Outside of the spotlight and without much fanfare, Costa Philippou is quietly writing one of the best stories in all of mixed martial arts.
Tucked away in the middle of the UFC middleweight division, the 32-year-old former professional boxer has spent the last 20 months quietly going about his business inside the Octagon. A look at his resume reveals a slow and steady progression to the point of getting the call to join the UFC ranks not unlike those of countless other regional fighters with some talent and a dream.
It shows a four-fight winning streak, started at UFC 133 against Jorge Rivera, and built up with wins over Jared Hamman, Court McGee, and Riki Fukuda. It shows an impending matchup with Canadian Nick Ring at UFC 154 in Montreal later in the month.
Philippou’s climb to the biggest stage in the sport and his subsequent success in the UFC is impressive, and contains all the elements necessary to craft a compelling narrative. It’s the pieces of the story that aren’t reflected in his resume – the bits that can only be discovered, understood, and appreciated by talking to the man former UFC welterweight champion Matt Serra calls “Gus” – that give depth and dimension to what is a Hollywood movie playing out at the highest level of MMA.
“I moved here July 25, 2005 – a little bit over seven years (ago),” explains Philippou, who was born on the island of Cyprus. “Me and my best friend; he was my boxing coach at the time. He died a couple of months later, and I decided that I didn’t want to go back. I wanted to stay. I was a boxer back then – that was the reason I came to New York.
“I got into a few arguments with my coach – the guy I met over here who was my coach and my manager – so I decided to try MMA for a while, and eventually go back to boxing. Five months into the MMA training, I started fighting, fell in love with the sport, and that was it. I never want to leave.”
After dropping his professional debut to another East Coast prospect who would eventually find his way to the UFC, Ricardo Romero, Philippou started putting together wins. His success in the Ring of Combat cage and membership on the Serra-Longo Fight Team earned him the chance to try and win his way into the Ultimate Fighter house on Season 11 of the long-running reality TV competition, but instead of being a launch pad to a lengthy UFC career, it turned into a learning experience instead.
“The thing I learned from Season 11 is never go into a fight unprepared,” Philippou laughs. “At that time, I was expecting a phone call from (the UFC) to get me to Vegas to do the show. They didn’t call me. Thinking I didn’t make it, I took a couple weeks off, and a couple of weeks before they flew me out, they called me out of the blue and said, `You made it, and in 14 days, you’ve got to be in Vegas, so make sure you make weight.’ I showed up over there unprepared, followed the wrong game plan, and I lost.
“I came back, I thought I would never get a chance in the UFC again, had a couple more fights, and one day again, they call me on five days notice,” recalls Philippou, who was tabbed to replace Dan Miller opposite Nick Catone at UFC 128. “They offered me a contract, and I had to take the fight – another time that I wasn’t prepared. Sometimes, you’ve got to prove yourself and show that you’re willing to fight, even though I knew that I would probably lose the fight.
“They promised another chance after that fight, so I walked in with a goal not to get finished. Losing a decision is not anything to be ashamed of. I took my beating like a man, I got out, said `thank you,’ and came back to the gym two days later, and started working out for the next fight.”
Philippou hasn’t looked back since.
He rebounded from his debut loss with a split decision win over veteran Jorge Rivera five months later at UFC 133. Four months later, he earned a first-round knockout win over Jared Hamman, and has since added decision wins over TUF 11 winner Court McGee and Riki Fukuda to push his winning streak to four.
“Professionally, it couldn’t go any better,” he says of the last two years of his career. “Obviously, I keep winning; I’ve got four wins in a row. I never thought I would get four wins in a row.
“Personally, this past year, if not the best year of my life, it was one of the best years of my life because a couple years ago – up to last year – I was going through a divorce and some personal issues, and couldn’t concentrate on my training. I was fortunate enough to meet a great woman, buy my own place, and clear everything up with my ex, and I’m living the dream. I’m very happy with my life. This past year was the best year of my life. If I win this fight now, it will be a perfect ending to the year. I’ll have the best Christmas and New Year out of everybody.”
Standing between Philippou and the best holiday season ever is another TUF 11 alum, Nick Ring. The Calgary native, who got back into the win column at home this summer, boasts an impressive 13-1 record overall, and a 3-1 mark in the UFC, including a pair of somewhat controversial wins over Philippou’s two most recent opponents, Court McGee and Riki Fukuda.
With their common opponents and combined 7-1 records inside the Octagon, this bout is clearly one that will propel the winner into the next level of competition in the 185-pound ranks.
“I didn’t honestly know what was going to happen because everyone was throwing names around,” responds the engaging 11-2, 1 NC middleweight. “Everybody was saying, `You should fight top 10 now. You should fight higher competition. You’ve won four in a row.’ I don’t know. I never called out anybody, and to be honest, I don’t care.
“To be in the UFC, you’ve got to be a great fighter. Whether you’re #2 or #22, being in the UFC, that means you know what you’re doing, and my job is to keep fighting and winning, and if it’s meant to be, I’m going to be top two or three in the world; maybe #1 in the world. If not, I’m going to keep winning and eventually I’m going to end up facing the top competition.
“Listen - to me, whether it’s Nick Ring or Anderson Silva, a fight is a fight,” Philippou continues. “I’m going in trying to win. Right now it’s Nick Ring. After, if I win, they’ll give me a higher (ranked) opponent, but that’s up to Joe Silva, Dana White, and everybody. Right now they’re doing a great job – I have to thank everybody – and so I’m not thinking about anything past Nick Ring right now.
“I feel very confident that I can beat Nick Ring,” he adds of his impending bout at UFC 154. “Not taking anything away from the guy – he’s a great fighter, and it’s not a coincidence he has only one loss. Although he is a great fighter, I think I am up to the challenge, and I am going to end up being the winner.”
Philippou admits he has been cautious at times during his run of success, and says fans can expect to see him push the pace more against Ring in Montreal to show both the crowd and the UFC brass that he’s not afraid to take chances inside the cage.
Outside of the cage, the 32-year-old proved he’s willing to take chances when he set out for New York in order to chase his dreams. Over the last six years and change, Philippou’s mindset has never wavered.
He journeyed across the Atlantic Ocean in search of a successful career in combat sports, and though things didn’t quite work out as planned with his first love, he endured, and found MMA. Now he’s competing for the premier organization in the sport, and riding a four-fight winning streak into a main card placement at UFC 154, a show that should register as one of the biggest pay-per-view events of the year.
While Philippou could easily get caught up in his success, he remains levelheaded, grateful for the opportunities he’s been given, and thankful for the chance to make his dreams come true inside the cage.
“With anything you do in your life, there are highs and lows, like anything else. Same thing with fighting – you win some, you lose some. Now that I’m on the winning part, I feel like I’m on top of the world. If you’re smart enough, you can make a life out of fighting. Not necessarily fight the rest of your life, but use fighting to jump-start a life for yourself.
“I cannot believe that I am where I am right now. Not in a million years if anybody would have asked me ten years ago, I wouldn’t think of leaving my country and coming over here, but I’m having a great life. I am living the ‘American Dream.’ I do believe that.”
Costa Philippou - Living the American Dream
"If I win this fight now, it will be a perfect ending to the year. I’ll have the best Christmas and New Year out of everybody." - Costa Philippou