In this Saturday’s pivotal meeting of lightweight contenders at UFC 116 in Las Vegas, if Kurt Pellegrino is fire, then George Sotiropoulos is most certainly ice.
Pellegrino is the emotional dervish whose intensity can power up an arena or tape recorder. On the other hand, Sotiropoulos is reserved, a Spartan worker who believes that every minute of the day is precious when it comes to his preparation for a fight, so he chooses his words carefully and extends just the right amount of energy to every task in his life that doesn’t involve his fight career. And frankly speaking, it’s almost insulting to call what Sotiropoulos does a ‘career’, as it’s obviously a lot more than that to him; it’s his life.
“I love living that clean, disciplined lifestyle,” said Sotiropoulos, whose initial attraction to the fighting life came from an unlikely source.
“I think growing up and watching movies like ‘Rocky’, seeing him wake up in the morning, cracking open an egg and going for a run, or when he’s running through the snow in Russia and training for his fight, I always liked that,” he smiles. “I always liked that fighting spirit and what it takes to prepare for a fight. And now I’ve lived it and have seen the benefits of eating healthy and living that clean life. Also, my dad was in the army when he was a young man, and he always talked about going into the army and how it made him a man and taught him discipline and all these other things, and I never went into the army, but I know from the way I train, and the way that I’ve prepared for my fights, that’s what I’ve gotten out of this. It’s something that’s carried into my everyday life and there are so many benefits to it.”
It’s not the usual answer you expect when you ask a professional athlete what the payoff from all the hard work is at the end of the day, but then again, Soitropoulos is far from typical, and in his quest for greatness, he has made sacrifices that keep the usual answers - fame, fortune, etc – from entering the equation, and his dedication has led him to lead a fairly solitary life.
“That’s exactly right, it’s very solitary,” he said. “I live in my own little world. It’s not that I don’t want to go out or hang out with people, it’s just that I’m so focused on doing this that it leaves little time for anything else.”
It’s why when you ask him about his triumphant homecoming fight in Sydney against Joe Stevenson this past February, he almost draws a blank when it comes to all the hype and hoopla that surrounded him as the local Aussie kid done good.
“I really didn’t notice a lot of it at the time, but afterwards I was like ‘wow, that was pretty amazing,’” chuckles the Geelong native. “I kind of go through life with blinders on, and I’m so focused on the fight that I really didn’t notice very much of the hype at the time or paid attention to it. I think I missed a lot of things. It was over so quick, and I was so focused on the ride that I missed so many of the other things.”
30 years from now, Sotiropoulos may hope there’s some video footage of his UFC 110 week in Sydney, but the way things stand now, it was the absolute right move for him to keep his eyes on the prize, as he delivered a career-best performance in his biggest fight to date, scoring a unanimous three round decision win over Stevenson that also earned Fight of the Night honors. More importantly, the victory announced the 32-year old’s arrival at the elite level in the 155-pound weight class while extending his six fight winning streak. Not bad for a night’s work.
“I’ve had a lot of positive feedback and I’m getting a lot more requests for interviews from bigger name magazines and so on, but I’ve been working so hard, training so hard and am so focused on what I’m doing that I knew where I was heading, but I guess so many people who weren’t in the fight business didn’t know. I think that was the case with even some people who were in fighting circles; I don’t know whether they didn’t expect it or they underestimated me, but I’ve definitely gained a lot more notoriety.”
What may have been the most impressive aspect of his win over the former world title challenger was the way he did it – with a well-rounded attack that was predicated on a cool that never allowed him to get rattled throughout the 15 minutes.
“I went into that fight expecting a battle and that’s all I was focused on,” he said. “I didn’t know I was going to go in there and do what I did. I didn’t go in there with any expectations other than that I was going to give it my best shot and fight my heart out.”
He succeeded and exceeded all expectations, except maybe those he had for himself. But then comes the tough part – doing it all over again, like he has in preparation for Pellegrino this weekend.
“It’s very draining mentally and physically, and I just go back into my training mode and do it all again,” he said. “The only time that becomes a factor is in the coming weeks before a fight. I’m dropping weight, I’m dieting, the training’s really tough, and when you start reducing people’s food, that’s when it starts to wear you down. That’s when you start to feel it on a physical level, and when you feel it on a physical level, then it becomes a mental issue. You’ve got to be strict with your diet, your training, even your sleep. That’s one of the things that get you down the most. Because when I go back to training, I’m usually very enthusiastic about going back to the gym and living that lifestyle. I enjoy it, but the hard part is getting out of bed when you’re tired, when you’re hungry, and you do that day in and day out, and when you do it for weeks, months, and years, that’s what wears you down.”
He pauses, then adds, “But I enjoy that about fighting and training.”
He means it, just like Pellegrino means it when he says that win or lose, he wants “a complete and utter battle” on Saturday night. That’s okay with Sotiropoulos, who appreciates the intensity he and his opponent bring to competition.
“I know we both have an intensity,” he said. “He comes from the sport of wrestling and that’s the intensity that he’s going to bring to the fight. But I’m pretty intense with the way I fight as well. I’m always pressing the action, always moving and doing something to deal with whatever the problem is. I know it’s gonna be an action packed fight.”
And while I have to ask about the future should he secure a win on Saturday, Sotiropoulos’ answer is the only predictable thing that comes out of the mouth of the intriguing lightweight contender.
“I know where I’m heading and I know what I’m heading for, so I think about it, but it’s really irrelevant because I’m so focused on July 3rd that I can’t look beyond it,” he said. “Until July 3rd happens, I can’t prepare for the next step, so it’s hard to answer that question because I don’t know the answer on July 3rd yet. I know I’m gonna fight to my best ability and give it my all. The moment July 3rd is over, I’m gonna start preparing for my next training.”
That training camp will probably be a lot like this one, the one before it, and the one before that, featuring hard work, sacrifice, and an attention to every last detail. It almost makes you wonder if Sotiropoulos is enjoying this ride at all.
“I’m too far from that point,” he laughs. “I look at Randy Couture and where he is and I think to myself ‘that’s what I want to be doing.’ I want to be fighting in the UFC when I’m 47, maybe 50. That’s how I serious I am about going as far as I possibly can in this sport. There are things I want to do outside of training, but until I do the things I want to do, all those things are on hold.”
But don’t feel bad for him; he’s just fine with that.