Despite making his fifth walk to the octagon, Punahele Soriano has never felt as in the moment during his UFC career as he does now.
Earning a UFC contract after producing highlight reel finishes on the regional scene and an impressive performance on Dana White's Contender Series, Soriano became an immediate must-watch fighter in the middleweight division.
Debuting in December 2019, "Puna" stunned the Las Vegas crowd, producing a first-round knockout win over Oskar Piechota to open the UFC 245 prelims. Soriano doubled down in his second UFC appearance, earning another first-round knockout win against Dusko Todorovic.
After two dominant performances, you'd think Soriano was adjusting to his new home in the UFC well. But up until that point, his lack of octagon experience still made him feel like a newcomer leading into his next two fights.
In his next bout, Soriano faced his biggest challenge to date in Brendan Allen. Battling for 15 minutes, Allen was getting the better of their exchanges, especially in a one-sided second round that helped sway the judges in his favor. Soriano never let his foot off the gas, however, always searching for that highlight finish until the final horn.
The same went for his most recent bout against Nick Maximov. In a back-and-forth 15 minutes, Maximov was able to utilize his wrestling once Soriano began slowing down in the later rounds, resulting in "Puna's" second consecutive defeat.
These were the first two losses of Soriano's career. And although a 2-2 start isn't exactly what he hoped for once joining the UFC, these two fights served as the perfect experience to test himself against high-level opposition and make Soriano feel like he belonged in the promotion.
"I just feel like my mindset is a little different (since those two losses)," Soriano said. "I guess I've never really felt like I belonged before. I kind of just jumped in and was like, 'All right, I'm here, we'll see what happens.' But now I know I belong, and I've been working like I belong and I'm ready to show it."
"I actually feel really confident coming off those two (losses). If you look at my past performances, all first-round finishes, barely getting any experience. Now I got (two) whole (15-minute fights) … I feel confident. I know my cardio is where it needs to be and I feel ready to go."
Realizing that the UFC is where he hopes to be long-term, Soriano went to his coaches after his loss against Maximov looking for the problems that needed to be solved moving forward. Addressing the little things, foundationally Soriano is exactly where he wants to be, and his coaches believe that a little fine tuning can help push him to that elite level.
"The first thing I asked my coaches after that last loss was, 'What do we need here? Am I needing a drastic change, or do I just have to keep chipping away and I'm right there,'" Soriano said. "They kind of just said, 'Keep chipping away, you're really right there. You have all the skills, you have everything you need and just keep chipping away.' And I did. I listened to my coaches, I trust my whole team … everything they said, I believed them and trusted them."
Fixing those minor details won't stop Soriano (8-2 MMA, 2-2 UFC) from looking for a finish. Excited to fight back in an arena for the first time since January 2021, "Puna" will have the energy from the crowd behind him as he searches for a "Performance of the Night" against Dalcha Lungiambula (11-4 MMA, 2-3 UFC) at UFC on ABC 3.
"It's electric (to fight in front of fans)," Soriano said. "The roar of the crowd any time you do something good and just hearing that, it powers you up."
"I'm looking to go out there and put it on (Lungiambula) from start to finish," Soriano said. "Just be focused the whole fight…I'm hoping to steal the show. Any time you get a bonus it's nice. 'Fight of the Night' sounds like we both got a little beat up, so I'm hoping more so for 'Performance of the Night.'"
This story first published at UFC.com.