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Inside Joey Beltran's Journey Back to the UFC

"I’m not going to change my style. I’m going to add some new tricks to my style, but as far as my heart and my will and the spirit that I bring into the cage, that’s never going to change." - Joey Beltran

UFC light heavyweight Joey BeltranEvery fight card features a familiar collection of stories: newcomers who can’t contain their excitement about finally being called to the biggest stage in the sport, veterans who are certain that this fight will be when they start their final push to challenge for that ever-elusive championship, the emerging prospects on the brink of contention, and the champions determined to let nothing prevent them from holding on to the 12 pounds of gold they’ll walk to the cage with in the main event.

Quite frequently, there is also the returning fighter – a veteran who has already had a taste of life in the UFC, and is back for seconds after a brief hiatus. Their stories are usually an amalgamation of the newcomer and the veteran – more excited than words can explain about the chance to compete on the biggest stage once again and more prepared to make the most of the opportunity this time around.

Many times, those fighters and those stories tend to focus on the future – what they intend to make of their second chance, and how this time is going to be different. Rarely does anyone talk about the time in between, the gap between stints on the big stage, and the flood of uncertainty and doubt washes over a fighter during that period.

Wednesday night in San Jose, Joey Beltran will be making his return to the UFC, this time as a light heavyweight, stepping up on short notice to take on James Te Huna in the co-main event of the organization’s latest fight card on FUEL TV.

After amassing a 3-4 record through seven appearances in the Octagon as a heavyweight, Beltran was released from the organization after suffering a nasty knockout loss to Lavar Johnson back in January. In advance of his return, “The Mexicutioner” opened up about the difficult times he endured and choices he faced during his time away from the bright lights and bigger paychecks of the UFC.

“There’s definitely a lot of soul-searching that happens, especially when for so long you were supporting your family, and now all of a sudden the checks are – they’re not cut in half, they’re cut into a fraction of what they once were. I owe a lot to my wife; she really picked up the ball and ran when I fumbled, and put me on her back in many ways.

“After the Lavar Johnson fight, it was probably one of the hardest times in my life,” explained Beltran, who earned back-to-back wins to begin his UFC career before dropping four of his final five appearances. “I definitely slipped into a heavy, heavy depression, and I actually probably didn’t leave my house for two weeks. It sucked. I was left with so many questions, regrets, and feeling real bummed, beating myself up, kicking the can around every day. But my wife was there every day encouraging me and being patient, allowing me to go through that process; same with my coaches.

“As far as the hardships,” Beltran continued, “financially is probably the biggest one. You go through, “Well s**t — should I really be training six or eight hours a day or should I go get a job?” A “real job” as they say – a 9:00 to 5:00. I’m still the man of the house, and I need to provide for my family, so do I go get a job or do I keep pluggin’ away at this dream?

“Then I just made a decision that I’m not going to quit; I’m not going to retire. This is my job – my family needs me, and I need to continue fighting for my sanity. If I’m going to retire, I’m not going to go out on a loss, so I gave myself at least one fight.”

Having decided to continue fighting, the next career question Beltran had to answer is which division he would call home?

Beltran had always been a heavyweight by nature. Standing six-foot-one, he was never the guy who had to worry about cutting weight to get below the 265-pound ceiling for the division. He’d lose a little weight during camp, but more or less, he fought close to his walking around weight, and he’d been successful up until his final few bouts in the UFC. But the way his first stint in the UFC ended got Beltran thinking about making a change.

“Losing four out of five fights, regardless of if they were all entertaining or not, that doesn’t cut the mustard in the UFC. There was no hard feelings, no ill will, and I knew once I got out of my depression that I had to change the game, flip the script, and come back with something brand new. I knew that that was going to be the drop to 205.

“That gave me something to work for even though I was medically suspended. I couldn’t spar, I couldn’t really train the way I enjoy training, but I still had a goal to work for, and I made a commitment to do a test cut to 205. That went pretty well; it was a little rough, but I made it.”

He picked up a decision win over former Ohio State wrestler Anton Talamantes in March, controlling the action throughout, gaining confidence in his decision to move down to light heavyweight in the process, even if his new weight class doesn’t come with as tasty a menu as he was accustomed to in the past.

“After the first cut, I stayed right around 225, and it’s been really, really easy. I’ve actually been fortunate enough that I don’t have to do any of the horrible sauna cuts; I do it really easy with just dieting. Up until the last five days, I pretty much each as much as I want, I just have strict ingredients that I can eat. I can eat as much spinach as I want (laughs), but you know, whatever. I will admit this though: after eating clean for so long, you really do feel crappy when you fall back to old patterns. For me, it really showed me like, “Damn! This really was garbage that I was putting my body for so long and then going out and fighting.”

“I definitely feel as strong, if not stronger, at this weight,” Beltran continued in his breakdown of the changes to his game since relocating to the light heavyweight division. “To be honest with you, the athleticism hasn’t picked up dramatically, but that will come with time through all of the explosive drills and agility drills that my strength and conditioning coach has been working with me on. That will come, but right off the get-go my cardio has gone through the roof, and my hand-speed has picked up for sure. As far as can I still take a punch, can I still throw wallops? Yeah, for sure, it’s all good man. I don’t think that will ever go.”

After getting back into the win column in March in his debut as a 205-pound fighter, Beltran was putting in time in the gym, on the lookout for another competitive matchup on the regional circuit when the injury bug started attacking the UFC’s summer schedule, and an opportunity for a teammate created an opening for Beltran to make his return to the UFC.

“It was actually Brandon (Vera) who shot me the text to let me know the good news,” Beltran explained with a laugh. “They had all come back from Vegas — that’s another thing too (laughing): I was basically all alone for this process. Not all alone, but my teammates were all in Vegas, my normal coaching staff were all in Vegas for The Ultimate Fighter supporting Dominick Cruz in that venture, so I had to stay in California. I started getting some workouts in with Mark Munoz and all the great crew of fighters and coaches over there at Reign Training Center. I owe a debt of gratitude to Mark for opening the doors, and welcoming me with open arms over there at his gym.

“Brandon had been back for about two weeks, and he and I had been going hard training, and he was giving me compliments on how much I’d improved, especially in my standup and technically. I think that might have been part of it; I was fresh in his head.”

The UFC tabbed Vera to replace Thiago Silva in a matchup with former light heavyweight champion Mauricio “Shogun” Rua atop the August UFC on FOX fight card. Accepting the offer left Vera’s original opponent in need of a dance partner.

“When they asked him to go fight “Shogun,” I think a little light bulb went off. “Oh? Te Huna needs an opponent? Let’s sneak Joey in the back door,” Beltran said, chasing the words with another laugh, the excitement and the gratitude he feels for an opportunity to once again be competing in the UFC coming through in everything he says. “I owe a lot to him, and his manager, and my coach Eric Del Fierro; quick thinking and quick phone calls contributed a lot to getting me back in.”

Though he’s clearly ecstatic about returning to action on the biggest stage in the sport, many wonder if Beltran will be the same aggressive fighter he was during his first tour of duty with the UFC. He always absorbed a great deal of punishment in his previous bouts, and went out on the business end of a big time knockout. That has to change a man, right?

“People have asked me if I watched that fight, and the answer is “No” because I remember what happened,” Beltran said of his January encounter with Johnson at the United Center in Chicago. “I remember the moment. Let me — I don’t remember all those nasty uppercuts when I was slumped over on the fence; I was already out. But the first uppercut he landed I remember. I was coming in on this entry that we had worked on, and he was smart – he was waiting for that. Right when I came in, I just felt it. BOOOSH! He cracked me solid, and I tried to regain myself, but he just jumped on me.

“When you’re dealing with 250-pound men, you make a mistake, and they crack you, you’re going to go down; I don’t care who it is. All I have to do is make sure that I don’t make those same kinds of stupid mistakes and I’ll be alright. I’m not going to change who I am; I’m not going to change my style. I’m going to add some new tricks to my style, but as far as my heart and my will and the spirit that I bring into the cage, that’s never going to change. I’m definitely going to come forward the whole time, but I’m going to try to not lead with my head as much.”

As for the meeting with Te Huna and their placement as the co-main event of the evening, Beltran remained candid in his assessment of what he expects from his New Zealand-born counterpart on Wednesday night, and said he thinks there is good reason for them to hold down the second to last slot on the FUEL TV fight card, even if some people happen to think otherwise.

“He’s definitely tough, and he definitely likes to scrap; I could not have asked for a better opponent to come back to. If he wants to scrap, I’m down, man. The fans are going to get excited; FUEL TV is going to be excited. Everyone is going to be happy because it’s going to be a good one.

“It’s pretty crazy to me; I’m keeping my fingers crossed that they don’t catch that mistake,” Beltran joked about returning in the penultimate fight of the night. “I know the haters are coming out in hoards, but I have to give myself a little bit of credit: I’m a seven-fight UFC veteran, I have a reputation for putting on nothing but entertaining fights. James Te Huna is coming off two first round knockouts. There’s a whole build-up around me dropping to 205 – everybody’s interested in seeing what I can do in this new weight class, so as far as the build-up and the story, there is definitely one there.”

There definitely is, and for once, it’s not one of the same stories you’re hearing every fight week.