at the Sanford Pentagon in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. A convincing win over Lahat could potentially set the stage for a champion-versus-champion superfight against featherweight titleholder Patricio Freire.
Ahead of Caldwell’s showdown with Lahat, here are five moments that have come to define him:
1. The Big Stage
Caldwell was an undefeated prospect with a 3-0 record when he made his promotional debut against Lance Surma as a featherweight at Bellator 112 on March 14, 2014. When the onetime NCAA wrestling champion attempted a flying knee in the first round, it became apparent that he was not going to be fazed by the big stage. Caldwell was still in the air when he grabbed his opponent’s head in the clinch and landed a knee to the body. Surma caught the Rahway, New Jersey, native’s leg, picked him up and dumped him to the mat. However, Caldwell secured a guillotine choke, stood and kept squeezing until the overmatched Surma bowed out a mere 50 seconds into the match. It was the first submission victory for “The Wolf,” who served notice that he was more than just a wrestler. Bellator had a star in the making.
2. Master Class
In his sixth fight with the Bellator MMA organization, Caldwell was paired with former two-division champion Joe Warren at Bellator 151 on March 4, 2016. Many expected an evenly matched affair, but that was not what transpired. After a feeling-out period on the feet, Caldwell executed one of his trademark suplexes on the self-proclaimed “Baddest Man on the Planet.” From there, he transitioned effortlessly to Warren’s back, secured position with one hook and cinched the fight-ending rear-naked choke. The maneuver left Warren unconscious 3:23 into the first round. It was Caldwell’s most significant victory at the time.
3. A Taste of His Own Medicine
Caldwell was booked opposite Joe Taimanglo at Bellator 159 on July 22, 2016 and was tapped as a substantial favorite. Most observers expected him to win handily. Caldwell enter the cage brimming with confidence, courtesy of his perfect 9-0 record. However, nine seconds into the third round, “The Wolf” was forced to tap after becoming hopelessly entangled in a Taimanglo guillotine choke. It remains the only blemish on Caldwell’s resume, and he avenged the defeat in his rematch with the Guamanian powerhouse less than five months later.
4. Bantamweight King
Caldwell was supposed to challenge bantamweight champion Eduardo Dantas at Bellator 177, but an injury prompted his withdrawal. He was forced to wait until Bellator 184 on Oct. 6. Caldwell signaled his intent early on with a powerful suplex -- a move that had served him well during his days as an All-American wrestler at North Carolina State University. He utilized a combination of relentless takedowns and unorthodox striking throughout the five-round battle, as he came away with a unanimous decision and captured Bellator gold at 135 pounds.
5. Defending the Throne
In his first title defense, Caldwell faced submission specialist Leandro Higo at Bellator 195 on March 2. Higo had never been submitted in his 21 previous professional appearances. That changed 2:36 into the first round, as Caldwell forced the Brazilian to the canvas from the clinch, immediately seized control of his neck and clamped down on a guillotine choke for the finish. The win gave Caldwell a stage to showcase his continued development and allowed him to blend together his wrestling and submission skills. Afterward, the Alliance MMA standout revealed his interest in returning to the 145-pound weight class.