Joe Soto woke up on Friday morning with the rigors of weight-cutting on his mind, but a general excitement in anticipation of finally making his UFC debut after 17 professional fights. Meanwhile, UFC bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw was putting the final touches on his own weight before stepping on the scale to defend his title for the first time against the man he beat to win the belt just three months ago.
The lives of both fighters changed dramatically with a single phone call from UFC matchmakers telling them that Dillashaw’s opponent, Renan Barao, was out of UFC 177 after he fainted while cutting weight on Friday. For Soto, who was scheduled to fight Anthony Birchak on the undercard, the news he got was a welcome surprise.
"I just got done making 136 for my fight and I was naked on the bathroom floor trying to cool off, I walk out to go lay on the bed and they’re like, ‘Hey dude, the UFC’s calling you,’" Soto told FOX Sports. "So I answer it and it’s the matchmakers and they need to talk to me, it’s an emergency. So I run downstairs. They said ‘Barao’s out, do you want to take the fight?’ I said sure. They go ‘You want to fight Dillashaw?’ and I go, Yeah, I’ll fight him.
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"No thought process. It’s something you’ve got to do. You’ve got to step up when you get the opportunities and I was ready for that. It’s surreal a little bit, but I’m a professional, I’ve been doing this for a long time. I have 17 fights, a lot of title fights, I’ve been in this position before. I still have to grasp it. It’s crazy."
Dillashaw was in a much different mindset when he heard about Barao dropping out of the fight. Truth be told, Dillashaw wasn’t ultra-excited about the rematch in the first place, considering the 20-plus-minute beating he handed Barao in their first fight, and he always believed the Brazilian should have fought at least once in the interim to earn another shot at the belt.
I don’t want to be a diva champion. I’m the champion of the world, I’ve got to put whoever the UFC puts in front of me and I just want to prove to everyone that I’m here to fight.
— T.J. Dillashaw
Dillashaw accepted the rematch the same way he had no hesitation saying yes when the UFC came calling to say Soto was in the fight instead of Barao. Dillashaw’s a champion and that’s what champions do.
"I don’t want to be a diva champion. I’m the champion of the world, I’ve got to put whoever the UFC puts in front of me and I just want to prove to everyone that I’m here to fight," Dillashaw said. "He’s got nothing to lose, but I’ve been training for a five-round fight. I’m the better fighter so I don’t really have to worry about it.
"I would rather be the hero and save the day. It sucks this decision falls all on me; it’s not my fault it’s happening. It pisses me off a little bit, but ultimately I just want to be the guy that saves the day."
It’s clear Dillashaw is moving past Barao in a hurry, because his frustration and anger toward the former champion was obvious from the ire in his voice and the scowl on his face. UFC president Dana White already confirmed that Barao won’t receive a title shot when he returns, but Dillashaw is fairly certain the events that went down on Friday will put the former champion in his rearview for quite some time.
"He hasn’t missed weight at any of his fights. I think I mentally broke him and he doesn’t want to fight me," Dillashaw said. "I think his coaches wanted the fight more than he did. He should have just done this a couple of weeks ago and not today. I’m not even going to think about Renan Barao anymore."
There’s one positive coming from choosing Soto as the new opponent: Dillashaw revels in the fact that the two bantamweights were just training together as recent as six weeks ago. Soto also is a Northern California fighter and recently took a trip to Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, where he worked with Dillashaw as he prepared for his last fight three weeks ago.
"Joe Soto’s tough. He’s held some belts in Bellator, he just won the Tachi belt, he’s been around for a while, he’s a great grappler. I’ve practiced with him a couple of times," Dillashaw revealed. "I’ve grappled with him, he came into a couple of our wrestling practices, he came into our pro practice like six weeks ago, I think he was getting ready for his Tachi fight. I’m prepared for the fullest for this guy."
Greatness is right there, you just have to attain it. Look at Dillashaw — he beat Barao and nobody thought he was going to win.
— Joe Soto
Soto, who improved to 15-2 in his MMA career with a third-round submission victory Aug. 7 in Tachi Palace Fights 20, didn’t divulge much information about his practice sessions with Dillashaw. But he did show some confidence going into Saturday night despite the fact that he’s going to be a massive underdog walking into the Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento. Soto knows anything is possible and learned that by watching his old college roommate Jon Jones climb the ranks of the UFC, and now Jones is standing as the best pound-for-pound fighter in the sport.
Soto’s also reminded of another title fight just three months ago in which nobody was giving Dillashaw a chance to take out Barao, and look where everything stands now.
"If he can do it, I can do it," Soto said about Jones. "Because we didn’t expect him, even he wouldn’t have expected he would be as great as he is. Greatness is right there, you just have to attain it. Look at Dillashaw — he beat Barao and nobody thought he was going to win."