By Josh Gross
September 02, 2010

A day before flying to San Antonio for the most important fight of his developing career, 23-year-old Joe Soto can't sleep. It's Monday, 3 a.m., and playing on the featherweight's laptop, again, is a DVD of his opponent's best hits.

"I couldn't sleep I was thinking of Joe Warren so much," said Soto, who defends his Bellator 145-pound title Thursday at the Majestic Theatre (airing on Fox Sports Net, check local listings).

For the past two months Soto, who is unbeaten in nine MMA contests, has been consumed with Warren (5-1), a 33-year-old world champion wrestler who's proven to be a dangerous mixed martial artist, even if Soto finds him boring.

"I'm not a fan of his but I give him respect," Soto said. "I don't think he's good at everything but I think he's great at one thing: taking you down and beating you up. That's scary. You never want to be in that position where someone takes you down and you can't get up. I don't think he can do that to me."

This is the type of stuff churning inside a young champion, the youngest of four boys from Porterville, Calif., who "always wanted to be a good fighter."

Probably for good reason -- growing up in an agricultural hub in the center of the state, it wasn't like Soto had much choice.

"When I was 5 years old my brothers would make me fight other kids around the neighborhood," he said. "We'd put on boxing gloves and they'd make us fight."

Eventually he found wrestling, and during his senior year at Porterville High School Soto became the school's third state champion, something his coach, two-time Olympian Tim Vanni, never accomplished. Yet Vanni's path didn't interest Soto; he was going to be a pro fighter, not an Olympian.

Soto became known in the San Joaquin Valley after capturing the state title at 135 pounds, which made his trial for breaking Paul Prescott's jaw following a post-prom party in 2005 big news.

"He was a role model for other kids," said David Candelaria, the attorney who defended Soto, Porterville High's prom king, against felony charges. "In a town like this he was a little celebrity, for a lack of a better term. Everyone knew Joe. He was the perfect athlete."

After pleading guilty to what Candelaria described as a "very defensible case," Soto, whom it was successfully argued was under the influence of alcohol for the first time the night of the assault (people around Soto today maintain he does not drink), accepted the terms of a five-year suspended prison sentence with three years probation rather than subpoena a friend to testify. Candelaria said this friend took advantage of Soto by prodding him to fight Prescott.

"He literally ordered me not to even deal with that," Candelaria said. "Technically under the law I believe he was innocent. That's why the judge gave him such a sweet deal. [If not] for his loyalty to his friend, he would not have been convicted of anything."

Soto served out the term of his one-year jail sentence in spurts while he was home from Iowa Central Community College, where, serendipitously, he roomed with a long, lean kid from upstate New York named Jon Jones.

"Going into the workforce I only had the associate degree," said Jones, an emerging star for the UFC. "I don't think you'll get the best job with just an associate degree in today's world. Right away fighting was something that came in my mind as an option. If I hadn't known Joe Soto, I don't think it would have been an option at all."

If 2006 was the most uncertain year of Soto's life, it was Warren's most triumphant. The former Michigan Wolverine won the world championship at 60 kilograms in the men's Greco-Roman division, setting himself up as the favorite to capture gold in Beijing in 2008. However a positive test for marijuana at the U.S. Olympic team trials in 2007 mandated a two-year suspension by the U.S. Anti-Doping Association, putting Warren's Olympic plans on hold until 2011, when he'll attempt to qualify for the 2012 squad.

Unable to wrestle, Warren turned to MMA and debuted last year in Japan, immediately earning attention with an upset against highly regarded Norifumi "Kid" Yamamoto. Inexperience, though, caught up to Warren in the semifinals of the Dream featherweight tournament versus Brazil's Bibiano Fernandes. For one of the most openly confident athletes on the planet, the submission loss provided an important lesson -- winning in MMA is a result of more than just guts. Warren has since rebounded in Bellator's tournament, which required three wins in three months to earn a shot at Soto.

"He's a finisher, a promoter's dream," Warren said of Soto, the Bellator champion, who captured the belt after a 145-pound tournament in 2009. "You throw him in against guys that aren't as good as him he looks great. But he's a wrestler. That's a problem for him because I could beat him with one arm tied behind my back wrestling. He's going to have a rough time there."

Soto is more than a wrestler though, which was his aim all along. During his two years rooming with Soto in Iowa, Jones said the Californian, an evangelical who gives 10 percent of everything he makes to the Landmark Christian Center in Porterville, Calif., spent his free time on YouTube, watched fights, learned techniques, or laid around with dip tucked under his lip as he stretched for a better rubber guard.

"I never understood it," Jones said. "Now, today, I totally get why he was doing it."

Soto's MMA game has improved under the direction of veteran fighter David Terrell, and Warren is correct in calling the young champion a finisher. His first five bouts ended in the opening round, and just two of nine have needed more than five minutes to reach their conclusion.

"Maybe I was just terrified when I first started," Soto said. "Get out of there as soon as possible. I don't know why I do it. Maybe I'm blessed with the ability to finish fights. It's something I like to do and want to do every single time. Going into this fight with Joe Warren I expect to finish him."

As he has every day since she died in a road accident on Christmas last year, Soto will think of his mother on Thursday. But in the time since the accident he's made peace with losing a parent, and his focus will be singular: Warren. Even at 3 a.m.

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