When Edmen Shahbazyan and his older brother Leon started training in martial arts about 12 years ago, Anderson Silva was well into his reign over UFC’s middleweight division, implementing movement and striking in ways rarely seen in the Octagon to that point. For the then-10-year-old Shahbazyan, however, dreams of championship belts and first-round finishes couldn’t have been further from his goals.
He just wanted to lose some weight.
“I was a fat kid,” Shahbazyan laughed. “So it was never like, ‘I should be a professional fighter.’ I just joined in. I was going to karate, and I was going to swimming.”
Eventually, though, Shahbazyan’s competitive nature developed, and when he and his brother entered a grappling tournament on a couple days’ notice and came out on top, it was a wrap. From boxing to Muay Thai to wrestling and everything in between – including the occasional scrap with his brother - Shahbazyan soaked it all up throughout his teenage years with Ronda Rousey, Edmond Tarverdyan and company at Glendale Fighting Club. Known among his peers as “Edmen the fighter” in high school, Shahbazyan recalls missing his high school graduation ceremony to compete in a national tournament, but you don’t get the sense he’d change his decision if he was given another chance.
“Growing up in this sport, competing in all the aspects and competing at the highest level now, it doesn’t faze me,” he said. “Even if it’s like a huge, huge stage, and there’s so many people, I love the pressure, and I thrive under the pressure and constantly want to perform under it. I love it.
“When the lights are on, I feel even better.”
So far, Shahbazyan has passed every test with flying colors. Most recently, under the brightest lights of his young life in Madison Square Garden last November, he scored a head-kick knockout of veteran Brad Tavares in the first round. It was his 10th first-round finish and a definitive announcement that the 22-year-old is ready to make some noise in the top 10 sooner than later.
His ultra-accelerated timeline is difficult to grasp. Shahbazyan walked into the Octagon for Dana White’s Contender Series as a 20-year-old prospect and earned a contract by way of a 40-second TKO win. For his debut four months later, Shahbazyan faced the most adversity of his career against Darren Stewart and was forced to implement a wrestling-heavy game plan that earned him a split decision win.
That full, three-round fight was about a minute-and-a-half longer than the rest of Shahbazyan’s professional fights combined. It was a critical fight in his development and allowed him to prove the point that he is not just a finisher shot out of a cannon. He can grind out the win if the situation calls for it.
“I knew in the moment that I’m pushing myself and I’m not breaking,” Shahbazyan said. “So, I can always go in the deep waters. I don’t care. I’m willing to die in there.”
Even if it’s like a huge, huge stage, and there’s so many people, I love the pressure, and I thrive under the pressure and constantly want to perform under it. I love it.
Since proving that point, though, he reaffirmed his status as one of the most lethal middleweights in the world, taking care of Charles Byrd, Jack Marshman and Tavares in a combined four minutes and 17 seconds.
His performance against Tavares was notable enough for Shahbazyan to get name-checked by current middleweight king Israel Adesanya when the champion was asked about potential contenders that have caught his attention. While Shahbazyan holds plenty of respect for Adesanya and is happy to get noticed, he has no sense of satisfaction just yet.
“My strongest aspect is I think I’m good everywhere because I’ve grown up into this sport doing everything,” he said. “Wrestling, boxing, kickboxing, Muay Thai, I’ve competed in all the aspects of the sport, so I’m comfortable wherever the fight goes. That’s what I feel is dangerous about me, and I feel like I’m good everywhere. I’m well-rounded everywhere, and that’s what’s dangerous about me.”
Once you meet Shahbazyan, that confidence is almost endearing. He’s as fast with his smile as he is at ending fights and is as personable as he is lethal inside the Octagon. Piling up first-round finishes is certainly a fast way to get noticed, and so Shahbazyan hasn’t really needed to do as much work on the mic to start beef with opponents. That said, though, he’s not one to back down from some verbal warfare.
Shahbazyan recalls his matchup with Marshman for this particular reason. He said the Welshman was calling Shahbazyan a “cocky kid, or something like that,” so even though the two hadn’t met beforehand, there was plenty to say once they were face-to-face.
“At staredowns, he was telling me, ‘Oh, you think I’m scared of you?’ This and that," Shahbazyan said. “I was like, ‘Oh, now that you’ve said it, now I think you are scared of me because you said it.’ He was trying to get into my head. I don’t know … It didn’t end up good for him.”
“The Golden Boy” secured the first submission win of his professional career in that fight, and while he is as friendly a person as any on the roster, he does carry the sense of invincibility that comes with an unblemished record.
“With a good finish, everybody is going to pay attention to you, but if my opponent starts talking s***, I’ll talk s***,” Shahbazyan said. “It’s not going to change the way I’m going to beat him. It’s business as usual. I’m going to go in there to dominate every time. Him talking s*** is not going to affect my performance at all. I’ll be talking s*** back to him.”
As 2020’s schedule developed, Shahbazyan looked to be on track to prove his place in the top 10 when he signed on to face middleweight stalwart Derek Brunson at UFC 248. However, Brunson was forced out of the March meeting, with the bout then placed on April’s Portland card, which was ultimately postponed due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
While Shahbazyan said the whole situation was “annoying” because of the fact that the postponement of his fight could’ve been avoided had the two fought on the originally planned date, he still plans to work on his game as his gym closed itself from the public. Shahbazyan said he learned about each development regarding the fight while he was at the gym, so it begged the question: What does he do outside of training?
He lists hanging out with friends, going to Six Flags and playing video games, so basically, normal stuff a 20-something does in his free time. He joked that he considered getting into streaming himself playing Fortnite, but also admitted he’s just “all right” at it.
The 22-year-old Shahbazyan does take pride in what he doesn’t do. Shahbazyan said he hasn’t ever drank or smoked, and neither really appeal to him until after he’s done fighting.
“I always thought, ‘Why would I drink? It’s not going to do me any good,’” Shahbazyan said. “I’d rather eat a fried chicken sandwich instead of drinking, instead of intoxicating my body. I’ll have a fried chicken sandwich that I can just burn off the next day.”
Although he is many moons from being a young preteen wanting to shed some pounds, one can respect that logic. He said he’s especially fond of the chicken sandwich from Popeyes (always spicy) and also enjoys rolling through Raffi’s Place in Glendale.
So, while what comes next is murky for the entire sports world at the moment, it’s nearly impossible to argue that Shahbazyan’s “next” looks especially bright. He called himself the “new breed of MMA” heading into his bout with Tavares and underlined that statement several times with his performance. When pressed about where his highest confidence comes from, his belief is that he was raised inside of the sport, so his well-roundedness is at a higher level than anyone he might face.
In spite of the cliché nature of that thought process, it’s hard to look at Shahbazyan’s body of work so far and dispute the claim. What isn’t hard, though, is to set high expectations for him, and it also wouldn’t be out of anyone’s common sense to anticipate his ability to exceed whatever those expectations might be.
“I’m trying to come in there and stop everybody and beat everybody and be the best in the world,” Shahbazyan said. “I respect all the fighters, and respect to the champ, but I want to be the best, and I’m in this sport to be the champion. That’s what I wanted to do from the start, and I got to live on with the dream. I always dream big, so I want to be the champion, and I’m going to do whatever it takes to be there. But it’s cool that they’re recognizing it."
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