Every fighter who steps into the Octagon has some sort of “Welcome to the UFC” moment. For Joe Solecki, his came moments before his 2019 debut against Matt Wiman.
That’s understandable, considering that Wiman was a member of the roster since 2006 who had fought the likes of Spencer Fisher, Jim Miller, Sam Stout, Cole Miller and TJ Grant, just to name a few.
Wait, it wasn’t Wiman?
“That happened during the Wiman fight, but not with Wiman; it was with Bruce Buffer,” said Solecki. “I was like, 'Oh wow, I'm not gonna look at him because that's like looking off the side of a rollercoaster. That's any old announcer, I don't care that that's Bruce Buffer.’ (Laughs) And then after I was like, ‘Yeah, I just got announced by Bruce Buffer.’ It's pretty cool.”
After that introduction from the “Voice of the Octagon,” Solecki proceeded to win a three-round unanimous decision, and he followed that up with a first-round submission victory over Austin Hubbard last August. On Saturday, he’s 2-0 in the UFC, on a five-fight winning streak and is seen as one of the top prospects in the lightweight division, but that’s not to say he won’t have another one of those moments when he meets the man with the most fights in UFC history, Jim Miller.
“Probably so, but in a good way,” said Solecki, a native of Wenonah, New Jersey. “As a guy from Jersey originally, it's awesome. I think people that have never fought think they're gonna go in there and not fight hard because it's somebody you look up to, but it's just the opposite. I grew up a Jim Miller fan and that's why I'm gonna give him the best fight I possibly can and try to beat him.”
In combat sports, that’s the highest compliment to be paid: the respect to show up all guns blazing on fight night. No bad blood, no trash talk, no Twitter wars; just two pros throwing down for 15 minutes or less. If Solecki sounds like the new generation’s Jim Miller, that’s pretty spot-on.
“It was an ongoing joke between me and one of my coaches, John Salter, that I just want to be like Jim Miller,” said Solecki. “Come out, disappear for a couple months, train, nobody knows what I'm doing, come out, make money and go back to my family.”
The family man fighting out of Wilmington, North Carolina means it when he says that. He’s not interested in the trappings of fame; he’s content to get the call to fight every couple months, work his way towards a world title and get back home to his wife and daughter. Again, that’s Jim Miller-esque, but with less children (at the moment).
“He's got the blueprint,” Solecki said. “The only thing is, if I did get a million Twitter followers this time next year, the only difference is, no one would see me. (Laughs) I would never go to the grocery store, I would UberEats everything because that would make me so anxious I couldn't handle it. I just want to live my life, be with my family, work as hard as I possibly can and hopefully provide a good life by fighting because I love to fight.
"It's my favorite thing to do in the world, so selfishly, I want to do this as a career. That's where the only anxiety and fear comes from because I don't want to lose my job. I want to keep my job and I want to climb the ranks. Other than that, I have no ego attached to this. I don't need a million followers, I don't need anybody thinking I'm something I'm not or any attention on social media. I just want to be the best man I can be. And fighting's that vessel for me.”
The 27-year-old is doing pretty well with it thus far, to the tune of a 10-2 record that includes a win on season three of Dana White’s Contender Series that earned him a UFC contract. Yet as level-headed as he is now, he does admit that once upon a time, he thought about seeing how the other half lived.
“I've been humbled - luckily not in front of a million people like the last fight was in front of, but I've been humbled in front of my friends and family on the regional scene twice,” he said of his two pro losses to Cesar Balmaceda and Nikolas Motta. “Neither time was I taking anything lightly. But that was at a time where maybe I had different aspirations. I saw (Conor) McGregor making tons of money and being in the public eye and was like, oh, that's pretty cool, maybe that's what I want one day.
"But real quick you learn what's important. All the praise and anything that comes my way, I will appreciate and say thank you and I'll never turn opportunities down, but I realize what it's about for me and what it's not, and that's how I don't play into it.”
Yet while he’s not letting fame get to his head, he is also learning to enjoy life in the big show as he goes along, because he knows that none of this lasts forever, so you have to take it in as you go.
“I'm trying to become a better rose smeller,” Solecki laughs. “Stopping and seeing this stuff along the way. And I think there's a good chance I'll be like, ‘There's Jim Miller standing across the cage. All right, we've done pretty good, let's beat him now, let's fight him.’ But I did the opposite with my amateur and early pro career and now I look back on it like, man, those were some good times.
"But all I was worried about was getting to the UFC and having the security of this being my full-time job. And now I look back on it like those were some of the best days ever. What a great time. Even the losses, coming back from a loss is a great time to really grow and you breeze through if you try to get somewhere. But now, I think that's where being a dad and a husband has come into play, too. I'm trying to take these days, like wow, what a great day, what a great fight camp, what a great year, and not just, let me get to the top 10, let me get to a title shot, let me get to here, and the next thing you know, I'm retired. So I'm trying.”
The proof will be on Saturday night, when he gets another chance to have a UFC moment. This time, he’s even better prepared for it.
“I don't need to dislike somebody or have to talk about it on social media or have us bad mouth each other,” Solecki said. “We're gonna walk out, shake hands on weigh-in day, walk out, touch gloves on Saturday and the best man's gonna win and then we're gonna go home to our families, and I can get down with that every single time.”