Lightweight prospect Joe Solecki brings a lot to the Octagon in terms of talent. But the most important trait the new member of the UFC’s lightweight roster possesses may be his honesty.
So while the New Jersey native garnered positive notices over the last couple years and obviously impressed UFC matchmakers Sean Shelby and Mick Maynard enough for them to bring him into this season of the Contender Series, he didn’t know if he had done enough to get that call.
“I thought I had a lot left to do, still,” said Solecki. “Looking back, 7-2 is a really good record and a lot of other guys on this season have similar records. But, for me, I dropped one fight early on in my career to a really tough guy and I dropped a second not too long ago – just under a year ago – and I was knocked out in a fight that I was winning.
I’m really competitive and I grew up competing my whole life and I had a really hard time leading up to the fight even seeing myself as anything other than a guy who lost twice. I didn’t see myself as a guy that won seven times; I was the guy who lost twice. So I almost thought I didn’t deserve the call, even though on paper and from the outside looking in, I think I definitely did.”
He did deserve it, and on fight night in Las Vegas on July 9, he proved he belonged with a submission of Jesse James Wallace that took less than four minutes. UFC President Dana White agreed that Solecki belonged, awarding the 25-year-old a contract with the promotion.
Then, after half a day of fishing with his buddies, it was back to the gym for Solecki.
“Everything I’ve always done, right back to it,” he said. “It’s been the same old, back to the grind and just waiting for the call.”
And though he will have the UFC letters on his gloves the next time he fights, Solecki’s honesty about his place in the great scheme of things remains intact.
“I told my boxing coach, at this time next year, if I don’t play my cards right, I could be out of a job,” Solecki said. “Some guys relax between fights; some guys find time during training camp to relax. But for me, it’s only gonna be when my career’s over that I’ll be able to sit back and say, ‘This is what I did and I can be proud of this.’ You’ve got to stay hungry and nothing’s ever good enough.”
Or as he puts it more succinctly, “Shut up and get to work.”
If that’s not a Jersey attitude, what is? That shows Solecki’s roots, even though he now makes his home in Wilmington, North Carolina, and as a martial artist since the age of six, the idea that evolution and education is ongoing is also ingrained in him.
Yes, six. And while his trips to the dojo as a kid were to keep busy, ultimately, martial arts, particularly jiu-jitsu, became more than just an afterschool activity.
“I wasn’t very good,” Solecki said when describing his early days on the mat. “From six to 16, I won no gold medals. People say, ‘Oh, he’s just being humble.’ Then I show pictures of me standing next to the podium at a tournament in the participants’ line.”
It didn’t matter. He just kept showing up.
“I was in adult class when I was eight,” he said. “They were all grown men but they treated me like one of the guys. So even if I wasn’t good at it, I had a place to call home. I think that played a big part in it. As far as the results, I read a quote that said, ‘Rejection breeds obsession,’ and I was awful. But every time I lost, I thought if I can win, I’m gonna make everybody proud and I’m gonna get the praise and be the hero, and I think I became obsessed with that.”
His persistence paid off, and he ultimately earned his black belt from his longtime coach John Hassett. There were other benefits, as well.
“Everything good I have has come through that,” said. “I even met my wife through jiu-jitsu. It’s been a weird, crazy life and I think it worked out for the best.”
So when Solecki was able to use his jiu-jitsu to win the biggest fight of his career against Wallace, it put added meaning on his victory.
“It was very satisfying,” he said. “I think sometimes, there’s the comparison to straight jiu-jitsu guys as far as, ‘this guy is gonna take you down and submit you, but if he can’t do that, there’s no hope and no prayer.’ And I think what was nice for me was that I got to use my jiu-jitsu, I got to do what people expected out of me, which I think was really cool and it’s what I worked my whole life at. But before that, I got to show my striking, my wrestling and pressure, and it set up for me. And from what Dana said, I came off as a complete fighter and I used my jiu-jitsu to finish. And that’s been my goal all along, to become a complete fighter and eventually be so good everywhere that however the finish comes, I can take it.”
Not that he’s going to ever be fully satisfied. That will come later. For now, it’s work hard, show up and fight. And he’s cool with that.
“This is what I’ve always wanted,” Solecki said. “Who doesn’t love their chance to write their movie and live their movie? And this is mine.”