Oleksiy Oliynyk had options. He graduated from college in Russia and got a law degree. He landed a job with a movie company based in Moscow.
He didn't have to fight, particularly given that most of the bouts paid the equivalent of $200 or $300 per match. There wasn't much of a future in that for an ambitious, intelligent guy who wanted to improve his lot in life.
But Oliynyk, who was born in Ukraine but lives in Moscow, loved fighting so much, he couldn't give it up, even though he was aware he was putting himself into a financial bind.
After paying for gym memberships and coaches and equipment, he wound up losing money on a lot of his fights.
There was no sponsor or rich uncle who helped him through. The smart move would have been to walk away and do something else, but Oliynyk couldn't bring himself to do it.
"I just had a great passion for fighting," said Oliynyk, a heavyweight who will make his UFC debut on Saturday in San Antonio when he faces Anthony Hamilton in a bout streamed on Fight Pass. "I did it because I loved it, and after a while, I realized, 'Hey, I've made this my profession.' "
Rare is the fighter who has fought 58 times, as Oliynyk has, before making his UFC debut. He said that after struggling financially for a long time, he finally got the point in Russia where he was making good money.
His purses in Russia, he said, were actually more than he'll be paid for Saturday's UFC bout against Hamilton, but he said he wanted to challenge himself at the highest level. He said the UFC only came on his radar in the last year or so, and he wanted to be able to see how he would fare at the sport's top level.
"When I started, it's not like I had it as a goal for all of those years to get to the UFC," said Oliynyk, who once lost a decision to the retired Russian MMA legend Fedor Emelianenko in a combat sambo match. "I was just getting whatever fights I could get, because it's what I loved to do. I wasn't even aware of UFC.
"I found out about it about a year ago, maybe a little more, and I learned this is where you find the best. So it was only then that I made it a goal to get there."
A grappler with submission victories over Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic and Jeff Monson, Oliynyk has fought in a slew of promotions around the world, including two bouts in Bellator, a loss to ex-UFC contender Chael Sonnen in Bodog, and two bouts in the infamous Yamma Pit Fighting.
The experience he gained fighting different styles around the world has prepared him, he believes, for the grind in the UFC's heavyweight division where he said there are no easy wins.
Hamilton is a massive man with good striking and wrestling, and is the type of fighter Oliynyk knows will push him.
"I've seen just about everything," Oliynyk said of fight styles he's faced during a career that began in 1997. "But it's when you face the best that you make the most improvement. I still want to challenge myself and see what I can do. I think I can get better but I need to fight the best opposition to do that."
He has his law degree to fall back on should things not work out, but he refuses to think that way, even at 37. A new phase of his life is beginning and he wants to go as far with it as he can.
"At this point, [fighting] is my life," he said. "There is a lot for me to do in this sport before I even begin to think about a new chapter."
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