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Joe Soto believes fear of first loss could affect unbeaten Brett Johns

UFC 195 fight photos
Joe Soto
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Take a peek at the Bellator history books and you’ll see Joe Soto’s name etched in the early chapters.

Back in 2009 when the budding promotion was making a name for itself with tournaments featuring undiscovered talent from across the globe, Soto beat three men in three months to become the first-ever Bellator featherweight champion. At the time, Soto was 22 years old with just seven pro bouts on his resume.

That triumph was part of a 9-0 start to Soto’s career, and in his first setback he dropped the title to future Bellator stalwart Joe Warren. While Soto likely had little doubt about his abilities while he was taking out challengers left and right, looking back as a hardened 30-year-old veteran, he can recall having concerns over his unblemished record every time it was on the line.

On Friday, Soto (18-5) meets Brett Johns in a bantamweight bout at The Ultimate Fighter 26 Finale in Las Vegas, Nev., and he has some insight into where the 14-0 Welshman’s head is at heading into the contest.

“I kind of know how he’s feeling. Everybody’s always confident, especially when you’re undefeated, but always in the back of your head you kind of wonder, ‘Is this going to be the time when I get my first loss?’” Soto told MMA Fighting. “And sometimes you’re kind of searching for that first loss because you want that pressure off. When you finally lose, you’re like now I don’t have to worry about being undefeated because there’s a little bit more pressure when you haven’t lost. … It’s going to be tough, especially at the beginning of the fight. He’s going to be a confident young lion.”

Soto knows all about how quickly fortunes can turn for a fighter. After winning 15 of his first 17 fights, Soto found himself with a golden opportunity, though it came in less than ideal circumstances. He was scheduled to make his UFC debut against Anthony Birchak at UFC 177 in August 2014, but officials asked him if he was willing to step up on one day’s notice and save the main event after an accident during weight cutting knocked Renan Barao out of a title fight.

Upon agreeing, Soto was matched up with then (and current) UFC bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw. The fight went into the fifth round before Dillashaw put Soto away with strikes to log his first successful defense.

Soto is older and wiser now, but he says he would still jump at the chance to rematch Dillashaw for the belt, even if it again came without the benefit of a full camp. After all, he’s essentially had three years to prepare for another shot at Dillashaw.

“I would still take it on short notice. Before that fight, I’d seen him fight once ever, I’d seen him fight Barao and I didn’t really study him,” said Soto. “I had trained with him, but it was mainly grappling, we didn’t spar or nothing. So going into that fight I didn’t really have an idea of his style. I didn’t know he stands southpaw a lot, there was a lot of things I didn’t get to prepare for, like have a strategy or a game plan, kind of have an idea of what I want to attack. It was just so fast.

“But now I’ve watched him a lot more since I fought him and I have an idea of how I’d go about fighting him again. And if it’s for a title, come on, how can you say no for an opportunity like that?”

The loss to Dillashaw was the start of a career-worst three fight losing streak that Soto eventually halted with a third-round submission of Chris Beal in June 2016. Two more wins followed, including a bloody unanimous decision victory over Rani Yahya earlier this year.

Soto knows how close he was to parting ways with the UFC and he didn’t think twice when the contract to fight the unbeaten Johns was presented to him, especially since he’s looking forward to the challenge.

“They offered the name, I looked him up, and I thought it was a good stylistic matchup for me,” said Soto. “It will be a tough fight, he’s a tough fighter. He’s a ground guy, I’m a ground guy. He likes to box a little bit though too, so do I. I was excited, I think I match up well. I think I match up well against a lot of guys, but we’ll see how it plays out.

“The guy’s undefeated, I’m sure he’s going to be really confident going in, it could be a war. Hopefully not, hopefully I get in and get lucky and get out pretty easy. I’m kind of ready for everything, I’ve fought for a long time and I’ve had some tough ones. I’m not going to be surprised by anything when I’m in there.”

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