The last 18 months of Antonio Banuelos’ career could best be described as tumultuous.

After all, the veteran had finally found his way into the world-famous Octagon following the WEC merger, only to be cut after a disappointing loss to former champion Miguel Torres at UFC 126.

Banuelos looked to bounce back by entering the Dream bantamweight tournament, only to come up short in the final against Bibiano Fernandes at the end of 2011.

If that wasn’t discouraging enough for the 11-year veteran, Dream closed its doors for good in the spring. That left the fighter without a promotion to call home and in the difficult situation of trying to find a fight for the first time in years.

Banuelos (L) battles in the Dream bantamweight tournament (Taro Irei/Sherdog)

“It’s difficult trying to get fights,” Banuelos told The MMA Corner in an exclusive interview. “Dream had told us we were going to fight in March, so I was getting ready for that, but then they went under. [Since then] it’s been hard getting on smaller shows. You talk to this guy, talk to this promoter; things fall through. It’s an up-and-down roller coaster.”

While some fighters are familiar with the situation that Banuelos found himself in, the 32-year-old had been fortunate enough to be under the Zuffa umbrella and the WEC banner for roughly half of his 28-fight career. His 14 WEC fights are the most for any fighter in the promotion’s history, which made his sudden departure from the UFC all the more surprising.

“[Getting released] was tough,” admitted the Californian. “I looked at it as I had fought my butt off so many times for them, and I rarely had anything close to a bad fight. Then I had one bad fight and the next thing I know, I was gone.

“I don’t know why they didn’t want me back, but it’s not a big deal. I’ve moved on.”

Banuelos’ first quest after being released was the aforementioned Dream bantamweight tournament. In the opening round, he dispatched of Hideo Tokoro by split decision, which set up a fight with Masakazu Imanari, whom he also edged on the scorecards.

Banuelos (L) celebrates victory (Taro Irei/Sherdog)

On the back-to-back split decision wins, “I felt that I did enough to beat both of them. Both fights were kind of slow in the beginning, but those are really scrappy guys on the ground. I tried to push the pace as much as I could. Everyone has seen Imanari’s highlight videos; you don’t have a chance to tap before he breaks something off. You have to be cautious and stick to your game plan.”

The victories earned Banuelos a slot in the tournament final opposite the former Dream featherweight champion, Fernandes. Fighting for the second time in the same night, Banuelos succumbed to the Brazilian’s lightning-fast hands in less than 90 seconds.

“I trained really hard for that entire tournament,” recalled Banuelos. “To fight twice in one night, make it to the finals, get over that hump, and then lose in the manner that I did, it sucked. But that’s the name of the game. All you can do is get back on the horse.”

As Banuelos prepares to get back in the saddle, he’ll do so on a different horse. Having spent the majority of his career competing at bantamweight, the 5-foot-3 combatant will look to infuse new life into his fight game by dropping down to the 125-pound flyweight division.

“This is where I’m going to be the big, strong guy,” declared the fighter. “I’m not going to be the little guy in the weight class anymore.”

Banuelos (Taro Irei/Sherdog)

His first test will come at Legacy Fighting Championship 14 against Joshua Sampo. The Sept. 14 event takes place in Houston, and Banuelos is hoping a win on the AXS TV broadcast event will earn him another shot with the UFC.

“[Sampo] is a tough opponent with a wrestling background,” explained Banuelos. “But I think I bring too much to the table for him. I totally believe that a win should get me back into the UFC, and he is standing in my way.”

After everything he’s been through since that ill-fated night against Torres last February, some might question why Banuelos continues to push forward with his career. But for the heavy-handed, Pit-trained fighter, it’s simple.

“I want to be number one and I don’t have a title. That’s what keeps me motivated.”

Hopefully for Banuelos, Friday night marks the end of his up-and-down journey and the beginning of his road back to the big show.

Antonio would like to thank his team at The Pit, his strength and conditioning at Athlon Elite, and Bulldog Electric. Follow him on Twitter: @AntonioBanuelos

Top Photo: Antonio Banuelos (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

  • Antonio Banuelos will win the title or die trying. He trains/fights with so much heart and after everything he has been through, he deserves a place in the big show.