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.
"I was running for my life," he recalls. "It was the worst experience of my life.
"I thank God for giving me another chance. It changed me because I took life more seriously. I started appreciating everything."
But in this fighter's tale, the random act of violence did not send him back into combat sports. Instead, it sent him to real estate, where, as a 20-year-old former judo standout, he had found himself a promising career.
"It was very satisfying," he says. "I was young, I started making good money."
It didn't satisfy that which had driven him to be a standout athlete, however. And with the likes of Mitichyan, Parisyan and Gamburyan beginning to gain notoriety with their fame within the UFC and, in Gamburyan and Mitichyan's case, on "The Ultimate Fighter," Chivitchian decided the sport he had an entire 98 seconds' worth of experience in was the sport for him.
"There was something burning in me that my time was going," he says. "I wanted to get myself to the UFC and make a career."
And so in the summer of 2008, the 215-pound Chivitchian began a return to MMA that would see him emerge as a 155-pound lightweight fighter entering the UFC's trademark octagon.
It is a weight that Chivitchian says is perfect for him and one that was apparently perfect for the UFC, as well. In December of '08, Chivitchian tried out for "The Ultimate Fighter" as a 185-pound middleweight and he again tried out down the road as a 170-pound middleweight. But it wasn't until the spring of 2010 that a third 'TUF' tryout finally paid off.
Before the final tryout came to be however, Chivitchian made enough noise as part of a burgeoning group of Southern California Armenian fighters that includes Gamburyan, Karen Darabedyan and Sevak Magakian to name a few, to grab notice.
"When he came back to training, he only had one goal and that was to make it to the big time," says Darabedyan, a friend and training partner of Chivitchian's. "He did everything to get there.
"He is one of the hardest working guys I know. When he puts his mind to something, he does everything to achieve it."
In a stellar 2009, Chivitchian showed just how dedicated he had become, running off four victories, with three coming by stoppage. It also served as a reaffirmation that the path he was on was the right one.
"It was a great year in a way that I found out how hard I needed to work," Chivitchian says. "I had a goal to improve every fight and get into 'The Ultimate Fighter' or into the UFC."
Those goals happened during a 2010 year that has ultimately changed Chivitchian's life — pun intended.
In June, Chivitchian, along with friend, training partner and fellow Glendale resident Magakian, got the call they had been waiting for, as they'd been selected for the 12th season of "The Ultimate Fighter." A staple on Spike TV, the reality show has launched the UFC careers of such current stars as Forrest Griffin, Rashad Evans, Gray Maynard and Josh Koscheck, the latter eventually becoming the Glendale tandem's coach on the show.
Chivitchian and Magakian both won preliminary fights to gain access into the show's house, which for all intents and purposes grants fighters a season's stay rather than just the first episode. Magakian lost in the opening round of the 'TUF' tournament to future finalist Jonathan Brookins, with a rib injury doing nothing to help him. Chivitchian defeated Dane Sayers in the opening round before also falling to Brookins.
But perhaps more than anything, Chivitchian became an improved fighter and eventually became a part of the American Kickboxing Academy — one of the foremost fight camps on the planet, featuring the likes of current UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez, No. 1 welterweight contender Jon Fitch and Koscheck, who will challenge UFC welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre for the title later this month.
"He's a totally different fighter," says AKA instructor Dave Camarillo, a highly-regarded jiu jitsu black belt. "He came in with a style and now he's honed in with that style. Our guys have really worked with him to make him better."
Since returning from the show's taping in July, Chivitchian has spent most of his time in San Jose, where AKA is headquartered. And when he fights tonight it will be Camarillo, AKA Coach Andy Fong and Chivitchian's cousin, Gokor Chivitchian, a legend in fighting circles, that will corner him.
"His main thing is judo," Magakian says of the younger Chivitchian. "But now he's improved his grappling and his standup.
"He's improved a lot because he went to AKA. I saw Sako's gaps closing. He works on his mistakes."
While Chivitchian's "Psycho" moniker hardly does justice to his social and well-spoken personality, it's accurate enough when portraying the taskmaster-like persona he's taken on in pursuit of reaching the UFC and, in particular, since joining AKA.
"He takes it much more serious now," Magakian says. "Everything's about training and fighting."
It's something Chivitchian is quick to confirm.
"I knew 100% that I wanted to be an MMA fighter when I got on the show," Chivitchian says. "But when I got off the show, I was 110% sure.
"[Going to AKA] is the step I had to take. In L.A., there was a lot of distractions. You gotta take it serious or else you're not gonna last. Being here [at AKA], this is what I basically live, sleep and eat everyday is MMA. I'm here to handle my business."
It is, by all accounts, the fighter's desire to move forward that drew Camarillo and those at AKA to welcome Chivitchian into the well-regarded gym.
"His will," says Camarillo of the attribute of Chivitchian's that the coach first noticed. "He's a scrapper. I like scrappers."
Throughout the show, Chivitchian, along with Magakian, who also now trains at AKA, formed a close bond with Koscheck — perhaps MMA's biggest villain currently, though the Glendale duo is quick to say nobody knows the real Koscheck until they meet him and spend time with him. The likes of Camarillo and AKA head MMA trainer and fighter manager "Crazy" Bob Cook were also there and quickly opened doors for the fighters, who have both stayed at Cook's house during training.
"I think he's just a good kid," Camarillo says of Chivitchian. "I just saw that intensity when he trains. He was on task. It's that ability that makes or breaks a fighter."
And thus far, despite a fair share of twists and turns, Chivitchian's MMA career — one that began 11 years ago, took a 10-year hiatus, survived a gunshot wound, a career change and two reality show rejections — has yet to be broken. In fact, by all accounts, it appears to be just beginning.
So, perhaps ironically, Chivitchian's latest task will be to emerge from being a reality TV show personality to realizing the reality of becoming a legitimate UFC fighter.
"[The show] gave me the exposure and it opened my eyes on how to live my dream and become a UFC fighter," he says. "I still have more to learn and more to gain, but I feel as long as I'm around the right people and have the right mentality, I can only go higher."