Soa “The Hulk” Palelei has finished his last eight opponents. | Photo: Louie Abigail/Sherdog.com
Jettisoned by the Ultimate Fighting Championship after one failed appearance in December 2007, Soa Palelei wondered if the Las Vegas-based promotion kept his number. Five and a half years later, he has his answer.
Palelei will enter the Octagon for the second time at UFC 164 “Henderson vs. Grant,” as he collides with undefeated Ukrainian prospect Nikita Krylov on Aug. 31 at the BMO Harris Bradley Center in Milwaukee. The 35-year-old Australian heavyweight has posted a 10-1 mark since succumbing to third-round punches from Eddie Sanchez at UFC 79, losing only to the world-ranked Daniel Cormier in that span.
In this exclusive interview with Sherdog.com, Palelei discusses his one-and-done release from the UFC, the eight-fight winning streak that led to his return and the current state of mixed martial arts in his native Australia.
Sherdog.com: What was it like when you received the call that you were returning to the UFC?
Palelei: It was indescribable. The smile was plastered on my face the whole day. I was very thankful to my management team with Paradigm Sports. I have been busting my ass for three and a half years to get to where I am today, and with my hard work, dedication and the help of my team, we finally got it to happen. It was a great feeling. I’m so thankful for this opportunity, and I want to give my all in the Octagon.
Sherdog.com: Your first UFC stay was brief. How have you improved since your loss to Sanchez?
Palelei: I’d like to think I’ve improved. That fight was a nightmare. I hated going into it with the weight cut and my son being sick back home. Regardless, I don’t ever want to feel that again. I came home and took some time off. I needed to see if this was what I wanted to do. After a while, I couldn’t stay away. I have a passion for what I do, and I wanted to become a better fighter to improve mentally and physically. Now, here I am with an eight-fight winning streak. My hard work and my willingness to evolve have paid off.
Sherdog.com: How difficult was it to swallow that defeat?
Palelei: It was the hardest pill to swallow, for sure, but I’m a strong believer that things happen for a reason. I had that loss, and it woke me up. I knew I had to pick my game up. I had to amp it up and change a lot of things. We have done that now, and I’ve grown as a man and as a fighter. With life, we all evolve -- this is inevitable -- and I had to do that as a fighter. I’m smarter, I’m stronger both physically and mentally and I’m all-around a more mature person. I’m eager to get in there and showcase the real “Hulk,” not the impersonator that was there once before.
Palelei: It is what it is. I’ve come to terms with it. I’m back, and this is my time. I feel that this is the right time for me. I’m confident in my game and myself, and my mentality is on point. A lot has changed. A lot has happened. I’m comfortable with what happened and how I’ve carried myself as an athlete.
Sherdog.com: How disappointed were you when you missed out on the opportunity to fight Stipe Miocic at UFC 161 and how did it impact your training camp?
Palelei: Like I said, everything happens for a reason. I respect the UFC’s decision. The card needed another big name, and that was Roy Nelson. I was still able to be a part of it. I flew over to Canada and still weighed in as an alternate, and I was 100 percent on point. There were some people who didn’t think I’d make weight, and I did. It was great to be a part of it all. I was able to catch up with old friends and build new friendships. It was a great trip, and I’m looking forward to UFC 164.
Sherdog.com: What challenges does Nikita Krylov pose as an opponent?
Palelei: There are always challenges with each opponent. I can’t reveal too much. My trainers and I are working on the game plan, and when the time comes, may the best man win. I look forward to walking into the Octagon and giving it my all.
Sherdog.com: What would it mean to you to win this fight and establish yourself in the UFC heavyweight division?
Palelei: Every fighter going into the organization wants a win. I’m training hard, and my diet is on point. I’m going to do everything I need to do on my side to go in there at my best. We just have to see what happens on Aug. 31. I know I’m deserving of being in the UFC, and I just want to showcase my skills and keep fans and the UFC happy.
Sherdog.com: How would you describe the current state of the UFC heavyweight division, and why does it need you?
Palelei: There are some great names in there. I have great admiration and respect for all of them, but what’s missing is “The Hulk.” He comes packed with passion for what he does, and he’s ready to do his job. I’m itching to get in there and let “The Hulk” do his thing. I was born to do this.
Sherdog.com: You have finished your last eight opponents, seven of them inside the first round. What has been behind your success during the streak?
Palelei: As cliché as it sounds: hard work. I bust my ass six days a week. This is my 9-to-5, not so much those hours, but this is my profession and I want to be the best I can possibly be. When I get out of bed and my body is aching, I love it. I want more. I want this so bad, and I will do whatever it takes to be the best I can be. I had to change my game plan, and I had to have my mind ready. This was one thing I lacked. I was in shape and physically ready but not mentally. I had to change that. Now when I go in there, it’s on beast mode: mind, body and soul all on check and at 100 percent.
Sherdog.com: What are your long-term goals in the UFC and what do you need to do to achieve them?
Palelei: I want a chance at the belt, of course. What athlete doesn’t want to be tested against the best, and the champ is at the top of the food chain. I want to be able to achieve that.
Sherdog.com: How has mixed martial arts changed in Australia in the last five to 10 years?
Palelei: A lot has changed ... the fighters and the crowd. It’s a worldwide phenomenon, and it’s only getting bigger. I’m proud to be a part of this amazing legacy and hope to be around for many more years to come.