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Edmen Shahbazyan on Saturday rode into his first Ultimate Fighting Championship main event with a lot of hype. He was framed as a potential future world champion and installed as a prohibitive favorite against a dangerous veteran opponent in Derek Brunson—a man who has taken on most of the elite fighters in the middleweight division. It’s not often that fighters as young as Shahbazyan are put into that high profile of a position in the UFC, and even taking that into account, it was largely perceived as a setup for bigger things. That turned out to not be the case. Now, after a technical knockout defeat, Shahbazyan finds himself the subject of many questions.
To be sure, losses come for pretty much every fighter. MMA is not a sport that lends itself to long winning streaks, and it does not baby fighters on the rise. There are so many potential vulnerabilities a fighter can have and any weakness can be mercilessly exploited. The need to build a broad base of skills in an individual sport is why it’s much rarer to see MMA fighters in their early 20s dominate in the way that young athletes in other sports often do. At only 22, Shahbazyan has plenty of time to grow and improve. That was a point the announcers made an effort to emphasize.
Plenty of great fighters have grown from early upset defeats. Anderson Silva was a heavy favorite in Pride Fighting Championships against Daiju Takase and Ryo Chonan early in his career. Neither was expected to put up much resistance, and they both submitted “The Spider.” Many felt this demonstrated a submission vulnerability that would always lurk for Silva. In fact, it flagged for Silva a weakness that needed to be shored up. Silva would never be submitted again. One loss or even a few losses does not necessarily portend career-long concerns.
Still, it’s more than fair to wonder whether Brunson exposed issues that are going to resurface as Shahbazyan gets older and grows as a fighter. It wasn’t the fact that he lost but the way that he lost that was cause for concern. When a fighter is 11-0 with 10 first round finishes, it raises questions about how his or her cardio will hold up in longer fights. Indeed, after Brunson pushed Shahbazyan in the first round, the prospect didn’t seem to have the same energy level in the second. That’s a big problem if it persists.
MMA history is filled with fighters who are dangerous early but not nearly so dangerous after the opening minutes. Once that pattern becomes clear, opponents have a specific game plan that they can put into play. Early 20s are a time period when cardio should naturally be strong, so it’s more concerning as a youthful weakness than something like submission defense. Perhaps the pandemic played a role in this; many fighters are not able to train the way that they usually do. However, it’s an issue if that isn’t the case.
There was also the issue of the way Shahbazyan reacted to taking damage. As Paul Felder noted on commentary, Shahbazyan’s body language raised serious red flags. MMA is not a sport for frontrunners because MMA fights cannot be controlled in the way that boxing and other combat sports sometimes can. Shahbazyan seemed like he wanted out—a more than understandable instinct when taking the brutal damage Brunson was unleashing but one that will not help him as he moves up the ranks.
It takes tremendous guts and psychological strength to step into a cage for a fist fight with a world-class professional. However, there are levels still even higher to reach the championship level. Fighters like Israel Adesanya and Robert Whittaker have world-class skills, but they have also demonstrated championship mettle in fights like Adesanya-Gastelum and Whittaker-Romero I and II. Almost all of the greats have demonstrated at one point or another an unnatural willingness to push through adversity to win. It’s hard to beat them without a similar mindset.
We haven’t seen enough from Shahbazyan yet to fairly assess the way he approaches tough fights. That attribute, however, tends to follow fighters either way. There are examples in both directions. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira showed resilience time and time again over the years—against Bob Sapp, Mirko Filipovic, Tim Sylvia and so many others. Vitor Belfort, on the other hand, went into his fight with Randy Couture at UFC 15 expected to be the sport’s dominant fighter for years to come. Couture’s draining, taxing style of fighting wore down and picked apart the Brazilian and provided a template for many more opponents over the years. Belfort still had a very good career, but Couture demonstrated vulnerabilities that would exist for the rest of Belfort’s time in MMA.
So what do we make of Shahbazyan’s first defeat? How you consider the question likely depends on how you regard his future. If you see him as a fighter destined for big things as he makes adjustments and grows, this fight would seem to be an anomaly that won’t have lasting relevance. If, on the other hand, you have a more pessimistic view of Shahbazyan’s future, this fight seems likely to provide some clues as to that gloomier outlook.