Georgi Karakhanyan has been around this block before. In his eight years in MMA, he's seen more than his fair share of undefeated prospects rise up through the ranks, each one garnering hype and expectations within the regional scene, only to wilt under the bright lights the first time an opponent dares to challenge steel with steel.
The cycle is constant, but that's just how it goes in this sport. Sometimes the young eat the old, but just as often the veterans send the youth scurrying back their holes, to lick their wounds and wonder where their grand plan fell apart. It's a crossroads Karakhanyan once again finds himself at, a 26-fight vet taking on undefeated Lance Palmer, he of just seven professional fights, for the inaugural WSOF featherweight strap this Saturday at WSOF 7.
The thing is, in Karakhanyan's eyes, that 7-0 record Palmer carries with him is already misleading enough.
"I thought Jared Downing beat Lance Palmer," Karakhanyan flatly told MMAFighting.com, referring to Palmer's controversial split decision win at RFA 8.
"I watched that fight, I think it was on AXSTV, and I wasn't really impressed with the way he looked."
Palmer's victory over Downing, however contentious it may have been, earned the young Team Alpha Male product the RFA featherweight belt last June, and ultimately, provided Palmer a stepping stone into the immediate title shot he was given for his WSOF debut.
For both fighters, the opportunity to headline WSOF 7 now marks the biggest stage of either man's career. After everything he's seen and done, Karakhanyan isn't worried about being swallowed by the moment. Although when it comes to his opponent, Karakhanyan believes the added spotlight, when combined with the stress of maintaining an unblemished record, may add an extra burden on Palmer.
"I think it comes with experience," Karakhanyan said. "I've fought in Bellator. I've fought in DREAM in front of 37,000 people. All that pressure, you get used to it.
"(When) I was 4-0, and I was like, man, I don't need to wrestle. I don't need to do stuff like that. This is working for me, jiu-jitsu and just stand-up. And then, boom, I lost to a wrestler. That makes you think, okay, I need to learn every aspect of the game. I need to be good at everything. So when I lost, I went and bought some wrestling shoes."
A natural grappler and developing striker, Karakhanyan admits that wrestling will never be one of his main strengths. Nonetheless, he subscribes to the idea of Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000-Hour Rule, which hypothesizes that the basis to success is logging 10,000 hours into a certain objective. In that regard, Karakhanyan is already well past 10,000 hours and well on his way to his next goal, 50,000.
Though while Karakhanyan's opponent may be short on fighting experience, Palmer is no stranger to competition. The 25-year-old bulldozed through a decorated collegiate wrestling career which saw him become a four-time All American at Ohio State University.
Palmer's accolades, however, can only take him so far in MMA.
"You were not getting punched in the face with those experiences. It was just straight wrestling," Karakhanyan scoffed.
"I don't think he's been into the wars I've been. I don't think he's fought some of the fighters I've fought. And on top of that, getting punched in the face (changes everything). He can think he has experience, but once that door locks, he's going to see me throw and he's going to think, oh f--k, what did I get myself into."
Palmer's NCAA experience has thus far served him well over the course of his young fighting career, yet his wrestling-centric style has led to a dearth of finishes, with over half of Palmer's seven wins coming via the judges -- a fact which Karakhanyan has noticed.
"It shows me that he needs to grow up as a fighter," Karakhanyan said.
"I have more finishes than he has fights. He has to understand that going into MMA with a great wrestling background, yeah, you can these beat guys here and there. But once you run into somebody like me, you're going to be f--ked. He thinks he has more experience just because he wrestled? But he never got punched in the face wrestling. So wait until he tries to take me down and he's getting elbows in his ears."
To make matters more intriguing, Palmer's head coach at Team Alpha Male, former UFC fighter Duane Ludwig, is a former training partner of Karakhanyan's. While Palmer believes Ludwig's presence and knowledge of the Armenian offers an advantage, Karakhanyan isn't so sure.
The last time Karakhanyan trained with Ludwig was in 2009, he says, a time when Karakhanyan was still fresh in the game and figuring out who he was as a fighter. The way he sees it, any insights Palmer may have gleaned from Ludwig would be helpful against a Karakhanyan of a past life, but not the streaking featherweight of today -- the title contender who's won eight straight and finally pieced it all together.
"[Palmer is] probably going to watch my Joe Warren [loss] -- in 2010, which was 20 years ago for MMA -- and he's going to say, Joe Warren took him down, so I'm going to try to go with the same plan and put the pressure on him. But he has no idea what's coming," Karakhanyan said.
"In a perfect world, I'd like to end it with a flying knee or uppercut. But the way I'd really like to give him his first loss is to beat him at his own game, which is his wrestling. MMA wrestling is different. Beat him up all five rounds, then he goes back to his locker room and starts crying.
"Once that door locks, he's going look at me. I'm going to look him in the eyes, and he's going to s--t his f--king pants," Karakhanyan finished. "He's going to say, what the f--k did I just do. Why did I sign the contract?"