TNT Sports Reload - Episode 11Sep 26
Don’t be fooled by Edmen Shahbazyan’s smile.
On appearances alone, the beaming, fresh-faced 22-year-old looks far from a champion-in-waiting of the world’s most violent sport.
His chirpy demeanour and ten-tooth smile betray the mind of a stone cold killer, a lethal finisher who has racked up ten first-round stoppages in 11 professional fights – including a perfect 4-0 start in the UFC as one of the youngest fighters in the company.
Shahbazyan has always been earmarked as a potential problem for the middleweight division but his last performance proved to be the beginning of a coming out party the Glendale fighter will hope he can continue against 185lb gatekeeper Derek Brunson on Saturday night - live on BT Sport 1HD.
- Born November 1997 in Glendale, California
- Began training in MMA at the age of 9
- Served as Ronda Rousey's training partner as a teenager at Glendale Fighting Club
- Coached by Rousey's former cornerman, Edmond Tarverdyan
- Undefeated 11-0, including 4-0 in the UFC
His ascent to main-event status came at the expense of 10-year UFC veteran Brad Tavares, whom Shahbazyan had watched make his UFC debut while he was 12 years old, on the prelims at UFC 244.
Following a patient, stalking build-up, Shahbazyan fired a crisp one-two down the pipe that floored Tavares a little over two minutes into the opening round.
Showing experience beyond his years, the 6ft 2in prospect again waited patiently for a wounded Tavares to climb back to his feet and provide the opening Shahbazyan had been anticipating.
A monstrous head kick crumpled his Hawaiian opponent and, were it not for Kevin Lee’s brutal shin to the face of Gregor Gillespie on the main card, it was a finish that would have pocketed Shahbazyan a well-deserved performance bonus on his best outing to date.
“If there was any questions about this kid before that fight, those questions have been answered. This kid is sensational,” an exhilarated Joe Rogan proclaimed on commentary duties.
Speaking on Rogan’s podcast not long after, current middleweight king Israel Adesanya added his name to the list of Shahbazyan’s admirers, telling the long-time UFC ambassador: “He hit Brad Tavares with the head kick and that got my attention. He’s at 185lb, he’s on the come up.
He hit Brad with the head kick and that got my attention
- Israel Adesanya
“I played with Brad for five rounds, he starched him in one round. I’m not taking that lightly. Eventually, when he comes up, I’m sure I’ll see him at some point.”
If Shahbazyan has his way, that day will come around much sooner than Adesanya might expect; the Contender Series alumni told MMAFighting earlier this year he has his sights set on becoming the youngest-ever UFC champion, toppling Jon Jones’ 2011 record after he defeated Shogun Rua to lift light the 205lb strap at 23.
“I have a little bit of time. With the way that I’m going right now, I definitely believe we’ll get there,” said the Californian.
“Whether it’s being the youngest champion, or just being the champion, whatever it is, I want it. No doubt about it. The way that I’m going, the hard work and dedication I’m putting in, and the belief, I’ll get there.
“A win over my next opponent and then maybe another one, then I’ll fight for that title.”
For all that Saturday night might well see the birth of another young phenomenon in the middleweight division, Shahbazyan should be under no illusion as to the scale of the task facing him when he steps into the Octagon at the UFC APEX in Las Vegas.
The label of ‘gatekeeper’ is sometimes used as a pejorative in mixed martial arts, a badge pinned to those deemed unworthy of the respect afforded those in the elite - but it is a label Derek Brunson should wear with pride.
Each of his five defeats in the UFC have come at the hands of either champions or title challengers.
The equation is a simple one: beat Brunson, and it’s likely you’re the real deal.
“This is the right challenge at the right time for Shahbazyan,” ESPN’s Jeff Wagenheim wrote this week.
“Brunson is serious business, and this is not the first time we've seen him standing smack-dab in the middle of someone's path to the top. Robert Whittaker beat him in 2016, then fought for an interim championship two fights later.
“Same for Israel Adesanya, whose 2018 win over Brunson propelled him along the road to the title.
“Brunson has only two other losses in the past six-and-a-half years, both against fighters who've also worn championship belts: Anderson Silva and Jacare Souza. This fight will be a true measuring stick for Shahbazyan.
“Don't be shocked if it turns into a Brunson showcase.”
Will ‘The Golden Boy’ prove his mettle against the middleweight meat grinder? Or will Brunson bounce another prospect to the back of the queue?
Watch UFC Fight Night: Brunson v Shahbazyan exclusively live on BT Sport 1HD from midnight on Saturday 1 August.
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