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Road To Bellator - Sampo's Journey Continues

By Brett Auten | Knuckle Junkies

"The Gremlin" returns to one of his more familiar haunts.

Knocking three years of MMA dust off, Josh Sampo will once again step inside the cage at Friday's Bellator 197 at the Family Arena. The 33-year-old Sampo is 11-5, and the former UFC flyweight will meet Dominic Mazzotta at bantamweight.

After submitting Ryan Benoit in his UFC debut, Sampo lost three-straight against Zach Makovsky, Patrick Holohan, and Justin Scoggins. With the exception of a kickboxing match in January of 2016, it's been pretty quiet for fans of Sampo.

The 30-year-old Mazzotta is 13-2, and it will be his third fight with Bellator. He entered Bellator last year as a red-hot prospect with a nine-fight winning streak with victories at both featherweight and bantamweight. In his Bellator debut, he was KO'd by A.J. McKee (who is in Friday's Bellator 197 co-main event). In November, he was victorious over Matt Lozano at Bellator 186.

KJ caught up with Sampo after his last hard training session for this Q&A.

So after three years, you're back. Why now and why here?

"Dude, I have been wanting to fight since my last fight, but family things took control of my life for awhile. My dad passed away about four weeks before my last UFC fight. It took about a year to get my mom situated and make sure she was comfortable. And then I moved back to St. Louis and got a teaching job. That's my career. That's what I went school for, that's where I make my money at, I don't make my money fighting. We get paid, but it's not something that we can live off of, I fight because I love it. I enjoy it. But no opportunity really matched up."

You were going to fight on the RFA card in St. Louis in 2016?

"Unfortunately I got pneumonia about four, five days before weigh-ins. I was super excited for it, training was going great and then I got pneumonia. How I got it, I don't know. I backed out of that fight, and just nothing has really come up. I have talked to a couple of managers, other fighters' managers that I'm friends with and asked them what they think the issue is and one told me that it was because you're inactive is why certain promoters won't sign you. It was a just vicious circle."

And you were even somewhat of a late addition to this card, how'd that come about?

"Out of nowhere my manager called me up and said they have a spot for you are you cool with fighting '35 and I was like, hell yeah, let's go. And I signed the contract a couple of days later. It's pretty cool."

Was there any time during that three-year stretch that you thought about hanging it up for good?

"It had crossed my mind a few times. But I love fighting. I do this because it is a passion of mine. It is something a really enjoy and constantly challenging myself and building up my skill set. But I'm chasing after my coveted (jiu-jitsu) black belt. That's my end goal. I am always working towards that. Fighting helps on the side. You get to use those skills in real time. I could walk away tomorrow and be completely content with it. I have nothing to prove to anybody which is kind of a good feeling because I have nothing to prove when I step into the cage on Friday. But I love this sport. I love being able to fight, and I'm not going to go down easy. He's going to get 15 minutes of hell from me regardless. The fact that I get to fight for a large organization like Bellator, in my backyard, against a game opponent, I can't wait. All I know is he's going to get everything I've got for as long as I have it."

It sounds almost freeing.

"When I first got signed to the UFC I tried making fighting my full-time gig because I thought that is how it is supposed to be done and unless you experience it yourself, it is not something that I would recommend. Fighting has to be a passion and something you get hungry about and want to do every day. The training is very, very taxing on your body and your mind and if it becomes something that you don't want to do and it becomes a job, then it seems like you're forcing yourself to do it. Then you just get burned out, and you lose passion for it and I think that is was happened to me."

On Friday, there are no gimmies for any of the local fighters.

"I think it's a tribute to the fighters in this area. We do have some high-level fighters, we just don't have the exposure like the California's and the Florida's and areas like that. But we do have a lot of hard-nosed guys and gals. (Mazzotta) is really well-rounded. He's very experienced, and he's going to bring the fight to me. That's what I am excited about. My last couple of fights I felt like I was on a bicycle chasing guys around the cage and I don't think that is going to be the case with this guy. The fight could end in the first 30 seconds, or it could last all three rounds, all I know is he's going to get everything I've got for as long as I got it."

You have a lot of memories from the Family Arena as you were building up your career and you have some highlight from there.

"It's crazy how time does that, and you make that full journey around and end up back where you had your first fights the only difference is the canvas and the promotion. Even having (Bellator cutman and SCMMA teammate) Matt Marsden around makes it even more full-circle. It's a crazy thing. The Family Arena is a great venue for it. I think the seating is real cool. I have a lot of family, friends, and co-workers who are going to come watch. I'm anticipating Saturday morning waking up and thinking, 'Wow. Did I just do this again.'"

Tickets for Bellator 197 are available from the Family Arena box office:

Full fight card:

Michael Chandler vs Brandon Girtz
Justin Lawrence vs A.J. McKee
Kevin Ferguson Jr vs Devon Brock
Joaquin Buckley vs Logan Storley

Rebecca Ruth vs Juliana Velasquez
Josh Sampo vs Dominic Mazzotta
Zac Bucia vs Derek Anderson
Jordan Howard vs Eric Ellington
AJ Siscoe vs Justin Robbins
Jordan Dowdy vs Jeff Crotty
Adam Cella vs Dewayne Diggs
Cort Wahle vs Joe Roye

Bellator 197: Chandler vs Girtz
Friday, April 13th
The Family Arena, St. Charles, MO

Photo courtesy of Josh Sampo's Facebook page