Nicknames are meant to be descriptive. Be it physical traits, behavior or a reminder of some crazy moment from one’s past, a nickname tends to reflect what a person is all about. For UFC and Pride veteran Soa Palelei, that meant choosing a famous comic book hero for a moniker.

“I think I look like The Hulk. I’m big and when I get angry you don’t want to be in my way,” Palelei told The MMA Corner in an exclusive interview. “And I also eat big like The Hulk.”

In the Marvel comic books from which the green behemoth originates, one of the character’s central characteristics is that his anger consumes him entirely. In that moment, there’s no mental focus. There’s no control. There is just aggression. In some ways, the earlier stages of Palelei’s mixed martial arts career reflect this attribute. Palelei’s mental focus was not always as finely tuned as it is now.

“I feel that I’m a much better fighter now than what I was then, physically and mentally, which is something I lacked then,” Palelei admitted. “I’ve made changes and they have been working for me.

“Mental preparation is key. There’s no use on being in the best shape of your life and looking like a tank if your mind isn’t right. You need to have all those things—diet, training and mental strength.”

Palelei (Louie Abigail/Sherdog)

It’s just one of the things that the Australian of Tongan descent learned in the two significant defeats of his career. Those losses came to Eddie Sanchez at UFC 79 in Palelei’s lone UFC appearance and to emerging elite heavyweight fighter Daniel Cormier during an Australian event under the Xtreme MMA banner. And the other lessons?

“I had to rip myself open and be honest with myself and embrace my shortcomings and failures, then work my ass off to improve them and become a better person, better human being—a better man,” Palelei explained.

“The other [lesson] would be the wisdom of not trying to be something or somebody you’re not, but just be yourself,” the Pride veteran continued. “Real and authentic—there’s great power in just being yourself. I wasn’t smart to those things when I was younger, didn’t understand the powerful value in it, but I do now and I’m a better man for it.”

It has been nearly five years since Palelei set foot inside the Octagon. He lasted until the third round against Sanchez before he suffered a TKO loss. He was away from active competition for approximately 15 months following that loss, the second of his career. But upon returning, Palelei dispatched of his first foe in a mere 56 seconds to spark a 9-1 run, with the lone loss in that stretch coming at the hands of eventual Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix winner Cormier. All of those victories ended in stoppages, including two submissions and seven by way of some form of knockout—with all but one of those nine ended in the first round. It makes for a compelling case of Palelei’s worthiness to receive a return invite from the UFC.

“As the saying goes, ‘Good things come to those who wait’,” Palelei said. “UFC is definitely where I want to be at. I have unfinished business there.

“My plan is to keep active and keep busy, whether it is fighting to keep my fans happy or chase other dreams. If given the chance to go back, I know that this is the real ‘Hulk’ now and I won’t disappoint.”

The UFC has been earning frequent-flyer miles with its recent series of trips Down Under, and the promotion often turns its attention to local prospects to fill out its international cards. Palelei would seem a logical choice for consideration, but as of yet, the call has not come. Despite the frustration that might arise under such circumstances, Palelei suppresses the urge to give in to those feelings.

“All I do is train and focus on the job at hand,” he explained. “The UFC is the show to be on; however, I’m blessed to be in great shows in Australia and have also been offered to fight with other organizations. I’ll keep hustling and when the time comes it will be the right time. I don’t let myself get frustrated. A lot of my evolution as a fighter has been to do with feeling positive and not letting negative thoughts in, so I don’t allow myself to get frustrated. I work harder.”

One fight that could have played a key role in Palelei’s quest to return to the Octagon was a match-up earlier this year against former UFC champion Andrei Arlovski.

“I was looking forward to this match more so than my other fights,” Palelei confessed. “Arlovski is a great fighter and I wanted to be tested against him, also the opportunity to fight for ONE FC. We had spoken [to ONE FC] about the terms, sent all the required documentation through and were just waiting for the reply with the official contract to be sent over.

“With all the hype of the fight from the second ONE FC released the news, my team sent out a Twitter bomb to all my followers and we actually trended No. 1 worldwide with the news of the bout and our picture trended [number] two worldwide, which was cool. People were obviously talking about the match-up and someone did a interview with Dana White, as he was here for the TUF Smashes filming in Sydney. When asked about me and this fight, Dana replied, ‘should he win the fight, he might just be in Joe Silva’s radar.’

“Then my team received a call saying that [ONE FC] wanted me to sign a five-fight deal with them. Being that my goal has been to go back to the UFC, I wanted to continue as a free agent as I don’t want to miss out on the opportunity should it arise. We tried for a shorter fight deal, but ONE FC wanted five and the time frame wasn’t set—so it could be five fights, one fight a year, or whatever suited them best. So I had to decline. I couldn’t lock myself in, in case I did get an offer from UFC. It was a tough decision to make, but the one I chose to go with and I still stand by it.”

With the Arlovski fight off the table, Palelei most recently tangled with another significant name—Bob Sapp—that has come under fire lately for a perceived lack of effort in the cage. The fight didn’t last long, as Palelei only needed 12 seconds to smash Sapp. Although some might see Sapp as a pushover, Palelei had a different outlook.

“I see all my opponents as a threat,” he explained. “This gets me amped up for the fight—brings out ‘The Hulk’ in me. People are quick to criticize, yet they’ve never stepped foot in a cage/ring. Regardless of who it is, I go in there and I hunt my prey; I want to win. I do whatever I have to do to get the win. I saw I could finish it and that’s what I did. I wasn’t going to risk getting hit. When I landed that uppercut, I felt his body drop. Everyone can talk, but only Bob and I were there and I felt it. Bob is a gentleman; we spoke after the fight and he was very polite. I wish him nothing but the best.”

Next up for the 35-year-old Palelei is another UFC veteran, Sean “Big Sexy” McCorkle. The two will clash on Dec. 7 at Australian Fighting Championship 4.

Much like Palelei, McCorkle has experienced success in his post-UFC days. The 36-year-old native of Indiana has tallied six wins to just one loss since receiving his walking papers from the UFC.

“Sean is a reputable fighter and he’s done some damage in previous fights,” Palelei said of McCorkle. “All my opponents are a challenge to me. I respect Sean as I do with all my other opponents and look forward to testing our skills against one another. This fight is kind of like ‘Beauty and The Beast’ remade [as] ‘Big Sexy vs. The Hulk.’”

Palelei (Louie Abigail/Sherdog)

McCorkle shares Palelei’s tendency to finish fights early. He could be the big name Palelei needs to beat in order to punch his ticket back into the UFC, but the one guarantee here is that this pairing is sure to deliver an exciting fight.

“If this fight is a fight that might make Dana White look at me if he hasn’t already great, that’s good for me,” Palelei explained. “All I’m focused on is going in there and doing my job. This is ‘the hurt game’—someone will come out the winner and I sure as hell don’t want to be the loser. So we’ll see what happens.

“I don’t see this fight going past the first round; however, things happen and if it were to go longer that’s not a problem at all. I have gas to go five five-minute rounds. I’ve been killing it in my training camp and I’m feeling very sharp.”

Despite Palelei’s tendency to go the route of The Hulk, smashing opponents into oblivion, the Australian fighter actually has a background in wrestling and a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. So, although this fight might seem to be a match-up of striker versus grappler (McCorkle has taken 11 of his 16 wins via submission), it’s actually not quite that simple. But Palelei isn’t willing to disclose his game plan.

“Well, if I told you I’d have to kill you,” Palelei said with a laugh. “There is a game plan; however, that is locked away in my head. I spend 20 minutes each day visualizing the fight best- and worst-case scenarios. This is very helpful and a technique I’ve used for quite some time now. Should something arise, I’ve already been through it in my head and I’ll be able to come out of it.”

Although Palelei might look like The Hulk, show the same aggression in the cage, and even eat like the comic book hero, he’s thinking more like Bruce Banner.

Soa would like his sponsors: Grant Tuckett and the rest of the team at MackBoots; MMA Apparel/HoodStars of MMA; Eddie Blanco and Tyrone Liu; Rob from GobSmacked Mouth guards; Johno, Hayden, Jasso and Tara from Southern Crossfit; Georgia, Peter & Bill from Limousine Excursions; Pete Di Lorenzo from MMA Victor; Darren from D&D PrintWorks; Steve from HotMetalDESIGN and anyone else he might have missed. Last but most definitely not least, he’d like to thank his family—“My greatest source of inspiration will always come from my family. With that love we can move mountains and accomplish anything. And we do!”

To his fans, Soa would like to tell his fans, “It’s important to me to say this from my heart—to the incredibly loyal #HulkGladiators, I am forever humbled and grateful to you for allowing me the HONOR to entertain you over the years, you have my word I will continue to entertain you in ways like no one else, it’s only just the beginning, I dream big and we’ve achieved those dreams together because you never left my side. I love you for that and thank you.”

Follow Soa on Twitter: @soathehulk

Top Photo: Soa Palelei (Louie Abigail/Sherdog)