UFC bantamweight Joe Soto has had one of the more interesting UFC careers for a fighter with only one bout in the organization. Scheduled to take on Anthony Birchak on late notice for UFC 177, he ended up fighting in the main event for the bantamweight title opposite T.J. Dillashaw when former champ Renan Barao was pulled from the event.
Soto didn't win, but he fought valiantly before being stopped in the fifth round. It was as odd of a UFC debut as one can have, but even more strangely, he hasn't fought since.
Soto told Ariel Helwani on Monday's MMA Hour he wasn't really injured after the fight. He's basically just been waiting for the right opportunity to return, which he gets Saturday night at UFC Fight Night 68 against Birchak, his original UFC 177 opponent
"I guess, a little bit, but you can always gain that back with an awesome fight, good performance," Soto said of losing momentum by not fighting soon after his loss to Dillashaw. "I'm not really too worried about that. As long as I keep winning, good things will happen, I guess.
"It took a while," Soto said in terms of understanding the whole experience. "I think that's why I took a little break, too. It took a while for everything to sink in. The biggest thing was I was just relieved I was finally in the UFC. It took a lot of years to get here. I think that's what I needed, like a breather, because I hustled for so many years to try to grind to get in. It was hard to get in.
"Definitely it was weird, that whole situation," he continued. "It took a while for, 'Wow, it happened.' It was cool."
The long-time MMA veteran gave Dillashaw about as good of a fight as one can expect on 24 hours notice. That doesn't mean, however, he doesn't look back with some regrets about what could've gone differently.
"There's a lot of things I could've did differently," he admitted. "It's kind of hard to game plan in one night for the best guy in the world. I could've won, I guess. I don't know. He's a tough fighter. I think next time it could be different. You never know. He's always going to be dangerous no matter how much time I have to prepare.
"There's a couple of things I could've did different that I was like, 'Man, I should've did that'. It was hard to be confident going into that fight in your cardio and everything 100 percent because you just didn't prepare for that fight, that situation. I couldn't go 100 percent. I had to reserve my energy. I had to fight 80 percent. I couldn't push like I wanted to. I don't know. That fight could go a lot of different ways because we're both athletic."
Soto believes, in retrospect, more leg kicks and diverse striking could've kept Dillashaw guessing. He stuck with his boxing thinking it was the safer route. And maybe it was, Soto conceded, but it wasn't enough to get the job done.
That doesn't mean the experience wasn't rewarding. Soto says everyone from his gym teammates to people on the street to online messengers showed him a ton of support.
"Everybody was definitely happy for me. Everybody was real positive. Everybody thought I did real well," he noted. "A lot of encouraging words. It was just happy around here, everybody that knows me.
"From the fans on Facebook, people were sending me messages from all over the world saying that I did a good job and congratulating me. Telling me I'm inspirational or whatever, for whatever reasons. It was cool."
For all the highs and lows of the experience, one thing it definitely wasn't is something he's still looking for: a win inside the UFC. Fighting in the main event on short notice had its perks, but a loss is a loss. What he struggles with now ahead of the Birchak fight is just getting a win inside the world's top MMA promotion.
Fighting Dillashaw was interesting, but until he gets a win in the UFC, it's not the validation he's looking for.
"A part of me feels like I made it. Nobody in home town, nobody in my area has ever reached the pinnacle this high in anything. Part of me feels like, 'Hey, I made it' and just try to have fun with it and obviously win," Soto said.
But, he argued, it's not enough. Getting past Birchak, earning the win inside the Octagon, that, more than anything, is what he's craving.
"A part of me, obviously, I need to get that first win to really prove to myself that I made it. I think I'll be a little less nervous after I get that first win under my belt."