When it comes to blue-chip prospects, Darrion Caldwell's accolades speak for themselves. Bellator's undefeated up-and-comer made a colligate career out of throttling foes on the mats, cresting in a stellar run towards gold in the 2009 NCAA wrestling championships. So while Caldwell may have since shifted his goals to the pugilistic side of the game, that doesn't mean he's abandoned his singlet-minded sensibilities.
Caldwell is slated to meet one-time title challenger Rafael Silva this Friday on the main card of Bellator 137. It's a bout that is quintessentially Scott Coker in it's booking -- Caldwell, a perfect 6-0 in his young MMA career, finally being given his sink or swim moment on a stage bigger against a rival more grizzled than he's ever faced before.
Indeed, the Brazilian's ledger remains an imposing one on paper: only once has Silva been felled over his last 15 fights. That stumble, however, came against wrestling machismo machine Joe Warren, making Friday's task a daunting one, but one where Caldwell sees a clear out if he can emulate the former Bellator champion and fellow mat standout.
"I feel like Joe Warren pretty much gave me the blueprint, and I'm just going to stick to that," Caldwell told MMAFighting.com.
"I hate to really say that, but I got the blueprint. I'm ready for this fight."
A win could very well propel the star wrestler into the upper tier of Bellator's bantamweight division. Silva nearly captured the title last year before fading late to Warren's takedown cavalcade, and unlike Caldwell's former home at featherweight, the Bellator 135-pound roster isn't particularly deep, meaning advancement could come swiftly if the one-time Olympic hopeful can prove his four-year experiment in MMA has finally readied him for the bigtime.
"This is my moment to prove to everyone that I'm a world class MMA fighter," said Caldwell.
"I know he's pretty well-rounded, so I think this will be a good fight for me. I actually think it's perfect fight for me. Him having a title shot recently, and him having won that title shot, I think if I put this guy away, that'll be my message that I'm ready to be that guy Bellator wants and to take over the division."
In a way, this has all come relatively fast for Caldwell. It wasn't long ago that the 27-year-old was polishing off a sterling -- if somewhat limited -- colligate career at North Carolina State, with an eye focused squarely on representing the stars and stripes in the 2012 Olympic games. But the injuries that plagued Caldwell throughout university followed him post-graduation, stripping him of his best and leaving him on the outside looking in when it came time for Olympic trials.
But one sport's loss was another's gain. Rather than waiting four years to try again, Caldwell hit his fledging MMA career in a full-out sprint, winning his first two fights in four months at the end of 2012 with a meager understanding of how to string together a basic combination. A goliath 5-foot-10 bantamweight, his growth since has been steady but promising, as four more victories followed punctuated by a pair of first-round submissions inside the Bellator cage.
Now, on the precipice of his biggest opportunity, Caldwell finally feels like the fighter he never knew he was destined to be.
"It's actually kind of surprising," he admitted. "Being a wrestler for so long, I felt like I'd be wrestling for the rest of my life. But when the opportunity presented itself here in the MMA world, I took it and ran with it. It took a little time to realize that there was a guy out here trying to put me in a position where I can't defend myself, or you know, knock me unconscious. It's definitely been a different outlook and a different perspective but I'm loving every bit of it.
"So come [Friday night], I see myself finishing in devastating fashion."