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LAS VEGAS — It had to be tough for Derek Brunson to sit back for the last two weeks and listen to all of the praise heaped upon Edmen Shahbazyan, who was touted in many corners as the UFC’s next big thing.
Brunson came into the main event of the UFC card at Apex on Saturday as an accomplished veteran ranked No. 8 in the middleweight division and with a list of big victories, highlighted by one over former light heavyweight champion Lyoto Machida.
In the lead-up to the bout with the 11-0 Shahbazyan, he was essentially relegated to bit-player status. It was almost as if he was there only because two are required to fight. Shahbazyan closed as nearly a 4-1 favorite and, perhaps because of his connection with ex-UFC star Ronda Rousey, who is his manager, received an inordinate percentage of the pre-fight media coverage.
But Brunson stole the spotlight from Shahbazyan and stopped him 26 seconds into the third round, handing Shahbazyan his first loss.
This was a bizarre night in many ways. After three fights were canceled on Friday, two more were lost on Saturday. Gerald Meerschaert tested positive for COVID-19 and was pulled from his fight with Ed Herman. Then Trevin Giles fainted only moments before walking out for his bout against Kevin Holland. After her upset loss to Jennifer Maia, Joanne Calderwood fainted in her locker room.
During the card, there were 10 low blows and an eye poke.
But during the main event, things went back to form. There is nothing like experience, especially when it’s coupled with talent. Brunson proved that by withstanding the knockout artist’s heavy shots and managing to get his in whenever there was an opening. Those lessons learned over a 10-year fighting career paid off for Brunson.
Shahbazyan’s star will still shine, but it was dimmed a bit on this night. He didn’t attend the post-fight news conference because he was taken to the hospital for examination. He was the one celebrating before and the opponents were the ones hopping in an ambulance.
“I’m still convinced [Shahbazyan] is going to do great things in this sport, and this is just a little bump in the road, but it was all about experience,” Shahbazyan coach Edmond Tarverdyan said. “Edmen got excited and was going for the knockout instead of boxing and sticking to the plan. It was a learning experience. He was going against a guy who had been around forever and has been in there with some of the best in the world.”
Brunson’s career has largely been a case of almosts. He’s had a series of misfortunes in his career that caused him to miss training camp, but he’s the kind of guy who won’t say no to a fight.
So he fought despite not training for two weeks while a hurricane hit. He fought only a few days after being sidelined for about a week with the flu. He’s missed large stretches of camp more times than he could count because of issues in his life he’s had to deal with, and it’s kept him from reaching that top tier in the sport.
The win over Shahbazyan, who came into the fight ranked No. 9, could be the win that propels him up the ladder, though there are nothing but elite fighters ahead of him in the rankings.
“This kid was no slouch,” Brunson said of Shahbazyan.
Brunson proved that he was no slouch, either, and is potentially a lot more. He mixed his wrestling and striking expertly and ate the big shots, particularly the body strikes, that Shahbazyan threw at him.
He drew the notice of his boss, who was highly impressed.
“He looked awesome,” UFC president Dana White said. “He came in here against a young, up-and-coming savage who wanted to be one of the youngest champions ever and he did what he needed to do. He’s had some ups and downs in his career, but he came in here prepared and fought the way he needed to.”
Brunson nearly finished it at the end of the second round. Shahbazyan was wearying from Brunson’s heavy-handed assault. Brunson took him down and was pummeling him on the ground. Referee Herb Dean was on his front foot looking as if he may stop it.
Shahbazyan was on his back with his arms out a second before the bell and it appeared he was out. Dean allowed it to go on, which Brunson had no argument with.
“I know the media is talking a lot about stopping fights, but if you stop everything, then there can never be a comeback,” Brunson said.
Brunson made sure there wouldn’t be one as he ripped into Shahbazyan when the third round finally started. Shahbazyan got an extra rest period when, before the round began, Dean called in the doctor to examine Shahbazyan.
The doctor was in no hurry and it was giving Shahbazyan needed recovery time, much to White’s consternation.
“Many could argue that the fight could have been stopped at the end of that round,” White said. “But what you don’t do [as the ringside physician] is talk to the kid for 10 [expletive] minutes. [Either] stop the fight or let him continue, but don’t just take all that time because you’re allowing him to recover.”
It didn’t matter and now Brunson is moving on to bigger and better things. He’s learned his lesson from the past when he pressed forward with fights under less than ideal circumstances.
He’s doing himself no favors by fighting when he’s not nearly ready, and he’ll do that no more. Now that he’s a serious contender, preparation will be critical for him.
“I haven’t been given a lot of respect in the division,” Brunson said. “But you know what? I’m OK with earning it.”
That, most decisively, he did on Saturday.
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