Krzysztof Soszynski, the Canadian fighter who takes on the once promising Brandon Vera this Saturday at UFC 102, started his grappling career in a very different industry.
Although Brock Lesnar gets all the attention from fans and the media, Soszynski was also a wrestler in another life. Discovered as a massive 318 pound bodybuilder by promoter Tony Candelo, he was soon hopping around the ring and taking pratfalls all over Canada.
His career path seemed set when he encountered wrestling legend “Bad News” Allen Coage. Bad News Allen was more than a professional wrestler. He was also the 1976 Olympic Bronze Medalist in Judo.
Coage was the toughest man in a tough man’s business. As a black man in a notoriously racist industry, Bad News was continually forced to defend himself from insensitive and downright insulting remarks. Many black wrestlers were content to pretend not to hear the horrible slights on their person and their race. That wasn’t Bad News Allen.
In one famous incident, the monstrous Andre the Giant was making racist comments on a bus ride in front of all the other wrestlers. When Coage confronted him, Andre refused to stop. Allen walked to the front of the bus and asked the driver to stop. He stepped outside and challenged the 6-10 500 pound Giant to step outside with him. Andre refused. The next day at the hotel, Bad News renewed his challenge. Finally, the Giant backed down and apologized.
Even a monster wanted no part of Allen Coage.
“I met him after he had two hip replacement surgeries. He was still on the floor in his fifties, still grappling with the kids he was teaching. I could definitely imagine how tough he was back then and how well he would have done if the sport had been around,” Soszynski said. “He traveled extensively to Japan as well, learning Aikido and Jiu Jitsu. I had the privilege of meeting him during one of my circuits across Canada. He invited me out for a two-week camp at his place in Calgary and that’s where he showed me a Kimura and an armbar. I was hooked. Immediately after that two week training camp, I came back to Winnipeg, quit wrestling, and took up Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Six months later I had my first fight. So, he was very instrumental to me turning into a mixed martial arts fighter. If it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t be here. I’d be doing something else.”
The fans certainly seem happy about Soszynski’s chance encounter with Coage. He’s quickly become a favorite because of his aggressive style and his lead role in Ultimate Fighter shenanigans in the reality show’s eighth season. Like all Ultimate Fighter survivors, Soszynski is weary of discussing his moment in the sun.
“It was definitely really hard. Six weeks basically with no life outside of a house and 15 other fighters and coaches. You’re cooped up and there are no outlets. There’s no stress releasers. You have to find your own way to release that stress. Some find it with alcohol. Some find it, like myself, by pulling stupid tricks and pranks,” he said. Then as if catching himself being negative, he switches gears. “ The best thing is, you get through it, and then it is one of the best things that can ever happen to your career. I’m very thankful for it. I went in there to just be myself. I did what I had to do to survive the house for six weeks. Some of it was stupid, some of it was dumb, some of it was a little childish. But it got me through it physically and mentally. The best thing about it was that I made it to the UFC, which was a dream for a long time. That came true and I wouldn’t change anything I did in that show.”
After The Ultimate Fighter, Soszynski continued his training under former champion Dan Henderson at Team Quest in California. He was looking to refine some skills, but Henderson and coaches like Heath Sims have taught him more than wrestling and striking. They’ve also shown him how to conduct himself and helped hone an already keen work ethic.
“The biggest thing I’ve learned by watching Dan Henderson is how calm, cool, and collected he is,” Soszynski said. “Nothing distracts him from the gameplan and what he has to do in that cage. He doesn’t shit talk. He’s just a straight shooter, honest guy who works extremely hard when he shows up at the gym. He’s very quiet and humble and loves the sport very much. That’s what drew me to him, because I feel like I am the same way.”
Soszynski is confident that this is his time, that the window of opportunity is opening just as he is ready to climb through. Although Vera was once the UFC’s hottest prospect at Heavyweight, his star dimmed somewhat after a lackluster loss to Tim Sylvia at UFC 77 and subsequent struggles with Fabricio Werdum and most recently Keith Jardine last October.
“This is the perfect time for me to fight somebody like Brandon Vera. Coming off of a three-fight win streak in the UFC, a six-fight win streak overall, everything is really positive. I have no injuries. I’m just mentally and physically ready, 100 percent,” Soszynski said. “It’s the perfect time to see if I belong in that top 10 one day. To see if I can get a crack at the UFC Light Heavyweight title belt some day. It’s the perfect chance to showcase my skills and become that force to be reckoned with.”
When he first started the sport, Soszynski was purely a grappler. Then, as he tried to learn the striking game, he became a stand-and-trade slugger. Under Henderson’s guidance, he believes he’s finally become a complete fighter.
“Right now I’m really comfortable fighting anybody in the 205 division in the UFC. Aside from Machida, I matchup well with the other fighters. I think Machida is on another level,” Soszynski said. “But as far as looking at the other guys in the top 10, and just outside the top 10, I think I matchup well with most of them. The guys I’m training with, I’m learning so much every day. I’m mentally and physically so focused right now. At 32 years-of-age, my body is just peaking right now. It’s the perfect time for me to start fighting these guys and moving up that ladder.”
Jonathan Snowden currently works for the Department of Defense and is the author of Total MMA: Inside Ultimate Fighting