Darrion Caldwell prepares for title defense

Former NC State wrestling national champion defends Bellator world title on Friday

Darrion Caldwell won the Bellator world title last October (photo courtesy Bellator MMA)

There’s an old saying among fighters that you aren’t really a champion until you’ve defended your title at least once. Don’t tell that to Darrion Caldwell, though.

“I don’t think that’s true,” said the former Wolfpack wrestling star. “If that was the case, then seniors that win the national title are not really a champion, because they don’t get a chance to defend that title.

“Once you’re a champion, you’re a champion,” he concluded. “No one can take that from you.”

Caldwell should know. He’s won plenty of titles in his career, including ACC titles in all four years with the Wolfpack and the NCAA title in 2009.

Now an MMA fighter and Bellator’s reigning bantamweight world champion, Caldwell has been watching NC State’s recent wrestling success with pride.

“Wolfpack wrestling has done a phenomenal job, ever since (coach) Pat Poplizio got there,” he said. “Man, they’ve been on a ride. They’ve got a bunch of studs. I really think in the next few years, they’re going to win the national title.”

He’s quick to point out that this year’s ACC title is NC State’s first since Caldwell’s freshman year. “We won the ACC title by the largest margin ever,” he said. “I don’t think that’s been broken yet.”

Caldwell credits his time at State for helping to prepare him for his pro career.

“I grew up wrestling,” he said. “I always had that ‘never say die’ attitude, because of that sport. When I got to college, being at NC State just took it to the next level. Guys around me were all out, balls out. It definitely helped in my transition to MMA.”

Caldwell has been the Bellator champion since defeating Eduardo Dantas for the belt last October. He’ll make his first title defense against Leandro Higo on Friday.

“Any time you’re a national champion, it’s just for the nation. Only people here can win that,” Caldwell said. “Being a world champ is definitely a different feeling. You’ve got guys from Brazil and Europe trying to beat you. Guys from Africa and Russia are trying to be the world champion. It’s like the nationals on steroids.”

Despite that, Caldwell hasn’t changed his preparation, or his goals, at all.

“The goal’s still the same,” he said. “Be better than I was last fight. It’s no difference. Obviously, I’ve got a strap around my waist, and guys are coming to take it. So that pushes me a little harder. When you’re a champion, you get put in a different bracket, but I’ve still got the same teammates. The guys around me are still grinding. I wake up, go to practice, come home to my girlfriend, then go to the next training session. Only difference is you’re under a microscope now.”

He’ll face a wily veteran in Higo on Friday. The Brazilian black belt began his pro career when Caldwell was still in high school and has an 18-3 record.

“He doesn’t present any challenges I haven’t seen before, with my training team,” Caldwell said. “I do know I’ll be the champion for a while. This belt will be around my waist for a really long time.”