By Dana Becker
Joe Soto is a California kid at heart, but he found the Iowa way of life to be quite similar while attending Iowa Central Community College.
Soto, a former Bellator MMA world champion and UFC title contender, is now retired from mixed martial arts. However, he remains involved in the sport and would like to expand upon that.
"At the moment, I'm currently retired," Soto said. "But I'm definitely interested in coaching wrestling, as well as mixed martial arts. I want to give back, share my knowledge and help people fight for a better future."
That quest started for Soto back with the Triton wrestling program after a standout career at Porterville High School in California that included a state championship. Soto would make quick friends with a future UFC champion while on campus.
"Gut instinct and good vibes on my recruiting trip went into my decision to attend Iowa Central," Soto said. "I was about to commit to North Idaho Community College, who had just won or placed second as a team at the national tournament.
"I got a phone call from Iowa Central and they said they would like to have me on a visit. So I came on my visit, met with the coaches and wrestlers, and felt a good connection with them.
"While on my visit, I met Jon Jones, who was visiting as well. We instantly hit it off talking wrestling. There were also two California wrestlers on the team so I knew they would help make my transition to Iowa a lot easier."
Soto was an individual runner-up and third-place finisher for the Tritons, who won team gold both seasons with him in the lineup.
The environment outside of the college wasn't all-too-different for Soto, who was born in Porterville and currently resides still in California.
"Going from California to Iowa wasn't too big of a culture change," he said. "Being from a small town and agricultural area here in California made my transition a lot easier. I was used to seeing cornfields, dirt roads and the slow-paced small-town living already."
However, there were a couple of variables that left him missing the sunny days of the coast.
"The biggest change was the winter," Soto said. "The snow, the cold and the wind."
While helping Iowa Central excel on the mats, Soto also began to formulate a plan for his post-college future in MMA.
"I knew I wanted to pursue MMA as a career while attending Iowa Central," he said. "I was always interested in competing in mixed martial arts after watching it as a young kid with my uncle.
"In high school, I would go to fights in my hometown, but it wasn't until I was attending Iowa Central when the UFC really began to take off with The Ultimate Fighter and a career in fighting seemed more possible."
Soto added that "Iowa Central was a big help in preparing me for my future because after I left school, I transitioned into a career in MMA. Being around high-level competitors and competition gave me experience that better prepared me."
In 2006, he had his first professional bout, going on to compete 25 times over the next several years. Soto won his first nine fights, including a 2009 victory over Yahir Reyes to claim the first-ever Bellator featherweight world championship.
He would also win the Tachi Palace Fights bantamweight belt in 2014 and fought later that year against then-UFC bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw for the title.
Soto, who grew up idolizing the likes of BJ Penn, Nick Diaz, Kazushi Sakuraba and Jeremy Horn, claimed three consecutive wins inside the world-famous Octagon in 2016-17, including two via submission.
"Some of my fondest memories in my career have been meeting people and developing friendships with them that will last a lifetime," said Soto, who owns 18 career wins. "Also traveling the country and the world, and competing against the best fighters in the world.
"Experiencing great triumphs and defeats, along with growing as a human being through fighting."
Soto and his wife, Rocio, live in Santa Rosa, California with their family.