They’d always talked about this moment.

Former Kahuku High School wrestling teammates Dan Ige and Punahele Soriano have both been in the UFC for multiple years, but the two had never been on a card together. That will change on Saturday, when both North Shore natives compete in the main card of UFC Vegas 67, which begins at 2 p.m. HST on ESPN+ in what will be the first event of the year for the organization.

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Soriano (9-2) will face Russia’s Roman Kopylov (9-2), while Ige (15-6) takes on Damon Jackson (22-4-1) in the featherweight co-main event in the fight immediately after.

“It’s such an amazing opportunity and I was just talking to Puna about this because we’ve never had the opportunity to compete on an MMA event together, amateur or pro, and now we get to do it on the biggest stage ever,” Ige told KHON2. “I was just telling him the other day we may never get this opportunity again and it’s a rare opportunity for us to go out there and make a big impact, show people from Hawaii especially that two kids from a small town that no one expected to do good or do anything in sports can really go out there and make it. It’s a big opportunity and we’re both super pumped about it and I’m honestly super excited more so than the fight itself. I’m just excited I get to compete with one of my best friends.”

Ige and Soriano first met in high school, where they both caught the city bus outside of the Haleiwa 7-Eleven near Weed Circle. Although they also competed in judo, each went on to wrestle for Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa, and both currently reside in Las Vegas, where they’re teammates at Xtreme Couture Mixed Martial Arts.

Soriano’s go-to story about how their friendship began involves offering a drooling Ige some li hing gummy bears that he was having for breakfast on the way to school one day. From there, the two became inseparable, bonding over their shared ambitions to compete in the UFC while maintaining the affinity they had for the respective sports they were involved in at the time.

“It’s super cool. We’ve kind of been talking about this, dreaming about this since high school. We used to catch the bus from Haleiwa 7-Eleven to Kahuku every day,” recalled Soriano, who estimated that the commute took about an hour. “On the way home, late, late at night after wrestling practice, we’d just talk about being in the UFC, fighting, and now it’s coming true.

“We just yearned for it, you know? We thought about it every day all day. Even though we were different weight classes, I remember working techniques and stuff together, doing our own things together, just playfully figuring things out and just always having fun. That’s what I remember.”

Former Kahuku football coach Reggie Torres used to require his players to play another sport. In order to keep his spot as a defensive back on the football team, Soriano tried out for basketball but did not make the team. It led him to join the wrestling team as a freshman, a sport where he did not have any prior experience.

Torres, who was also the coach of the wrestling team, believes nobody automatically masters a sport as rugged as wrestling, even a pair as inclined as Ige and Soriano.

Through laughs, Soriano recalled being singled out by Torres early on.

“I learned a lot and I’m still learning a lot to this day. I remember being a silly, goofy little kid and I’m silly and goofy now but I didn’t know I had the killer in me yet,” Soriano said. “I kind of would just wrestle every match and I remember specifically one time, Reggie after a dual or tournament or something kind of had the team together and was like, ‘You know, he may be real goofy and tripping over his feet and awkward but he’s wrestling as hard as he can and the same every single time no matter how good the guy (he’s facing) is.’ I didn’t know that was a good thing at the time. I was just trying, you know? From then on, it clicked a little and every year I got better and better.”

Soriano severely injured his right knee during his sophomore year of football. Although the initial recommendation from his doctor following surgery was two years off, Soriano did not miss any of the following wrestling or football seasons, though wrestling had clearly become his main sport.

“It was a kickoff, I broke my knee. My kneecap. I made a pretty gnarly hit, I hit somebody and I don’t know if it was the impact of me hitting the ground or someone stepped on me or what, but my knee just basically exploded. I walked off the field and I was like, ‘Oh, this feels weird.’ Somehow I walked off the field. I sat down and I pulled up my knee pad, and my knee cap was on my thigh, four inches (above) where it should have been. I was like, ‘Well, that’s not good. It’s not sore, so I don’t know,’” Soriano explained between more laughs.

“For sure I wasn’t going to wrestle that year, for sure wasn’t going to do nothing until maybe the next year, maybe I can start looking at exercising and maybe playing football again. Somehow, I was just like, ‘Frick this’ and just kept working hard, working hard and I made it to the very next wrestling season.

“I remember there was a little pain and I remember Reggie telling me, ‘You can’t baby it. If you baby it, you’re gonna baby it forever.’ From that day on, I just looked at it like it never got hurt and still to this day it just feels like it was never, ever injured.”

Soriano maintains that there’s no pain in his knee currently.

“It’s heavy duty. It’s full of metal screws,” he said. “If you touch that thing, it’s gonna injure you.”

Added Torres: “I just knew he was crazy, period, at that point. I said, ‘This kid’s tough.’ He’s laughing at a broken leg on a stretcher. Most kids would be crying. His toughness when he came out for the sport of wrestling and judo, he took some licks but he would hang with the bigger kids and the kids would pound on him on the mat and he’d just keep coming and wouldn’t stop. Him and Dan, they’re both tough, good kids.”

Around that same time, Ige, who was a grade level above Soriano, joined the wrestling team as a junior. Though he entered the wrestling team with prior experience in jiu-jitsu and grappling, Torres said Ige’s junior year was basically spent getting his bearings on the wrestling mat.

By the time Ige’s senior year came around, Torres recalled seeing a wrestler who was far more in tune and focused on his goals. Ige breezed to the semifinal round of the 2009 Hawaii state tournament in the 145 pound division but lost out on a spot in the finals after losing in overtime.

“It was overtime, he took the kid down but one of his feet landed out of bounds by a few inches,” Torres recalled. “Had he been in bounds, he would’ve been wrestling for first, but I know after that it took a toll on him.”

Instead of closing out his high school career with a state title, a distraught Ige ended up losing the rest of his matches and finished sixth.

As it pertains to his current MMA career, Ige has lost his three most recent bouts and is currently ranked 13th in the UFC featherweight rankings after spending over two years within the top 10. All three of Ige’s defeats during the streak were decision losses to some of the best the featherweight division has to offer, as Chan Sung Jung went on to fight for the title, while Josh Emmett will fight for the interim belt in February. Movsar Evloev, Ige’s most recent opponent, remains a spotless 16-0 in his UFC career.

“It sucked, and then I just had that spirit of defeat after and ended up losing every match after and got sixth at states but I think that’s one of the best things that’s happened to me because had I gone out there and won states, I don’t know if I would’ve went on to wrestle in college, I probably would have just been content with that.” Ige recalls. “But it taught me something. It taught me that through defeat, greatness can still be achieved, and I still feel that way to this day.

“In a way, I’m facing that right now. I have gone on a three-fight losing skid which isn’t where I want to be, obviously, but it’s just driven me, it’s hardened my mind to really have that championship mindset to stand up and go again and again and again. You get kicked down, you’re never down and out until you say, ‘I’m done. I quit. I give up.’ But I don’t feel that way. I feel like I’m in the prime of my career right now, I feel great, so as long as I have that willingness to get up and try again, I still have a shot at this.”

Ige went on to wrestle for Wartburg, while Soriano won the 171 pound state title the following year as a senior.

Ige and Soriano only overlapped for one year at Wartburg, as Ige decided to commit fully to mixed martial arts after his sophomore year. Although Soriano didn’t win any individual championships, Wartburg won four consecutive NCAA Division III team national championships during his time there.

While Soriano says he was the one who convinced Ige to join the wrestling team at Kahuku, he’ll readily acknowledge how Ige laid the blueprint for him from then on.

It was Ige who took the plunge to Wartburg and then started a career in mixed martial arts, which led to a full-time move to Las Vegas. After multiple years competing in various regional organizations, Ige finally got his shot to compete for the world’s foremost MMA brand, where he’s resided for the past five years. In a true testament to their friendship, Soriano was shepherded along by Ige every step of the way.

“Puna’s a guy beyond fighting, beyond sports that’s gonna be my brother for life. I always wanna see him do good. No matter what it is, I’m always gonna be there for him to help him and this is an opportunity for both of us to go out there and shine,” Ige says of Saturday’s card. “There’s not enough shine in the world for only me to have or for him to have. We can both go out there and both have that shine. I’m just super blessed and fortunate to share this opportunity with him and we’re going to go out there and do some great things.”

Saturday promises to be an emotionally charged day not just for Ige and Soriano, but also for Eric Nicksick, their coach at Xtreme Couture.

Nicksick, who was already set to corner Ige and Soriano in consecutive fights, had a unique wrinkle added to those plans on Monday when Sean Strickland, another fighter at Xtreme Couture, agreed to step in and face Nassourdine Imavov in the main event following the withdrawal of Kelvin Gastelum. Nicksick will corner the final three fights of the UFC Vegas 67 card and will be tasked with compartmentalizing each result until the night is done.

“Because this isn’t the first time, at least I’ve been able to understand the adrenaline dumps and highs and the lows coming off of wins, coming off of losses and being able to kind of hit the reset button if you will and knowing no matter what the outcome is for Puna, I can’t be too high or I can’t be too low for Dan, and right when that fight’s over for Dan, it’s the same thing going into Sean’s fight,” Nicksick says. “I just kind of have to maintain an even keel. I know I’m gonna be dead tired by the time I get home because it’s that adrenaline dump no matter what. For each fighter, it’s important that I give them 110 percent while they’re in the cage and maintaining my focus.”

Like Torres, Nicksick was there to witness and assist in the evolution of both Ige and Soriano.

“Dan is talented, don’t get me wrong, but he’s not like this athlete that’s gonna jump off the page. Over time, I think because of Dan’s work ethic and his willingness to be in the gym and drill and get better, his athleticism now jumps off the page,” Nicksick said. “The kid that I knew in 2017, 2016 who moved out here and came out here, it’s just night and day as far as mixed martial arts go.”

As fledgling mixed martial artists turn to different methods in an attempt to discover their strengths, Nicksick believes Soriano has developed a distinct attribute that distinguishes him from Xtreme Couture’s biggest name.

“There’s just something ungodly about Puna’s power that I don’t understand. I tell guys all the time, I hold (punching pads) for Francis Ngannou and I’ll still tell you: Puna Soriano is pound for pound the hardest hitter in the gym in my opinion,” Nicksick said. “The guy just has this weird, weird way of throwing his punches that they hit like a ton of bricks. That’s the nice thing with Puna — his ability to literally end the fight on one punch if he lands that punch correctly or clean.”

Soriano put on a show the last time he was in the octagon, a second round knockout over Dalcha Lungiambula at UFC on ABC 3 on July 16, 2022, but has not fought since then after breaking his hand.

“I just want to keep that momentum coming. There’s nothing like that win. … It’s hard for me to even think past (Saturday), really. Honestly, I don’t know what’s life after Jan. 14,” Soriano said. “Jan. 14, I feel like it’s the end of the world, the only date I can’t see past. After that, nothing else exists.”

Ige admits he’ll get nervous during Soriano’s fight but equates the feeling to seeing Soriano wrestle before him during a meet in high school.

“It is super cool, especially when you think about the North Shore, it’s such a small stretch (of land). Hawaii is already super small. Just the little segment of the North Shore, it’s just super cool that two kids can go out there and have this opportunity on the big show, on the big stage, on the main card and go out there and make a splash because it just goes to show that anyone can go out there and do it, you know? It doesn’t take someone special,” Ige said. “I don’t have any special talents, I just knew how to work hard and achieve everything that I ever dreamed of so like I said, this is our chance to make an impact together and I really hope that we can just go out there and show others that they’re not alone and have a goal and anything they dream that they believe in that they can go out and achieve it.

“Winning is never guaranteed but I can absolutely tell you that I put in the work. I’m fully ready to go out there and give everything that I have to win and to start off 2023 with a big win, first show back of the year, I think it would be great to just get that momentum rolling again and get back on a win streak, I really can’t wait. I’m super excited.”

Nowadays, when Torres tunes in to see his former pupils, he sees the same affable kids who enjoyed joking with each other but knew when to be serious enough to progress towards their lofty aspirations.

“They’re the same tough young men. If you notice, they’re humble kids. They’re not arrogant,” Torres said. “They haven’t lost their identity and that’s what I’m most proud of for them. They’re tough kids, they’re tough MMA fighters, but they haven’t lost who they are and where they came from.”

As monotonous as those hourlong bus rides to school may have been, they served as the driving force behind Ige and Soriano’s dreams, a place where the two plotted out their goals and told each other they could maybe become the next BJ Penn, the first UFC star from the islands.

“In my head, I’ve always believed and told myself I was gonna be a UFC fighter and Puna and I used to joke about being UFC fighters,” Ige said. “But no one took us serious because we were just jokesters and at the end of the day, we just believed in ourselves and put in the work and it all came to fruition so it’s really cool to look back to those days and just see the growth and it just tells anyone out there if they really have a dream and you believe it and you put in the work, then it’s absolutely achievable.”

Come Saturday, Ige and Soriano will be there to continue to root each other on. No bus ride this time, just a short walk to the octagon in the UFC Apex.

“It’s a pretty cool feeling and it’s something that should be celebrated just because of the rarity of something like this happening,” Nicksick said. “These two guys I think just have that mentality now where that work ethic, the two of them together make for this dynamic duo that I’m super proud of both of them.

“It’s a pretty cool damn story, man.”