Bellator MMA has a potential superstar on its hands.
Darrion Caldwell will put his undefeated record on the line against Joe Taimanglo in what amounts to a bantamweight title eliminator in the Bellator 159 main event on Friday at the Kansas Star Arena in Mulvane, Kansas. In the co-headliner, Ultimate Fighting Championship veteran Melvin Guillard collides with Bellator Season 8 lightweight tournament winner David Rickels. The rest of the five-fight main card features a featherweight clash pairing Daniel Weichel with Emmanuel Sanchez, a light heavyweight tilt pitting Luiz Philipe Lins against Guilherme Viana and a women’s strawweight affair matching Bruna Ellen with Jessica Middleton.
The unquestioned centerpiece of the event, Caldwell has touched off his professional MMA career with nine straight wins. The 28-year-old last appeared at Bellator 151 on March 4, when he obliterated former two-division titleholder Joe Warren before choking him unconscious in a little more than three minutes; it remains one of the year’s worst beatdowns. Caldwell before transitioning to mixed martial arts was a two-time NCAA All-American wrestler at North Carolina State University, where he became a three-time Atlanta 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).
Tamainglo, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt and former Pacific Xtreme Combat titleholder, has rattled off three straight victories since his decision loss to Robert Emerson two years ago. The 32-year-old Guam native last fought at Bellator 151 in March, when he captured a three-round unanimous decision from American Top Team’s Sirwan Kakai.
With the Caldwell-Tamainglo battle on the marquee, here is what to watch for at Bellator 159:
Guillard appears to be running out of time -- and chances.
Wandering into journeyman territory, “The Young Assassin” will try to stop a career-worst three-fight losing streak when he tackles Rickels in the co-feature. Guillard’s struggles in actuality date back much further, as he has gone 3-8 with one no-contest in 12 appearances since recording consecutive UFC victories over Ronys Torres, Waylon Lowe, Jeremy Stephens, Evan Dunham and Shane Roller between Feb. 6, 2010 and July 2, 2011. The 33-year-old New Orleans native last competed at Bellator 149 in February, when he was on the receiving end of a second-round knockout at the hands of Derek Campos.
Rickels has become a Bellator mainstay. Known for his flamboyant entrances and aggressive style, the 27-year-old Derby, Kansas, native has compiled a 10-4 record within the promotion, including wins over Saad Awad and Jordan Smith.
A former M-1 Global champion with a long track record of success, Weichel has become one of Bellator’s most consistent featherweights.
The 31-year-old Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt will meet Sanchez in a featherweight showcase, as he tries to secure another shot at promotional gold. Weichel bounced back from his heartbreaking knockout loss to then-champion Patricio Freire with a three-round unanimous decision over onetime World Series of Fighting and Tachi Palace Fights titleholder Georgi Karakhanyan at Bellator 147 on Dec. 4. He has secured more than half (21) of his 36 career victories by submission.
Sanchez, 25, has made a steady climb on the featherweight ladder and will enter the cage with the wind of a three-fight winning streak at his back. Based at the star-studded Roufusport camp in Milwaukee, he last fought at Bellator 149 in February, when he walked away with a split decision over Daniel Pineda at the Toyota Center in Houston.
All eyes will be on Lins’ surgically repaired knee when the Nova Uniao export faces Viana in a featured pairing at 205 pounds.
Lins, 30, was a hot prospect when he reached the semifinals of the 2014 Bellator Summer Series light heavyweight tournament two years ago. However, a knee injury resulted in a first-round technical knockout loss -- the first of his career -- to Kelly Anundson and has kept the Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt on the sidelines ever since. Lins started his career with nine straight victories, seven of them finishes.
Spawned by the Ruas Vale Tudo camp, Viana has won four of his past five bouts, a decision loss to Tristar Gym rep Francis Carmont the lone setback. The 30-year-old Brazilian last appeared at Bellator 146 on Nov. 20, when he forced a second-round doctor stoppage on Houston Alexander.
Bellator sees a high ceiling in Ellen.
The 20-year-old prospect will make her organizational debut opposite Middleton in an intriguing battle at 115 pounds. Ellen trains out of a Team Nogueira affiliate in Campinas, Brazil, and has kicked off her pro career with back-to-back victories. She has not fought since stopping Pamela Mara Assis on a first-round technical knockout under the Max Fight banner nearly a year ago.
Middleton, 28, will step into her professional debut as a significant underdog. She made the rounds on the highlight reels as an amateur in 2014, when she knocked out Holly Torrez with a spinning backfist at a Blackout Fighting Championship event in Missouri.