How Ronda Rousey and coach Edmond Tarverdyan became UFC’s perfect pair
23 DAYS UNTIL THE FIGHT
On a long strip of Brand Boulevard in the heart of Glendale, a city of about 200,000 that lies 10 miles north of downtown Los Angeles, there’s an inconspicuous, one-story, red building squeezed among a row of car dealerships.
Occasionally pedestrians strolling along Brand will mindlessly glance through the display windows that once housed a car showroom and pause, then squint their eyes with faint recognition, or maybe disbelief. Unsure if they really just saw one of the greatest fighters in the world.
Inside Ronda Rousey stalks her prey into the corner. Her head, covered in protective gear, bows like a ram. She then launches a quick combination at her sparring partner, Lissette Medel, a professional super featherweight, who absorbs a body blow then flails a right cross. Ronda dodges the punch.
"Beautiful, Champ, that’s beautiful," her coach, Edmond Tarverdyan, says just above a whisper. Tarverdyan, the head of Glendale Fighting Club, wears cargo pants, his legs and arms shaved, and at 33 his meticulously tapered black beard is beginning to show a few specks of grey. Behind him is a 20-foot mural of Muhammad Ali, standing fists raised, next to a painting of a young Tarverdyan, who once won the WBC Muay Thai welterweight world title. Between the two portraits are the words "Nothing is impossible."
During her sparring session, Edmond is teaching Ronda to harness her punching power. "Use that jab," he tells her. Ronda’s well-known weakness coming into her MMA career was her ability to box. This weekend in Australia, Rousey will take on undefeated Holly Holm, a former pro boxer who won 18 different world titles and will test Ronda’s striking skills. But finding anyone capable of or even willing to spar with Ronda has been a challenge. To mimic the dangerous Holm, Edmond had to import a Ukrainian southpaw for $1,000 a week, but she couldn’t last even two rounds against Ronda the first time they sparred.
"Ronda punches like a monster," he brags. "They don’t know what they’re up against until she stands in front of them."
After the session with Medel, Ronda stretches on the mat in the center of the gym, oblivious to the camera crew tracking her movements. Nearby, her boyfriend and UFC heavyweight Travis Browne is shadowboxing. On the walls surrounding her are framed photos of Ronda as well as some of Edmond’s stable of Armenian boxers — in some pictures the fighters are in action, but often they pose with their arm around their coach, post-fight. The entire gym serves as a sort of personal trophy case for Edmond, and a haven for Ronda.
In 2010, before Rousey’s first amateur MMA bout, she came into this almost exclusively Armenian boxing gym with her friend and fellow MMA fighter Manny Gamburyan, seeking a coach. Edmond, a striking specialist, was reluctant to take her on. "I was like, a girl fighting? Why? Like go teach judo or something," he recalls. Over time they built an unlikely and unique bond and he’s been by her side as she’s devastated her way through the UFC women’s bantamweight division and now says she’s the highest earner in the UFC.
On the mat, Edmond comes over to Ronda and bends down. The camera shifts closer to them. They seem to speak in their own language, in whispers and shrugs. She smiles easily around him. Covered in sweat, he reminds her there’s still half an hour left of training. "You have to be your best on the worst day of your life." It’s one of his favorite sayings, and he uses it to spur on his fighters when the outside world is closing in.
His assistant, Sevak Ohanjanian, turns on the stereo and electronic dance music pours out of the speakers. Ohanjanian starts swaying his hips and dancing. Ronda looks over and laughs. There’s a jovial quality to her training camp, a family atmosphere — at least on the surface.
But underneath, over the past few weeks, the foundation has been shaken.
In an interview with LatiNation nine days earlier, Ronda’s mom, Dr. AnnMaria De Mars, who raised Ronda alone in Los Angeles, then North Dakota and back in Los Angeles after Ronda’s father committed suicide when she was 8, said candidly, "Edmond is a terrible coach. … He hit the lottery when Ronda walked in there." Later she says, "He’s a bad person. People should not go there."
The following day during a UFC event Ronda broke down and cried, a source said. Publicly, though, she’s supported her coach. And Edmond has continued camp as he always has. Her success would calm the controversy, he figured, but from within the UFC community some have begun to openly question his tactics and if Ronda can mature as a fighter under his tutelage.
"He hasn’t said much, but he’s human," John Fosco, Travis Browne’s manager, says. "It’s been hard for him."
The morning session ends with Ronda unwrapping her hands, balling up the tape and tossing it over the Octagon against the wall, where 500 or so other Ronda hand wraps have piled up into a small hill. "Good job, Champ," he says. Edmond is a fighter himself, a third-degree black belt who has persevered through criticism before. But he’s also privately battling financial issues, having recently filed for bankruptcy in July.
Ronda smiles as he walks by — 22 days to go. In this fight against Holm their relationship will be tested. And more than ever, he needs Ronda.
19 DAYS UNTIL THE FIGHT
Ronda has the morning off and I meet Edmond at GFC. He’s in a good mood and shakes my hand with a flip of the wrist. We get into his black Range Rover that’s given to him as part of Ronda’s sponsorship deal, then pull up in front of an upscale Armenian restaurant five minutes from the gym.
If Ronda is the ruler of UFC, Edmond is the king of Glendale. Our meal is interrupted as a woman comes over and greets Edmond, asking him if she could introduce him to someone. Her friend, dressed in nurse scrubs, blushes as she shakes his hand. "I’m a big fan," she says. Edmond is cordial then sits back down, unfazed.
"You see," Edmond explains. He speaks slowly, annunciating each word. "Everyone back in Armenia either fights, boxes, wrestles or does martial arts. It’s the most popular sport."
Not longer after Edmond was born in Armenia to Armenia-Iranian parents, his father moved the family to Russia to open a shoe factory, before settling in Glendale in 1990. With around 60,000-80,000 ethnic Armenians in the city, Glendale has the one of the largest concentrations of Armenians anywhere outside of Armenia.
That same year, Ken Arutyunyan, a former soldier in the Soviet army and martial arts specialist, opened a fighting gym a few blocks from Edmond’s parents’ home. Obsessed with Bruce Lee, 8-year-old Edmond came by every day.
"He was the best student I ever had," Arutyunyan says. "I taught him not to learn, but to understand the language of the human body, and the true spirit of the fighter.
"Edmond has incredible focus."
Initially drawn to wushu, the acrobatic martial art popularized by Jet Li, Edmond turned to Muay Thai at 16, amassing only three losses in more than 40 pro fights. Between bouts, he began teaching young students at Arutyunyan’s gym. A few years after high school he made a pilgrimage to Lumpinee Boxing Stadium in Bangkok, the spiritual home of Muay Thai.
"You have 16-, 17-year-old young kids, knocking the shit out of each other," he said. "It’s pure competition, just like a bloodsport. I would train with those kids, and I loved it. They’re so humble and respectful."
When he returned to Glendale, he pushed his pupils harder, and young Armenians flocked to the gym. Soon word extended past the boundaries of Glendale, and top Armenian fighters like William Abelyan and Vic Darchinyan travelled thousands of miles to be trained by Edmond.
In 2008, he relocated GFC from its original location on Maple Ave. to the larger, current gym one block away on Brand Blvd. The growing Armenian community, though, craved more. Glendale, originally a white middle-class enclave, banned boxing matches more than 60 years ago to keep out fighters and fans of a sport deemed "unwholesome." In 2010, the same year Ronda arrived at GFC, Edmond successfully petitioned then-mayor Frank Quintero to overturn the ordinance, bringing live boxing to Glendale for the first time, and Edmond was hailed a hero in the sport’s community.
As we finish lunch, we get up from the table and there are still enough leftovers to fill two bags. Edmond pulls out a wad of hundreds and throws one down as we leave. "I hope you like the Armenian experience," he says.
17 DAYS UNTIL THE FIGHT
When the "weeks" until the main event become "days," fighters can have the unsettling sensation of flailing, of speeding down an ice-covered hill without brakes. Heading toward the inevitable crash on fight night, protected only by the armor of their ability and the training and game plan instituted by their coach. There’s a lot of trust involved.
After Ronda’s morning workout, she agrees to sit down for an on-camera interview inside the ring at GFC, three days before she heads to Australia with Edmond and their team. She’s been testy recently, firing back during media day when the topic of her mom came up. "Any reaction or response … she’s going to hear it from me," she snapped. Later, she’ll hang up on a media conference call when someone asks her about her relationship with Travis Browne, who recently has been dogged by allegations of domestic violence from his previous relationship.
During our interview though, she’s cheerful and candid, and speaks glowingly about her relationship with Edmond. Before arriving at GFC, she’d retired from an Olympic medal career in judo and tried out three other coaches. She’d heard about Edmond through her friend Manny and decided to try GFC, but initially she was ignored.
"The first day I walked into the gym," she says, "I came in here and you know, it’s awkward coming into a new gym because you don’t know anybody really. I mean, I knew the guys here, and I saw Manny and I was like, ‘Hey, what’s up!’ You know, I’m all nervous. … Then he introduces me to Edmond and he’s like, ‘This is Ronda,’ and Edmond was like, ‘Hi,’ and barely even looked at me."
But she returned every day. She was the only girl in the gym, Ohanjanian says. "Surrounded by aggressive Armenians. Each one more aggressive then the next." She would stand on the fringes and mimic what Edmond would teach his other fighters in Armenian. A kinetic genius, she slowly learned basics of shadow boxing and throwing a jab simply through observation.
One day she told Edmond she was a natural lefty and asked which foot she should put forward to start her stance. He scoffed and said, "How did you do it in judo?" Left foot forward, she said. "OK, if that’s comfortable, do that," he said. It wasn’t much, but these tiny drips of knowledge were her morphine. They helped soothe her difficult search for a home after judo.
"I knew he was the coach that I wanted and he was the one that was perfect for the job, and I knew I was the fighter that he was looking for. But he didn’t know it," she says. "So I had to convince him."
After a few weeks, she asked if he’d hold mitts for her. Again he refused. "She started yelling," Ohanjanian says. "I was looking at Edmond and I was looking at her and I was like, ‘Wow, this girl is gonna get knocked out right now.’" Edmond asked her to step outside and they went to Ronda’s car to talk.
"I told her, ‘If you want it that bad, then I’ll give you work,’" Edmond says.
It took more than a year, but they soon began eating lunch together after workouts and talked fighting for hours.
I knew he was the coach that I wanted and he was the one that was perfect for the job, and I knew I was the fighter that he was looking for. But he didn’t know it. So I had to convince him.
Ronda Rousey, on coach Edmond Tarverdyan
"My sight is almost very narrow and specialized in what I do and what I can do," Ronda says. "Whereas his is very broad and he can see any style or any set of tools and see how they match up. It’s like Pokemon, in a way. Matching up all the types."
Over time, Edmond built an eclectic team of coaches around her — a two-time Armenian freestyle wrestling champion, Martin Berberyan, and a childhood friend and former U.S. judo medalist, Justin Flores. From the start, she proved herself to be championship worthy.
Ronda’s dominance, however, also has been her greatest downfall. Because she hasn’t been tested, critics are free to pick apart what almost was, or what could be with her development. The great MMA columnist Jack Slack wrote, "the sad thing is that Rousey is so skillful, but still so limited."
The most vocal critic of Edmond has been Rousey’s mother, the first American judo world champion and author of a book on the art of ground techniques. Besides calling him a poor coach, she accuses Edmond of exploiting her daughter and being sexist. "(Women) are talked to in a way that just makes my jaw drop," she told Rhadi Ferguson in a radio interview.
Christine Connor, operations and administrative manager at the gym, disputes this, saying he has "always treated me with respect, and everyone I know."
Ronda has been silent about the state of the relationship with her mom, but friend Jacob Flores explains, "It’s always been like that, that’s how they get along — by fighting and making up. Ronda’s mom thinks everyone that came along since childhood is out to get Ronda. She doesn’t trust anyone."
It leaves Ronda in a difficult place, and it can seem like a tug-o-war for the soul of Ronda Rousey — stuck between parent and coach. But this isn’t Little League, and the stakes are enormous. Edmond has tried to deflect the media attention, but it gets harder. With each passing day of training camp, the focus on her opponent has become increasingly cloudy.
"More people could talk, it doesn’t matter, they’re not gonna get out there and try to fight me. Especially Ronda’s mom," he says flippantly.
As the interview with Ronda winds down, I ask her if it’s hard to see her mentor affected by the comments from her mom. Ronda’s easy smile evaporates and she looks downward. A sadness comes over her. "It’s hard to see anything affecting him in a negative way because of me," she says. It’s heartfelt, but the mood has changed.
After another question, she mumbles through her answer and then, without warning, leaps out of her chair and slams her microphone on the mat. The stress of the past few weeks is now showing, and the unbridled focus in her eyes that she unleashes on her opponents is directed toward me.
"I’m done," she yells.
She then slips through the ropes and sprints to Edmond. If her mother had somehow hoped to pull them apart, she’s only brought them closer together.
When I reach Dr. De Mars for comment the following day, she’s cryptic.
"People are afraid to say anything publicly for fear of losing access to the gravy train," she says.
14 DAYS UNTIL THE FIGHT
On Halloween morning, Edmond, Ronda and their team head to the airport. Ronda is listed as a huge 12-1 favorite two weeks before the fight, and attendance is on pace to break the UFC record: 55,724 at UFC 129.
For Ronda and Edmond, the defining moment of their successful relationship came a year and a half ago during Rousey’s fight vs. Sarah McMann fight at UFC 170.
McMann, an Olympic silver medal wrestler, was picked by many to have the best chance to upset Ronda. Edmond knew Ronda could damage McMann if she could keep her standing, and he drilled her religiously on her boxing skills.
"It took six hours a day, for six years," Edmond says. "Ronda was with me, guiding her, doing everything. Now it’s bigger and it’s not just luck."
His attention to preparation and fitness had been tragically molded almost a decade earlier. William Abelyan, an Armenian featherweight who was the No. 1 WBO contender in the division, fought Phillip Payne, a late replacement, in Las Vegas in May 2005. Edmond had worked with Abelyan for years and watched as he dominated the fight early but took a beating in the late rounds. The fight eventually was stopped in the 10th round. Abelyan complained of a headache and was admitted to the hospital where they discovered brain hemorrhaging. He never fought again.
"That broke my heart so much," Edmond says. "And that’s why when I train fighters, I make sure before they get into the Octagon or ring, they’re in the best shape of their life."
Soon after, Edmond led Vic Darchinyan, an Armenian-Australian boxer, to eight different titles, solidifying himself as a bona fide championship coach. But it wasn’t until he saw Ronda fight for the first time that he knew he’d stumbled upon the perfect vessel he could mold into the fighter he’d always envisioned. Before teaching her the intricacies of boxing, though, he had to teach her to focus her emotional outbursts.
I want the person that I trust with the thing that’s the most important in my life to be the most important thing in their life too. What I really find in Edmond is a partner.
"Edmond has the right knowledge to turn Ronda’s personal pain into a positive for fighting," Arutyunyan says.
Leading up to the McMann fight, Edmond said he told commentator Joe Rogan that Ronda was going to knock out McMann with a shot to the liver. Just one minute and six seconds into the first round, Ronda held McMann against the fence and kneed McMann straight to the liver.
"When I saw that, my legs buckled," Edmond says. "My legs gave up on me, I squatted down. Because when I saw it I was like ‘BOOM!’ I fell down too. I was like, ‘Fuck yeah, she did it,’" he said. "And when I went in the Octagon, Ronda said to me, ‘I hope you’re proud of me.’ And I said, ‘It’s beautiful. All that training … it’s beautiful.’"
11 DAYS UNTIL THE FIGHT
To further add to the distractions in the Rousey camp, on Tuesday, Nov. 3, the popular MMA website Bloody Elbow published the extent of Edmond’s bankruptcy case.
He’s allegedly in debt more than $700,000 to nine different banks and credit cards and a hospital, and admitted to not paying taxes in the past few years. But most importantly he claims minimal assets, and creditors have begun investigating ownership of GFC, in a possible attempt to liquidate the gym.
More websites picked up the story, with commentators openly wondering if this is the end of the Tarverdyan-Rousey relationship. Edmond’s assistant, Ohanjanian, assures me there’s "no problem, everything is fine, everything will be fine here." In Australia there’s no comment, and Edmond and Ronda are unreachable. Later that day, a video pops up online of Ronda in a hair dresser’s chair.
"It’s good, we had sparring," she tells the camera. "And media day, and now they’re taking everything out of my hair."
If she knows about the news, she doesn’t seem show it. She glances up at the camera again — calm, with her foot up and a slight smile creeps along her lips.
FOUR DAYS UNTIL THE FIGHT
With less than a week until the showdown, the days speed up, and every little detail becomes significant. On the Internet, bits and pieces of the final days of the Rousey camp in Melbourne emerge. Edmond sits for an interview with Submission Radio.
"Are you nervous?" they ask him.
"Absolutely, I’m nervous," he says. He’s subdued, and looks downward. "It’s a big responsibility on my shoulders for Champ to perform."
The interview lasts 30 minutes and he rarely looks up. But it’s the moments when he is asked about Ronda that he’s the most engaged. "I have no doubt, we’re going to be next to each other and know each other for the rest of our lives," he says.
Another two-minute video shows Edmond with Ronda and her wrestling coaches beginning a grappling session. Inside the small gym the pressures seem to have evaporated, and they’ve funneled their focus toward the main event. It’s light-hearted and Ronda is in her element. She’s born to do this.
She warms up with Justin Flores, while Edmond looks on, occasionally laughing. Whether she knows about the bankruptcy and investigation of GFC, or has discussed her mother’s comments with Edmond, or if she’s the best fighter she can be, it doesn’t matter. Edmond gives her something no one else has been able to: stability. And she loves him for it.
"I want the person that I trust with the thing that’s the most important in my life to be the most important thing in their life too," Ronda says. "What I really find in Edmond is a partner."
When Ronda makes her way to the ring this Sunday morning at 10 a.m. local time in Melbourne, Edmond will be just behind her as she squares up to Holm and tries to further demonstrate she’s the most dominant fighter in the world. But, more than anything, she’s fighting for her corner.
"Edmond is everything to her," Arutyunyan says. "I think Ronda fights so hard because she’s protecting Edmond."
Less than 48 hours after the fight, the following Monday, Edmond Tarverdyan will be back in Los Angeles to testify under oath in his bankruptcy case. He’ll then be questioned by lawyers who hope to liquidate any of his assets, including GFC. Whether Ronda is back in L.A. or not, she will no doubt call him, as she does most days, and remind him of his favorite quote.
"You have to be the best on the worst day of your life."
Flinder Boyd is a former European professional basketball player turned writer. On Twitter he can be found @FlinderBoyd.