Bantamweight fighter Alex Soto would like nothing more than to come full circle to where it all started. Years ago, Soto took on a set of bullies in a neighborhood lady’s front yard in Tijuana. He defeated each and every one of those ten kids. He has since returned, a grown man with fight training, to claim gold in the Mexican-based Ultimate Warrior Challenge Mexico promotion. Now, as a UFC fighter, he’d love to once again return to the country of his birth to compete.

“Oh, absolutely…oh my god, that would be amazing,” Soto told The MMA Corner. “MMA has gotten so big in Mexico that it’s only a matter of time before the UFC goes down there. Hopefully (the UFC) does it soon because it is blowing up, like it is in all the other countries. There’s a huge fan base in Mexico. It’s a combat sport, so…we love that kind of aggressive sport.”

First, however, Soto needs to return to his winning ways, and that begins at UFC on Fuel TV 3, where he faces dangerous knockout artist Francisco Rivera on Tuesday, May 15, in Fairfax, Va. Soto, whose career started off with three wins in southern California before he headed to his birth city of Tijuana to bump his mark up to 6-0, has met with less success since he’s started venturing farther from his home stomping grounds.

In a June 2011 trip to Japan for Deep 54 Impact, Soto emerged with a draw in a two-round fight versus Seiji Akao. Then, still sporting a zero in the loss column, he stepped up on short notice to replace Johnny Eduardo versus Michael McDonald at UFC 139. McDonald, a top 10 bantamweight, showed no mercy in swiftly ending Soto’s night on a 56-second knockout.

“I just got caught; it happens to every fighter,” Soto said. “I was out of character. I was a little unfocused. I lost that split second of concentration. It cost me the fight.”

Experiencing loss is inevitable for almost every fighter. Even the world’s best, such as Anderson Silva and Georges St-Pierre, do not sport perfect records. And a defeat at the hands of someone of McDonald’s caliber is nothing over which to hang your head. Just as with any other fighter, the loss should serve as a learning experience for Soto, and he was able to take something away from the disappointing debut.

“Just to be focused and determined,” explained the 28-year-old Soto. “Just keep my eye focused on my opponent.”

Mentally, he’s not letting the defeat, or the draw that came before it, affect him as he heads into his sophomore effort with the UFC.

“I’m taking this fight like every other fight,” confessed Soto. “I’m putting all my heart and soul into it. I put all my training into it. And I’m mentally and physically prepared for this fight.”

Alex Soto (R) battles Michael McDonald at UFC 139 (Paul Thatcher/Fight! Magazine)

Soto’s training continues to take place under the watchful eye of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt Manolo Hernandez, the former Lion’s Den senior trainer whom Soto has followed from Und1sputed Point Loma to San Diego Combat Academy.

“I’m also doing a lot of strength and conditioning with Bill Crawford,” Soto revealed. “We’ve been breaking some records, just doing awesome stuff. I ran my mile in 4:47. My cardio is strong; my strength is holding up there. It’s just been great.”

“I’ve been training with Walel Watson, working on our ground game,” added Soto, who has also spent time at the Grudge Training Center in Colorado. His day job as a dolphin trainer for the U.S. Navy prevented him from making the trek to the Rockies and Trevor Wittman’s gym in preparation for this fight, however. “Also doing some Muay Thai with Landon Piercy. My team is solid; we’re very prepared for this fight.”

While Soto was the late replacement in his first Octagon appearance, the tables are now turned. Francisco Rivera stepped up on less than two weeks’ notice to replace Russian fighter Azamat Gashimov as Soto’s foe. As with any replacement opponent, Rivera’s style will vary from what Soto could have expected from Gashimov.

“The only thing is we just got to watch out for that really heavy right hand,” said Soto. “I think Rivera is a little bit more of a talented striker. All around, he’s just a well-rounded opponent as well. So really, Gashimov had some heavy hands as well, so it really doesn’t change much other than we got to be at our best focused. We just have to be a smart fighter, that’s what we got to do if we’re doing this right.”

Whereas Gashimov relies on submissions and has not previously competed outside of Russia and the surrounding countries, Rivera brings with him the ability to turn out an opponent’s lights with one swing of his fist and has seen the inside of the Octagon on one other occasion, as well as competing once under the WEC banner.

“Both of the opponents were very dangerous in their own way, Gashimov being a very slick submission specialist and Rivera being a very aggressive, heavy-handed opponent,” Soto admitted. “What my team has (as a focus) is we’re going to exploit the weaknesses that each of our opponents have and we’re going to capitalize on those.”

While there’s no doubt Soto would enjoy coming out of his second UFC fight with his hand raised following a quick finish, he’s not banking on such an outcome.

“I go into every fight thinking it’s going to be a long, drawn-out war because that’s how I always prepare myself,” admitted Soto. “If it comes down to a quick finish, then I’m going to take it. If there’s any opportunity that presents itself, I’m going to try to finish it. But I’m not putting my money on that. I’m going on a full three-round battle where I’m just going to impose my will on this guy.”

If Soto emerges from the battle victorious, it could only be a matter of time before he steps into an Octagon on Mexican soil. Maybe some of those kids he battled all those years ago will even be in the stands, cheering him on.

Alex would like to thank Alchemist Management, his coaches and Team Hurricane Awesome, Gaslamp Chiropractic and Revgear.  Follow Alex on Twitter at @sotomma.

Photo: Alex Soto (James Law/Heavy MMA)