Gamburyan, Parisyan share unbeatable bond fighting together

Manny Gamburyan and Karo Parisyan sullenly sat in an Orlando, Fla., hotel room.
The pair had returned from a frustrating day of competition at the 2001 U.S. Judo Senior Nationals.

Gamburyan finished fifth. Parisyan did not place. Tired and dejected, they talked about all the things teammates talk about when they've just lost. About how they would come back stronger and bigger next time and about how much losing sucks.

Slowly, boredom overtook their commiseration.

"I just started singing," Gamburyan, 26, recalled. "And Karo was banging on the table like he was playing the drums. That's kind of how it is. Even when things are bad, we find a way to make it entertaining."

Six years later, that motto still holds true -- this time for just a slightly larger audience -- as both men pursue Ultimate Fighting Championship careers.

Parisyan, 24, has proven himself one of the top contenders in the 170-pound division with a 7-2 UFC record (25-4 in MMA overall). He recently defeated Josh Burkman in the co-main event at UFC 71.

Gamburyan's UFC career is considerably shorter, but he may actually be more familiar to mainstream Americans after being beamed into their homes for 13 weeks as a contender on "The Ultimate Fighter 5" reality show. The 155-pound fighter made it all the way to the season finale, when a dislocated shoulder ended his shot of winning it all, including a six-figure UFC contract. Despite that loss, his future with the UFC is bright.

The two fighters have also found that success in this burgeoning sport tests more than just physical and mental toughness. It tests loyalty, friendship and the bonds of family.

For the first 20 or so years of their lives, Parisyan's and Gamburyan's stories are so similar it can be hard to differentiate between them. The two are cousins. Both were born in Armenia (when it was still part of the Soviet Union) in the early 1980s. Their parents immigrated to the United States when Parisyan and Gamburyan were boys, and their families settled in the North Hollywood neighborhood of Los Angeles known as "Little Armenia."

Parisyan and Gamburyan had a tendency for getting into fights, although both swear that there were no sinister motives behind the altercations.

"I wasn't the kind of kid that would go out and pick fights," Parisyan said. "I just had a lot of energy. I was like a little monkey. I would punch pillows, just things like that."

In an effort to redirect that energy, Gamburyan's parents enrolled their 10-year-old son in judo at Hayastan Academy, run by Gokor Chivichyan. Parisyan, then 9, joined his cousin a few months later.

The sport provided the outlet they needed for their aggression. Both were first introduced to competitive mixed martial arts as teenagers in Tijuana, Mexico, and for the first time, they realized a person could get paid for fighting. At the time, the idea that fighting could translate into a career seemed far-fetched. This was before the UFC was bought out by Zuffa, LLC in January 2001. Until then, it had been on the brink of bankruptcy and was a source of controversy.

So both focused their energy on judo, occasionally fighting MMA on the side. Then one morning in 2003, Parisyan received a call from his coach.

Chivichyan congratulated his fighter. Confused, Parisyan asked why.

"They're giving you a UFC shot," his coach explained.

Parisyan has since become an integral part of the organization.

"There are really a lot of elements about UFC that has made it as big as it is," UFC president Dana White said. "A big piece of that is the fighters and the way that they perform and the way that they carry themselves. Karo Parisyan has been one of those guys. I have a great relationship with Karo, and I have a ton of respect for him.

"Karo Parisyan is one of these kids who is a real fighter. The kid's never been in a boring fight. He comes out from bell to bell and just goes after it and tries to finish fights."

It took Parisyan time to prove he belonged in the UFC. He won his first fight, defeating Dave Strasser in UFC 44 on Sept. 26, 2003; and lost a decision to Georges Saint-Pierre in UFC 46 at the end of January 2004.

In 2005, Parisyan won two unanimous decisions in the UFC, solidifying his place in the organization.

It was also during this period that tensions between him and Chivichyan began to escalate. By the end of the year, Parisyan had left Hayastan Academy. The details of what caused the break are vague and vary, depending on which person you talk to.

"I had a little downfall with Gokor, my ex-coach," Parisyan said. "He knows what he did."

For his part, Chivichyan says his club is "better off without a certain person. You know who I mean."

Whatever the reason for the split, it left Gamburyan in the middle.

"Manny was really hurt when I did leave," Parisyan said. "But Manny always knew the problems I had. It was very hard for me to leave because of that reason, because I had my cousin there and a lot of my friends."

Not everyone understood. After more than a decade at Hayastan, Parisyan isn't welcome any longer. Some people with the club viewed his departure as an act of treachery.

"It took a lot of pride for me to do that," Parisyan said. "Sometimes when you do something like that, it either works for you or against you. I think it worked both ways for me."

The positives are evident in the success Parisyan has achieved since his departure. But no matter how tough a fighter, it's difficult to end a nearly 15-year relationship.

But as some bonds were being broken, others grew stronger.

"Manny kept it really tight," Parisyan said. "He always called. Now we talk to each other every day, we see each other, we train. Thank God that didn't fall off, and it's because I think Manny did a really good job on that. I wasn't the one that would always call him, but Manny called every day."

When the two finally discussed Parisyan's departure, Gamburyan told his cousin, training partner and longtime friend that the decision to leave had also impacted him.

"He said, 'You know what? You just left. You just left me there by myself. You were my No. 1 training partner and the only guy that really pushed me,'" Parisyan recalled. "I said, 'Manny, you knew what I would go through. I could not stay there.' Obviously, he understood. He was just hurt it had to end up that way."

Gamburyan is more reserved when it comes to talking about the fallout.

"Nothing has changed except that we're not at the same dojo, and when we work out, we have to go somewhere else," Gamburyan said.

Of course, it's never that simple. That's why when Gamburyan traveled to Las Vegas for "The Ultimate Fighter 5" finale on June 23, Parisyan did not make the trip.

On May 26, it was a very different scene as Parisyan and his camp gathered in Las Vegas for UFC 71.

Gamburyan, strength coach and training partner Neil Melanson and UFC legend Randy Couture all served as cornermen for Parisyan, who was preparing for the biggest fight of his life on the biggest night in UFC history.

"In the cage, he's just got a natural gift to want to compete," Melanson said. "He loves to compete. The harder the challenge, the better the Karo you're going to see."

Parisyan looked solid in his victory over Burkman, earning a unanimous decision from the judges before an estimated 1 million pay-per-view households and a sold-out crowd at the MGM Grand.

"Just to stand around in that cage with 15,000 people going nuts after your hand was raised is something you can't explain," Parisyan said. "It was so much fun, so crazy. It was almost orgasmic. You walk out of the fight, and you've got like a natural high. You're just going, 'I can't believe this. This is huge.' You can look people in the eyes when you walk out."

He also walked out knowing those most important to him had been in his corner that night.

When it came to "The Ultimate Fighter" bout four weeks later, Gamburyan had to decide who would be in his corner.

Gamburyan chose Chivichyan.

"I have no problems with him," Gamburyan said. "I've been with him for 16 years. Things are good. I'm there, and I'm going to stay there forever."

While it was tough for Parisyan to accept, he understood -- from his own experience -- how hard it is to make a decision between a cousin and a coach.

"To be honest, it kind of pissed me off when Gokor cornered him not me, but it is what it is," Parisyan said. "I was just more concerned of him winning the fight than me going in the corner. … I said, 'I'll just watch at home. I didn't even want to come because it was going to kill me to come and to sit there in the stands and just watch a guy that's like my brother."

While Parisyan didn't make the trip, he left his cousin a message right before the fight.

"My heart's with you, dude," it began.

Gamburyan won the first round of the "The Ultimate Fighter 5" finale.

In his corner, Chivichyan asked the fighter if he was at all fatigued.

"No," Gamburyan replied. "I'm just warming up. I'm going to finish him in the next round."

Seconds later, Gamburyan was tapping out in intense pain. He had dislocated his shoulder going in for a takedown of opponent Nate Diaz.

"I felt like I was watching a dream," Chivichyan recalled. "I said, 'I wish this was a dream. I wish this wasn't real.'"

Gamburyan hasn't trained since the fight and has to wait for the MRI results before making any decisions regarding his future.

Dealing with the loss, especially under such circumstances, has been hard. But those who know Gamburyan know he'll bounce back. In fact, that may be the only thing Chivichyan and Parisyan agree on.

They're not the only ones.

"As you saw in the finale, it was unfortunate," White said. "The kid was winning the fight, and his shoulder popped out. That was on its way to being a great fight. Manny is just a little buzz saw. Once his shoulder is fixed and healed up, I think Manny is going to do very well in the UFC. He's a kid that I underestimated. I thought he was too small."

Gamburyan proved his size was not a factor. Now, he will have to prove that he has the ability to come back from a fight-ending injury and a heartbreaking setback.

Meanwhile, Parisyan looks to continue his upward trajectory. He has just finished an MMA instructional manual that will be published in the coming months and is set to film his second DVD in August.

Once more, the two cousins' goals are again almost indistinguishable, even though they have taken different routes to get this far. Each wants to win a world title, get a UFC belt and stick around as long as possible to make an impact in a sport in its infancy.

In an ever-expanding organization, the growth potential for both men is greater than either could have imagined during their impromptu musical performance in that hotel room years ago. One thing, however, hasn't changed: They are still finding a way to make it entertaining.

Maria Burns is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com