For the first time in two years, the UFC returned to Madison Square Garden on Saturday night for UFC 268, where two Armenian fighters took center stage in the octagon.
Melsik Baghdasaryan was the first Armenian combatant as he battled Bruno Souza in a catchweight bout. The 29-year-old from Yerevan was victorious by unanimous decision as he fought a tactical fight for 15 minutes in the cage. Baghdasaryan out-struck Souza 75-46 in the three-round bout and defended four takedown attempts by Souza. All three judges awarded the first two rounds to Baghdasaryan and the third frame to Souza.
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Baghdasaryan improved to 2-0 in the UFC and 7-1 in his professional career with the win. His matchup against Souza lacked the excitement of Baghdasaryan’s UFC debut, when he delivered a devastating head-kick knockout to Collin Anglin to win the “performance of the night” $50,000 bonus. But despite the highlight reel finish, Baghdasaryan was grateful for some more cage time.
“I feel good, but not happy,” Baghdasaryan said during his post-fight press conference. “But it’s okay. It’s fun winning like this, too. It’s experience. It doesn’t matter how (the fight) went, it’s giving me (good) experience.”
Baghdasaryan took a methodical approach to the fight, focusing on leg kicks to break down Souza, who took the fight on short notice after Baghdasaryan’s original opponent T.J. Laramie backed out due to a MRSA infection. Souza was unable to make weight on Friday as he clocked in at 148 pounds—three pounds over the featherweight limit of 145 pounds. As a result, Souza was forced to concede 20 percent of his purse to Baghdasaryan. But in a gesture of good sportsmanship, the Armenian plans to treat Souza to a meal in Los Angeles.
“I’m kind of different,” Baghdasaryan said. “It doesn’t matter who you are—a UFC fighter or anything. I’ve been in this sport since I was six years old—23-24 years. I’ve seen everything in the fight game. The only good thing is when you’re loved. Not only Armenians—I got so many DMs and calls—I’m just scared to see my phone. It may be dying. The important thing is when everyone loves you.”
The featherweight made no indication of when he wants to fight again. He refused to call out any potential future opponents.
“I don’t like to talk (trash) too much or call out anyone. I’m calling out the people like my brothers, my family, my coaches, everyone who loves me and supports me. I just want to say I love you guys—I call them out. You have to have a history. If you don’t have history, you can’t talk. You have to do lots of (work). I haven’t done lots of (work). I’ve just started. You can’t be in the first level and then call someone who is on the fifth level.”
Edmen Shahbazyan, for his part, was unable to replicate his teammate and gym partner’s success. He was knocked out by Nassourdine Imavov in the second round of the middleweight bout for his third straight loss.
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Shahbazyan controlled the fight from the start, winning the first round according to the three judges. But it all unraveled in the second frame as Imavov took control and bludgeoned Shahbazyan with a series of ground strikes that forced the official to stop the fight.
This is the Glendale native’s third consecutive loss. Shahbazyan started his professional MMA career 11-0 with plenty of hype. But losses to Derek Brunson, Jack Hermansson and Imavov have forced “The Golden Boy” out of the UFC top 15 in the middleweight division.
Despite the loss, Shahbazyan and the victorious Baghdasaryan received plenty of adulation from a large contingent of Armenians, who packed Madison Square Garden with the tricolor flag one year after the end of the Artsakh War.
“That means the world for me,” Baghdasaryan said. “Of course it’s an honor for me. I’m an Armenian guy coming to New York, and everyone’s making noise saying, ‘Go Melsik!’”