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Joe Warren vs Joe Soto: Becoming Bellator MMA’s ‘Baddest Man’

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Fighters Only World Mixed Martial Arts Awards 2011
Joe Warren
Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

He was the anointed “Baddest Man on the Planet.” The 132-pound wrestling standout won gold twice in Greco-Roman wrestling in 2006, at the World Wrestling Championships in Guangzhou, China, and the Pan American Championships in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He was a favorite heading into the 2008 Olympics until a positive marijuana test earned him a two -year ban from international competition.

Joe Warren is a man defined by both success and failure.

The Grand Rapids, Mich., native did not vanish quietly into the night along with his dream of Olympic gold. In fact, DREAM is where he wound up, using the skills he had spent a lifetime building to make a transition to mixed martial arts (MMA). While a loss to Bibiano Fernandes ended his journey to the finals of DREAM’s Featherweight Grand Prix, his run got the attention of a young Bellator MMA, who enrolled him in its own season two tournament.

Warren promptly reeled off three straight wins to run through the 2010 brackets, capping off the finals with a split decision win against “Pitbull” Patricio Freire at Bellator 23. Warren was nearly finished by a right hand and heavy ground-and-pound in round one, but after being saved by the bell he mounted a wrestling heavy comeback to turn the tables with takedown after takedown and hard elbows to his mounted opponent.

The 5-1 Warren was not yet “The Baddest,” though. Ric Flair famously said “to be the man you’ve got to BEAT the man” ... and that man was reigning Featherweight champion Joe Soto. He had earned the crown at Bellator 10 on June 5, 2009, at Citizens Business Bank Arena in Ontario, California. The experienced Yahir Reyes (14-5, 1 NC) faced Soto (6-0) in the finals to crown its first 145-pound champion, and Soto grabbed the gold with a rear-naked choke in the second stanza.

Soto would win his next two bouts, but neither his appearance at Tachi Palace Fights 1 in Lemoore, Calif., nor his Bellator fight with Diego Saraiva at Bellator 19 were title defenses. After 453 days as champion, Soto would finally put that belt on the line against the upstart Warren. At a perfect 9-0 coming in Soto was the favorite over the Greco-Roman wrestler-turned MMA fighter, but one thing Warren never lacked was self-confidence.

Warren stands 5’6” and has a 69-inch reach. At times he was the smaller man in Bantamweight fights, and often in Featherweight fights; however, he was ideally matched up with Soto at 5’6” with a 65-inch reach. You wouldn’t have known it in the first round of Bellator 27 at Majestic Theatre in San Antonio, Texas, on Sept. 2, 2010. Soto repeatedly punished Warren with a right hand uppercut, left hook combination. Warren has a tough chin, but you could see it being chipped away as Soto wobbled him several times.

Just as ringside announcer Jimmy Smith was about to break down his scorecard for round one with Sean Wheelock, Warren CRUSHED Soto with a right hand 15 seconds into round two, jumping on top to unload more rights and hammerfists. Soto tried to recover and scramble to his feet, but Warren connected perfectly with a right knee to the chin. He was already on a trip to Dream Street when Warren connected with a left hand, and referee Kerry Hatley stepped in to save Soto at 33 seconds.

With a knockout win in his very first world title opportunity, Warren had indeed earned the moniker “The Baddest Man on the Planet” within the promotion. He’d go on to be a signature part of the promotion for the rest of the 2010’s, winning and losing titles in two weight classes, but always reminding foes that he was more than a wrestler — he was a finisher, too. To be “The Man” in Bellator MMA back in the day, Joe Warren was the man to beat.

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