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Joe Soto: From the Prelims to the Main Event

Meet UFC bantamweight title challenger Joe Soto...

It’s already the most remarkable Rocky story ever, and Joe Soto hasn’t even set foot in the Octagon yet. On Friday afternoon, as the Porterville, California native was cutting weight for his UFC debut against Anthony Birchak on Saturday night, he received a call that would change his life.

Not that he was really prepared for it.

“I was lying on the floor in my rest room naked, cooling off on the tiles, and a UFC number was calling me,” Soto said, still an hour removed from stepping on the scales. “I was like ‘man, what is this about?’ (Laughs) And they called me downstairs and asked me if I wanted the shot. And I said I’ll take it.”

Just like that, Soto, making his first start in the UFC, was going to be fighting T.J. Dillashaw for the UFC bantamweight championship. The opportunity came to be when former champion Renan Barao took ill while cutting weight early Friday and was pulled from UFC 177 main event rematch with Dillashaw for precautionary reasons.

Enter the 27-year-old Soto, whose immediate response of yes to the offer of a world title shot on a day’s notice proves that his nickname of “One Bad Mofo” is an apt one. Yet despite the madness of the last couple hours, he insists that once he hits the scale at 135 pounds and begins the process of mentally preparing for the biggest fight of his eight year mixed martial arts career, it will be business as usual.

“I’m gonna try and make it as normal as possible and I still have to make sure I do the right things,” he said. “It’s a fight. I train every day and I don’t do nothing else but train all day every day to be ready to fight anytime, anywhere. I’m as ready as I ever could be for anything.”

At least for the next 24-48 hours, the Rocky tag will hang around Soto’s neck, but it wasn’t that long ago that Dillashaw had the same moniker after his win over Barao in May, a victory most considered one of the greatest upsets in UFC history. Soto would one-up that with a win over the hometown favorite, but like Dillashaw, the challenger is no MMA neophyte, having compiled a 15-2 pro record that includes wins over Wilson Reis, Diego Saraiva, and Chad George. He’s also a former college wrestling roommate of UFC light heavyweight boss Jon Jones, and a Jiu-Jitsu brown belt under UFC vet Dave Terrell.

Soto is no slouch, but his road to the UFC wasn’t an easy one, a detached retina (since corrected through surgery) threatening his career at one point. He wasn’t about to throw in the towel though, and after putting together a six-fight winning streak, he got the call he’s been waiting for. Little did he know that another call on weigh-in day would take his UFC debut to a whole other level.

So what about those first-time UFC jitters?

“I’m sure they’ll be there,” he laughs, but he’s ready for Dillashaw.

“Dillashaw’s tough, but I’m gonna go out there and give it my all,” Soto said. “I actually trained with him not too long ago, and he’s good. He’s a champion and it’s going to be a tough fight.”

But what if Joe Soto wins? Not only will it turn the MMA world upside down, but it will change this young man’s life forever.

“It would be a dream come true, that’s the only way I can explain it,” he said. “It’s something that only God could have come up with.”

He pauses.

“The last four years have been terrible,” he says quietly. “I know why now.”

It must be fate.

“It’s crazy, but it’s a great story to tell my grandkids, I tell you that.”