“I think we are going to come in there and butt heads and the better man is going to win.”
When one imagines how their UFC debut will conclude, the outcomes are usually win, lose or draw. Not many prepare themselves for "disqualification by up-kick". But for New Jersey product Greg Soto, that became his reality at UFC 111 in March.
In front of a local Newark crowd, Soto started his Octagon career against The Ultimate Fighter season 7 veteran Matt Riddle. The match began the same as always for Riddle, but for Soto, this fight was taken on short notice and would mark his first professional fight without his mentor, coach and UFC lightweight Kurt Pellegrino in his corner.
“Even though it was on a little bit of short notice, I felt well prepared. It was great fighting in New Jersey in front of a hometown crowd,” Soto said of his first fight. “Riddle fought his game and I let him play that game that night. He got the better of me.”
In the opening two rounds, Soto fought Riddle's fight. Riddle took Soto down and controlled him throughout those first 10 minutes.
Before the third round started, Soto knew that he was down on the scorecards and needed to pull out a victory in the final frame. Soto was still optimistic about his chances, “I felt really fresh going into the third round. I felt like I was coming on and Riddle was really dying out fast. I think I was getting the better of the stand-up in the fight.”
The final round started out with much of the same, as Riddle scored another takedown. Soto made a submission attempt, which Riddle postured up and out of. What Soto saw next was the opening he needed to finish the fight, a defenseless Riddle squatting right in front him and all of this could be ended with one concrete up-kick. Soto landed that kick, but the problem was Riddle wasn't in a squat. His knee was on the ground.
“I was trying to up-kick him. What I saw was, I had a triangle attempt and he jerked out of it. I thought he was sitting like a baseball catcher. But he had one knee down and I couldn't see it. I railed him. Soon as I saw him sit up I tried to kick him as hard as I could in the face. I could see right away something was wrong based on how the referee ran up so quick. I could see that he must've had a knee down or something. I knew I had made a mistake.”
A few moments later, the fight was called and Soto had lost by disqualification. No matter what transpired earlier in the fight, with that one action Soto was now 0-1 in the UFC and his night of fighting was over. To make things worse, this was not only Soto’s first loss in the UFC, but it was his first loss as a professional fighter.
“Disappointment,” lamented Soto, describing how he felt in the cage after the fight. “It was just utter disappointment. In hindsight, I would've fought a different strategy and not wrestled with him. I would've really picked my shots. I should have executed my game-plan better at creating space between us as opposed to wrestling with him.”
At UFC 118, Soto has his shot at redemption in the Octagon. He will be taking on another Ultimate Fighter cast member in Nick Osipczak. The lanky British striker took on Riddle in his first UFC match and won via TKO in the third round. This fact does not dissuade Soto about his chances in his second UFC appearance. “I think we match up well. I think this is a classic ‘striker vs. grappler’ match,” commented Soto. “I feel I'm much more well-rounded than he is. He is very good at stand-up. He uses his length very well. But I see holes in his game that I will definitely exploit.”
The determining factor for Soto to win may be less what he does in the cage, but more the voice he hears outside of the cage: Kurt Pellegrino. Soto is a disciple of Pellegrino’s and holds a brown belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jistu under him. As mentioned, it was “Batman” who was missing in Soto’s corner in his loss versus Riddle because Pellegrino was also scheduled to fight at UFC 111 against Fabricio Camoes. Of Pellegrino’s cornering methods, “He is great at strategizing and great at getting my attention to help me adjust on the fly. It really was a detriment not having him in my corner for that fight.”
Pellegrino will be there in Boston in Soto’s corner just as he has been with Soto everyday training him for his second go round in the cage. Soto trains at Pellegrino’s MMA academy in Belmar, NJ, where he also works as an assistant instructor. “Kurt runs great MMA practices,” Soto beams about his friend, “We'll start off our back, in half guard, up against the cage, we work back to our feet to stand-up. Just a lot of MMA drills. Not so much breaking it up into grappling and kickboxing, but we're mixing it all together.”
Defeat was new to Soto’s fighting record, where he had previously amassed seven victories with five of them stoppages. Soto is known mostly as a grappler, having wrestled most of his life and through to college. He then made the transition to other martial arts, “I got to a point where I was wrestling in college and it wasn't fun anymore. I had gotten my black belt in judo, I was training a lot of jiu-jitsu with Kurt and I had won a lot of grappling tournaments. I just took a chance and said I'm going to start fighting.”
This will be Soto’s moment to demonstrate his fighting potential against a game opponent who also needs a win. “I am expecting nothing less than the best Nick Osipczak,” Soto remarks on his opponent. “Especially, seeing as he lost his last fight. I think we both have something to prove.” If anything, Soto is just looking to return to his winning ways, “I think we are going to come in there and butt heads and the better man is going to win.” Two young talented fighters against each other in the cage trying to cement themselves in the UFC’s welterweight rankings? Sounds like the UFC fans will win.