In the spring of 1999, the sport of mixed martial arts was hardly a blip on the radar and the organization that would flourish presenting it — the Ultimate Fighting Championship — was in its darkest days, scrambling to stay afloat and searching for venues that would sanction it.

Years beyond its eye-catching debut and years before it would become the fastest growing sport in the United States, MMA was, for all intents and purposes, underground.

Hence, the likes of cards such as Kage Kombat 14, which took place in Los Angeles on April 5, 1999.

On that day, on that card, four Armenian fighters would emerge victorious — Roman Mitichyan, Manny Gamburyan, Karo Parisyan and Sako Chivitchian.

The latter was but 15 years old, facing an opponent some eight years his senior.

"That day, I didn't know I was gonna fight," Chivitchian recalls. "I went with [Gamburyan and Parisyan] to support them and encourage them."

But when a fighter failed to show up, Chivitchian was asked if he was up for a fight. And Chivitchian was forced to ask his father if he would let him fight.

"I had to convince him and have him sign a waiver," Chivitchian says.

Stories such as this colored the dark days of MMA and a humble and unexpected beginning marked the start of Chivitchian's career.

It was a start that lasted a mere 98 seconds, as the teenager emerged victorious with an armbar victory over Timothy Morris. Nevertheless, Chivitchian would not fight another MMA fight for nearly a decade.

Currently possessing an unblemished 5-0 record, the start of Chivitchian's career came on that spring day.

But it was in January of 2009 that his career was reborn and its has been within the living rooms of millions of "The Ultimate Fighter" viewers that the Glendale fighter has brought himself to the cusp of stardom in the UFC.

"The experience on the show I would say is the best that that's ever happened to me," said Chivitchian, who will face fellow "TUF" cast member Kyle Watson in a three-round, lightweight bout on the preliminary portion of tonight's "The Ultimate Fighter" finale, which takes place at The Palms in Las Vegas. "No. 1, it helped get my career to the next level and, No. 2, it changed me as a person. … It helped me have more drive to accomplish what I need to succeed."

While some may view the 26-year-old fighter's rise to the UFC as a quick ascension after just five fights and little more than two years of true MMA training, it certainly was anything but an overnight process.

Chivitchian admits that his first foray into mixed martial arts back in 1999 whet his appetite for the combat sport, but the sport was hardly an enterprising proposition at the time and judo was at the forefront for the teenaged Chivitchian.

"After my first fight, I didn't lay off, I went back to judo — judo was my life," he says. "I was very competitive and successful with my judo."

A judo black belt, Chivitchian won 11 U.S. national titles in the sport and a pair of junior Olympic championships. But, much like MMA at the time, judo wasn't a promising career.

And at the age of 19, without a lot of career prospects, Chivitchian found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time in a much more dire sense.

At a park in North Hollywood on Cinco de Mayo, nearly a block from his uncle's house, Chivitchian and a group of his friends had drawn the ire of a group of "gangbangers that were pissed we were there because they said it was their turf."

Chivitchian says he and his friends were trying to walk away, but a fight started and he punched one of the "gangbangers," who then told one of his friends to shoot Chivitchian. Chivitchian ran, but the first shot fired hit him in the calf. Chivitchian kept running as two more shots missed him.