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The cost of home: Nikita Krylov perseveres in war-torn Ukraine

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Compared to most fighters, Nikita Krylov's upper torso is a blank canvas. Apart from the small tommy gun hidden underneath his left bicep -- a homage to the preferred firearm of his namesake, Al Capone -- all that adorns the young Ukrainian is an elaborate inking sprawled across the left side of his chest. Embellishments of twisting chainwork spill into an iron cross of sorts, with generous swathes of dark shading layered above a silhouetted ring, an amalgamation of the Greek characters ‘X' and ‘Р' jutting out from its center.

Krylov's childhood friend designed the tattoo several years ago. He doubled as Krylov's lifelong training partner, a man whose knowledge of the game grew alongside the fighter's own, who held pads for the 22-year-old through innumerable striking drills. He spent his time teaching children's boxing classes on the side. And while Krylov was taking part in Ireland's grand coronation across the North Sea, he was dying.

For many in the world, the tragedy of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 served as first notice that the civil war raging across Ukraine had spiraled desperately out of control. On Monday, July 14, a surface-to-air missile burst into a Boeing 777 passenger plane traveling over eastern Ukraine's most volatile region, Donetsk. All 298 passengers and crew aboard lost their lives. It was a gruesome sight, bodies careening wildly out of the sky, showering onto roads and backyards of nearby residents. Among those who perished: 20 families, six delegates of the 20th International AIDS Conference, and at least 20 children below the age of 12 -- each lost within the throng of Dutch, Malaysian, Australian and British travelers doomed for simply daring to fly.

All were innocents to the conflict.

A native of Donetsk, Krylov learned of the crash on a dreary Tuesday in Dublin ahead of UFC Fight Night 46. He was supposed to be focusing on Cody Donovan, the stout American black belt whose livelihood stood between him and possible unemployment. But then he received that text message from a friend, and in an instant his entire world snapped back to the havoc that raged across his homeland.

Warning: Graphic Content

Krylov escaped Donetsk a month earlier. As the violence mounted between Ukrainian soldiers and pro-Russian separatists, he, his little brother, and his father fled west to Kiev, Ukraine's capital city 450 kilometers removed from Russia's border. Krylov's mother and grandparents stayed behind, too stuck in their ways to abandon the family's childhood home. So 24 hours after the world turned its eyes to the tragedy in Donetsk, Krylov was trapped an ocean away, fielding questions from a euphoric Irish media about a contest that suddenly didn't seem to matter... all while wondering, hoping, praying that those closest to him still drew breath.

"I worry what is going to happen next, but the only thing I fear about is what is going to happen to my relatives. They are precious to me," he told MMAFighting.com while still in Ireland.

"People are dying. People are having to basically leave their lives they used to have and I don't know when it's going to end."

So it went for the rest of the week, the tides of war raining devastation upon Donetsk and neighboring Luhansk, and Krylov left to his own in Dublin, dreading what news the next dawn may bring. His childhood friend, the one who penned the tattoo that will forever remain on Krylov's chest, with whom Krylov shared so many laughs over so many years, had his leg and torso ripped apart by gunfire. One more nameless casualty among thousands.

"When you see it with your own eyes, not on TV or in some movie, but when you see people dying on the streets, it is an experience that you would never wish to anyone else to see," says Artem Yalanskiy, a 22-year-old mixed martial arts journalist based in Kiev.

"If you look at the statistics, the amount of people who are civilians and have died, it's a crazy amount of people. And what where they were doing? Some of them were just going to the supermarket. Some of them were just someone's grandmothers in their sixties or seventies. Something exploded and they didn't stand a chance. It's just people who present no danger, no harm to anyone, and they died."

Amid the lawlessness, Krylov's home gym was raided, armed bandits stealing mats, pads, and weights -- anything they could sell on the streets. In Donetsk, soldiers and separatists alike weeded through the plane wreckage, looting whatever they could, contaminating any incriminating evidence. And Krylov sat with his agent in that empty hotel room, thoughts of loved ones continually grounded by the realities that lay ahead, his cornermen unable to obtain visas from their standstill government until a minor miracle ferried them over at the last minute.

"The war has reached almost everybody during this year," he says. "Many of my friends have people (who have died this year). I have friends who have died this year; neighbors, friends from sports.

"People are looking for a way to escape. Some go to other cities, some try to defect to Russia. The people who are left, we're trying to find a place where we could go. There's already so many victims during this Civil War in Ukraine. Now there's even more."

Star-divide

For a few brief flashes, it looked as if Nikita Krylov was going to lose in Dublin. It'd be an easy one to write off. Cody Donovan snaked his arms around Krylov's neck, and none would fault the young Ukrainian if, in that moment, the stress and the anxiety and the horrors of home became too much and he allowed the end to come.

Krylov summoned the strength though, peeling Donovan's arm off and unleashing a furious rally of blows that left the American slumped face-first on the canvas with three seconds to spare, distractions be damned. The ensuing emotional release must have been unreal. Krylov rolled off, slammed his right hand onto the canvas, then reached over the cage, locking his cornermen in a tight embrace. He even smiled.

Three days later, with a broken orbital bone overtaking the left side of his face, Krylov flew back to Kiev. He's there now. His family in Donetsk is alright for the time being, although both his mother and grandparents remain embedded in the midst of an increasingly unpredictable warzone. Gunfire rings through the streets day and night, while bombs and wayward missiles streak fiery tears across the sky, blasting holes through civilian apartments and market centers alike, driving that death toll ever forward and displacing even more.

Kiev, for now, is safe. The city underwent its own bloody revolution in early February, and newly elected mayor, former Ukrainian boxing legend Vitali Klitschko, is leading its reconstruction. But the threat of separatist forces extending their assault into western Ukraine looms with every passing week, and with the aid of Russian President Vladimir Putin, rebels in Donetsk and Luhansk have the means to continue an offensive well into the fall.

'People are dying. People are having to basically leave their lives and I don't know when it's going to end.'

To make matters worse, bomb threats have begun shutting down marketplaces and television stations in Kiev with increasing regularity, Yalanskiy says, while residents try their best to brush off the thought of another catastrophe rocking a city still in need of healing.

Earlier this week, troops in Kiev allegedly began launching barrages of short-range missile attacks into eastern Ukraine, utilizing missiles that carry a range of 50 miles and pack warheads of up to 1,000 pounds. CNN reported that, if true, the weapons would be "the most deadly missiles used in the conflict to date," and that the assault marked "a major escalation" of the already unstable conflict.

"Today, in the center of the city where my parents live (two hours away from Donetsk), was an explosion," Yalanskiy says. "Nobody got hurt, but it was a big explosion. My father, he has his own small business. His office is located on the way out of the city, and he told me that two weeks ago they built barricades (on the roads). They have battlements of self-defense and police and other forces who are by the barricades.

"They're afraid the violence could shift towards their city, just because it's so close and it's so obvious. [The separatists] need to grow their presence and there still aren't any (Ukrainian) troops in the city. It's still so open. You could just invade it, you could just establish a presence there, and nobody would do anything about it."

Home is not a chosen standard, but one born unto us. At the age of 22, Krylov has already accomplished more than could ever be expected. He is the first native Ukrainian to fight in the UFC, and he wears the mantle proudly, despite having experienced the anguish of seeing that home fractured and, ultimately, in ruins.

During his short stay in Dublin, Krylov was regarded as a minor celebrity of sorts; throngs of the MMA crazed Irishmen flocked to secure a photo, an autograph, or a simple word with the professional fighter. In a way, it was strange. Within his country consumed by grief, Krylov lives is relative anonymity, hoping only that the next day brings no ill surprises. Fortunately it has yet to do so.

Yet through it all, he does not despair. His may not be an ideal life, but it is a life all the same. And with luck, it shall continue to be so long after the bloodshed ends.

"God gives you the way you can live," he says. "I wouldn't like to compare myself to the other people and fighters who are fighting in the UFC, or the rest of the world. This is the life that is given to me, and I need to go through it and be happy about it.

"I love my country. I love my family. I really believe that some people go through even harder things in life, and we're going to survive through this. It's just a matter of time. All things will be great and we're going to live happy."