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Bellator hopes Darrion Caldwell-Kyoji Horiguchi title fight opens main card with a bang

Darrion Caldwell and Kyoji Horiguchi laugh during Bellator

Darrion Caldwell and Kyoji Horiguchi laugh during Bellator 222 media day on Wednesday, June 12, 2019. Credit: Newsday / Ryan Gerbosi

There’s one fight at Bellator 222 that could have a real impact on how the world of mixed martial arts operates.

It’s not the championship main event between Rory MacDonald and Neiman Gracie, despite its place in Bellator’s welterweight grand prix, and it certainly is not the co-main event between Chael Sonnen and Lyoto Machida, two fighters whose names carry more weight than their ability does at this stage in their careers.

Instead, it’s the first fight of Friday’s main card at Madison Square Garden.

Darrion Caldwell defends his 135-pound belt against Rizin bantamweight champion Kyoji Horiguchi in a five-round championship bout to lead off the main card. Title fights typically headline or serve as a co-main event, and given the unique nature of this bout between champions of competing promotions, one could expect this fight to receive the same treatment.

But Caldwell, a loyal Bellator company man since 2014, isn’t bothered by his placement.

“I just think it makes for a better show,” Caldwell said. “You start off with a bang, you start off with a title fight, you really get the juices flowing, then at the end of the night you get another title fight, right before that you get Chael Sonnen and Lyoto Machida, two legends. I don’t think you can get a better night than that.”

Bellator president Scott Coker gave a similar sentiment, saying they wanted to start with “a big bang” on a card airing live in Horiguchi’s home country of Japan. Former UFC bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz, a teammate of Caldwell, was on board with that.

“For all I know, the organization wants Darrion to be like the lead hitter of a baseball team where you really get the ball rolling and the other guys follow. The lead hitter on a baseball roster can be the most important hitter, that gets the whole show the way it’s supposed to be going,” Cruz said. “My interpretation of the facts put in front of me is that they want Darrion to go first cause they know he’s going to kill the show.”

Placement aside, this match could help usher a new era in the MMA world. Caldwell and Horiguchi meet for the second time in less than six months as part of a cross-promotion strategy, something Coker and Rizin president Nobuyuki Sakakibara previously did when running Strikeforce and Pride respectively, but fell out of fashion when the UFC purchased and absorbed both companies. Horiguchi won the first bout via submission in Japan under Rizin’s ruleset, triggering a rematch clause in the contract for a return bout under the Bellator banner.

While there are no concrete plans for future cross-promotion, Horiguchi is expected to defend both belts should he beat Caldwell.

“I would like to take those two belts, go back to Japan and hopefully that would be a good thing for MMA, the sport overall,” said Horiguchi through a translator. “Me being champion of two promotions, I think it’s a good thing for the sport.”

Caldwell, who established himself atop the Bellator bantamweight division with a 10-1 record in the promotion, has been happy to take on the challenge of an outside competitor.

“Honestly, my dad used to always tell me if they’re going to beat you, they’re going to have to go to another planet,” Caldwell said. “And that’s pretty much what they had to do.”

While Caldwell said he lost focus during the first fight, he believes he’ll have the advantage over Horiguchi after getting a good look at him the first time around. Given the change in rulesets, which includes the use of Bellator’s cage instead of Rizin’s ring, Cruz sees this as the true contest, one Caldwell won’t lose.

“There’s no longer a lot of things in this situation to where this is going to be the fight it’s supposed to be, and not the fight in Japan that they wanted to make it,” Cruz said.

“When this night goes the way it should’ve the first time, I think he can go in there and just dominate this dude for every minute of the fight. I don’t think there’s going to be very many opportunities for Horiguchi to be ahead in any of these rounds. I think we win all five rounds or we finish it.”

New York Sports