The Washington Post

UFC event at Patriot Center a steppingstone for Kamal Shalorus, Alex Soto

Alex Soto worked at Sea World after retiring from the military because he initially thought about becoming a professional diver. Now he’s in an MMA bout at Patriot Center. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

Kamal Shalorus used to race goats when he was a child in northern Iran. Little did the recent transplant to Vienna realize how that unconventional training would benefit him many years later in mixed martial arts, where speed has become among his most trusted assets.

Entering his fourth year as an MMA professional, Shalorus will participate in a preliminary bout on Tuesday night’s Ultimate Fighting Championship card at the Patriot Center. South Korea’s Chan Sung Jung faces featherweight Dustin Poirier from Lafayette, La., in the main event.

That marquee status is where Shalorus and other relative newbies such as Alex Soto — who also is on Tuesday night’s card — are aiming in the long run. In the short term, the path to get there includes months of exhaustive training, trying to secure sponsorships to defray costs and often taking side jobs to supplement income.

Soto, for instance, worked at Sea World after retiring from the military because he initially thought about becoming a professional diver. He became so familiar with the sea life there that he eventually accepted a position training dolphins for the Navy in its Marine Mammal Program.

The NMMP is dedicated to studying, training and deploying dolphins to detect sea mines so they may be avoided or removed, according to the program’s Web site.

The military has been an important part of Soto’s life since he joined immediately following high school and not long after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. Soto, 28, was a member of the 25th Infantry Division’s Long Range Surveillance Detachment, serving four years, including one in Afghanistan.

“My first jiu-jitsu class was in boot camp,” Soto (6-1-1) said after weighing in at 135 pounds on Monday afternoon at Patriot Center in advance of his scheduled three-round bantamweight bout against California’s Francisco Rivera Jr. (7-2). “I’ll never forget the first thing I learned was the rear naked choke, and I was like: ‘Wow. This is so awesome.’ Then I learned the guillotine. Those were my first two moves that I learned, and I fell in love with the sport ever since.”

Shalorus’s path to UFC was through wrestling. As a teenager in Iran, Shalorus, 39, recalled hours of demanding physical labor required to maintain his family’s farm that in part helped prepare him for more technical training in Turkey and Russia.

After gaining British citizenship, Shalorus became so skilled that he was able to represent England in Olympic wrestling qualifying in 2004 , when he placed 19th. Shalorus moved to the United States in 2006, settling in Austin, before most recently living on the West Coast until approximately two weeks ago.

That’s when Shalorus relocated to Northern Virginia, and ever since he’s been assimilating to his new surroundings that includes having his training team living within close proximity.

“To be honest, when you’re a fighter and when you train with your team, they become like family, so you don’t feel lonely,” said Shalorus (7-2-2), who is scheduled to meet Brazil’s Rafael Dos Anjos (15-6) in a three-round lightweight match. “I already have like 50 friends because we train together everyday. We go out. We eat together, so it’s a good feeling.”

Shalorus’s and Soto’s matches are two of six on the undercard. All of those bouts are scheduled for three rounds. The first five matches of the main card, which will be televised live on Fuel TV, also are scheduled for three rounds, with the main event at five rounds.

It’s the second time Patriot Center has hosted a UFC card. The inaugural visit was in January 2010, and the event drew 8,500. On the strength of that showing, UFC came back to the area in October 2011, this time to Verizon Center.

At the time, UFC President Dana White said he was certain his preeminent MMA company would come back to the District, perhaps for a pay-per-view card. The card at Verizon Center was shown live on Versus and included Dominick Cruz beating Demetrious Johnson in the first non-pay-per-view UFC title fight in four years.

“On the way here, that’s what I was thinking about,” Soto said of his excitement about representing UFC near the nation’s capital. “There’s so much history here. I love that about this place.”

Gene Wang is a sports reporter covering multiple beats, including Navy football, the Capitals, Wizards, Nationals, women’s basketball, auto racing, boxing and golf. He also covers Fantasy Football.


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