The UFC has returned from its Fight Island adventure and is back operating out of its home venue in Las Vegas for the time being.
Saturday’s event at the UFC APEX is headlined by dangerous veteran Derek Brunson looking to hand highly-touted rising star Edmen Shahbazyan his first loss in mixed martial arts.
Shahbazyan is an undefeated 22-year-old that has taken the middleweight division by storm. He’s a protégé and former training partner of Ronda Rousey, and a client of the former UFC superstar’s One Fight Management.
He has been training with Rousey’s infamous coach Edmond Tarverdyan at the Glendale Fighting Club in California for the past decade. Shahbazyan turns 23 in November and has a goal of becoming the youngest champion in UFC history. Jon Jones set that record when he won his first title at 23 years, eight months back in 2011, but Rousey believes Shahbazyan has a chance to do it.
“It’s not if, it’s when,” Rousey said of Shahbazyan becoming a UFC champ during her recent Instagram chat with Dana White. “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. He’s such a sweet and quiet kid, but man he’s a (expletive) killer.”
Shahbazyan is 11-0 in MMA and only one of his fights has gotten out of the first round. His most recent performance was at UFC 244 last November, when he picked up a stunning first-round head-kick knockout against durable veteran Brad Tavares.
The Tavares KO caught the eye of reigning UFC middleweight champion Israel Adesanya, who had gone five rounds with Tavares just four months prior.
“I saw his fight. I didn’t know who he was until (my manager) told me. Then I re-watched his fight,” Adesanya said during an appearance on Joe Rogan’s podcast. “He hit Brad Tavares with the head kick and that kind of got my attention, like, ‘Oh (expletive), who is this kid?’ He’s on the come-up. 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.”
Nine of Shahbazyan’s 11 wins have come via strikes but his game is well-rounded.
“Little Eddie, he’s always been special,” Rousey said. “He’s always been called Neo. He’s the One. He is that first generation of kids who only did MMA. He was obsessed with MMA when I was training at the gym. He was actually like my throwing dummy for my (Liz) Carmouche open workout (before the historic UFC 157). He was 15 years old, he was still bigger than me but he was one of my training partners and he learned armbars from me. He was getting beat up by me.”
“He was in the gym at a very pivotal time and him and his brother (fellow professional fighter Leon Shahbazyan) would just like show up with (jiu-jitsu) books and they were completely obsessed,” Rousey explained. “I’ve never seen kids more obsessed with MMA and that was like the first generation of that. … It’s not like he’s just mediocre at everything. He is just (expletive) awesome at everything.”
Shahbazyan is a heavy betting favourite, but regardless of the odds, if he can win and look impressive against Brunson it’ll be a huge statement.
Brunson (20-7) has 11 career wins by knockout and is coming off back-to-back unanimous decision wins over Elias Theodorou and Ian Heinisch.
He happens to be a Strikeforce veteran like Rousey. In fact, they fought on the same card on two occasions in that defunct promotion before joining the UFC roster in 2012. Brunson had a 16-5 MMA record before Shahbazyan even made his pro debut in February of 2017, and over the years has seen and felt what the best middleweights have to offer.
The term, “gatekeeper,” is somewhat of a backhanded compliment, but that’s exactly what Brunson is in the 185-pound division.
He’s good enough to earn knockout wins over standout Uriah Hall and former champion Lyoto Machida, and he’ll take out any unranked fighter put in front of him. But he consistently falls short against the Israel Adesanyas, Robert Whittakers, Yoel Romeros, Jacare Souzas and Anderson Silvas of the world.
In order to beat Brunson, you have to be world-class.
If Shahbazyan manages to get his hand raised for a 12th-consecutive time he’ll continue his rise up the rankings.
Brunson is currently the No. 8 contender in the middleweight division, while Shahbazyan sits at No. 9. Just ahead of them are the likes of Kelvin Gastelum, Darren Till and Jack Hermansson, all of whom recently competed on Fight Island.
A women’s bantamweight bout between former champion Holly Holm and Irene Aldana was originally scheduled to headline the event before Brunson vs. Shahbazyan was bumped into the spotlight. It’s Shahbazyan’s first UFC main event yet it’s only scheduled for three rounds, which means he and Brunson will be able to push the pace more than if it were a five-round bout.
Shahbazyan is the feature attraction on what should be a fun card full of fan-friendly matchups.
Joanne Calderwood could potentially earn a flyweight title shot against Valentina Shevchenko if she gets by Jennifer Maia in the co-main event, and a welterweight bout between Vicente Luque and Randy Brown should be a barnburner.
Here’s a look at the full fight lineup.
— Derek Brunson vs. Edmen Shahbazyan
— Joanne Calderwood vs. Jennifer Maia
— Vicente Luque vs. Randy Brown
— Lando Vannata vs. Bobby Green
— Kevin Holland vs. Trevin Giles
— Frankie Saenz vs. Jonathan Martinez
— Ed Herman vs. Gerald Meerschaert
— Johnny Munoz vs. Nathan Maness
— Jamall Emmers vs. Vincent Cachero
— Chris Gutiérrez vs. Cody Durden