UFC Fight Night — Edmen Shahbazyan, Ronda Rousey and a coach’s shot at redemption

Ronda Rousey believes undefeated middleweight Edmen Shahbazyan will win UFC gold one day, and when that day comes, the man who coached both fighters will unload a burden he has been carrying since Rousey’s last loss.

“Once he wins the title, I’m going to tell everybody to shut up and watch him fight,” coach Edmond Tarverdyan said. “I don’t need to answer questions anymore, because I’ve answered a lot about Ronda and what happened.”

Rousey’s UFC career ended in 2016 after her second consecutive loss amid criticism that Tarverdyan mismanaged one of the greatest female MMA fighters of all time. Now Tarverdyan has a chance at vindication with Shahbazyan, who headlines his first main event Saturday when he faces Derek Brunson at the UFC Apex in Las Vegas.

Holly Holm was scheduled to face Irene Aldana in the original main event, but Aldana tested positive for the coronavirus. That provided the headlining opportunity for Shahbazyan, who has evolved from a 15-year-old “throwing dummy” for Rousey’s judo moves to a 22-year-old prospect looking to break Jon Jones’ record as the youngest UFC champion. Shahbazyan has until July 2021 to break that record, and he’s confident it’s within reach.

UFC president Dana White said if Shahbazyan gets by Brunson, which will be his toughest challenge yet, he’ll be “looking at breaking into the Top 5,” and a win at that level would lead to a title shot.

“It’s not if, it’s when [Shahbazyan becomes champ],” Rousey told White during a recent interview. “This kid is special, he is one-in-a-generation, and I know what the f— I’m looking at, and you know what you’re looking at.

“And it’s interesting to finally be in this time when everyone else is starting to take notice. He’s such a sweet and quiet kid, but man he’s a killer. When people take a moment to watch him, they’ll never be able to forget him.”

Similar praise was lavished on Rousey during her historic UFC run, which began on Feb. 23, 2013, when she defeated Liz Carmouche in the first women’s fight in UFC history. Rousey defended the belt five times before losing to Holm on Nov. 14, 2015, and then to Amanda Nunes on Dec. 30, 2016. Those were her last fights before leaving the UFC.

The knock against Tarverdyan was that he tried to force Rousey, who had a judo background, into being more of a stand-up fighter, which played into the strengths of Holm — a former boxing champ — and Nunes, who may be the most devastating striker in women’s MMA history.

“Ronda got caught [against Holm], a great fighter who works on timing and was a boxing world champion,” Tarverdyan said. “Holly caught her, she lost, s— happens. Then all the criticism.”

“You lose a fight, and then you have to make a comeback, and they give you another tough fight,” Tarverdyan added. “We knew Amanda could punch with both hands. It’s difficult, [Rousey had] six knee surgeries. She couldn’t even bend her knee. And we’re still able to fight all those fights because of so much hard work and dedication, and going to therapy, spending eight hours a day. That’s why she was loyal to me and knew I could do this as good as anybody else that’s out there at half of those big gyms, thinking they know how to coach or I don’t.”

Rousey and Tarverdyan are Shabazyan’s managers and negotiate his deals with the UFC. It’s a long way from when Shahbazyan first met Rousey.

“He was 15 years old, and he was still bigger than me, but he was one of my training partners,” Rousey said. “He learned armbars from me. He was getting beat up by me. He was at the gym at a very pivotal time. Him and his brother [Leon] would show up with 10th Planet jiu-jitsu books and be completely obsessed. I’ve never seen kids more obsessed with MMA, and that was the first generation of that.

“I came up in judo and other things, and MMA became a thing that everyone else had to adjust to when they were already experts in something else, and ‘Little Ed’ — we called him little, but now he’s gigantic — he is the first generation of those kids that MMA is all he did. There’s no style he had to conform into MMA with. MMA is his style, and it’s not like he’s just mediocre at everything, he is just f—ing awesome at everything.”

Perhaps the most important thing Shahbazyan learned from Rousey was how to deal with the spotlight, and it’s an important lesson for someone with Shahbazyan’s aspirations.

“I was witnessing it as it was happening to her,” he said. “At the gym I would see all the media and the hype around and everything like that, that kind of gave me a glimpse of the future.”

Shahbazyan also was around during Rousey’s losses and exit from the UFC, and the ensuing criticism of his coach. He said his focus is on performing, but he admits it’s cool to be an example of Tarverdyan’s coaching ability, “proving those haters wrong.”

Tarverdyan, though, doesn’t want his story to get in the way.

“He’s told my friends, ‘I can’t wait to whip everybody’s ass so they can know how good Coach is,'” Tarverdyan said. “He doesn’t tell me, because I tell him to stay focused, don’t put anything personal on the line. It’s your career, just stay focused, think about yourself, listen to what I’m saying and you’re going to be successful. And he believes that.”

Tarverdyan’s focus is on Shahbazyan, but he admits the pursuit of vindication motivates him.

“I would say it’s both,” he said. “I do think about it, I gotta be honest with you. I’m going to come back and show all these motherf—ers what I can do. I do. I’m not going to lie to you and say ‘I don’t, and let my work show itself.’ I do. That motivates me. It does. It’s not like only redemption. I know I can coach. I know what I’ve done.”

Tarverdyan points to the champions he has coached in various disciplines, including kickboxing and boxing, as proof.

“It’s more about all those coaches, some of the coaches, not all, a few of the coaches that tried to make fun of the situation,” Tarverdyan said. “You guys are coaches, too, you feed your families coaching, and I coach so many youth and young kids, and all that negative talk was stupid. It did hurt my gym.

“But now everybody’s noticing what we can do.”

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