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For surging Costa Philippou, UFC dream isn't about titles but a life he never envisioned

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Chris Weidman and Michael Bisping argue in the media about who gets to fight Anderson Silva next. Luke Rockhold wants in. Alan Belcher thinks he's the guy to end the streak. They all want the G.O.A.T. And then there's Constantinos "Costa" Philippou, the rising middleweight with four straight wins, who as a "realist," acknowledges that he's nowhere close to challenging for the belt. The way he sees it, he doesn't even understand the clamor to get to Silva in the first place.

Philippou, who is finalizing preparations to fight Tim Boetsch on the UFC 155 main card, has watched closely as Silva's decimated one fighter after another, and like many fans, has left marveling at what he's witnessed.

He's convinced that Silva makes only a single mistake during a fight, and if his opponent doesn't capitalize on it, he will lose. Which is why he won't be another one raising his hand to fight "the Spider," even if he knocks out Boetsch in lighting speed on Saturday night.

"They're arguing over who's going to fight Anderson Silva? I don't want to fight that guy," he told MMA Fighting. "Are you kidding me? I don't want to fight him. I'd actually argue just to stay away from that guy."

Philippou laughs as he finishes his statement, half-joking about the middleweight champion's intimidating body of work. Like any fighter, he'd jump at the opportunity to measure himself against the sport's best, but only if the call came to him. He won't go out and chase it because of a philosophy that differs from most of his peers. Being the champion? It's simply never been one of his goals.

"I don't care," he said. "If it happens, good. And if not …"

He lets the thought trail away without finishing it, but maybe his unlikely journey to the octagon will explain why it's of little concern.

Philippou was never supposed to get here, not a kid from far-off Cyprus, a place that was hardly known for exporting combat sports talent. He started his unlikely journey as a teenager, boxing under Polis Potamitis, a local who would become his mentor and best friend. After several years of training and scraping by on jobs in factories and as a restaurant cook, Potamitis thought Philippou, then 25 years old, might be good enough to turn pro.

One day, out of the blue, Potamitis called Philippou and told him he'd purchased two airplane tickets to the United States. When Philippou asked where exactly they were going, Potamitis' answer -- Long Island -- didn't register with him. Potamitis' clarification -- New York -- finally brought a smile of recognition.

Days later, he was in the States, set up with a New York boxing coach who was charged with overseeing his rise to professional status. In one of his last amateur bouts, Philippou fought in a Golden Gloves tournament at Madison Square Garden, losing in the finals. Finally, in 2006, he turned pro. But after a 3-0 start including an appearance on ESPN, Philippou's boxing career stalled due to a dispute with his manager.

It was at this point where his life could have gone in any number of directions. He could have given up on pro sports. He could have returned home to Cyprus. He could have gone through a legal battle to regain control of his fight career. Instead, he decided to redirect his energy to a sport he'd just begun watching: MMA.

There were two reasons for that. One was that he loved competition. The other was Polis.

When Philippou and Potamitis had first arrived in the U.S., his friend had stayed with him for five weeks, helping him to acclimate to his new surroundings. And then he hugged Philippou, said good-bye and went home, promising to stay in touch. Weeks later, Potamitis was tragically killed, shot to death at age 37.

That tattoo that Philippou wears over his heart, the one with a word spelled out and a photo of a dog wearing boxing gloves? That's his friend's name and the logo of his boxing club. Every time he takes his shirt off, he sees it and remembers what Polis did for him, which goes much deeper than setting him on the right course.

"He saved my life," he said. "He helped me through a lot of bad situations. He taught me a lot of things. I got the opportunity to live the life I'm living right now because of him. Although it wasn't the plan, he always used to say that everything happens for a reason. If I was back there, I'd probably have a s----- job and live a life that wouldn't get me anywhere. I see a future now. I'm fortunate I had a friend like him. So every time I fight, I take him with me."

In Polis' memory, and under the tutelage of Matt Serra and Ray Longo, the wins have piled up for Philippou, who is 11-2 with 1 no contest and riding that four-fight win streak. He readily acknowledges his matchup with Boetsch offers the sternest test of his career. Ironically, Boetsch was originally scheduled to fight Philippou's teammate Chris Weidman before a shoulder injury forced Weidman out of the fight.

When Philippou got the call, he was just coming off the disappointment of not fighting at UFC 154 after his opponent Nick Ring fell ill on the day of the fight. At the time, he was simply asked if he'd be available to fight on Dec. 29. Though he wasn't enamored with the idea of jumping right back into training camp, the way he saw it, he had no excuse to decline.

"I just made weight, I was in shape, the only way to get out is to say, 'I don't want to fight,'" he said. "Your job is to train and fight. If you don't want to fight somebody, that means you don't belong here."

Philippou guessed he'd be replacing someone in the Yushin Okami vs. Alan Belcher or Chris Leben vs. Karlos Vemola matchups, and told the UFC that whoever it was, he'd take the fight. The next day, they called and asked if wanted to fight Boetsch. He was taken aback, unaware of the injury to Weidman, but figured that someone had to take the fight, so he might as well keep it in the same gym.

Coming off back-to-back wins over Yushin Okami and Hector Lombard, Boetsch has cracked the division's top 10. Given the opponent and setting, it's a statement fight for Philippou, another unforeseen opportunity in an unexpected life. If he can pull off the upset, his name will be thrust into the midst of those angling for a shot at the king.

"If I beat Tim Boetsch, I'm going to make them know me," he said. "Then I'll keep fighting. Eventually, if you beat everybody else and Anderson Silva is the only one left, they’re going to have to give you the fight. I don't want to argue my way to anything. That's not me. Give me an opponent and let me fight."