In search of the right path to mixed-martial-arts stardom, the journeys of Sevak Magakian and Karen Darabedyan have taken them to the country's heartland.
On Saturday night at the O'Reilly Family Event Center in Springfield, Mo., the Glendale fighters will take an important step when they venture inside the cage at ShoFight MMA 20.
For Magakian (10-3), who faces off with Strikeforce and Bellator veteran JP Reese (6-2), a former University of Missouri wrestling standout, in a lightweight contest upon the main card, it will be a hopeful last step — provided a victory is to be had — before venturing into the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
"I have to win this fight," Magakian said. "I don't want it to go to the judges' decision. It's his hometown, so I want to finish him."
And for Darabedyan (9-4), once a burgeoning star in the ranks of World Extreme Cagefighting, it is the hopeful genesis of a comeback to the sport more than 20 months in the making, with last-week replacement Mike Brazzle (1-1) looking to act as a spoiler.
"Now, I'm against the wall," Darabedyan said. "It's a do-or-die situation. I have to go in there and make a point.
"It's not about who I'm fighting, it's about myself."
Just like Darabedyan, Magakian isn't fighting his original opponent. Originally, Magakian was set to face UFC veteran John Gunderson (33-13-2), but Gunderson is now a main event replacement who will headline the card against Karo Parisyan (20-8), a training partner of Magakian and Darabedyan's.
"I was so mad," said Magakian, who added that he learned about the change by seeing it on a website rather than receiving news personally. "I wanted that fight against Gunderson because he was a name."
Now, Magakian, who's riding a three-fight winning streak, will square off with the affable Reese in a 155-pound tilt.
"I know he's a good wrestler from Missouri," said Magakian, who arrived in Missouri on Thursday night with Darabedyan among an entourage of roughly 15. "That's all I know.
"I'm comfortable with wrestlers."
Reese's roots are in Missouri, but the 31-year-old lives and trains in Florida as a member of the highly regarded American Top Team.
"I'm pretty excited to be back in Missouri," said Reese, who wasn't originally scheduled for the card, but put his name out there after a string of past bouts fell by the wayside. "I feel like I've been training for like five months. I've had a lot of fights fall through, so I've peaked, then gone back down, then peaked again and gone back down."
But, just like Magakian, Reese said he's had a good camp, he's on weight and he's ready to go.
Magakian anticipates Reese will look to push the fight to the ground, but said he isn't concerned about where the bout plays out.
"I never have any game plan," Magakian, 26, said. "Wherever it comes, I'm gonna go for it. I'm comfortable standing or going to the ground."
Magakian has gotten finishes in nine of his 10 victories, with all nine of those stoppages — eight via submission — coming in the first round. A common opponent between the two is Bobby Green, who stopped both. It was Reese's loss to Green in his second-to-last bout that he said was an "epiphany" that he needed to focus on his striking game. Hence, he's not so quick to say this fight will go to the ground.
"I'm not sure how it's gonna play out," Reese said. "I think it's gonna be a little tougher to take him down, so I might want to keep it standing for a while and stick and move."
Nevertheless, both combatants are hoping a victory will lead them down the road to the UFC and, while Magakian was hoping for Gunderson, Reese is more than happy to have the chance to unseed Magakian.