Ronda Rousey's Protege Is Gunning for His Own UFC Gold

Tom TaylorContributor IJuly 30, 2020

Edmen Shahbazyan celebrates after a middleweight mixed martial arts bout against Brad Tavares at UFC 244, Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019, in New York. Shahbazyan stopped Tavares in the first round. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

No. 9-ranked UFC middleweight contender Edmen Shahbazyan is just 22 years old, but he's flaunting the poise of a much more experienced fighter as he gears up for his showdown with Derek Brunson, which headlines the UFC on ESPN+ 31 card this Saturday. 

His calm demeanour ahead of this main event clash, far and away the biggest fight of his life, is actually quite easy to explain. 

He's seen all of this before.

Long before Shahbazyan was signed by the UFC, he was a chief sparring partner of one of the biggest stars in MMA history: former UFC women's bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey

Shahbazyan, who is now 4-0 in the Octagon, met Rousey when she first arrived at Glendale Fighting Club in California, which would become her training home. Still just a teenager at the time, and only about 140 pounds, he quickly found himself on the mats with the 135-pound star. In fact, he famously served as Rousey's designated rag doll in the open workout for her UFC debut: a 2013 title fight with Liz Carmouche. 

That, as you might expect, was an unforgettable experience for Shahbazyan—and one worth playing hooky for.  

"[That open workout] was such a cool moment," he told Bleacher Report from Las Vegas, the scene of his imminent battle with Brunson. "I missed school because I was so excited.

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"I just wanted to do anything that was part of the UFC, especially at that age. I was blessed to have that opportunity."

Shahbazyan remained a training partner of Rousey until he outgrew her, transforming into the 6'1", 185-pound middleweight he is today. Even when they were no longer suitable training partners for one another, however, they remained close. He rode shotgun on the Rousey express for many years and learned a lot about being a famous fighter from that enviable vantage point.

"Being there, the way she rose, definitely had a good impact as far as extra motivation to continue working hard," Shahbazyan said. "I was seeing it all happen right in front of me. 

"It was always good being around her. Watching her rise to fame, she always had tips and advice. She's a positive person, a very positive person, and there was always good energy with her."

John Locher/Associated Press

Rousey spent many years at the apex of the MMA world, dominating every woman with the gall to enter the Octagon with her. Eventually, however, it all came crashing down. First, in 2015, there was knockout loss to Holly Holm, which still ranks among the biggest upsets in UFC history. Then, a little over a year later, came a knockout loss at the hands of Amanda Nunes, who is now regarded as the greatest female fighter of all time.

While Rousey has not fought since those losses, she has maintained a close connection with the sport, most notably by serving as Shahbazyan's manager. As Shahbazyan gears up for his first UFC main event, he's determined to do Rousey proud, and remind the world that Glendale Fighting Club and coach Edmond Tarverdyan are capable of producing world-class fighting talent—something some people have questioned since the height of Rousey-mania.

"There's a lot of s--t talkers on social media, and that's always going to be there, but since Ronda was such a big superstar, there were more of them," Shahbazyan said of the criticisms Rousey and the team have received over the years. "People can look at me now and see the work Edmond has done, because I started with him at 10 years old. He was my first coach. People can just watch me and see."

Finishing Derek Brunson this Saturday will go a long way to silencing the team's remaining doubters, and Shahbazyan plans on doing just that.

"I think it's a good matchup," he said. "[Brunson] is ranked one spot above me, and he's a good opponent. He's had a lot of experience and fought a lot of the top guys, and I think that, the path that I want to go on, he's the next person that I should be facing. He's the right opponent for me.

"I have a lot of skills, and I'm happy to put myself in front of him and get the victory over him."

If Shahbazyan is able to slay Brunson in Sin City, he believes it will open the door to a fight with somebody in the middleweight top five: a murderer's row comprised of Robert Whittaker, Paulo Costa, Jared Cannonier, Yoel Romero and Darren Till. A win over one of those men, meanwhile, could set Shahbazyan up for a shot at the middleweight title held by Israel Adesanya. 

The thought of bringing a UFC title back to Glendale Fighting Club, where Rousey's belts once hung as abundantly as ornaments on a Christmas tree, excites Shahbazyan greatly. 

He knows how much it would mean to the team. He knows how much it would mean to Rousey.

"She would be very proud of me and very happy for me because it's a huge goal to accomplish," he said of a potential title win. "And for her to be alongside me as I accomplish it would be amazing, too."

Of course, it would also mean a lot to the man himself. It's something he's longed for since Rousey hurled him around the cage at her first UFC open workout, way back in 2013. 

"It would mean everything to me," he said. "I've dreamed of it for a long time, and that moment is going to be an amazing moment."

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