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Once a soccer star, World Series of Fighting champion now saves kicking for heads

Georgi Karakhanyan faces Rick Glenn on Saturday’s WSOF 10 card

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COURTSEY OF WORLD SERIES OF FIGHTING

Georgi Karakhanyan head-kicks Lance Palmer en route to a third-submission victory in World Series Of Fighting’s inaugural featherweight title fight last December in Vancouver, British Columbia.

World Series of Fighting 10

  • When: 3:30 p.m. on Saturday June 21
  • Where: The Joint at Hard Rock
  • Television: Main card at 7 on NBC Sports Network
  • Tickets: Axs.com
  • Middleweight title fight: David Branch vs Jesse Taylor
  • Featherweight title fight: Georgi Karakhanyan vs. Rick Glenn
  • Women's strawweight title fight: Jessica Aguilar vs. Emi Fujino

Georgi Karakhanyan would punish himself growing up if he allowed his soccer team to lose a match.

Instead of retreating to the locker room after a defeat, Karakhanyan would stay on the field to run sprints or practice.

“I would do workouts if I didn’t play good,” Karakhanyan recalled. “I tried to work harder than everyone else.”

The work ethic guided the 29-year-old into a brief stint as a professional soccer player and, ultimately, what looks like a much lengthier career in mixed martial arts. Karakhanyan (23-3-1) has won nine straight fights to become the World Series of Fighting featherweight champion.

He defends his belt for the first time on the Las Vegas-based promotion’s Saturday card at the Hard Rock against Rick Glenn (14-2).

“I want to be the best, and I feel like I am the best 145-pounder in the world, but I’m taking it one fight at a time,” Karakhanyan said. “That’s my ultimate goal.”

Not bad for a second sport. Until a few years ago, Karakhanyan would have thought it was more likely he’d be in Brazil competing in the World Cup this week than locked inside a cage with an opponent in Las Vegas.

He chased his soccer dreams from an early age as a child growing up in Moscow, Russia. Karakhanyan continued playing year-round with top clubs when his family moved to Tarragona, Spain, and ultimately, Southern California.

“My experience in soccer was great,” Karakhanyan said. “It was my first sports love, and I’m always going to support soccer.”

A central midfielder, Karakhanyan excelled leading his teams and directing their attacks. The success landed him in the United States’ Olympic development program in San Diego as a teenager.

One of his best soccer memories came during the time when his team took on the United States women’s national team a couple of years after they won the 1999 World Cup.

“I was playing against Mia Hamm and all those girls,” Karakhanyan reflected. “It was a lot of fun. We were going kind of light but they were really rough on us. It was a good match, and I’ll never forget that day.”

The women beat Karakhanyan’s team, 2-1. He turned professional before graduating from high school, playing for the San Diego Sockers in the short-lived Major Indoor Soccer League.

Karakhanyan also had a successful tryout with a professional team in Mexico, Monarcas Morelia, but turned down a contract because of “political reasons” and to focus on getting his diploma. He played alongside Oribe Peralta, currently a striker on Mexico’s national team and one of two former teammates in the World Cup.

The other is Russian right-winger Alexander Samedov, whom Karakhanyan played with on the Moscow club circuit.

Karakhanyan was only playing soccer every once in a while with a semi-professional team in Los Angeles when a new athletic endeavor changed his life.

“One of my friends was doing Brazilian jiu-jitsu and asked me to try it out, which I did,” Karakhanyan said. “I did jiu-jitsu for about five months before my first professional fight.”

Click to enlarge photo

Georgi Karakhanyan poses after winning the World Series of Fighting featherweight championship last December in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Karakhanyan agreed to take an MMA fight in October 2006 despite having never trained in striking and only knowing one submission — the guillotine choke. It was enough, as Karakhanyan choked out his opponent in the second round with a guillotine.

He fought four times the next year, suffering one draw but otherwise finishing every opponent. Karakhanyan deduced his future in fighting was more promising than in soccer.

“Once I started taking MMA seriously, I completely stopped playing soccer,” Karakhanyan said. “I still get the ball and mess around in the gym to warm up but I don’t play anymore.”

That’s partly because every spare minute is devoted to fighting. When Karakhanyan isn’t in the gym, he’s in front of his computer watching jiu-jitsu or striking videos on YouTube.

He watches fight cards of all varieties, from small regional promotions to the UFC’s biggest pay-per-views. The same drive Karakhanyan once exerted on soccer is now reserved for fighting.

“I just call it being obsessed with something,” Karakhanyan said. “That’s how I am. When I stop being obsessed with MMA, that will be the time to stop doing it.”

Case Keefer can be reached at 948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at twitter.com/casekeefer.

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