In the fleeting days leading up to the most monumental night of his life, Karen Darabedyan is nervous, he’s excited and he’s anxious.
But he’s always nervous before a fight he contends.
“I’m the most nervous guy before a fight,” he admits with a smile. “I think that’s the best thing I have, being nervous before a fight, I’m a very careful fighter. I think being nervous, I use it in a positive way.”
Of course this isn’t just any other fight that he’s readying himself for and it’s likely this is another kind of nervous.
Just a month shy of his 23rd birthday, Darabedyan finds himself on the edge of stardom with a golden opportunity that’s for the taking. And despite his youth, Darabedyan and those close to him realize it’s been a long time in the making.
From his earliest days starting karate in his native Armenia, to his days as a Glendale High student and judo standout to now, as a burgeoning mixed martial arts contender, it’s all been preparation for this.
“It’s a long time coming, this fight and just him getting to the big stage,” says Alberto Crane, a fellow MMA fighter who’s competed in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, and often trains with Darabedyan. “He’s been training for this since he was a little kid. It’s his time.”
And with this time comes the pressure of prospect rarely received, and it is one Darabedyan willingly shoulders upon his 5-foot-7 frame.
“Even with all this crazy stuff, I feel like this is destiny,” says Darabedyan, who will debut for the World Extreme Cagefighting organization in a live, televised three-round lightweight (155 pounds) bout against the company’s former lightweight champion, Rob McCullough, on Wednesday. “This is like 20-something years of schooling for me, with all of this hard work I’ve put in.
“I have the whole package, it’s a matter of me wanting it and putting in the hard work.”
Karen Darabedyan was only 5 when he began training in karate.
“I wouldn’t say I was an aggressive kid, but I had a lot of energy,” he remembers.
He would go on to earn a black belt in karate and one in tae kwon do and on and on, as he has a 12-0 amateur boxing record to his credit, a “little kickboxing” experience and a judo and grappling foundation built by the highly regarded Gene LeBell and Gokor Chivitchyan. It all added up to a mixed martial arts career.
It was one that began professionally when he turned 18, but actually began at 17, fighting an opponent who was “23 or 24” in an unsanctioned backyard match.
“I won by armbar,” Darabedyan says. “Then after that, once I turned 18, I turned pro.”
On July 15, 2006, his official mixed martial arts career began. It began with a fierce right hand.
“Once the fight started, he landed this really hard right hand, it dazed me,” Darabedyan recalls.
But it was opponent Joey Alvarado who would lose in the first round via technical knockout after a Darabedyan comeback.
It was to be the only fight of Karen’s career that his father, Suren, was alive for. At just 53, Suren Darabedyan died of a heart attack in December of 2006.
“He was like my main fan, he was there all the time,” says Darabedyan, who’s father preached school first, but encouraged his participation in martial arts as a way to keep his son out of trouble. “It was kind of tough to go back to the gym after my dad passed away. It was kind of a routine going to the gym with my dad everyday.”
Inevitably, it was all that time and the money and the sacrifice put in by his father so that Darabedyan could train that pushed him back to competition, driven more than ever.
“All the years of me putting into this and that he put into this, I can’t let all of that go to waste,” he declares. “It’s always in the back of my mind.”
With 10,000 Philippine fans gathered around the same stage where Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier had once fought, with a neverending string of drums beating along the entrance way, Darabedyan, nine days away from his 21st birthday, fought just his third MMA fight.
With former UFC champions and contenders such as Ricco Rodriguez, Renato Sobral and Jeff Monson on the card, the inexperienced Darabedyan faced off with Koji Oishi, a fighter with 26 more fights of experience at the time and 10 years Darabedyan’s senior.
It ended with a unanimous decision loss for the Glendale grappler and a lesson learned.
“I thought I was ready,” Darabedyan says. “Looking back at how I trained for that fight and how I train now, it’s nothing close.”
That bout proved to be a turning point, as much as a revelation.
Darabedyan has yet to lose since that night in the Philippines and has learned, while developing himself into a true mixed martial artist regarded for his overall game, that his cardio and training might very well be his biggest obstacles.
“The main thing will be if I really want it, it’s never easy,” he says. “It’s a fight, it’s not like you’re going somewhere to hand out candies, it’s serious.”
“The MMA fighters, 90% of them, they have some sort of background … but not many guys are so well-rounded as [Darabedyan] is,” says Roman Kalanteryan of the Main Event Fight Club, where Darabedyan trains along with Chivitchyan’s Team Hayastan in North Hollywood. “If not MMA, he could have been a boxing champion or a judo champion or anything else. He is a strong weapon in any of those. He’s on a different level.”
Over the span of six straight victories, Darabedyan’s reputation as a well-rounded MMA fighter grew and grew.
“He has very good boxing, good striking, he’s got great jiu jitsu,” says fellow fighter Sevak Magakian, Darabedyan’s training partner and close friend. “He’s good from everywhere and Karen has confidence from everywhere.”
But was anybody taking notice? Darrin Harvey was. Harvey signed on as Darabedyan’s manager roughly five months ago, leading him into a Sept. 12 bout in Texas on a Shark Fights card that was available via pay-per-view on the Internet. Darabedyan improved to 4-0 in 2009 with an impressive first-round TKO win against Estevan Payan.
“That’s exactly how I would describe him is as a new-era MMA fighter,” says Harvey of his versatile combatant.
And after the Payan triumph, Harvey was relentless with his phone calls to the WEC.
“We’ve known about Karen for a while,” WEC General Manager Reed Harris says.
And in October, Harris and the WEC gave Darabedyan a chance for the rest of the world to get to know the fighter.
“This is a wonderful opportunity,” Harvey says of Darabedyan’s bout on Wednesday, the first in a five-fight deal. “This is an opportunity for Karen to fight on national television and make a name for himself.”
To do so, he’ll have to beat an opponent in McCullough who’s 10 years his senior, just as Oishi was, and has far more experience fighting overall and on the grand stage that is the WEC. It would seem as though Darabedyan is a magnificent underdog to emerge victorious, but perhaps not.
“You know what, I don’t know if it’d be that big of an upset,” Harris said. “Karen’s a tough dude.”
So, as it goes, a karate kid at the age of 5 is now a young man looking to make a name for himself and carve out a spot in his sport’s hierarchy. But for all the change and the years of preparation, he still predicts he’ll be the same before this fight as he has been for all the rest.
“I’m really nervous,” says Darabedyan in describing himself before a bout. “I have my phone off, I have my iPod on my ears, it’s pretty much all business.”
While his prefight approach may well play a role in his bout with McCullough, it is no doubt what occurs after the bout — should his hand be raised in triumph — that may tell this tale.
“Obviously, if Karen can get through Rob it’s a huge opportunity for him,” Harris said. “Rob McCullough’s a tough guy and it would put [Darabedyan] in a place in our company that he could someday challenge for a title.”
Thus, a journey that began in Armenia has come to a crossroads in Las Vegas, where dreams are made and shattered seemingly by the minute.
Darabedyan has arrived in a sport that he has dedicated himself to, and in that regard, perhaps he’s already won. But that’s certainly not the way he’s looking at it.
“I feel like I’m hungrier than him,” Darabedyan says. “I have everything to gain and everything to lose. I can open a lot of doors or have them slam in my face.”