29 July 2013, 18:12
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The Ultimate Fights of Modern Day Gladiators

Three Armenian athletes competed in the one of the most watched televised sporting events of the year the Ultimate Fighting Championship in Mixed Martial Arts discipline. Their hope - to write a new page in the relatively short history of UFC - an Armenian page.

When our editor-in-chief gave me my next assignment – to cover the UFC “Fight Night” with the three Armenian fighters, I panicked for a moment. What do I, a woman and mother of two sons, have to do with a sport known for its ferocity and aggression? “A job is a job,” I told myself and turned on the TV. It was the evening of Wednesday, April 2, the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s “Fight Night” event televised on the Spike channel. I had never watched this kind of sporting event before, so I called my son for some insights. “Hi, what are you doing?” I asked him. “Sorry, mom,” he answered hastily, “I am watching TV. Can I call you back later?”
“Are you watching Spike’s “Fight Night”, by any chance?”
I could feel that he was shocked by my telepathic abilities, as there was a long silence on the other end of the phone, “How do you know?!... Oh boy, if YOU are watching it then I guess everyone is…”
And indeed, as I did a little research, I found out that UFC events are currently among the most watched sporting events in the U.S. Their popularity has surpassed soccer, and has the highest ratings on pay-per-view channels. The April 2 event in Broomsfield, Colorado was sold out, as was Glendale’s “Anoush” Restaurant, which organized a special viewing party with a 72-inch TV screen and all-you-can-eat buffet. It was not too surprising given that three Armenian athletes: Karo Parisian, his cousin Manny Gamburyan, and their friend Roman Mitichyan were going to show their fighting skills and athletic spirit during this competition.
It was the first time in the history of UFC that three Armenians fought on the same night. “We have to come back victorious,” said Mitichyan in an interview prior to the fight, “I love Karo and Manny, we train together, and we’re getting ready. Karo is gonna beat Thiago (Alves), Manny is gonna beat his guy (Jeff Cox), and I have to finish George. That’s the plan.” As simple as it sounded, the fighters’ paths to that particular night were long and bumpy.
“Once Senator McCain labeled the UFC events a ‘human cockfighting’ Now the sport is so popular than even 6-years old children take mixed martial arts (MMA) classes,” said a Forbes magazine article entitled, “The Ultimate Cash Machine.”
None of them started their sporting careers with an intent to participate in the Ultimate Fighting Championships, because it was not a single discipline, but a mixed martial arts competition featuring professional fighters from judo, sambo, jiu-jitsu, karate, boxing, kickboxing, wrestling, and other martial arts disciplines. To be an “Ultimate Fighter” one has to be among the best-trained athletes in the world - many of them are former world or Olympic champions. All three of the Armenian fighters had Judo and Sambo training in addition to elements from the Hayastan Grappling System developed by Gokor Chivichyan, a former Soviet champion, and the martial arts legend Gene LeBell. They all train hard – six or more hours a day. The fighters have well-planned routines alternating boxing, weight lifting, and grappling. Their years of training, competition, and The Ultimate Fighter reality TV series participation led to the fights in the UFC’s ‘Octagon’.
“Do you know the rate of fatalities for the UFC? It seems that the judges stop when they are about to kill each other,” I asked my son. He sounded like an expert, “Mom, over the past eight years there was one athlete who died during this event, and I guess, he had a previous heart condition, or something… In comparison with American football, it’s nothing.”
The UFC Octagon is a unique fighting arena, so named because of its octagonal shape. Fighter safety is the main concern of the UFC organization. For an outsider with no sense of the world of mixed martial arts, the fight might seem to have few, if any, rules. However, the establishment of strict rules made televised fights and their growing popularity possible. These rules include: the presence of officials, judges, weight divisions, rounds, time limits, mandatory drug testing, no head butting or kicking, no knees to the head to downed opponents and other stringent guidelines. The UFC, since the implementation of standardized rules and governance, has become a billion-dollar industry, with a growing audience across the globe.
I asked young men around Glendale about our UFC gladiators. Everyone had detailed information about the three athletes. It seemed that Glendale’s entire male population was on a first name basis with the fighters. It turned out that the majority had simply followed the televised reality show.
Karo Parisian, “The Heat” is often compared to an Armenian version of the character from a movie The Bronx Tale. He considers himself an offspring of an aggressive, macho society. Born in Armenia, he grew up in California, where his family of six lived in a one-bedroom apartment. His father was the driving force behind his athletic career. He told me, “My father would wake me up in the morning and we would go running up the hills.” Karo began training in Judo with his cousin at the age of nine. He continued, “I was very versatile, and during the junior competitions I competed not in one, but in three weight categories.” He was noticed and mentored by Gene LeBell, a former American Judo Champion and legendary martial arts instructor. “I was 14 and they took me to Mexico to fight. I took on the top guy in Mexico, he was 23 and his record was 10-0. We went five rounds, and everyone saw I was a tough kid.” Since then Parisian grew into an athlete with Olympic dreams. He has seven Junior National belts in 81 kg category, and competed in Olympic Judo trials for the 2004 games in Athens. He was twice the winner of the Junior US Open, the Champion of Youth Pan-American Games, ten times he won the California State Championship, and the Canadian Open Championship in judo. His popularity skyrocketed after his win over Dave Strasser at UFC 44. I asked him what was so special about that fight. “I think everyone noticed that I am very prepared technically. In judo you can grab the opponent by his kimono, which is impossible in the MMA, since we don’t wear anything on the top. I managed to pull him down on the mat, and there I could take over by using my grappling techniques. Overall, technically I feel that I am superior to most of the UFC fighters. For a long time that gave me an advantage, but now I have to train seriously again every single day. I know what I lack, so I hired a boxing trainer. I also have to be prepared psychologically, I mean I have to want to win.” Over the course of his career Parisian has faced all the major welterweights in the World including Serra (who he defeated at UFC 53 in 2005), Georges St-Pierre, Diego Sanchez, and Drew Fickett. His unparallelled judo techniques attracted many followers and fans. A major publishing company will soon release his book Karo Parisian: Judo in Mixed Martial Arts. He plans to open nationwide training facilities to help the next generation of the MMA athletes.
Participation in the Ultimate Fighting Championship allows him to pay back his family with the devotion of a loving son, “And at the moment, I take care of my whole family – my mom, my dad, my sister, and my grandma…It’s my duty – my parents took care of me until this age, and now I’ve been taking care of them the last three years of my success in the UFC.” His biggest dream remains unaccomplished, “I want to take the world championship belt one day, I want to keep it a couple of times. I don’t know how to give up on that – either I’m stupid or I have a big heart.”
“Yeah, I know Roman,” my husband told me, “he used to work in the car-wash down the street. They are not like all the other professional athletes, they also have to work to support their families, you know. That’s tough…”
I met Roman at the Glendale Fighter’s Club. The slim, good-looking athlete had been working out since the early morning.
The greatest popularity came to Roman Mitichyan, “The Emperor”, with his participation in the Ultimate Fighter series on Spike TV. Sixteen men were locked in a house where they ate, talked, and fought each other. Roman was one of the fighters in the house until the first episode of season six when he was told that he couldn’t fight due to a broken elbow. The tirade that followed turned him into a star. “I didn’t know I could be a comedian… but they’re taping and they take all the pieces, put them together, and …we’ve got a comedian on the show,” he laughed later. The native of Vanadzor was very disappointed by the doctor’s decision, “I’ve been doing martial arts for over 20 years, and I’ve had injuries…back then we didn’t have any doctors that had the power to say we couldn’t fight. I had a broken rib a long time ago and I continued and beat the guy anyway. Now, it was just a stupid elbow and he is telling me not to fight. If they let me fight, I would still fight with one hand. That’s why I got chosen from thousands of people, and it was a big opportunity and I couldn’t let it get away.” That kind of determination reversed the UFC President Dana White’s decision, who gave Roman a chance to fight again. His next fight was against Dorian Price on the December 8th “Fight Night” of the UFC finale at Playboy’s Palms Casino in Las Vegas. Roman won in an unprecedented 23 seconds, a record time. That fight went down in UFC’s record book of the Top 15 fastest finishes. He was really calm during that important fight, “I think that comes from my background of training sambo and judo.” He fought in the World Sambo Championships (3rd place in 2002), and is the 2006 U.S. National Judo Champion. In 2007 he won the UFC Welterweight Bout.
Apart from his sporting career Roman has another creative occupation. He is an actor and stuntman. In the past seven years he has worked in films Felon, The Suitcase, The Kingdom, and in television, such as Showtime series Dexter, Fox Television’s 24, The Shield, Numbers (CBS), Threat Matrix, and had lead role in Masada (Greystone).
I did not want to finish our interview on a sad note and talk about the April 2 fight in Colorado. Roman himself turned the conversation to it. Obviously, he wanted to explain, “It wasn’t a good experience at all. The high elevation…Although we practiced in Big Bear for a while, I wasn’t prepared for it. Even the most physically conditioned fighters needed oxygen tanks after the fight. I got tired too quickly and lost. For me it was a lesson to learn. But I will fight again.” His boxing partner and his fitness trainer standing next to him affirmatively nodded.
“Even the UCLA girls know about the UFC. You can hear them talking about Manny, as if they know him,” with a hint of envy shared my friend’s son, a USC student.
The lightweight Manvel Gamburyan, “The Anvil”, was the fighter who was able to make it all the way to the finals on the same Ultimate Fighter reality show. After his loss to Nate Diaz as a result of his shoulder trauma, the Ultimate Fighter 5 came back in December 29th by popular demand, and beat Nate Mohr. That fight turned him into an overnight star. Fans recognized him on the street and asked for his autograph. In spite of all the fame, he was happy to get out of the reality show house. The outgoing Armenian hated to be locked in without his family and friends, “I didn’t want to lose to anyone, but at the same time I wanted to go home,” he said later. A lightweight, standing 5’5” and 155 lbs, reporters call him the “Armenian tank in a nutshell.” He told me, “My heart beats everybody. That’s the bottom line. Every time I fight, it’s going to be a show.”
The final count of the April 2nd UFC Fight Night - Karo Parisian “The Heat” lost to Brasilian Thiago Alves by a technical knock out, Roman Nitichyan lost to George Sotiropoulos by a technical knockout in the second round, and Manny Gamburian won his fight in the first round by submission over Jeff Cox. The final chapter in the story of these brave fighters has yet to be written, and the hopes of the Armenian fighters may still be accomplished, considering their utmost determination and the continuing support of the Armenian communities.

Yerevan Magazine, Fall, N2, 2008

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