Darrion Caldwell was viewed as a champion in waiting when he signed with Bellator MMA in 2014, and he has done little to alter that line of thinking in the three-plus years that have followed.
Caldwell will challenge Eduardo Dantas for the bantamweight crown in the Bellator 184 main event this Friday at the Winstar World Casino in Thackerville, Oklahoma. Their five-round battle serves as the centerpiece for a lineup that features three current or former champions, perennial contenders and a number of high-level prospects.
Before he transitioned to mixed martial arts, Caldwell was a two-time NCAA All-American wrestler at North Carolina State University, where he became a three-time Atlantic Coast Conference champion and won a national title in 2009. The Rahway, New Jersey, native still ranks second on the Wolfpack’s all-time list in career wins (109) and pins (58) and third in winning percentage (.893). Caldwell made his professional MMA debut in 2012 and won his first nine bouts before bowing to a Joe Taimanglo guillotine choke in a stunning upset at Bellator 159; he has since avenged the defeat. Operating out of the highly regarded Alliance MMA camp, the 29-year-old owns a 7-1 record in Bellator.
Dantas will carry a four-fight winning streak into the cage. The Nova Uniao star last competed at Bellator 177 in April, when he eked out a split decision against an overweight Leandro Higo in a non-title affair in Budapest, Hungary. The Brazilian’s stellar resume includes victories over Marcos Galvao (twice), Joe Warren, Zach Makovsky and Wilson Reis. Dantas, 28, boasts 10 finishes among his 20 professional wins.
The Dantas-Caldwell title clash ranks as one of the must-see fights on the Bellator 184 lineup. Here are four more:
The line of contenders that has formed behind featherweight champion Patricio Freire figures to get a little shorter when Straus collides with Sanchez in the co-headliner.
A two-time titleholder at 145 pounds, Straus has gone 1-3 in four meetings with Freire -- a fact which leaves him in a precarious position within one of Bellator’s deepest divisions. The American Top Team rep last appeared at Bellator 178 on April 21, when he submitted to a second-round guillotine choke from “Pitbull” and ceded the featherweight throne to the his talented Brazilian rival. The defeat snapped a two-fight winning streak for Straus. The 33-year-old Cincinnati native has never suffered back-to-back losses in his 32-fight career.
Sanchez has momentum on his side. The Roufusport standout enters the match on the heels of consecutive wins over the aforementioned Galvao and former World Series of Fighting champion Georgi Karakhanyan. At 27 years of age, Sanchez seems primed for an uptick. He has pieced together a 7-2 record since joining the Bellator roster in October 2014.
Curran has become something of a forgotten man in Bellator’s featherweight chase -- a trend he aims to change at the expense of the underrated Teixeira.
A two-time champion at 145 pounds who has also experienced success as a lightweight, Curran has not competed since Bellator 155 in May 2016, when he picked up a unanimous decision over Karakhanyan in Boise, Idaho. The 30-year-old holds notable wins against Freire, Straus (twice), Warren, Marlon Sandro and Roger Huerta. Curran’s 2012 knockout of Warren remains one of the most violent and talked-about sequences in Bellator history.
Teixeira, a Nova Uniao-trained Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt saw his six-fight winning streak snapped in a split decision loss to onetime M-1 Global champion Daniel Weichel at Bellator 177 on April 14. He was a qualifier on Season 1 of “The Ultimate Fighter Brazil” and later signed an Ultimate Fighting Championship contract, but he received his walking papers following a contentious defeat to Hugo Viana at UFC 147 in June 2012.
Taimanglo and Higo will cross paths in an effort to stay relevant in the bantamweight division.
A former Pacific Xtreme Combat champion, Taimanglo has rattled off four wins in five appearances, a unanimous decision loss to Caldwell at Bellator 167 in December his only misstep. The Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt has secured 12 of his 23 career victories by submission, including four by rear-naked choke, two by arm-triangle choke and one each by guillotine choke, north-south choke, brabo choke, triangle choke and kneebar. Tamainglo, 33, has compiled a 6-3 mark in Bellator.
Higo’s loss to Dantas in his promotional debut was his first in nearly five years and closed the book on an eight-fight winning streak. The 28-year-old Pitbull Brothers rep has already captured titles in the Legacy Fighting Alliance and Resurrection Fighting Alliance organization. Higo sports 13 finishes among his 17 professional victories, eight of them inside one round.
Two of Bellator’s more promising young lightweights find themselves on a collision course, as they attempt to scale the company ladder at 155 pounds.
Spawned by the Team Quest and Oceanside Jiu-Jitsu camps, Kozola has finished all eight of his opponents, seven of them by knockout or technical knockout. The 27-year-old taekwondo black belt last fought at Bellator 175 on March 31, when he needed just 28 seconds to dispatch Jake Roberts with punches at the Allstate Arena in Rosemont, Illinois. It was the third sub-minute win of Kozola’s brief career.
Banks has raced out to a 6-0 start since turning pro. The 28-year-old represented the Blackzilians on Season 21 of “The Ultimate Fighter” but did not procure an Ultimate Fighting Championship contract. Like Jon Jones and Cain Velasquez before him, Banks wrestled collegiately at Iowa Central Community College; he won a junior college national championship at 157 pounds.