As should be expected at the end of an Olympic cycle, many elite wrestlers are making the jump to MMA. At this time, every four years, the Olympic hopes of most wrestlers are permanently dashed against the uncaring rock-face of reality. MMA presents a nice means of satisfying the monetary and competitive needs of these now directionless wrestlers.
Darrion Caldwell, NCAA champ and once the number three on the United States' freestyle wrestling Olympic ladder, is the latest of this Olympic cycle's crop of wrestlers, and the most intriguing. He is the youngest, the most charismatic, and most importantly of all, the most talented. His confirmed entry into the sport is something MMA fans should pay attention to. He has all the tools, if healthy, to be a superstar in any promotion.
This could mark the beginning of a remarkable MMA career.
After the jump: Darrion's finest wrestling moments, his freakish talent, and what is standing between him and MMA stardom.
My story of Darrion Caldwell's greatest triumph
American wrestling is couched in a wholesome, family friendly and church oriented culture. I write this without a sarcastic sneer. While I am not trying to portray the wrestling community as some sort utopia imagined by Norman Rockwell, I sincerely believe that the American wrestling community helps to perpetuate what are generally regarded as desirable qualities like sacrifice, charity, fortitude, and comradery.
That being said, the crowd at the finals of the NCAA tournament tends to be well soaked in alcohol and more than a little bit scary. The finals are held in the only building in the country containing 10,000 sets of cauliflower ears (Russians call them dumplings, true story), and many of these aural organs are accompanied by highly tormented livers and rampant testosterone levels. It is a place where you have to be careful what you say, and whom you say it to.
In March of 2009, I was watching the finals of the NCAA tournament, perched high in the back of the Scottrade center among the most devoted fans in college wrestling: the Iowa Hawkeye faithful. There I sat, back to the rafters among a mass of black shirted Iowans, when Brent Metcalf strode to the center circle to wrestle for his second national title at 149 pounds.
Brent was a rock star at Iowa. He typified everything Iowa wrestling stood for: hard work, perserverance, tenaciousness, fearlessness, tirelessness, and the tendency to be just a bit of a bully. Many Iowa fans were even wearing Metcalf themed shirts. They had come, by and large, for him, and to witness his certain triumph in the finals. After the Jim Zalesky coaching tenure, which many Iowa fins deemed unacceptable and detrimental to the Iowa brand, Metcalf and his coach, Tom Brands, were the program's messiahs, embodying everything that was great in Dan Gable's wrestlers. Brent was a throwback to the Banachs, the Branches, the Steiners, and Mark Ironside. He dominated the sport in the Iowa way, through his intensity, his work ethic, his iron will, and his unmatched lung capacity.
Brent Metcalf during his junior year seemed as unbeatable as any wrestler in college. In his sophomore year, Brent won a national title and earned wrestling's version of the Heisman trophy, and he did it in the toughest weight class in wrestling history.[I] He was a smashing machine and seemed to be well on his way to three NCAA titles. Many assumed he would never again taste defeat in college.
His opponent in the 2009 finals was NC State's Darrion Caldwell. Brent's one loss as a sophomore came at the hands of Caldwell on an unusual pin by spladle (to the right). Brent exacted brutal revenge with a fifteen point technical fall shalacking in the NWCA All-Star dual in the fall of 2008, balancing out the scales of the universe which had been knocked askew by what looked to be his one fluke loss in official collegiate competition.
Everyone in attendance that night in St. Louis knew Caldwell was darn good, and worthy of being known as the second best 149 pounder in the country. As good as he was, few gave him any chance against the mighty Brent Metcalf, one of the best wrestlers of his generation and the symbol of Iowa's renewed and rightful dominance of college wrestling.
What happened next was the stuff of legends.
Caldwell dominated Metcalf in a way that Brent had never been dominated. He beat him in every phase of the sport, scoring offensive takedowns featuring, among several others, the primitive headlock throw on the left. This move is usually reserved for novices, and Darrion had the audacity to try it on the best wrestler in the NCAA. Caldwell, in turn, avoided and countered Metcalf's offense. He reversed Brent from bottom. He even asserted dominance in the top position, scoring a riding time point.
Sensing his monumental achievement, at the end of the match Darrion began to launch into a series of hand springs and summersaults to celebrate. Enraged, Metcalf, finally showing some of the explosiveness he'd been missing during the match, submarined Caldwell mid-flip, sending him careening to the ground.
While most of the crowd booed Metcalf's thuggish display, the Iowa section sat silent and shocked. Their golden boy had been defeated, and not by any gimmick or fluke, rather, he had been comprehensively thrashed in a fair and honest wrestling match. Standing among the black-clad mass in their sullen silence it was as if I had been suddenly transported to a funeral.
I, myself in a state of amazement, made the mistake of uttering what I thought was an innocent bit of razor sharp analysis.
"He actually beat him in a seven minute match."
Little did I know that was the worst thing I could say at the moment. Standing two rows in front of me, a six foot five, three hundred pound, bull of an Iowan's ears perked up. He turned aggressively toward me, forehead vein pulsating, eyes bloodshot, and bottom lip wrapped tautly around a generous mound of tobacco. Many of his large and dark garbed brethren stared at me, arms crossed as he spoke
"Yeah but he RAN for six minutes of it."
Realizing the man had just suffered a massive depreciation of a sizable emotional investment, and fearing a beatdown fueled by equal parts corn and Evan Williams, I decided it wasn't the best idea to explain to the man that avoiding take downs does not constitute running, and even then, properly subtracting the minute of riding time would at the very least reduce the duration of running to five minutes. Instead, I decided that an intricate subterfuge was my best way to diffuse the situation, I reached into my pocket under the pretense that I was receiving a phone call. As I faked a concerned communication from my wife, the angry Iowan turned his attention to more important matters, someone had passed him a tin of Rooster, wintergreen, I believe. I was safe..for now.
A wrestling prodigy
Darrion Caldwell is the most talented wrestler I've ever seen.
Let me add further qualification to that statement by saying, despite my relative youth, that I have watched extensive footage of John Smith, Lee Kemp, Nate Carr, Kenny Monday, Jordan Burroughs, Mark Schultz, and Stephen Neal (my quick list of the other most physically gifted wrestlers of all time).
Caldwell is more talented than all of them.
This talent manifested itself in wrestling performed with such style and flair that I have to resist the use of words like "sickest", "dopest", "narliest", or other X-gamesesque superlatives to describe it. On the mat, he routinely did the impossible, and he did so effortlessly, he never appeared to by striving for style points, his abilities radiated naturally from his wealth of physical gifts.
Darrion is a great athlete. He was an all state cornerback in high school, and went to North Carolina State to compete on the gridiron and the wrestling mat. The brute tangibles of his athleticism shined on the mat, he was certainly faster and more agile than any opponent, but they alone did not account for why he was so uniquely suited for wrestling. I'm sure there were plenty of people with better combine numbers than Darrion, but who could never wrestle like him, and while Caldwell would have been great at any sport, only a sport like wrestling could put his true brilliance on exhibit.
Larry Merchant once said that Floyd Mayweather boxes like a fish swims. Caldwell was the same way on a wrestling mat; his competition had to cultivate wrestling skills artificially, to Caldwell these skills were as natural as running and jumping.
Check out this highlight video for a better idea of how talented Caldwell is.
Particulalry interesting about Caldwell's wrestling is that Darrion did not just set himself apart on his feet; commonly, ultra athletic wrestlers view mat wrestling as an afterthought. Top wrestling is boring and tedious, and ultimately uneccesary when you are absolutely dominant on your feet. Darrion was an exception to this trend, and used mat techniques to score a wide variety of points against elite competition
Here he pins Ohio State superstar from top in a move that I beleive is improvised once he achieves the deep crossface with the tricep pulled in. Making up moves at this level and using them to pin four time All Americans does not happen. Yet here it is. This is Caldwell in a nutshell. He made coaching look superfluous, and that the limitations most wrestlers operated under did not apply to him.
In a way, I suppose that talent is defined by the ability to ignore limits.
Caldwell's competitive career
I have been careful to state that Darrion Caldwell is the most talented wrestler I have ever seen, not the best. Sometimes he did not get away with making stuff up as he went along, and his wrestling could be sloppy. One of the hardest lessons for the prodigiously talented to learn is when to reign things in, when to stick to the script; talent is a wonderful thing, but nobody can make it all the way to the top purely through improvisation. Darrion was faced with the need to learn this lesson when he encountered elite college wrestlers. And learn he did.
Caldwell did not arrive at NC State as a diamond in the rough. He lost one match in his final three years of high school, was victorious as the Team USA representative at Dapper Dan, was named a high school All American, and was a three time high school state champ in one of the nation's toughest wrestling states, New Jersey (I suggest watching the video of his senior year state finals, it is...impressive). Excellence was part of the plan for Darrion.
Even in light of his excellent pedigree, Darrion improved at a fantastic rate as a collegian. As a true sophomore, after a very respectable freshman season, he placed fifth at NCAAs in the aforementioned 149 pound weight class of doom, and the next year he won his incredible national championship. His most impressive wrestling display, however, came outside of college competition.
As a college junior, Brent Metcalf was already considered a contender for the world team and a likely future Olympian in freestyle wrestling at sixty six kilograms. After Caldwell beat him so convincingly in the NCAA finals, there was a great deal of speculation as to what Darrion could accomplish in freestyle. The powers that be in USA Wrestling encouraged Caldwell to compete in the 2009 freestyle world team trials and he obliged.
Darrion had no substantial background in freestyle wrestling, he never represented New Jersey at the national freestyle championships in Fargo and he never competed on the univeristy level. At the world team trials, Darrion was running head on into the very best freestyle wrestlers this country had to offer, and he was doing so in a style of wrestling that was utterly new to him.
He didn't win the trials, but he got third, beating the the reigning Olympian at 66 kilos in the process. As a true junior in college, Darrion was already within inches of the top of the American Olympic ladde,r after what was his first freestyle tournament of any consequence. At this time looked as if a true wrestling superstar was exploding into existence.
The Bad News
After his impressive world team trials showing there is not much to say about Darrion's wrestling. This is because he endured a catastrophic shoulder injury requiring multiple surgeries. Serious shoulder injuries for wrestlers and martial artists in general are tough to get past.
Darrion had to take a red-shirt year to rehabilitate his injury, and he has not looked the same on the mat since. When he finally took the mat for the Wolfpack in the latter part of his senior season, he wasn't as impressive as normal. He did manage to qualify for the NCAA tournament, but his shoulder gave way once again early in the tournament, and his college career was over.
Caldwell did attempt to qualify for the 2012 Olympic trials, but the magic was gone, he seemed to lack any of the electricty of old, and he failed to make the finals of the last chance Olympic trials qualifier. Darrion ended his time in competitve wrestling quietly and unimprssively, performing like a mere husk of himself.
If this injury degraded his wrestling to such a degree, I do not see how it would not do the same to him in other martial arts. He had a long time to recuperate from this injury before his final foray into wrestling and I honestly am doubtful that he will ever be the same again.
Darrion's shoulder problems are a huge obstacle between him and MMA excellence.
Darrion the Fighter
I believe that Darrion Caldwell's unmatched aptitude for wrestling will fully translate to any other combat sport. He possesses Jon Jones caliber physical ability and can potentially dominate in any area of MMA. Caldwell could be the world's greatest fighter if all his planets align, but physical ability is just one planet, and it leaves the remainder of the solar system to get in an improbably straight row behind it. In order to actualize his once in a generation potential, Darrion has to stay focused, stay hungry, surround himself with the right people, and most importantly, stay healthy. The likelihood of all these variables settling in their proper place is low.
Caldwell's entry into MMA could prove to be a seismic event in the sport with ripples that will be felt for years to come. Frustratingly, it could just as easily prove to be an event of no consequence what so ever.
Sometime very soon, Darrion Caldwell might be making his opponents eat their hearts out
Mike Riordan contributes to Bloody Elbow on matters of collegiate and Olympic wrestling