SACRAMENTO, Calif. - For two years, Joe Soto and Jon Jones were both roommates and wrestling teammates at Iowa Central Community College.
Jones, of course, has gone on to become UFC light heavyweight champion and the world's best pound-for-pound mixed martial artist.
Soto has a respectable MMA career in his own right, as the former Bellator featherweight and current Tachi Palace Fights bantamweight champion. And now that he unexpectedly had an opportunity to win UFC gold dumped into his lap, Soto is using his former roommate as inspiration as he looks to pull off what would be one of the most remarkable upsets in MMA history.
"If he can do it, I can do it," Soto told reporters on Friday, after weighing in for his UFC bantamweight title fight against champion T.J. Dillashaw. "Even he wouldn't have expected to be as great as he is. So I mean, greatness is right there. Anybody can attain it. It's just mental, you have to believe."
Friday was going to be a big day for Soto regardless. The Northern California-based fighter has been at this since 2006, making his pro debut at age 19, and was going to weigh in for his long-awaited UFC debut, against Anthony Birchak.
Soto had already gotten down to the non-title limit of 136 pounds and was in his hotel room relaxing when the UFC came calling.
"I had just gotten done making 36 for my fight and I was on the bathroom floor naked on the tiles trying to cool off," Soto said. "I walk out kind of like, laying in my bed, and they were like ‘hey dude, the UFC is calling you.' I was like, 'what are they calling me for?' So I answer it and the matchmakers told me they wanted to go down and talk to me, it was an emergency."
Soto headed down to the hotel lobby, unsure what exactly the UFC wanted out of him.
"They were like, Barao's out, he's injured, do you want to take the fight?" Soto continued. "I was like ‘yeah I'll fight him.' I was like ‘I've got to lose one pound' and they were like ‘you've got two hours.' So I lost a pound and that was it."
The events happened so fast that Soto can barely wrap his brain around it all Those around the California fight scene know that Soto is no tomato can. He was Bellator's inaugural featherweight champion, laying a wicked beatdown on Yahir Reyes at Bellator 10 in Ontario, Calif. in 2009 to win the crown. He lost the title a year later, and has mainly fought in TPF since, winning their bantamweight belt in February.
Soto is just thankful he was able to make weight when it counted.
"It's something you gotta do, you gotta step up when you get the opportunity and I was ready for that, thank God," Soto said. "I was in really good shape. I lost that pound in 15 minutes really, it was the fastest pound I ever lost in my life."
While the average fan is likely asking "who?" when they hear Soto's name, Dillashaw knows it well. Soto, who lives in Santa Rosa, has been known to drop by Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, and was in Dillashaw's gym in recent weeks.
"I'm fighting a dangerous guy," Dillashaw said. "I'm fighting a dangerous opponent in Joe Soto. He's a tough guy, he's held some belts in Bellator and he just won the Tachi belt, he's a great grappler. ... I've practiced with him a couple times. I know who he is, I've watched some tape on him. He came in to a couple of our wrestling practices, our pro practices."
Soto was 22 when he became Bellator champ. He says his career went off track because of maturity issues, which he didn't elaborate on. But he said those experience better prepare him to handle his one big, unexpected shot at glory.
"I'm a professional," said Soto, who is 15-2 with 13 stoppage finishes. "I've been doing this a long time, 17 fights, a lot of title fights. I've been in this position before, so, I'm going to wrap my head around it when I get back to the hotel and get more focused. Still trying to grasp it. It's crazy. When I first got into Bellator, they didn't think I was going to win a title and I did, so, I've won titles where I was not expected to win. Not this crazy, but still."
And if that doesn't work as motivation? Well, three months ago, no one thought Dillashaw had a chance at becoming champion, either.
"Look at Dillashaw," Soto said. "He beat Barao when no one thought he was going to win."
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