UFC debate: Is rising star Edmen Shahbazyan ready for toughest challenge?


Ronda Rousey said it’s not a matter of whether Edmen Shahbazyan will become a UFC champ — it’s just a matter of when. But that hype train has a legitimate roadblock on Saturday night in the person of Derek Brunson.

The main event of the first Fight Night back in Las Vegas features a rising star in Shahbazyan — who’s undefeated in 11 MMA fights, including 4-0 in the UFC — facing his toughest opponent. Brunson is 11-5 in the UFC, but four of those losses were to opponents who have held or fought for the belt.

The card also features Joanne Calderwood, who didn’t want to wait for her proposed title shot against Valentina Shevchenko (she is recovering from leg surgery). Did Calderwood make a mistake in choosing to fight Jennifer Maia in the meantime?

And what about Cody Garbrandt flirting with the idea of dropping to flyweight to challenge new champ Deiveson Figueiredo? UFC president Dana White told ESPN on Monday that anything is possible in regards to that scenario. Is that the right move for a rejuvenated division with several quality contenders?

ESPN’s Ariel Helwani, Phil Murphy, Marc Raimondi and Jeff Wagenheim weigh in on those topics and more.

How big of a challenge is Derek Brunson for Edmen Shahbazyan, and what would a win mean for the prospect?

Helwani: Shahbazyan is a perfect 4-0 in the UFC. His most recent win was against Brad Tavares, so I think Brunson is a great natural next step for him. I think they got it right with this booking. Brunson is a grizzled veteran who has been in this spot before. The UFC set him up against rising stars Robert Whittaker and Israel Adesanya in the past, and, well, both those fights resulted in him getting knocked out in the first round, so this is a chance for him to right those wrongs. But make no mistake about it: Despite being on a two-fight winning streak, this is not a Brunson showcase fight. This is all about the undefeated Shahbazyan. A win here could get him in the conversation with the likes of Darren Till. This is a massive opportunity for the 22-year-old phenom.

Murphy: There are, as they say, levels to this. For 22-year-old middleweight prospect Shahbazyan, he moved up a level to face durable UFC veteran Brad Tavares at UFC 244. Shahbazyan knocked out Tavares inside half of a round. Brunson represents yet another level up for “The Golden Boy,” and the bump to Saturday’s main event represents an additional layer of promotional pressure. It will be Brunson’s fourth UFC main event; it’s Shahbazyan’s first. A win would vault Shahbazyan from prospect to contender. We’ve debated middleweight matchmaking in recent editions of “Five Rounds,” with the same half-dozen names mixed and matched. If Shahbazyan beats Brunson — especially if it’s a fourth consecutive first-round finish — another name needs to join that elite list at 185 pounds.

Raimondi: Look at the names Brunson has lost to in the UFC: Israel Adesanya, Jacare Souza, Anderson Silva, Robert Whittaker and Yoel Romero. Three UFC champions, one Strikeforce champion and the No. 2 guy in the division for years in Romero. In other words, if you beat Brunson, you are not just an elite fighter at 185 pounds, you’re a possible future champion. So, a Shahbazyan win would be massive. It would throw the youngster right into the fire as a middleweight title contender. Brunson presents a very tough challenge. He has very good wrestling, one-punch knockout power and the kind of explosiveness and unpredictability that Shahbazyan has not seen yet.

Wagenheim: Nice job, UFC matchmakers. This is the right challenge at the right time for Shahbazyan. Brunson is serious business, and this is not the first time we’ve seen him standing smack-dab in the middle of someone’s path to the top. Robert Whittaker beat him in 2016, then fought for an interim championship two fights later. Same for Israel Adesanya, whose 2018 win over Brunson propelled him along the road to the title. Brunson has only two other losses in the past 6½ years, both against fighters who’ve also worn championship belts: Anderson Silva and Jacare Souza. This fight will be a true measuring stick for Shahbazyan. Don’t be shocked if it turns into a Brunson showcase.

Did Joanne Calderwood make a mistake taking this fight instead of waiting for her title shot?

Helwani: On paper, I understand why some are surprised she decided to fight rather than wait for a title shot, but in reality, we shouldn’t be. Calderwood hasn’t fought in 11 months. She’s been healthy this whole time. Valentina Shevchenko will now only be ready in November. Calderwood can’t sit around and not get paid for over a year, especially while healthy. So, it’s a tough spot for Calderwood, and I feel for her because you know she didn’t want to have to roll the dice here, but I ultimately think she made the right call. Gotta stay active and get paid. That’s what the prizefighting game is all about. Here’s hoping, if she wins, she keeps her spot as the No.1 contender.

Murphy: I like Calderwood’s move to face Jennifer Maia for two reasons. First, until that bout agreement against champion Valentina Shevchenko is signed, we can only be so sure it remains Calderwood’s. When the original booking was announced, Shevchenko opened a 12-1 favorite — more lopsided than Khamzat Chimaev over Rhys McKee last weekend. Shevchenko-Calderwood is a title pairing without buzz, a perceived squash match lacking backstory. If Cynthia Calvillo, say, beats someone convincingly in the interim, few would complain if Calvillo jumped JoJo in the queue. Secondly, fighting is still Calderwood’s livelihood. “Dr. Kneevil” is approaching 14 months with just one appearance, a split-decision win at UFC 242. Anyone paid by the day knows that more usages is good business. This weekend represents another payday, another chance to pad the résumé and another opportunity to sharpen skills before facing a pound-for-pound great. That all justifies Calderwood taking this fight against Maia, even on short notice.

Raimondi: Waiting for the title shot has its own risks. What if you’re waiting around and inactive while others in the division are picking up exciting wins and moving ahead in the pecking order? Not saying that’s happening right now at women’s flyweight, but someone like Gilbert Burns can go on a wild run and become top contender in just a few months. If Valentina Shevchenko isn’t due back until later in the year, this is a risk worth taking for Calderwood. You don’t want to be coming off a layoff of more than one year to fight someone as skilled as Shevchenko. And more importantly, Calderwood has not gotten a fight purse since last September. That’s a long time to go without income. She has already been waiting a long time.

Wagenheim: If Calderwood has determined that waiting several more months for her shot at Valentina Shevchenko would compromise her sharpness as a fighter and, more important, her financial solvency, who am I to question that? A woman has to eat, and haggis, black pudding and other Scottish delicacies don’t come for free. She knows she’s taking a risk — just ask Frankie Edgar, who had a title fight lined up until he ran into a Brian Ortega uppercut. But there’s a reason the emphasis goes on the first syllable of the word “prizefighter.”

Which fighter outside of the main events are you most excited to see?

Helwani: Timur Valiev. If you don’t know, Valiev has been a mainstay of the Mark Henry/Ricardo Almeida team for years, yet for some reason he never got a shot in the UFC. His 14-2 record certainly suggests he should have had one a long time ago. Well, he finally got the call very recently, and he’s about to make his long-awaited UFC debut this weekend on short notice against Jamall Emmers. If you talk to any member of that team — from Frankie Edgar to Zabit Magomedsharipov to Eddie Alvarez — they will all tell you how much they like Valiev and how much he deserves this shot. I’m looking forward to seeing what he does with it.

Murphy: Timur Valiev could be the latest chapter of Dagestan’s UFC takeover, and his promotional debut feels overdue. He has spent recent years training at Jackson-Wink MMA, so he is not entirely under the radar. Valiev performed well on the WSOF-PFL scene, splitting a pair of fights against Chris Gutierrez, a heavy favorite himself in Saturday’s curtain-raiser. Valiev’s only two appearances in the past two years were wins in his native Dagestan, including a four-minute demolition of “TUF: Brazil” veteran Giovanni da Silva last July. His opponent Saturday, Jamall Emmers, accounted for himself quite nicely in a split-decision loss to Giga Chikadze at UFC 248. Still, Valiev sits at almost a 2-1 favorite. As expected, his grappling is more than sound, but time at Jackson-Wink has also sharpened Valiev’s kickboxing. I am excited to see how it all translates to the Octagon, especially against an opponent who we know belongs at this level.

Raimondi: I am always excited to see Vicente Luque. He’s still unknown to most casual fans, but he’s one of the most entertaining fighters in the sport. Luque is an all-action kind of guy. He has three Fight of the Night bonuses in his past five fights. This bout against Randy Brown should be another banger. In 11 UFC victories, Luque has 10 finishes. The man goes out there to stop fights every single time. If he beats Brown, it’s time for another step up in competition.

Wagenheim: Call me narrow-minded, but it’s always about the gold for me. Always. So even though I’m intrigued to see how Shabazyan fares in his first big test, the fight I’m most looking forward to on Saturday is the co-main event, featuring the evening’s only top-10 fighters. Since we’ve been asked to cite just one fighter here, it’s got to be Calderwood, No. 4 in the ESPN women’s flyweight rankings. She was already penciled in for a date with the champ, and a win on Saturday would solidify that. But this fight also represents an opportunity for the ninth-ranked Maia, who will be looking to bounce back from last November’s loss to No. 3-ranked Katlyn Chookagian and secure her spot among ranked 125-pounders. The stakes are high and clearly laid out for both women.

Deiveson Figueiredo looked great on Fight Island; what would you think about Cody Garbrandt possibly moving down in weight to challenge for the title?

Helwani: I don’t like it. First off, Garbrandt has never made 125. Remember what happened the last time a bantamweight got a flyweight title shot without ever making 125 before? (TJ Dillashaw was knocked out by Henry Cejudo in 32 seconds in January 2019 and later tested positive for the banned substance EPO.) Second of all, after “saving” the division, this feels like a slap in the face to all those who helped to keep the division alive recently. You know, the actual flyweights. What happens if Garbrandt wins? I’ll tell you what happens. He’ll go back up to 135 and try to become a double champ. Now, let me be clear: Garbrandt is a tremendous fighter. He looked amazing in June. But if he really wants to be a flyweight champion, I’d rather he face someone in a non-title fight first, make the weight and then let’s see what’s what. If he were a champion, this would be different. But he’s not. And yes, I know this fight would draw more than any other fight they could do for that belt right now. Still, it’s too risky. For now, let’s see Figuereido versus Brandon Moreno.

Murphy: It feels like we’ve been through this before with TJ Dillashaw. Because an established bantamweight can make the flyweight limit does not necessarily mean he should. Garbrandt looked fantastic at UFC 250, snapping a three-fight losing streak — and nearly snapping Raphael Assunção’s jaw along with it. The buzzer-beating right hook thrown from Garbrandt’s hip seemed a finish more suited for Mortal Kombat than MMA. Leading up to that, you could see the fingerprints of striking coach Mark Henry’s time with Garbrandt, harnessed aggression that sent the former champ speeding back up the bantamweight ladder. Garbrandt could feasibly stand one win from a title shot. I don’t know if it’s impatience or ambition driving the flyweight flirtation. Personally, I’d love to see Garbrandt add to the increasing depth at bantamweight. There are too many compelling matchups there to get antsy.

Raimondi: That likely would be an incredible fight. Honestly, I wouldn’t hate it. There are some questions that still need to be answered among the flyweight contenders, though I think Brandon Moreno, Alex Perez and Askar Askarov all have a case to be made. Garbrandt is the biggest name out of all of them as a former bantamweight champion and someone the UFC pegged long ago as a future star. Getting the much-maligned 125-pound division even more shine wouldn’t be the worst idea in the world and, in a perfect world, would likely only breed opportunities for other contenders in the future.

Wagenheim: Figueiredo deserves a high-profile fight, and Garbrandt surely would bring that. But I’m leery of fighters moving down from their natural weight class, one where they were not undersized. It’s understandable why “No Love” would seize the opportunity, though, and it’s totally his call. My larger objection here would be with the UFC’s decision-making. I’m not a fan of skipping a queue of legitimate title challengers (Brandon Moreno, Alex Perez, Askar Askarov) in favor of a guy who has one win since 2016. I know, I know, the UFC granted title shots to Jose Aldo and Dominick Cruz, who had even worse recent resumes. So this booking certainly is feasible, and if it does happen, I’ll eagerly watch because it will be a firefight. But I just don’t think it would be the right fight.

Outside of Stipe vs. D.C., what August fight are you looking forward to the most?

Helwani: I’m going to go with Sean O’Malley vs. Marlon Vera. Anytime the “Suga Show” is on display, it’s must-see TV, and considering how good he has looked in his first two wins this year, I’m excited to see what he has in store for his third act. Also, these two don’t like each other at all, and I think Vera represents O’Malley’s toughest opponent to date. It’s a big fight for Vera, too, as he was robbed of a decision in May versus Song Yadong. That “loss” snapped a five-fight winning streak for Vera. Oh, also, to add to the feud, O’Malley recently died his hair the colors of the Colombian flag, which is where Vera is from.

Murphy: It’s not confirmed, I know. There’s little incentive to publicize completed non-pay-per-view cards without live gates to consider. Zabit Magomedsharipov and Yair Rodriguez have been linked to an Aug. 29 date, and that’s my pick, both under that assumption and with that caveat. Zabit-Yair would have it all: divisional consequence, entertaining styles and plenty of drama. The winner would have every reason to face Alex Volkanovski next for the featherweight belt. Zabit is 6-0 in the UFC with three finishes; Rodriguez is 8-1 (1 NC) in 10 UFC appearances, including a Knockout of the Year candidate against fellow contender Chan Sung Jung. A win over the other completes a challenger’s case, period. It also caps a saga dating back two years. In May 2018, the UFC terminated Rodriguez’s contract for reportedly refusing to face Zabit. That was rescinded as the two agreed to fight at UFC 228, an event from which Rodriguez withdrew by injury. Finally — reportedly — they will meet at the end of the month, and it should be fantastic.

Raimondi: Two others stand out to me because they both involve prospects who are about to make a big jump to the next level. And could be there before the end of the year. One is Brunson vs. Shahbazyan, of course. The other is Sean O’Malley taking on Marlon “Chito” Vera at UFC 252. O’Malley is perhaps the most intriguing blue-chipper in the UFC this side of Khamzat Chimaev. Vera would be the toughest fight of his career to date. If he gets that done, O’Malley enters a mix at top of bantamweight with nothing but killers: champion Petr Yan, Aljamain Sterling, Marlon Moraes, Cory Sandhagen, Jose Aldo, Frankie Edgar and Pedro Munhoz. The list goes on and on. Exciting times at 135 pounds.

Wagenheim: Well, I’m already on record as listing Frankie Edgar vs. Pedro Munhoz (rescheduled from July 15 to Aug. 22) among my five most anticipated fights of the summer, but that was before the UFC booked Sean O’Malley vs. Marlon Vera for the Miocic-Cormier undercard. Similar to this weekend’s Edmen Shahbazyan fight, O’Malley will be facing his biggest test yet. True, Vera is coming off a loss, and he’s not exactly on the verge of the bantamweight top 10, but with O’Malley coming off two straight two-minute knockouts, this is the type of fight that can shift the 25-year-old’s momentum into a higher gear.

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