“I want to perform. I want to leave my mark in that fight.” - Alex Soto
There are many touchstones Alex Soto can look to when it comes to keeping the first time UFC jitters at bay before his Octagon debut this Saturday against Michael McDonald. He can refer back to his time in Afghanistan as a member of the United States Army, an interesting trip to his native Tijuana for one of his first amateur fights, or his current job as a dolphin trainer for the Navy. But instead, he will find inspiration in the person he calls “the best fighter I ever met.”
His wife Joy Clausen Soto.
“I’m used to dealing with pressure and stuff like that, but my inspiration before every fight and the person who really calms me down is my wife, Joy,” said the unbeaten bantamweight prospect. “She had cancer, Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and she ended up beating the cancer. She was a day away from dying and she came back, and to me, she’s the best fighter I ever met. She’s been my inspiration. So every time I go out there, I know that I don’t have what Joy had to go through. The person out there is just a man, and what I’m going through is not worse than cancer. It really pumps me up and takes away all the fear, the lights, and it really calms me down.”
Diagnosed when she was 23, Joy battled back against the disease, even documenting her fight in a film entitled “Just One Year – A Documentary of Triumph Over Cancer.”
“She’s so tough,” beams her proud husband, who isn’t too shabby in the toughness department himself, and if you look at where he’s been in his 27 years, maybe a second film should be in the works for the Soto family.
Born in Mexico, Soto and his family relocated to California when the future mixed martial artist was a teenager, and his parents had some firm thoughts on what their children should be doing in their new country.
“My parents have always instilled those morals in us where it was ‘hey, you guys are in this country, and you need to do your part as good citizens. We came here for a reason. We came through all our struggles because we want a better life for you guys. And it’s up to you to take full advantage of this. The whole world’s yours.’ That was always the message taught to us from our parents.”
So when the United States was attacked on September 11, 2001, Soto’s immediate thought was not to sit back, but to take action.
“During the 9/11 attacks, I was scared, and it was a horrible feeling not knowing what was going on,” he recalled. “We felt almost helpless, and I wanted to do something about that, so I joined the military right after I graduated high school, and got to go to Afghanistan and spend a year out there, doing my part.”
It was an admirable act any way you slice it, but even more so because Soto was willing to represent and defend a country that he wasn’t even born in, but one that he made his home. Yet after being stationed in Hawaii, as he got ready to board the plane to Afghanistan, he realized the gravity of his situation and that he might not be coming home.
“When we got onboard the plane to New York to fly out to Afghanistan, I realized that this could be the last time I see this country,” he said. “I looked around and kinda took in the moment and said ‘it’s not my time.’ I could just feel it. Luckily my whole team came back and everything was fine.”
After returning home, Soto began working at Sea World, where he eventually landed a gig as a dolphin trainer. That job evolved into a classified one where he helps train dolphins for the US Navy, but at the same time – while also going to school - he began to pursue mixed martial arts, a bug that got in his ear when he began training in jiu-jitsu and boxing while in the Army.
“When I was in the military I began training jiu-jitsu and boxing, and I would always get my butt whipped because I was the smallest guy, but I always felt like I was competitive,” he said. “So when I got out of the Army, I was going to school here in San Diego, and I decided to start training.”
Soto immediately showed promise in the sport, and when his trainer Manolo Hernandez told him about competing in some amateur MMA fights in Tijuana, the San Diegan jumped at the opportunity and got in the car with his teammates, including future UFC fighter Walel Watson, for this south of the border adventure.
Of course, as soon as they got to the club where the fights were being held, things started to go south. First they were told that not everyone had MMA gloves, so gloves wouldn’t be used, but they could still use their headgear and shinguards.
10 minutes later, headgear and shinguards were out as well.
“Turns out it’s gonna be a street fight,” laughed Soto, but he went through with the bout anyway, and despite the smoky room that had the “smell of cigarettes and beer everywhere,” he submitted his opponent in the first round.
“I got $50 and a couple bruised ribs and it was enough to get us gas money and some tacos for the way back,” he said.
By 2009, Soto was competing in more conventional venues, making his pro debut in July of that year with a one minute submission of Chris Dixon. Five more wins have followed, with the lone blemish on his record being a June 2011 draw in a DEEP bout in Japan against Seiji Akao. And even though he’s in the UFC now, what Soto’s remarkable story has overshadowed is a pretty intriguing fight against fellow prospect McDonald. It’s so good that it got bumped to this weekend’s UFC 139 prelims telecast, meaning that millions will see Soto in his first Octagon bout.
“I feel extremely lucky, number one to be fighting for the UFC, because there are a ton of great fighters out there,” said Soto. “And another reason is because I’m fighting Michael McDonald. When they told me ‘congratulations, you’re in the UFC, you’re fighting Michael McDonald,’ I was like ‘whaaat?’ I’ve been following this kid for a long time, even before he was in the UFC, and I’ve been a big fan of his. I think he’s a top ten bantamweight, it’s an honor to fight someone of his caliber, and I’m ready. Everybody in the bantamweight division is a badass, and I’m gonna go in there and do what I do best.”
And just what is it that the multi-dimensional Mr. Soto does best?
“I want to perform. I want to leave my mark in that fight.”