The other Hawaii fighter at UFC 245

Sports

Picture: ESPN

Max Holloway is not the only fighter from Hawaii in this weekend’s titanic UFC 245 event. Before “Blessed” takes the stage in the second-to-last fight on the card, Wailua’s Punahele Soriano (6-0) will make his UFC debut in the very first fight of the night.

“Story Time” Soriano earned a UFC contract in June this year when he won a fight on Dana White’s Contender Series, a promotion designed to scout up-and-coming talent for the UFC. His UFC debut was initially scheduled for UFC 242 in September, but his opponent withdrew due to a knee injury and the bout was scrapped. That setback turned out to be a good thing for Soriano.

“Everything from the last fight falling out till now was a blessing. Leading up to [the last fight] I was really nervous. I had a really bad feeling. I can’t put my finger on it, but it didn’t feel right. That one fell through and now I just feel ready. I feel prepared. I got to train harder and smarter and I feel ready to go.”

Soriano went through most of the training camp for the cancelled September bout, and learned from the experience. This time, his preparation was much more fine-tuned.

“I never had a strength and conditioning coach or any type of regiment other than going in the gym and going to practice. But with the UFC contract I was able to go to the UFC Performance Institute and get a routine.”

The Kahuku High School graduate has trained at the Xtreme Couture gym in Las Vegas for three years, alongside fellow Hawaii UFC veteran Brad Tavares. His first professional fight took place in 2017; his career thus far has simultaneously been brief and a long time in the making. 

“I started wrestling in 8th grade because I didn’t make the basketball team,” Soriano said. “In high school I was able to find success as a state champ in wrestling and judo, but in college I fell short. I wanted to be a national champ but I was only an All-American.”

To become an All-American wrestler, you have to place in the top 8 in the national tournament, so the phrase “only an All-American” is a good indication of Soriano’s mindset. After graduating from Wartburg College in Iowa, Soriano began dabbling in mixed martial arts.

“I graduated and my buddy Dan Ige invited me to practice. At first I was only going once a week, but I fell in love with it and started going everyday. I got lucky, the pieces fell into the right places.”

Now, with six pro fights in less than three years, Soriano is not only joining the biggest MMA organization on the planet, he’s doing so on one of the biggest fight cards of the year. At the top of UFC 245 are three championship bouts — a rarity given the UFC’s breakneck schedule of over 40 events per year — including Max Holloway’s title defense. Holloway is one of the biggest stars in the sport and a hometown hero in the islands. While no one would fault Soriano for feeling a little bit of pressure, “Story Time” doesn’t see it that way.

“I’m fighting on Max’s card, so I assume the attention is not going to be anywhere near me. I have no pressure on that aspect. The pressure I feel is the normal pressure of performing, what all fighter’s feel.”

Holloway has often fought with fellow Hawaii fighters on the same card. At UFC 236, Waianae’s Boston Salmon was on the undercard; and at UFC’s 212 and 218, Makaha’s Yancy Medeiros got the cage warm for Holloway. Now, it’s Soriano’s turn, and even if he’s in Holloway’s shadow, he still recognizes his opportunity to shine.

“It’s almost overwhelming. I’ve been watching Max fight from before I even thought about fighting, and now we’re on the same stage together. I know regardless of how I do, Max will go out there and perform, but to know that if I go out there and put on a show that I can give him a little more of a boost — that makes me feel so good.”

He fights Oskar Piechota, a middleweight from Poland who is 11-2-1 overall and 2-2 in the UFC. Piechota lost his last two fights, both by submission. Soriano is more focused on himself than his opponent, however.

“I trust my coaches to look into my opponent and see what he’s good at and tailor the training around it. For me, I focus on me and preparing to do everything as best I can. If I do that, I know I’m going to be all right.”

There are a lot of professional fighters from Hawaii, and Soriano is proud to be a part of that larger group. With Holloway’s fight on Saturday and Ilima Lei-MacFarlane headlining Bellator 236 in Honolulu next weekend, Hawaii fighters are in the spotlight.

“It’s just the culture. We’re a warrior culture. In the old days we’d go island to island to take over. I feel like that spirit still lives on through us. This is our way to express that, to channel our inner ancestors.

“It might sound cliche, but representing Hawaii means the world to me. It’s everything. As a kid at the bus stop waiting to go to school, every kid was shadowboxing. Every kid in Hawaii wants to be some sort of fighter, and I get to actually do it. So it feels like I get to do this for everyone else.”

The prelims for UFC 245 start on Saturday at 1:15 Hawaii time on ESPN+.

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