Manny Gamburyan (right) connects on Leonard Garcia: Dave Mandel | Sherdog.com
Growing up, Manny Gamburyan had a simple dream -- he wanted to be the best.
The 29-year-old Armenian will have a chance to make that dream a reality when he meets World Extreme Cagefighting featherweight champion Jose Aldo in a five-round title fight at WEC 51 on Thursday at the 1stBank Center in Broomfield, Colo.
“My goal when I was a youngster, when I was competing in judo, I always wanted to be an Olympic champion or world champion,” Gamburyan says. “I can’t accomplish my goals in judo, but here I am fighting in the WEC for who’s going to be number one in the world. For me, it’s the same feeling; it’s the same fight for me.”
Gamburyan emigrated to the U.S. from his native Armenia with his parents in 1991. Just 10 years old, he quickly took to the karate and judo lessons he started taking from fellow Armenia native Gokor Chivichyan at his Hayastan Academy in North Hollywood, Calif. The wide-eyed, aggressive boy was instantly smitten with judo and combat sports.
“I was like, ‘Man, I love this sport. I want to do it forever,’” says Gamburyan, whose affinity for judo and determined work ethic quickly shot him up the amateur ranks. “It took me two and a half years to become a national champion.”
Gamburyan now holds a black belt in the discipline and has claimed seven junior national championships and a Junior Olympic title. Chivichyan claims his young understudy quickly showed the hallmarks of a champion.
“He’s always been active; he’s always been a hard-working kid,” Chivichyan says. “There’s a fire to fight burning deep inside of him. He doesn’t have any fear of anything. He’s ready all the time. He trains non-stop; he trains three to four times a day. Every time he trains, he trains non-stop, two hours, maybe more,”
Teenager in Love
Gamburyan switched gears from judo to professional mixed martial arts at the age of 17 in 1999, in part due to a self-described wild streak he admits often landed him in altercations -- and trouble -- at school.
“When MMA came out [and grew popular], I was a violent kid. I would fight when I was going to school and got kicked out of many schools,” Gamburyan says regretfully. “It’s probably not a good thing I’m saying this. I should be shy saying these things … I was a bad kid.”
When Gamburyan discovered MMA as a healthier and more profitable way to channel his aggression, he knew he had found his calling.
“I was like, ‘Damn, you mix fighting with jiu-jitsu and get paid?’” he recalls.
Gamburyan turned professional as a teen-ager, approaching his MMA training with the same ferocity that made him a Junior Olympic champion in judo. He quickly racked up a 4-0 record and gained valuable momentum in the fight game, paving the way for his eventual stint on “The Ultimate Fighter” reality series and subsequent UFC run. In the process, he developed a deep appreciation for full contact fighting.
“I love it, man,” Gamburyan says. “I’ve been fighting for a long time, and I love fighting. I love the sport. It’s like a buffet. Whatever you have to do, [you do]. [People say] it’s crazy, very aggressive and very scary. I don’t see it that way. I see it as a sport. You’ve got to wrestle, you’ve got to do jiu-jitsu, boxing, muay Thai; it’s not only one sport.
“Every time is a challenge, and you want to challenge yourself, where you’re at in your life,” he adds. “I’m 29 years old and have been fighting for a long time. I see myself doing this for a long time, and I’m not going to quit. What I’m doing … I love it, and I hope that I can do it another five or six years. That would be great.”
Man on a Mission
Since dropping to the featherweight division in the WEC, Gamburyan has gone undefeated; this after a five-fight stint in the UFC saw him go a mediocre 2-3 in a division above his optimal fighting weight.
He topped his first two WEC opponents, John Franchi and Leonard Garcia, by unanimous decision. In his third fight with the organization in April, Gamburyan knocked out former divisional champion Mike Thomas Brown in the first round, earning a crack at the elusive Aldo and his title. With it comes a chance to achieve his longtime dream of becoming a world champion. Chivichyan believes the time is right.
“He’s beat all the best guys, and now, he’s fighting for the title; he deserves it,” Chivichyan says. “He’s 100 percent ready. He’s in the best shape he’s ever been in before.”
Gamburyan wants into the battle in the worst way.
“It’s been a long camp” he says. “I’m tired of training. I want to go out there and show people what I can do.”
Gamburyan knows he has his work cut out for him when he takes on Aldo, who has won all seven of his fights in the WEC, the first six by knockout or TKO. His most recent victory came in a dominant one-sided decision over former champion Urijah Faber. When asked what he has to watch for from a vaunted striker who perches near the top of many pound-for-pound rankings, Gamburyan was quick to reply.
“Everything,” he says. “He has a black belt in jiu-jitsu from [Antonio] Rodrigo Nogueira, so I’m pretty sure he has a good jiu-jitsu game. His takedown defense is pretty good, and he has phenomenal leg kicks and knees. But it’s nothing I haven’t seen before. I’ve sparred almost every other day, so I know what it takes to beat Jose Aldo. We have a good game plan for him.”
Chivichyan holds Aldo in high regard, as well.
“He’s a tough guy, a good fighter,” he says. “There’s nothing I can say [otherwise], but nobody in the world is invincible; everybody loses.”
Chivichyan claims the game plan he and Gamburyan have honed was focused on exploiting holes they found while studying the dynamic Brazilian’s game.
“We found them; we found not one or two or three but more than that,” Chivichyan says. “If [Manny] uses exactly the way we planned it, he’s going to win.”
Gamburyan -- who plans to take the WEC belt to his native Armenia should he be victorious -- wants to capitalize on an opportunity for which he has waited his entire life.
“I’m going to go out there and give him what I have. Hopefully, it will work out, and I’ll get the ‘W,’ get the belt and we can go home,” he says. “Jose’s a phenom. He’s a great fighter. He’s a champion for a reason, a great champion, but it’s time for him to pass that torch.”