(Sotiropolous beats on Jason Dent at UFC 106. Courtesy of Zuffa, LLC)
George Sotiropoulos is serious. He came to America alone, like Yojimbo arriving at that smalltown in Japan with the mulberry fields. He doesn’t have many friends. Seldom does he socialize. He doesn’t Twitter or any of that mess. In fact, if the Australian hadn’t got married a few months back, he wouldn’t have any family here at all. He is, by choice, a globetrotting spirit who now calls Vancouver, Washington home because that’s where he can work on his hands with his boxing coach Leonard Gabriel ad nauseam.
“Even in school I was very focused and I wanted to do well,” the 32-year-old says. “When I go to training I’m very serious because obviously this is what I love doing and I want to be good at it. I try and get the most out of my training because I am only there for a short time and I need to be dialed in and I am investing my time and money in this.”
Time and money are valuable commodities for a guy who studied and worked in banking, shipping and international trade just to initially fund his MMA habits. That was back in Geelong, Australia, which is about an hour southwest of Melbourne. That was before he became a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt under John Will and moved to Japan and fought in Guam and spent time in Brazil and invested six weeks in a house full of alpha males on the Ultimate Fighter 6: Serra vs. Hughes in Las Vegas.
If you recall, Sotiropoulos was the deadly-serious-and-frankly-a-little-unnerving guy of that season, the one the others sort of snickered “what’s up with homeboy?” about. He was the polar opposite of housemate, Jon “War Machine” Koppenhaver. But, unlike some, Sotiropoulos wasn’t suffering. While many in the house were jonesing to get the hell out of there, Sotiropoulos — able to focus on nothing but fighting, 24/7—was in his height of glory.
“I thought it was great, and I’d do it again,” he says. “I really would. They bought our food, they provided training and coaching. It was all taken care of, and it was a great opportunity. I had a great time.”
When the show ended Sotiropoulos stayed on in America and followed his coach Matt Serra to New York. He then moved to Las Vegas and sponged up what he could at Xtreme Couture, and finally made his way to the Northwest, some 8,000 miles away from his home. The approach has paid off as Sotiropolous hasn’t lost a fight since the unofficial loss to Tommy Speer on the show, winning twice as a welterweight (Billy Miles, Roman Mitichyan) and, more recently, twice at 155 (George Roop, Jason Dent). If you skip over his disqualification agaisnt Shinya Aoki in 2006, he hasn’t properly lost since the summer of 2005, when he dropped a razor-thin split decision to Kyle Noke only a year into training. That’s a pretty stingy loss column. If anybody’s star seems about to rise, it’s Sotiropoulos’s.
So perhaps it’s fitting that Sots will be heading home for UFC 110, where he’ll face the biggest test of his career in Joe Stevenson for his first-ever main card bout on the UFC’s first-ever card Down Under. It’s not exactly Odysseus returning home after the ten-year Trojan War, but it’s a lot of monumental firsts. And you know what? All that kind of shit’s for reporters. In typical George fashion, he isn’t about to wax poetic about it.
“It’s a privilege to fight for my home country in a sport that wasn’t highly recognized when I started competing in 2004,” he says. “And Joe is a well-rounded fighter, he’s tough, he’s compact—he’s got the wrestling background, with strong Jiu-Jitsu and added striking.”
Stevenson will be a true test for Sotiropoulos, a hump fighter to break into the top ten in the division—which is, as with every division, a gang of wrestlers. The Australian is not a wrestler. He fights best from the top, a place he isn’t likely to get to against the monsters in the division such as Stevenson. Knowing this, Sotiropoulos leaves his BJJ black belt at home and flies down the coast to California, where he trains with Eddie Bravo, a no-gi BJJ master who specializes in neutralizing the wrestler’s game.
“You’re not going to get on top against these guys,” Bravo says. “Unless you have a wicked, crazy ninja guard like Dustin Hazelett or Shinya Aoki, that is. These wrestlers have been playing the top game since they were two years old in Iowa. Your only real shot is striking and pulling guard, and if you pull guard you’d better back it up.”
Sotiropolous has the sick limb dexterity and strength to keep things on the ground airtight and he’s put that deadly serious demeanor to work on pulling guard (with Bravo) and striking (with Gabriel).
“I do look at my fight with Stevenson as my toughest fight,” Sotiropoulos says. “But I look at every fight as my toughest. Because my last fight led me to this fight, and the one before that led to my last fight. It’s a cliché when I say it’s my toughest fight. Yes it is, but then every single fight has been.”
It’s all talk anyway, and time the fighter spends talking could be better spent training. Because George Sotiropolous is serious.