Edmen Shahbazyan will look to continue his ascent up the middleweight rankings with the biggest win of his career on August 1, but will he be victorious in the main event of the Fight Night event at the UFC APEX or will Derek Brunson halt his rise and boost his own bid to break into the top five?
Shahbazyan has set a blistering pace since embarking on a career in professional mixed martial arts. He fought four times during his debut year in 2017, stopping his opponent in the first round in each of those outings, and a couple more ‘minor league’ wins in 2018 grabbed the attention of the UFC and landed him a spot on Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series. Shahbazyan took his chance in spectacular fashion with a 40-second stoppage of Antonio Jones and before the year was out he had made his UFC debut with a split-decision win over Darren Stewart – to this date the only time an opponent has made it to the final bell of a fight with Shahbazyan.
2019 saw him step inside the Octagon on three occasions and the 22-year-old was back to making short work of the opposition. Charles Byrd last 38 seconds and Jack Marshman then tapped out to a rear-naked choke inside 72 seconds for Shahbazyan recorded his first submission success. Brad Tavares enjoyed a longer outing then Byrd and Marshman when he stepped up to face the fast-rising star in November of last year, but the durable veteran still found himself looking up at the lights when Shahbazyan rocked him with punches and then sent him crashing to the canvas with a well-timed head-kick.
It was impressive stuff from the Californian, but can he top that performance here?
Derek Brunson has been hanging around the top 10 of the UFC middleweight rankings for quite some time now and although a 20-7 record is hardly the stuff of legend, his CV does boast a string of fights with the who’s who of mixed martial arts. Brunson has shared the Octagon with the likes of Lyoto Machida, Yoel Romero and Ronaldo ‘Jacare’ Souza (twice), as well as former champions Robert Whittaker and Anderson Silva, and it was less than two years ago that he took on the current 185lb king, Israel Adesanya. The problem is of all of those fights listed, Brunson has beev victorious on just one occasion and that was back in 2017 when he took out Machida in two-and-a-half minutes.
To be fair to Brunson there is certainly no shame in losing to the men I listed previously, but it is the manner of most of those defeats that have me doubting his chances here. Adesanya, Jacare (twice) and Whittaker were all able to stop him inside one round, so although he did go three with the monster that is Yoel Romero, there is more than enough reason to be concerned about his chances against a wrecking ball like Shahbazyan. Brunson has clearly adjusted his approach in an attempt to get himself back among the elite of the division, adopting a more tactical and cautious fighting style that allowed him to string together back-to-back wins last year, but it may not be successful against an aggressive fighter like Shahbazyan who has a knack for fast starts.
If Brunson can get this past the first round it will be interesting to see what happens because only once before has Shahbazyan heard the horn to signal the end of the first round, but ultimately it is very, very difficult to bet against Shahbazyan here. He has been on an absolute tear since arriving in the UFC and he has the striking power that can separate his opponent from consciousness in the blink of an eye. I expect the UFC’s hottest middleweight prospect to add to his burgeoning record by taking out Brunson with strikes in the first round.