One of the most revealing moments in the career of any blue-chip prospect is often the first brush with adversity. Winning is easy, but only through hardship does the purview of reflection clearly enter the picture, when the embarrassment of a night gone wrong tramples upon a self-image that may have stood so strong just hours before.
And for Darrion Caldwell, that moment of clarity came this past summer.
Caldwell suffered the first professional setback of his mixed martial arts career in July when he tapped to a third-round guillotine at the hands of little-known Joe Taimanglo at Bellator 159. It was a stunning defeat. Las Vegas oddsmakers had Caldwell pinned as more than a 14-1 favorite coming into the contest, and considering the effortless way the 2009 NCAA champion had laid waste to some of the Bellator bantamweight division's best, that line felt like it could've been higher.
But what looked to be another masterful performance turned on a dime when Caldwell shot for a lazy takedown in the opening seconds of round three, and Taimanglo, ever the opportunist, seized a choke that cemented him as the victor of one of the biggest statistical upsets in the sport's young history.
Caldwell, afterward, was distraught. Four years of increasingly easygoing victories had breed a sense of entitlement among he and his team. The hard work ceased being quite as hard, little by little, inch by inch, and although Caldwell could sense something was amiss, it was easy to dismiss those nagging feelings when he was manhandling former champions like they were made from tissue paper. But that moment of real hurt in the bowels of the Kansas Star Arena, as an overwhelming underdog celebrated and the fight world settled into thought, questioning if maybe it pegged Caldwell wrong, was exactly the kind of wake-up call Caldwell needed.
"I think guys got complacent around me, which caused me to be complacent," Caldwell admitted to MMA Fighting ahead of his rematch against Taimanglo at Bellator 167. "You know how the five people you hang around the most are who you're going to be like, almost? So we had guys, if the five closest people are nonchalant about everything and ‘oh, it's okay' -- no, this can't be right. You need to surround yourself with guys who, ‘it's not okay, you're not training hard enough.'
"I feel like everything was let off the gas, from the training that I was doing -- I literally had fights with my coach on why am I not training right now. He'd go, ‘don't worry about it, you'll be fine.' I feel like because I was winning so many fights fairly easily, with minimum work put in, that he felt like we could do that all the way up until the end of time. But good thing it happened when it did. It stopped me dead in my tracks and said, ‘hey, you're training at 50 right now, you need to be at 100.'"
The hard decisions began early that same night for Caldwell. After the fight, in the locker room, he told his old coach that some series adjustments needed to be made moving forward. He watched a replay of the bout later that evening in the hotel lobby, and by the following Monday, he had uprooted his life from Redlands, California to the breezy beaches of San Diego. He hasn't left since, committing himself full-time to the halls of Alliance MMA alongside UFC bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz and UFC featherweight contender Jeremy Stephens, and under the tutelage of Eric del Fierro.
Caldwell says the change has been a night and day difference. His focus the past four months has strictly been on fighting, nothing else. And though he pleaded for a rematch with Taimanglo to Bellator's chief deciders, Scott Coker and Rich Chou, in the hours immediately after his loss, he considers himself lucky to have gotten his wish, even if it was largely due to the fact that Taimanglo missed weight by two pounds and thus was unable to smoothly transition into a title shot.
"I knew I was winning the fight. I knew he got lucky," Caldwell said. "He caught me with his bread and butter. But it was just something I wanted, the way I was dominating the fight, and that it was a title eliminator -- if a guy doesn't make weight, you can't really rely on a guy like that to make weight for a title fight, then that title becomes vacant if he wins that fight. So who are you really going to put in there? You can't rely on this guy. So I just wanted to fight him again and show the truth.
"He's just not on my level. He's a C-class guy, and that just shouldn't have happened, but it is what it is. I moved forward, I watched that fight that night. I watched him choke me out that night and I made a promise to myself that it'll never happen again."
To make matters more awkward, Caldwell's unexpected chance at revenge actually takes place one day after an event that would have likely served as his grand coronation.
Just 24 hours before Caldwell and Taimanglo dance again, in the very same WinStar World Casino venue, Bellator bantamweight champion Eduardo Dantas will go to battle against a man whom Caldwell delivered a savage beating upon just eight months ago: former Bellator two-division champion Joe Warren. But while Caldwell would be within his rights to question the booking, he instead places the blame solely on himself.
"You can't fight for the title off a loss, you know? So, in the division, on the outside looking in, I think it makes sense that Joe (Warren) is the next in line if I want a rematch, if I want to fight Baby Joe," Caldwell said. "This guy (Taimanglo), you can't fight a title fight if you can't make weight. And I can't fight a title fight coming off a loss. So I feel like the fight with Joe and Dantas make sense. Obviously, I'd like it to be me. I'd like to be the guy fighting for the title, but I'm happy to avenge my loss and put that in the back of my head and keep it moving."
On a much smaller scale, the opportunity Caldwell now faces somewhat mirrors the situation that unfolded in the UFC earlier this year, when the scorching hype train of Conor McGregor came crashing to a halt with an unexpected loss to Nate Diaz. Much like that fight and its ensuing rematch, the stakes going into Bellator 167 for Caldwell are vast. Another loss to Taimanglo would do irreparable damage to Caldwell's status as one of the best prospects in the division, and would forever be a stain upon his title chances.
But to Caldwell, that outcome isn't a possibility. He knows exactly what mistakes he made and he corrected them tenfold. Now it is time for four months of reflection to be paid forward.
"My gameplan is to go out there and smash this dude. Just like it was with Joe Warren, and just like it was with Shawn Bunch and the rest of the guys who I've fought," Caldwell said. "There were adjustments in my camp that I needed to make, and (adjustments in) everything leading up to the fight that I needed to make, so I made those adjustments and now we're here.
"I am the uncrowned king, and within the next year, I'm going to be the crowned king. So just keep your eyes open. Don't blink for this fight, I'm telling you. I'm telling you, there's going to be some blood on the canvas. There's going to be bodies on the canvas. I'm telling you, do not blink. I'm going out there with a vengeance."