It’s a good stumper for your MMA-inclined friends: Who was the very first champion in Bellator Fighting Championships—now Bellator MMA—history? If they don’t know the answer but are passing familiar with the upstart promotion’s exciting first season, they may guess: Eddie Alvarez? Nope. Was it… Lyman Good, maybe? Wait, was it the guy who did the crazy inverted triangle on Jorge Masvidal? Nice guess, but it wasn’t Toby Imada.
Of course, Joe Soto is and should be known as more than just the answer to a trivia question, but the fact remains that by virtue of the Season 1 Featherweight Tournament being the first to finish, the undefeated young Californian was the first fighter to win a Bellator title. A week later, Alvarez would become the second, with Good and middleweight winner Hector Lombard picking up their hardware the week after that.
While he never went on to become a household name quite on the level of the other three, Soto was the original red-hot Bellator prospect. Just 21 years old and 4-0 in his fight career when the tourney began, “One Bad Mofo” was a two-time junior college All-American wrestler who moved directly into fighting rather than continue wrestling as an underclassman. To win the tournament, he had to beat three fellow up-and-comers at events just four weeks apart, including future UFC flyweight contender Wilson Reis in the semifinal.
At the final, which was held at Bellator 10 on June 5, 2009, Soto choked out Yahir Reyes to win the title. While his attempt to repeat in Season 2 ran into the Joe Warren buzzsaw at Bellator 27, Soto returned to the Tachi Palace, where he had begun his career, dropped to bantamweight and went on a tear.
Soto was 15-2 and the Tachi Palace Fights bantamweight champ when he got a call from the Ultimate Fighting Championship—which had neither a featherweight nor a bantamweight division when his career started. Soto’s scheduled debut at UFC 177 suddenly became a short-notice title shot when Renan Barao, who had been scheduled to challenge T.J. Dillashaw in the main event, had to be hospitalized after falling while cutting weight. Despite the circumstances, Soto made it to the final round before succumbing to a head kick and follow-up punches. From there, Soto would go 3-5 in the UFC and while he has not officially retired, the 33-year-old has not fought since 2018.