Before there were punches and kicks, chokes and locks, broken noses and bruised necks, there was a field.
And Georgi Karakhanyan ruled it.
As a child growing up in Russia, the current World Series of Fighting featherweight champion did not see fighting in his future. He saw soccer, and he became obsessed with the sport.
He would travel by train for 45 minutes, catch a bus for another 15 and then walk three miles just to get to the training facility. Once there, the mental and physical strain did not ease. Russian coaches are strict and vicious, according to Karakhanyan, and they mince no words when evaluating a youngster's progression.
"The coaches are very strict, very straightforward," Karakhanyan told Bleacher Report. "If you don't play a good game, they'll tell you that you suck. They're not going to tell you, 'Hey, good job. We'll get 'em next time.' In Russia, there's no next time, there's no, 'We'll do it better next time.' They drill you. They talk s--t to you. You have no choice but to train and train and train."
After devoting his youth and adolescence to the sport, Karakhanyan's soccer career hit a wall. He had been playing professionally in Spain and San Diego, but after his home team disbanded, Karakhanyan had to look elsewhere.
He went to Mexico, where he joined Monarcas Morelia, a professional team competing in the Liga MX. After playing six months for their reserve team, Karakhanyan got called up, but a complication derailed this opportunity and his soccer career entirely.
"They wanted to sign me under a different name because they didn't want to pay a certain fee to FIFA," Karakhanyan said. "After that happened, I called and talked to my dad, and my dad said, 'No, you can't do that. You're behind on your high school credits. You need to graduate from high school.'"
As a 17-year-old who saw his dream career yanked away just as his fingers brushed against it, Karakhanyan said he fell into depression. He didn't play soccer. That part of him was gone.
In its place, though, emerged a different sport, one that allowed him to exercise his frustrations and anger in a controlled environment.
"I never had any thoughts of becoming a professional fighter," Karakhanyan said. "A friend of mine was doing jiu-jitsu over here in Riverside (California) and asked me to try it out. I tried it out, and I didn't like it at first because I was getting choked left and right."
Despite the adversity that every first-time jiu-jiteiro encounters, Karakhanyan stuck with the program and signed up for regular Brazilian jiu-jitsu classes. Six months into his training, he was asked to fight at a local King of the Cage event.
He accepted a fight against 1-6 professional Brett Wooten at 160 pounds, and his fate was forever changed.
"I remember walking down, my whole adrenaline rush, I was going crazy. By the time I got to the cage, I was tired," Karakhanyan said. "I ended up winning by guillotine, because that's the only move I knew."
Twenty-six fights and 22 victories later, Karakhanyan stands as the World Series of Fighting featherweight champion, and that same move—the guillotine choke—finished each of his last two fights.
By his "fifth or sixth" pro fight, Karakhanyan stopped working construction and devoted himself full-time to MMA. He had a knack for the sport, and he felt he could achieve greatness inside the cage, a fact he attributes to his experiences as a child living in Russia.
"Living in Russia, people over there are not smiling to you like over here. It's a very cold atmosphere," Karakhanyan said. "I don't know if you'd call it a crazy mentality, but as a little kid, it toughens you up growing up in Russia. Some things I've seen as a little kid, dead bodies, people jumping off of roofs, it's crazy."
Now, Karakhanyan continues his journey against 14-2 professional featherweight Rick Glenn June 21 at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.
While wearing the belt usually bestows a certain level of pressure upon its owner, Karakhanyan feels none of it. Currently riding a nine-fight winning streak, the 29-year-old former professional soccer player feels he's coming into his own as a fighter and competing in a sport that he loves. With that, there is no pressure.
"I love what I do. I like to fight. If you love to do something, there's no pressure," he said. "I don't think I'm even known. I don't track any of that. As long as those paychecks cash and I can make money for myself to feed myself and my family, then I'm happy."
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