When your home gym is the Glendale Fighting Club and you’re represented by UFC Hall of Famer Ronda Rousey, you’re bound to garner attention. Add in an unblemished record littered with early stoppages and you’re bound to get some skeptics too.
Edmen Shahbazyan arrived on Dana White’s Contender Series last summer as a 20-year-old upstart brandishing a 6-0 record built on a series of victories in fights that never went more than four minutes. He then swiftly dispatched Antonio Jones and earned a UFC contract, putting the middleweight prospect square in the crosshairs of all those ready to pick apart the new kid backed by familiar faces being hustled to the big leagues.
Four months later, Shahbazyan made his promotional debut and was forced to dig deep in a grueling, 15-minute scrap with British powerhouse Darren Stewart. After starting well and banking the first two rounds, the Octagon newcomer showed his mettle by hanging tough and surviving the final five minutes as Stewart pushed hard to swing the results in his favor.
“That first fight, I learned a lot about myself,” Shahbazyan said of his debut effort against Stewart. “My confidence level changed because I know I can go into deep waters and when I’m exhausted, I can push through it.
“It was my first UFC fight and of course I had the Octagon jitters, but it was just a learning experience. I got the win and I learned from it. I showed my heart. I stayed in there. I didn’t give up, I stuck through it and we got the win.”
For some, the split decision win showed that Shahbazyan was more than just a kid getting an accelerated push because of where he trains and who he knows, while others took his struggles against the middling UFC middleweight as a sign that he wasn’t quite ready for prime time. Sure, he landed on the happy side of the 2-1 verdict, but after waxing everyone on his way to the Octagon, his first bout against “real competition” proved to be much, much harder.
Back in March, Shahbazyan made his second foray into the UFC cage and forced his critics to rethink their positions by showing that he can still collect rapid knockout wins even while competing at the highest level in the sport.
Paired off with fellow Contender Series alum Charles Byrd at UFC 235, the 21-year-old stuffed an early takedown attempt by the Fortis MMA product and immediately started attacking with elbows to the side of the head. As the second, third, fourth strike landed, Byrd wilted and referee Mark Smith was forced to step in and stop the proceedings.
The whole affair lasted 38 seconds.
“I felt so much more comfortable,” Shahbazyan said of his sophomore appearance inside the Octagon. “After that first fight, I was like, ‘the rest are going to be good. I got this one out of the way and it’s going to flow next time.’ That’s what happened and it’s going to continue to be like that because those jitters are gone.
“There is pressure, but I thrive on the pressure and I love the pressure,” he said of the being in the spotlight because of his associations and early success. “The more pressure there is, the better. I don’t break under pressure; I like to perform and I actually perform better under pressure.”
This weekend at T-Mobile Arena, the undefeated “Golden Boy” looks to make it three straight in the UFC and extend his unbeaten run to double digits when he squares off with Welshman Jack Marshman in the final bout of the UFC 239 early prelims.
It’s another step up in competition for the promising youngster — a showdown with a seasoned veteran who has made a career out of being a game and durable pressure fighter who is happy to wade into the pocket and trade.
“I thought this was maybe a potential matchup even before we got paired together,” Shahbazyan said of the matchup with Marshman. “I know he’s a veteran — he has over 30 fights, six in the UFC — and he’s a stand-up fighter, a tough guy, but I plan on dominating every single second of this fight.
“No matter where the fight goes, I’m planning on dominating it because I’m coming in the most prepared I’ve ever been and he won’t be able to stop me.”
Some may chalk that up as fighter-speak. Others may call it overconfidence. It could just be the words of a kid who has yet to taste defeat and therefore has no reason to doubt himself or his talents.
However you choose to frame it, understand that Shahbazyan said it without a hint of hesitation or the tone of his voice changing at all.
He didn’t say it as an unsure fighter psyching himself up before his biggest fight to date or as the scripted answer you have to give when asked about how your next contest is going to play out.
He said it as an up-and-coming talent who knows the effort that he’s putting into his craft on the daily and who sees the gains he’s making in the gym session after session.
Maybe it is the naiveté of youth and never having been forced to deal with defeat and the self-doubt it can bring on, but the history of the sport is littered with young talents who believed in themselves to the fullest and went on to do great things, and Shahbazyan feels he has the potential to do the same.
He also knows that every time he steps into the Octagon, the unbeaten record and string of first-round finishes fade into the background and that he needs to be the best version of himself for as long as it takes to secure another win.
“I’m 21 years old and I’m only getting better,” said Shahbazyan. “I’m improving every single day in the gym. This is what I’ve been doing full time, so people can expect that I’m going to come into each fight different, I’m going to come in better. I’m always going to be improving, always evolving because the mindset I have in my practices and towards my career is to get better every single fight.
“Sure, I’m the 21-year-old who is 9-0 with eight knockouts, but that doesn’t matter to me,” he added. “To me, what matters is that I come out there and perform to the best of my abilities every single fight. I want to perform my best every single time and I know I’m capable of that, so I’ll showcase it every single time.”
Tune in Saturday if you’re still not sold.