LAS VEGAS — There is a video on YouTube of a 13-year-old Edmen Shahbazyan — a skinny, gangly kid with his ribs protruding — taking on a 25-year-old man in a Muay Thai boxing fight as a crowd of people around the ring watched.
Edmond Tarverdyan, the coach of the budding UFC star, had to sign off on that fight to give Shahbazyan permission to compete. Tarverdyan knew by Shahbazyan’s calm demeanor that he had a special talent on his hands.
“I knew this kid was going to be special,” Tarverdyan said. “He wasn’t the strongest. He wasn’t the fastest or the quickest and he didn’t have the greatest physical ability. But he loved what he was doing, he listened to instruction so well and he just had this sense of how to fight.”
That kid is now a 22-year-old young man who on Saturday will headline his first UFC show when he meets veteran Derek Brunson in a three-round middleweight fight at Apex.
Shahbazyan’s goal remains becoming the youngest UFC champion in history, which means he’ll have to do it by July 19, 2021, to accomplish it. He will be 23 years, 8 months old on that date. Jon Jones won the light heavyweight title on March 19, 2011, when he was 23 years, 8 months, 1 day old.
Former UFC champion Ronda Rousey, Shahbazyan’s manager, said in an interview with UFC president Dana White last week on White’s Instagram, that she has no doubt Shahbazyan will soon be a champion, though she noted the coronavirus pandemic may hurt his chances of beating Jones’ record.
“It speaks to the inevitability of his championship reign,” Rousey told White. “It’s not if, it’s when. This kid is special. He is one in a generation. I know what the [expletive] I’m looking at and you [White] know what you’re looking at. It’s interesting to finally be in this time where everyone is starting to take notice.”
Shahbazyan is ranked ninth, one spot behind Brunson, in the UFC’s middleweight rankings. A win would put him in position for a major fight, so the bout comes with a certain level of pressure.
But if you think Shahbazyan is going to tense up, you don’t know him very well. He’s been in the spotlight for years. He performed well in several U.S. Olympic boxing trials qualifiers in 2015, including the Desert Showdown, where rising boxing star Vergil Ortiz Jr. first caught the notice of the professional boxing world.
Brunson’s record is impressive and he has beaten a number of elite fighters, including former UFC light heavyweight champion Lyoto Machida. Shahbazyan, though, has long prepared for fighting better and better opponents each time out.
“I’ve been fighting for a long time and I feel like this is an appropriate fight for me at this stage of my career,” he said. “My goal is to be the best in the world, to set records, and so you have to fight guys like this when you want to do those kinds of things.”
Brunson is 14 years older than Shahbazyan and fought his first pro bout in 2010, when Shahbazyan hadn’t yet turned 12.
He is confident in victory, but didn’t dismiss Shahbazyan out of hand.
“He’s a solid guy and he has a lot of talent and a lot of hype behind him,” Brunson said. “I like the kid.”
But Brunson knows a high-profile win over a fighter managed by Rousey will help his career, so he figures to be on top of his game.
Shahbazyan, though, is used to the pressure. When he was 15, he was Rousey’s training partner at the UFC Gym in Torrance, California, when she was preparing for her UFC debut against Liz Carmouche.
A huge crowd showed up and Rousey used her judo to throw Shahbazyan all over the mat. But he remained poised and did what he was required to do during the workout.
Rousey told White that Shahbazyan has that extra edge that is often the difference between good contenders and world champions.
“He’s such a sweet and quiet kid, but man, he’s a [expletive] killer,” she said. “If people actually take a moment to watch him, they’ll never be able to forget him.”
Rousey was Tarverdyan’s first prodigy. She walked into his gym in Glendale, California, one day while down on her luck after winning a bronze medal in the 2008 Olympics. She went on to a phenomenal career under his guidance and went on to become arguably the sport’s biggest star at the time.
He feels like he’s watching a repeat of the same story as Shahbazyan moves forward in his career.
“He loves being in the gym and he loves doing the work and getting better every day, every day, every day,” Tarverdyan said. “He’s a lot like Ronda in that he’s never satisfied with just good enough. He wants to be the best and he puts in the kind of work it takes to be the best. There are a lot of reasons why you’re going to be talking about this kid for a long, long time, but his desire, and how badly he wants this, is right at the top when you ask me why [he can be so good.]”
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