The ‘Combat Wombat’ Rides Again

By Jacob Debets Aug 26, 2019

Ben Sosoli does not mince words. He has a gentle demeanor and a self-deprecating sense of humor that rears its head when he’s asked about weight cutting or hard training -- two aspects of MMA for which he is less than motivated. However, he does not grandstand or avoid difficult questions. You get the sense that honesty is hardwired into him. There is no spin or ego. There is just the father of five, the loyal partner, the guy who moved to Australia to pursue Rugby but pivoted to combat sports after a leg injury temporarily stole his mobility, the beloved “Combat Wombat” reliably improving under the tutelage of former Ultimate Fighting Championship middleweight and Olympic judoka Dan Kelly, the guy looking to shoot his shot on Dana White’s Contender Series after falling short on Season 28 of “The Ultimate Fighter” reality series.

Sosoli was Kevin Gastelum’s first heavyweight pick on “The Ultimate Fighter” but lost a decision in the opening bracket to eventual winner Juan Francisco Espino Dieppa. In typical understated fashion, the setback did nothing to shake the Samoan-Australian’s determination to lock down a UFC contract, and he spent the remainder of his time on the show dutifully helping prepare his teammates for their fights. Reflecting on his time in the house, Sosoli was quick to emphasize the positives of the experience, from the consistency of training to the collegiality with his fellow heavyweights, and sees it as an indispensable part of the journey towards redemption.

“The social media stuff was the hardest [part of being in the house],” Sosoli told “Just not being able to see any of my family or my friends outside, not able to see how everyone’s doing. The training point of view was good because I had no excuse. I wake up and everyone goes to training, then we have a rest and everyone goes to training again. If you ask my coach [Dan Kelly], he knows that me and some of the other Samoan boys who train at Resilience [Training Centre], we’re the kings of making up excuses and being lazy and not training, so it was good just to get into that full-time training lifestyle without being able to make any excuses.”

The experience was not soured by his being eliminated so early in the competition.

“The kind of mentality [I] have from my Melbourne team is that MMA’s a team sport,” Sosoli said. “Even though we’re fighting by ourselves in a cage, it’s a team sport. As soon as I lost my fight, I was straight back to training in the next session because we still had four people fighting. We just did everything we could to help them get ready, especially the two heavyweight guys. Josh [Parisian] and I just did everything we could to help Justin [Frazier] and Maurice [Green] get ready for their fight. It’s better if everyone works like that, instead of just having a fight, losing and then not wanting to help out everyone else just because you don’t get to fight again. It’s not a good attitude to have, so we were all straight back into training even though we weren’t fighting again.”

Sosoli rode out of the house with a stable full of new combat colleagues -- a number of them got “TUF 28” tattoos to commemorate the journey -- and jumped back into training at Resilience alongside a stable of active UFC fighters, including Jake Matthews, Jim Crute and Callan Potter. Despite having some difficulty in locking down opponents on the regional scene, something he attributes to the “halo effect” of “The Ultimate Fighter,” he eventually managed to secure a rematch with Kelvin Fitial at Hex Fight Series 18 in March. He won via TKO in the first round. It was a win that came with its fair share of adversity outside the cage, but Sosoli knew as long as he made it to the opening bell, the hard work was done.

“It was good, especially getting the win back” he said. “The training camp was actually really bad, though. I work security part-time, [and] I actually popped my knee out at work chasing someone about a month before the fight. There’s one event, in particular; it always kicks off. One of the guards was getting beaten up by someone on the street. It was his first night on the job. He was a young guy. He was kind of running away to get away from the guy that was attacking him. We had to run over [to help him]. The cops were around the corner, too. I tried to grab the guy that was beating him up, but he got away and I popped my knee.

“I couldn’t walk for a week,” Sosoli added. “I was limping around for another week, and then I had to get back into training. I had to cut a lot of weight for the fight because my weight wasn’t good. My fitness wasn’t where it should have been. I just knew if I could make it to the cage again, I’d be fine.”

While the training camp for Fitial -- a man who had handed him a decision loss almost exactly two years prior -- was less than ideal, Sosoli knew that getting back in the win column was crucial to keeping his UFC dream alive. He ran his cost-benefit analysis and elected to show up for the main event. Now it has paid dividends with a spot on the Contender Series spot and one of the longest training camps he has ever endured.

“After I got back from the house, my coaches told me to just get a fight straight away,” Sololi said. “Then I managed to get the rematch with Kelvin Fitial. I kind of knew that something would happen if I won well. We just kind of focused on that fight, and then straight after that fight finished, when I walked out the back, my manager Suman [Mokhtarian] told me that [UFC matchmaker] Mick [Maynard] is going to give me a call in a couple of weeks. The Contender Series fight came up first, so I said, ‘Yeah, keen.’ So I’ve known for a while. There was a couple of opponents that got mentioned, but Dustin [Joynson] was the one who was keen to fight. We got it done, and then we started training.

“This has been the longest training camp,” he added. “It’s been good, because for me and a couple of guys that I train with, the longer the training camp we get, divide that by two, that’s probably as much hard training that we do, so a longer training camp’s always better for us.”

Sosoli admits there was a chance he could have been signed outright if he had waited a bit longer, especially as UFC 243 on Oct. 5 in Melbourne, Australia, continues to fill out. While that thought was front of mind for the 29-year old for much of the year, itchy knuckles and financial imperatives made treading water a difficult course of action.

“If a spot on a card opened up, from what I heard, they would have been keen to chuck me on, but nothing opened up,” he said. “Then they asked if I’d be keen to jump on the Contender Series, and I said yeah. Obviously, the further I’ve gone, especially in the last couple years, it kind of gets to the point where every fight is make or break. It’s a risk taking the Contender fight, but at the end of the day, I need to pay my bills. As long as my family’s taken care of, that’s all I care about.”

Sosoli’s dance partner on Episode 10 of DWCS this Tuesday in Las Vegas has yet to taste defeat. At 5-0, Joynson has recorded four finishes and operates out of Zugec Ultimate Martial Arts in Vancouver, British Columbia. Sosoli leaves the analytics to his coaches but admits he was excited to be matched with someone who favors standup.

“I know he’s a striker,” Sosoli said. “He likes kicking a lot. I’ve seen a little bit of him. My coaches watch everything on him. They’ve told me what I need to do. I’ll just follow their game plan to a T, and whatever they tell me to do, that’s all I’m going to do. I don’t think he’s fought internationally at all. I think he’s just fought in Canada. I’m not 100 percent sure. He’s had five fights. It should be good. I’m just happy I’m matched up with a striker. I can work on my strengths a bit. It’s been a lot of working on [the] ground game and wrestling and getting off my back. I’ve been happy to focus the game plan on striking, which has been good.”

If all goes according to plan for Sosoli, expect him to lobby for a spot on the UFC 243 lineup.

“As long as I win the fight well, that’s what I’m going to be hounding [UFC President] Dana [White] to do,” he said. “I just want to be on the Melbourne card. I think even if I get knocked out, I’ll still get up and ask him if I can be on the card and see what he says. I don’t really care who the opponent is. As long as I’m getting paid well and I get to fight in Melbourne in front of all the Melbourne fans on a UFC card, that would be dream, no matter who it’s against.”
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