South Carolina

‘We’re there together’: Myrtle Beach fighter, cancer-stricken trainer fulfill UFC dreams

Boxing trainer Chris Goude said it was mixed martial arts fighter Joe Solecki’s ability as a contender that got him out of bed every day as he recovered from leukemia.

Now, after more than three years training together, the two are heading to the Ultimate Fighting Championship after Solecki’s win via first-round submission at Dana White’s Contender Series in Las Vegas on July 9 earned him a contract to fight professionally with the world’s largest MMA organization.

“I knew right away he was a special talent,” Goude said. “Seeing Joe and how hard he works just got me motivated. It keeps me alive.”

Goude, a Georgetown resident, was diagnosed with leukemia in 2001, but after nearly a decade of managing his illness, he relapsed, resulting in him having bone marrow surgery about seven years ago.

Despite being in remission, Goude’s training career was behind him when Solecki, 25, walked into Fitness Edge MMA in Conway in 2016. It was Solecki’s work ethic and determination to be a professional fighter that motivated Goude to return to the octagon and help Solecki achieve his dream.

“I’m living through him,” Goude said. “I’m only here for Joe.”

MMA fighter Joe Solecki works with his trainer, Chris Goude, Tuesday afternoon at Fitness Edge in Conway. Josh Bell

‘Epic and meaningful’

Solecki, a New Jersey native who is based in Wilmington, North Carolina, knew he wanted to make it to the UFC after watching his first fight when he was 10 years old. While his younger self wasn’t the most skilled competitor, Solecki, who started studying Brazilian jiu-jitsu at six, said his unsuccessful turnouts in competitions never deterred his desire to be a professional fighter.

“I wanted to do something with my life that was epic and meaningful, and competing became my whole life,” Solecki said. “I wanted to be like my heroes. This was my way to be a real life Rocky.”

Moving to Myrtle Beach got him one step closer to achieving that goal.

Solecki attended Coastal Carolina University, where he stacked up his schedule studying and training in MMA, boxing and kickboxing full-time. While he hoped to earn his degree before taking his first amateur fight, Solecki dropped out of school in 2015 to solely focus on launching his career.

While Solecki knew it was his time to break out, he said meeting Goude was the best thing to happen to his career, recalling how Goude gave him a pair of sparring gloves during their first session together, insisting it would take him to the next level.

“I don’t know if I’d be fighting if I hadn’t met Chris,” Solecki said. “I had lost touch with my family when I started fighting and Chris really picked up the slack.”

Trainer Chris Goude wraps MMA fighter Joe Solecki’s hands before beginning training Tuesday afternoon at Fitness Edge in Conway. Josh Bell

‘He’s a fighter’

With their relationship at first centered around training and the technical aspects of fighting, Solecki said their friendship reached a new plateau after he lost his first professional fight, explaining how people within the business started to dismiss him. However, Goude provided the support he needed to get back up and fight.

“I’ve gone out with people in my corner who didn’t care about me, but when I look back at the guys I have now, I know the confidence they have in me and that we’re in this together. It really brings me up a lot,” Solecki said. “I never want to fight without him in my corner again.”

Through their growing friendship, Solecki started learning more about the fight Goude had been facing since his diagnosis. While Goude’s illness isn’t something they discuss often, Solecki said their training was never affected by it, calling Goude the best coach he’s ever had.

“There’s never been something we couldn’t do because of Chris, he always puts fighting first,” Solecki said. “At the end of the day he’s a fighter.”

Trainer Chris Goude works with his fighter, Joe Solecki, Tuesday afternoon at Fitness Edge in Conway. Josh Bell

While Goude admits his illness has been a struggle, he said Soleski’s “motivation, drive, willingness to get better, never stopping and never quitting” attitude kept him going.

“I’ve worked with guys here and there, but nobody like Joe,” Goude said. “Nobody could put the pen to paper and make it work.”

After spending years training and fighting, even appearing in the Cage Fury Fighting Championships, a regional MMA show along the East Coast, Solecki’s 7-2 record caught White’s attention.

In April, Solecki was invited to fight in the main event of White’s Contender Series, a weekly promotional event where White scouts talent to enlist to the UFC.

“I was so nervous. In my mind it was do or die,” Solecki said. “It was a lot of pressure, but it was all gone when it was my turn to fight. I knew I needed to end the fight in the first round.”

Trainer Chris Goude works with his fighter, Joe Solecki, Tuesday afternoon at Fitness Edge in Conway. Josh Bell

Solecki dominated his match, forcing his lightweight division opponent to tap out close to four minutes into the first round, resulting in White awarding him a UFC deal. Solecki said his victory was made even more special having his wife, Kacey, and Goude in his corner.

“Even when I couldn’t believe I could get there, he believed in me,” Solecki said of Goude. “And we’re there together now. It feels unreal.”

“It was really great,” Goude added. “All the hard work has paid off, and I think it’s going to get better down the road.”

With his contract officially signed, Solecki is splitting his time training between Conway and Wilmington before he makes his UFC debut. While an official fight hasn’t been scheduled, Solecki hopes to debut at UFC 244 at Madison Square Garden in New York this November.

“I’m just gonna get back to work and wait for the call,” Solecki said. “This is something that I can be proud of because I’ve wanted to do this since I was 10. Now the real work starts.”

Anna Young is the Coastal Cities reporter for The Sun News covering anything and everything that happens locally. Young, an award-winning journalist who got her start reporting local news in New York, is dedicated to upholding the values of journalism by listening, learning, seeking out the truth and reporting it accurately. She earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from SUNY Purchase College.