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When tragedy altered UFC 128 card, Philippou landed big chance

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Constantinos Philippou will get the opportunity of a lifetime Saturday night.

Given the choice, however, he'd rather not have it.

Make no mistake: Philippou will do everything in his power to defeat Nick Catone in the opening bout at UFC 128. He will try to earn the UFC roster spot at which he thought he'd missed his best opportunity. At the same time, he knows this second chance would not have come his way -- at least not so soon -- had it not been for last week's disaster in Japan. The tragedy prompted Yoshihiro Akiyama to withdraw from his bout with Nate Marquardt, eventually opening the door for Philippou to fight Catone.

"I would rather not fight in the UFC," Philippou said Tuesday, "and save I don't know how many thousands of lives."

Philippou, however, doesn't get to make that choice. He's merely a fighter, and one who's come a long way to get this shot.

Even if he didn't always know it's what he was coming for.

* * * * *

Constantinos Philippou was born in Cyprus 31 years ago. He started boxing as a teenager and showed early promise, winning a bronze medal at the 1996 European championships. He continued to fight on the amateur level and eventually came to the U.S. in 2005 on the advice of his best friend and coach.

Two months after arriving in the U.S., Philippou competed in the New York Golden Gloves, reaching the finals before losing a split decision. He turned pro and posted three wins on small cards on Long Island. Disagreements with his coach and manager prompted him to quit boxing shortly thereafter, but it wasn't long before his love of fighting brought him to MMA.

"A fight is a fight," Philippou said. "It doesn't matter."

Philippou had first encountered the UFC by accident, when a tape of an event landed in his hands by mistake ("I thought it was WWF back then," he said with a laugh). After learning more about the sport, Philippou was intrigued and, when he saw that boxing wasn't going to work out for him, he switched gears. Having taken up residence on Long Island, he soon found his way over to Matt Serra's gym. He made his MMA debut in May 2008, a little more than a year after his last boxing match.

Fighting in the New Jersey-based Ring of Combat promotion, Philippou's first opponent was current UFC light heavyweght Ricardo Romero, then a 4-0 prospect coming off three straight TKO victories. Philippou made a strong showing for a rookie, and even came close to knocking out Romero. But when the judges' scorecards were collected, he found himself on the wrong end of a split decision.

Back in the ring less than two months later, Philippou got his first MMA win when he knocked out Tony Andreocci. In the next 15 months, Philippou won four more fights, and in January 2010, he traveled to Las Vegas to compete on The Ultimate Fighter.

To secure a spot in the competition and a shot at a six-figure UFC contract, Philippou would have to defeat Joe Henle, a financial planner and wrestling coach who had made his MMA debut less than six months earlier. Facing a relative newcomer, Philippou looked to play it safe, pacing himself for the grueling six-week taping.

"I was out of shape," Philippou said. "I showed up there and I got carried away. The crowd and cameras got to me, and I ended up wrestling with the guy instead of fighting. I got lazy, thinking I'm going to get tired, and my way of thinking was to take him down and lay on top of him, and get the decision. By the next fight, two or three weeks later, I was going to be in shape."

Leaving the fight in the hands of the judges is rarely a safe decision -- and always a pet peeve of UFC boss Dana White -- but the biggest problem with Philippou's strategy was that it took him away from his greatest strength, his striking. Philippou won the first round handily, but when he took Henle down to the mat early in the second, the newcomer snared him in an armbar, forcing him to tap out. Henle moved into the UFC's house for TUF contestants, eventually losing to Seth Baczynski, and Philippou headed back to Long Island, his best shot at the UFC gone before he knew what had hit him.

"At the time," Philippou said, "I was sure that was my best chance to get in the UFC."

However, despite missing his shot at the star-making reality show, Philippou was still a fighter. He resumed competition on the regional circuit in October and fought three times in the next four months, training at Serra's and fighting in Atlantic City while holding down day jobs as a process server, bouncer and personal trainer. With a professional record of 7-1-0 -- the Henle fight is recorded as an exhibition -- Philippou was determined to keep competing, looking for another chance to reach the UFC.

It came last weekend in the worst possible way.

* * * * *

Within hours of Friday's earthquake off the east coast of Japan, word filtered out that while he and his family were unharmed, Akiyama had chosen not to travel to the U.S. to fight Marquardt. New Jersey native Dan Miller, who was already scheduled to fight Catone at 185 pounds, was moved up the card, and Philippou was called Sunday morning to replace Miller against Catone.

Like Philippou, Miller knows the emotional confusion of having his best opportunity yet in the UFC -- a pay-per-view fight with the seven-time King of Pancrase -- as a consquence of a tragedy on the other side of the world.

"It's tough," Miller said Wednesday at the pre-fight news conference. "Your heart goes out to the Japanese people, and it's unfortunate. I'm just taking this opportunity that the UFC has given me and trying to make the most of it."

As tragic as the situation in Japan is, however, there will be no time to dwell on it once the cage door closes for either Miller or Philippou.

"I don't think that will bother me during the fight," Philippou said. "After the bell sounds, I can't even help myself. I'm fighting my opponent. It's just me and him."

And, in that situation, in that moment, Philippou's focus will be exactly where it needs to be: on doing what he can with the latest surprise on a journey that's been filled with them.

"I never thought I was going to be here in this country," Philippou said. "It wasn't a plan; it just happened. Like everything else, I just go with it and do whatever I can. The fact that so many people died is sad, but there's nothing I can change. There's nothing I can do about it, so I'm going to try to do whatever I can for myself and my future."