For amateur fighter Igor Karamehic, 26, mixed martial arts can be a metaphor for life. No matter how many hits he takes, he’s determined to keep fighting.
“I know what it’s like to be at the bottom. That doesn’t have to be it,” he said. “Never give up. Never quit.”
Born in Bosnia in 1988, Karamehic fled the country with his parents, Amir and Branka, when he was 3. He vividly remembers Serbian soldiers stopping their bus and ordering his family to get off because of his dad’s name.
“They put him to one side and put a gun to his head. They were going to shoot him,” recalled Karamehic, describing how a higher-ranking soldier stepped in because they were traveling as a family. “He was the only guy with a heart that day. That sticks out in my head.”
The family lived in Germany until Karamehic was 10, when visa issues forced them to either return to Bosnia or come to the United States.
“There wasn’t a future in Bosnia,” said Karamehic, who speaks Bosnian, German and English.
After graduating from Shadle Park High School in 2006, where he wrestled, Karamehic was introduced to MMA fighting.
“The first day I got so beat up, I didn’t know if I liked it, but my competitive side came out,” he said. “I wanted to get better and I fell in love with it.”
For his debut fight in 2008, Karamehic faced an opponent who outweighed him by 40 pounds and had a 6-2 record.
“I took a beating the first round, but I had so many supporters,” he said. “I knocked him out in the third round. It was an incredible feeling. I knew this was what I wanted to do.”
Then he lost his next fight.
“Every competitor needs to lose to find out what kind of competitor they are. Do you throw in the towel or does it light a fire to make you work hard?” said Karamehic. It’s a philosophy he’s applied to life.
The next year, when his mom was diagnosed with small cell lung cancer, Karamehic put everything on hold to help. After months of chemotherapy and radiation, with numerous doctor appointments every week, she was declared cancer-free. But the respite only lasted a month.
“She went through hell and back,” he said. “The cancer came back and spread everywhere.”
Not ready to give up, Karamehic took his mom to be treated at a cancer center in Phoenix, followed by more treatment with a new doctor in Spokane.
“I knew if I didn’t do this, I would regret it,” he explained.
Meanwhile, intermittent ankle pain he’d had for several years became too bad to ignore.
A growing cyst was destroying his ankle joint. “The doctor said I was two to three months away from an amputation,” said Karamehic, who needed immediate surgery to remove the cyst and implant a donor ankle bone.
Then his dad broke several ribs and tore his shoulder in a car crash.
“February 2011 was the worst month of my life, hands down,” Karamehic said, describing a low moment of clarity. He was recovering, his leg propped up on the couch. A few feet away his mom lay sleeping in the hospital bed they’d positioned by the window. Next to her, his dad had dozed off in a chair, his arm in a sling.
“I thought, ‘What went wrong? My entire family is in really bad shape,’ ” he said.
A few weeks later his mom died.
“When I feel like throwing in the towel and I have dark days, I think of her. For the year and a half she suffered, she never complained,” said Karamehic, adding that her memory has made him stronger in the face of setbacks.
His ankle didn’t heal properly and he lost most of the cartilage in the joint, creating painful bone-on-bone friction.
The only option, said his doctors, was to fuse it, amputate or endure the pain.
“I learned how to live with it,” he said, adding that he continued to exercise. Last fall he decided it was time to return to MMA, the sport he loved.
After intensive training punctuated by ankle pain, he had his comeback fight in February, winning with a unanimous decision in the third round.
“A couple days later my coach called and asked if I wanted to go pro. I said, ‘Absolutely,’ ” Karamehic said.
To be safe, he got an X-ray, which showed no change in his ankle. A week later, while working as a valet, his ankle gave out.
“I took one step. I guess it was the wrong step. I collapsed,” he said. The bone had snapped in two.
But Karamehic isn’t letting that end his dreams or his drive. In March he had surgery to get a new metal ankle joint and two metal plates that should restore his range of motion and eliminate the chronic pain.
“There are no guarantees. It could fail. But this is my chance to get back to normal,” Karamehic said. “I have a brand new ankle. I’m not going to rush it, but I’m going to do my best to fight again. … My goal is to never throw in the towel.”