There are few things sports fans and media alike enjoy more than the idea of The Next Big Thing. A young, shiny prospect ascending to the highest levels of a sport is, at best, a window into the future of the sport and, at worst, entirely intriguing to watch develop. Hype skyrockets, and fans are thrilled by the meeting of or crumbling to those sky-high expectations, and it soon turns into a question of whether the athlete survives the early fanfare or becomes a cautionary tale.
Before achieving that tipping point, however, they have to pass the right tests in a manner that ignites the fire, which is precisely what Edmen Shahbazyan did in Madison Square Garden in November 2019 with a first-round, head-kick knockout over the tough-as-nails Brad Tavares.
In the immediate aftermath, Joe Rogan announced that any questions surrounding “The Golden Boy” were now answered, and at 11-0 with 10 first-round finishes, the hype-train evolved into something more like a rocketship. Now, circumstances have it that Shahbazyan is set to headline for the first time, as his bout with Derek Brunson was boosted following the original main event’s postponement.
For the always-smiling Shahbazyan, he doesn’t feel like the situation is anything close to a “too much, too soon” environment that derailed young prospects like him. In fact, it’s only making things sweeter.
“People say the pressure is this and that. Nah, I love pressure,” he told UFC.com. “I literally love it. I grew up competing. I love that feeling of being under the lights and performing. It’s one of the best feelings in the world.”
It’s a feeling that eluded Shahbazyan for the last few months. He was originally tabbed to fight Brunson at UFC 248. Then, the pair was rescheduled to compete in Portland a month later, but then the coronavirus pandemic flipped everything on its head, and Shahbazyan was left waiting in his Glendale, California, home as the UFC shaped its schedule.
The delays haven’t discouraged him, however. Instead, he continued training at home and privately at Glendale Fighting Club, honing his skills in between making TikToks and streaming on Twitch. Don’t get it twisted, though. Once the date was settled about 10 weeks prior to fight night, Shahbazyan’s focus honed in on August 1 and keeping his spotless record.
“We’ve been training since January,” Shahbazyan said. “So, most of the stuff is just polishing and improving on things. I feel good already, and I literally can’t wait to go out and perform.”
To say Tavares and Brunson are “gatekeepers” in the middleweight division is not a tag steeped in disrespect but rather acknowledgement of their long-sustained quality in the Octagon. In Brunson’s case, the 36-year-old’s only UFC losses came against title-winners or challengers.
Essentially, taking out Tavares and Brunson in successive fights is a little like the concept of unlocking chakras in Avatar: The Last Airbender. With each win, Shahbazyan climbs closer to the ultimate goal of a UFC belt, currently held by Israel Adesanya – also known as “The Last Stylebender.”
Cartoons aside, Shahbazyan is quick to note that while he does think of what his path upward looks like, he isn’t ignorant to the task in front of him.
“It seems like he’s changed up his style a little more,” Shahbazyan said. “I’m ready for both styles, whether he’s going to come out a little (wilder) or whether he’s going to be defensive or something like that.”
Fighter Trailer: Edmen Shahbazyan
Fighter Trailer: Edmen Shahbazyan
That stylistic change is something that earned Brunson his most recent back-to-back decision wins over Elias Theodorou and Ian Heinisch, a shift borne from nearly eight years spent on the UFC roster. Moreover, this main event bout – although only three rounds – is Brunson’s third. The former Division II All-America wrestler is 2-1 in those contests, with each of the bouts ending inside the first round.
The upgrade to the headlining slot is an unexpected increase in pressure, but as Shahbazyan continues to note, the higher the expectations, the better his performance.
“I think it’s going to be awesome,” Shahbazyan said. “When I was a kid, I would always picture myself in the main event spot walking out with the longer music and stuff like that. It’s cool to actually get to do it this time. At a young age, too. I’m 22 years old and been dreaming about that 10 years ago. Getting to do it now, it’s just going to be amazing and definitely something I’m looking forward to, but most important for me is going out and fighting and getting that victory.”
Spectacle aside, August 1 provides another crucial look at arguably the most exciting UFC fighter under 25 years old. If Shahbazyan improves to 12-0, he’s right in the mix with the best at 185 pounds. If he does so in the same fashion that he has made a habit, the mixed martial arts community might find themselves stripping away any disclaimers — Shahbazyan might just be The Big Thing.
“It’s so inspiring and motivational,” Shahbazyan said. “I’m pumped. I’m really happy, and I just want to put on a good show for everybody. I’m ready to go. This is what it’s all about.”
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