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Taking his shots

Kevin Iole
Yahoo Sports

LAS VEGAS – Alex Karalexis had given up a job he loved, said goodbye to a family he was close to, turned his back on a comfortable life and moved across the country to live in an apartment with no furniture – all so he could take a job he wasn't sure he'd be good at.

He lived for more than a year in a tiny apartment with no furniture other than a bed and a box on which he could set his television. He ate his meals with plastic silverware and drank from disposable cups which he would clean and reuse.

He didn't have a car at first and used a bicycle to get around, often in scorching 100-plus degree temperatures. Even when he finally got a car, he often rode his bike because he couldn't afford gas.

There were, he said, more than his share of difficult times, but he said he was never happier than when he moved to Las Vegas to try his hand at becoming a full-time mixed martial artist.

"I lived for 13 months in an apartment with no furniture," Karalexis said. "There were times I'd get my (butt) kicked during the day and wonder if I'd made the right choice. But you have to put everything into perspective and realize you're going with the absolute best guys in the world.

"Even when I had those things enter my mind, I have to be honest with you: Even with no money in my pocket and no furniture to sit on, I honestly would sit outside, look at the palm trees, look at the mountains, sit by the pool, and, you know what, I'd never been happier. They were tough times, but I was happy. Back home, I had money in my pocket and things were good, but there was something missing."

The one-time carpenter from Boston chucked his old life to gamble on whether he was good enough to be an elite MMA fighter. He eventually made it into the UFC and now has moved to the WEC, where he has a key lightweight fight here on Sunday at the Hard Rock against Josh Smith.

A victory will propel him into consideration for a shot at champion Rob McCullough.

But Karalexis already considers himself a success. A natural athlete who briefly played professional soccer in Massachusetts, he moved to Las Vegas at the urging of Phil Baroni, a welterweight contender who wanted Karalexis to train with him.

Karalexis routinely got pummeled in those early days in Las Vegas, but took heart when Baroni encouraged him.

"A lot of guys in his situation would have just said the heck with it and gone back home, but Alex showed his toughness by coming back day after day," WEC matchmaker Scott Adams said. "He really began to improve quickly."

Things, though, didn't really change for him until 2004 when he was selected to be a cast member on the first season of "The Ultimate Fighter," the reality show that essentially saved the UFC.

The owners of the UFC had lost upwards of $40 million and had begun to consider abandoning the sport when president Dana White sold Spike TV on his concept of a reality show.

The show was an instant hit and turned the UFC's fortunes around dramatically.

It also changed Karalexis' life, though he wasn't so certain it was for the better during the two months he filmed the show, from September through November 2004.

The show's producers banned those who were in it from having contact with the outside world, which meant there was no television, no Internet service, no telephone calls, no text messages and no newspapers.

A diehard Red Sox fan, he didn't know they had won the World Series until a few weeks after it had happened, when filming was complete.

"It was a great experience, (but) at the same time it was the most miserable two months of my life," he said.

But the show did what he hoped it would do, raising his profile considerably and allowing him to make a living from MMA. After the show aired, he was shocked to find that athletes in the NFL, NHL and Major League Baseball had become fans of his.

He says he's still stunned that Michael Jordan knew who he was when they met at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas and regards San Diego Padres pitcher Greg Maddux as a friend.

Maddux told Karalexis that that he'd autograph for people who told him it was for charity, only to see the item wind up on eBay. Karalexis responded by jokingly telling Maddux he knew he'd made it when he searched eBay and found an autographed picture of himself, which had an opening bid of $6.

Sale price?

"It gained a lot of value," Karalexis said, chuckling. "It went for $6.88. So I told Greg that I could relate. I said to him, 'I know, I have to be careful.' "

A few days later, Karalexis received a call from Maddux's wife, Kathy, who told him she had something for him.

When they met, Kathy gave Karalexis a baseball that Greg had signed for him.

"On the one side, it said, 'Alex, your muscles are bigger than mine,' " Karalexis said. "But when you rotate the ball, he wrote, 'But I get more than $6 on eBay.' It was great stuff. It's one of my prized possessions."

Karalexis is a draw because of his kamikaze style in the ring. He moved to lightweight, which has a 155-pound limit, instead of fighting at welterweight or middleweight, where he has fought in the past, because he believes it gives him a better chance to compete for a title.

His competitive spirit puts him in demand. In his first bout after recovering from two broken ribs, he fought the highly rated Kenny Florian on Aug. 6, 2005. The early part of the bout was a back-and-forth slugfest that had the crowd in the Cox Pavilion in Las Vegas on its feet roaring.

Then, Florian hit Karalexis in the ribs with a perfectly placed kick.

"It was picture perfect, shin on ribs, and it was the most pain I've ever experienced," Karalexis said. "I've broken knees, ankles, I've had surgeries. I'm a walking injury, but nothing ever came close to that pain."

Once the kick landed, Florian thought it was only a matter of seconds until his night's work was done.

He was stunned to find out that he was wrong.

"I saw the sweet spot and I got him exactly where I was trying to," Florian said. "I saw the look on his face and I knew he was hurt badly. I thought for sure he was done. Ninety five percent of the people, even fighters, would have gone down and given up at that point.

"Alex found a way to go on. He's one of those guys who won't quit and will keep fighting until the absolute end. As a fighter, you have to have respect for a guy like that and as a fan, that's a guy you really have to appreciate watching."

Karalexis hopes they'll see more of him. He's believes he's done all he can do to prove he's worthy of a match with McCullough.

A win over Smith, whom Karalexis calls "a tricky, slick, slick dude," would be his fourth in a row and third in the WEC.

"I'm at a point in my career now where I feel I'm as good as I have been," Karalexis said. "It's been an interesting journey to this point. Of course, there were doubts along the way, but I wanted to do this so much. I didn't want to take the easy way out and quit and then wonder 20 years from now what I could have done had I tried.

"I basically decided to give everything to this sport and it was the right decision, because this sport has given everything to me."