Media began to flock to the Glendale Fight Club in a suburb of Los Angeles not too far from Dodger Stadium in the early part of this decade to check out the beginning days of the supernova known as Ronda Rousey.
Rousey went from a largely unknown American Olympian to one of the biggest stars in combat sports just like that, and her story was irresistible. Here was a woman with the looks of a model and the gift of gab and a mean mug that could scare the Diaz brothers not only convincing Dana White to give women a shot in the UFC but dominating her division more thoroughly than the ‘27 Yankees.
Media descended upon Glendale in droves and would most days see Rousey tossing a teenaged boy about, slamming him repeatedly to the canvas below a mural of the great Muhammad Ali. And when he landed on his back, she’d hit the deck and capture him in the arm bar that made her famous.
Rousey’s throws were so quick, and her technique so on point, that it was easy to feel sorry for her foil as she dribbled him off the mat and made him tap again and again and again.
Fast forward a few years and that teenager has turned into at the end of this decade what Rousey was at the beginning: An elite talent with a brilliant future and the possibility of a lengthy championship reign.
Rousey, of course, fulfilled her potential, and now it’s up to Edmen Shahbazyan to follow suit.
Shahbazyan won’t turn 22 for another three weeks, but he’s already 10-0 overall, 3-0 in the UFC and following the path that led middleweight champion Israel Adesanya to the title.
He’ll fight Brad Tavares, whom Adesanya defeated in 2018 in what was his coming out party, on the preliminary card of UFC 244 on Saturday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN2) at Madison Square Garden in New York.
It’s not lost on Shahbazyan that Adesanya’s career zoomed to the stratosphere after a victory over Tavares, who is ranked No. 11 at middleweight to Shahbazyan’s No. 13.
“We’re fighting [Tavares] around the same time in our careers, so this is a great opportunity for me to show where I am,” Shahbazyan said. “He’s a higher ranked opponent and he’s coming off a long layoff and he’s going to be determined to get back to winning. So in so many ways, this is a good fight for me.”
If Shahbazyan continues to win as he has, he’ll someday escape the enormous shadow that Rousey, his manager, casts. Virtually every interview he does, Rousey is a topic of conversation.
And while his affiliation with her gets doors opened for him, what Rousey did isn’t going to intimidate any of Shahbazyan’s opponents.
He first showed up at GFC just before he turned 10 to take karate classes in a bid to lose weight. He then began to do each of the other martial arts which are part of MMA before he began to combine it all and concentrate on MMA at 12.
Being in the gym and seeing Rousey prepare for her championship fights not only gave him a front-row seat for history, it allowed him to understand the mind of a champion and the dedication it takes to make it to the top.
“It was crazy watching that first-hand and seeing the build-up, the media and the preparation she did,” Shahbazyan said. “It really motivated me, actually. She helped me to believe in my dreams and believe in myself. I saw what it was like, and I saw what it took, and I loved all of it. I loved doing the work and I loved understanding at a very early age the commitment it took to be successful at the highest level of a sport like this.”
Shahbazyan is wise beyond his years and understands that to really make it big — Rousey big, for instance — that it requires a lot more than just physical talent. One has to sell oneself and give people a reason to watch.
The key to taking advantage is not to get caught looking at what might happen after the fight. Tavares was on “The Ultimate Fighter” when Shahbazyan was 10 and Shahbazyan recalls watching him compete.
It’s a cool moment for him, he says, but he won’t get caught hero worshipping his opponent.
“I think it’s important I stay composed and relaxed and focus on what we have worked on,” Shahbazyan said. “He’s an experienced fighter and I have to stay calm and not rush. I think if I do those things, the fight will be in my favor for sure.”
If he gets the win, one thing is certain: You’re going to hear a lot more about this 21-year-old and not just because he has a famous manager.
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