NEW YORK, NY—Ara Gevorgyan’s instrumental folk song “Artsakh” was blaring from the speakers of historic Madison Square Garden in New York City as 21-year-old Edmen Shahbazyan made his walk to the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) octagon for the most important mixed-martial arts fight of his young career at UFC 244.
And in the short time it took “The Golden Boy” to make that walk, the number 10-ranked middleweight contender was able to earn his 11th career win as a professional, knocking out veteran Brad Tavares in just two minutes and 27 seconds with a vicious head kick in the first round.
“I knew he was rocked, so I threw the kick,” Shahbazyan said in his post-fight media availability. “Like I wanted to mix it up. He thought punches were going to come, so I created distance, threw the kick, and it landed and knocked him down.”
After the fight, Shahbazyan stood proudly with both the Armenian tricolor and American stars and stripes draped around his shoulders. Outside of the octagon, Shahbazyan fans were proudly displaying the Armenian flag in the crowd, in support of the young up-and-comer.
“(I’m) in the east coast for the first time. (In) New York City and holding, representing the Armenian flag. It was incredible. I saw all of the flags out there, and it motivated me.”
The knockout was the ninth of the middleweight fighter’s career, who improved to 11-0 as a professional and 3-0 in the UFC promotion. Ten of Shahbazyan’s 11 wins have come in the first round. The Glendale, Calif. native is quickly rising in the rankings of the UFC’s 185-pound division, and he has bigger plans ahead.
“I believe I’m the new hot prospect of the (middleweight) division and I’m coming,” Shahbazyan said. “I’m not trying to rush anything, but I do want to be the youngest (UFC) champion.”
Shahbazyan’s stunning performance also impressed UFC president Dana White.
“He wants to be the youngest champion ever, and he comes in tonight against Tavares who’s a gritty, tough, hard-hitting, durable veteran. He’s been around for a while and (Shahbazyan) looked good. He performed,” said White.
Shahbazyan, who trains at Glendale Fighting Club in California with legendary coach Edmond Tarverdyan, has just less than two years to achieve the historic feat of becoming the youngest-ever UFC champion. Jon Jones holds the record after he became the UFC’s light heavyweight champion in 2011 at 23 years and 242 days old.
Shahbazyan wasn’t the only Armenian who had a successful night at UFC 244. Katlyn Chookagian earned herself a shot at the UFC women’s flyweight title after she defeated Jennifer Maia via unanimous decision. She couldn’t help but notice a few Armenian flags in the crowd during her fight.
“It’s amazing. I just kind of wish my grandfather was still alive to see that. He passed away right at the beginning of my MMA career,” recalled Chookagian. “If he could’ve seen that, it would’ve meant the world to him. The Armenian crowd and the support that I’ve gotten from them is like nothing else. It’s amazing.”
The 30-year-old Pennsylvania native has now won five of her last six fights and has propelled to the top of the women’s flyweight rankings, where she is the number one contender. White confirmed during his post-fight press conference that Chookagian’s next fight would most likely be for the title belt against current champion Valentina Shevchenko.
“I think my striking is very technical,” Chookagian said about her potential matchup with Shevchenko. “I think other girls she’s fought are just tough. I have higher technical knowledge when I’m in there with the striking, whereas I feel like other girls who have faced her are just tough and aggressive. My style might not be the most exciting, but it frustrates opponents a lot and it throws their game off and that’s when I’m able to capitalize and get the win.”
In its 26 year history, no Armenian has ever won the UFC championship title.