On February 22 at UFC Auckland, Ben Sosoli has an opportunity to pick up his first UFC victory in a place he considers home.
The 30-year-old “Combat Wombat” was born in Australia where he currently resides but spent many of his formative years in South Auckland. Sosoli moved to Melbourne as many of the top heavyweights in the region were in Australia. He knew he’d one day be back to fight in Auckland as a pro, but never imagined he would be returning as a member of the UFC roster.
“Man, I’ve always wanted to back home and fight, even if it was just a local show fighting pro,” Sosoli told John Hyon Ko. “I only fought amateur back home… I always knew that one day I’ll go back and fight back home in Auckland, but I never thought it would be in the UFC. It’s crazy. It just makes everything a lot more, kind of a lot more intense, and I’m also looking forward to it so much more.”
The road back home for Sosoli has been unconventional, especially in regards to his time with the UFC. After fighting in Guam and New Caledonia, he received his first shot at the UFC during “The Ultimate Fighter: Heavy Hitters” season. The hype was massive for the bruising knockout artist Sosoli, leading to him being the first pick for Team Gastelum. Unfortunately, he fell short of those expectations, losing in his first fight to Juan Espina.
He got a second crack at the UFC a little over a year later on the Contender Series. Unfortunately, that fight ended in the first round due to an accidental eye poke. Sosoli once again walked away falling short of a contract. Still, Sosoli surely made an impact on Dana White. Two months later, he would officially debut for the promotion. Not only had Sosoli made it to the UFC, he found himself in a high profile fight against the controversial Greg Hardy. In line with his past on UFC branded shows, the outcome was less than ideal. Sosoli saw a unanimous decision loss overturned to a “no contest” when Hardy inexplicably took his asthma inhaler in between rounds. Despite outrage for the action by fans and pundits alike, Sosoli was more critical of foregoing his gameplan and chasing the walk-off knockout.
“My coaches were screaming at me for my gameplan because I felt like that shot was close; it was only centimeters away a couple of times. So I thought ‘nah, this guy is gone. If I catch him, then I’ll get him’ So, I was just trying to…I didn’t think, and I was just trying to land that one shot the whole time.”
Ir would have been easy for Sosoli to blame the loss on any potential advantage the inhaler gave Hardy. According to WebMD, inhalers prescribed for asthma assist in opening the airways of the user, reducing mucus and inflammation in the lungs, and depending on the type prescribed, can give a boost of energy. The potential benefits for a fatigued fighter are invaluable. However, if there was an advantage provided by the inhaler, Sosoli didn’t notice it.
“Uh, not really,” Sosoli replied when asked if he noticed a difference after Hardy used his inhaler. “I usually don’t pick up on how the other person feels other than how much they don’t want to get hit. All I think about is my fitness and make sure that I can keep pushing, and I was able to keep pushing the whole time. And yeah, the inhaler, it didn’t affect me at all. I didn’t think it had much to do personally.”
A full camp and a new diet
Sosoli will have the right dance partner to put on a show for the home crowd. Across the octagon will be Marcos Rogerio de Lima, a hulking Brazilian with a penchant to stand and trade. The 34-year-old is coming off a February 2019 submission defeat to Stefan Struve and will desperately look to spoil Sosoli’s homecoming.
De Lima will have his work cut out for him. He’ll be taking on one of the best versions of Sosoli to date. Before the Greg Hardy fight, Sosoli had a less than two-month turn around after his fight on the Contender Series. The situation will be drastically different before UFC Auckland. Not only will Sosoli have a full camp, but three of his Resilience Training Centre teammates will also share the card. Jimmy Crute, Jake Matthews, and Callan Potter will also do battle at UFC Auckland, and the benefit of having three teammates preparing for a fight is undeniable.
“You’ve got four guys that are all just pushing so hard, so the pace is always so high, and the sparring sessions are intense. But it’s good because when one guy is having a bad day, there are three others to pick him up. It just creates a really, really awesome vibe in the gym.”
Resilience Training Centre is under the ownership of head trainer, UFC veteran, and former Olympic Judoka, Dan Kelly. Kelly has not competed since May 2018 and the 42-year-old considers himself retired. Still, he has a sharp mind for MMA and is embracing the coaching life. However, according to Sosoli, that doesn’t mean he can’t throw down. He may have put on a little weight, but a return is not off the table.
“Yeah, yeah, he could without a doubt,” Sosoli confidently declared when asked if Kelly could still fight. “He jumps in and spars still every now and then, he’s just got a basketball around his waist at the moment, but other than the tummy he’s still good to go… You can always tell with other fighters when they’re done or not, and he’s not done. He’ll have a few things coming up I reckon in the next year or two.”
Hard sparring and good coaching will not be the only things helping Sosoli before his battle with Marcos Rogerio de Lima. The 30-year-old took a long, hard look at his recent fights and did not like the flat-footed fighter he was watching. The former rugby player admitted he’s usually the more tired party in the cage. He realizes he has strayed away from the light-footed fighter he was earlier in his career. A change in diet was necessary, and Sosoli has made the measures to ensure that if he loses a fight, it won’t be from fatigue.
“I’ve been working with Michelle Reeves. She does a lot of work with the people here she’s handling Jake’s (Matthews) diet, Jimmy’s (Crute) diet… but it’s been awesome just changing it up… I used to eat a lot of red meat, and I don’t really like eating it that much anymore. Mainly white meat, way more vegetables, and fruits.”
“It brings my weight down, and I’m way lighter. My knees don’t swell up because I’m too heavy to be moving around a lot, and when I’m tired, I can still just dance around the whole time.”
Sosoli will prepare to test his new diet by going three hard rounds, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to forget about his bread and butter
“I’m going to go in and act like I’m going to try and just win all three rounds and just have a high pace for all three rounds, but I know that if I get a good shot, it’s going to be finished.”
A 29-year-old paralegal by day, but I rather write. MMA nut since '04.