Darrion Caldwell didn’t realize it, but he needed to be humbled — and that’s exactly what happened ahead of his first fight in over a year.
Caldwell will return to action at Bellator 290 when he faces Nikita Mikhailov in a bantamweight preliminary bout. The event takes place Feb. 4 at the Kia Forum in Inglewood, Calif., and the main will serve as the first promotional event to air on CBS.
It will be Caldwell’s first fight since January 2022, a third-round TKO loss to Enrique Barzola at Bellator 273 — the third straight loss for Caldwell. With a year of reflection, rebuilding, and rehabilitation, Caldwell is ready to return.
“A lot of the time off has been dedicated to building — stripping everything [away] that I was used to that lingered over, and just becoming coachable again,” Caldwell told MMA Fighting.
“I got a little bit of surgery since I was battling with some injuries the last couple of years, so it feels good to be healthy for this camp and getting that extra stuff done with.”
When he entered the promotion in 2014, Caldwell went on an incredible run that led to winning the Bellator bantamweight title and defending it twice. He would go on to lose the title, and consecutive fights, to Kyoji Horiguchi in December 2018 at RIZIN 14 and Bellator 222. Since then, Caldwell picked up a pair of wins, and now he finds himself in the longest losing streak of his career.
With finding success through most of his MMA career, the 35-year-old Caldwell felt like he just needed to make a few tweaks to his game, and that he was doing everything the correct way. But following his loss to Barzola, he had to have some difficult conversations with his coaches at Kill Cliff FC that made him rethink everything.
“It’s one of those things where it’s almost impossible for you to realize,” Caldwell said. “It’s not until you have coaches like Greg Jones and Henri Hooft telling you exactly what it is — not necessarily what you want to hear, but telling you what it is. It was impossible for me to know I needed a shift, but the coaches here were real with me and telling me how I’ve been showing up.
“In my mind, all I have to do is show up and I’m doing everything right. But you can’t push yourself as hard as someone else can. That’s been the biggest thing for me is giving up control and just letting go. When someone like Greg Jones tells me, ‘You’re not giving maximum effort,’ and I think I am, I have to give up that control. That’s been an adjustment for me, just how to be coachable again because I’ve been stuck in my own ways. I show up, I think I’m doing things right, then Henri will pull me aside and say, ‘You are doing this thing right here, and then it happens in a fight and you quit like you did here.’ It takes people being real with you for you to be able to realize these things.”
Caldwell was never short on confidence, he admits, but after speaking with his coaches and being taken to a different place mentally as a pro MMA fighter, it’s been back to the basics before building the foundation to the next chapter of his career.
“It was real f****** rough. It’s been really humbling,” Caldwell explained. “It’s hard to swallow your pride, you know? But the best guys in the world do it, and the guys who are the best for the longest, that’s what they do. That’s what I’ve been doing. It’s been working, and everyone is going to see that Feb. 4 when I’m locked in.
“[Some] call it a revelation, I call it a resurrection, because I’ve been through this. What else can I feel that I haven’t already experienced? I can’t lose as bad as I’ve lost before. There’s no emotions for me right now, it’s just putting in the work and staying locked in. It’s a resurrection. I’m reborn again, and I’ve come to terms with who I am. And I’ve learned that I can just be myself, and be happy with that. People can relate to that.”
Mikhailov will also look to get back on track as, coincidentally enough, he was defeated by Barzola in his most recent outing at Bellator 278, which snapped a five-fight win streak. The 24-year-old began his Bellator career with a decision win over Brian Moore at Bellator 269 in October 2021 and a third-round TKO win over Blaine Shutt at Bellator 273 in January 2022.
Caldwell has big aspirations in 2023, and even hopes to face Patricio Pitbull if the featherweight champion is interested in moving down to 135. Caldwell isn’t looking too far ahead, however, because to get to where he wants to go, it starts with beating Mikhailov on a massive event for the promotion.
“It means a lot, it’s everything I wanted,” Caldwell said about the event. “I want to get back on track and back in the spotlight because that’s what I’m going to do on Feb. 4. I know it’s the Bader and Fedor card, but I want to come in and steal the show. I’m going to do everything in my ability to make sure I’m the most talked about fight of the night, regardless of where I’m at on the card.
“It’s my job to make sure that there is buzz in the arena and around the world after my fight. I want to go out there and just show up right. It’s the best I’ve ever felt physically, I’m going to put my best foot forward, and 2023 is going to be the year that I break out. I’ve been in big spots before. I’ve been up, I’ve been down, and now I want to break through again.”