By Nick Peet
It took Cody Garbrandt 12 months to go from unranked UFC newcomer to undisputed world champion and number one 135lb fighter on the planet. And people still believe that dreams don’t come true. Few gave the Team Alpha Male prodigy much chance against the best bantamweight MMA has ever seen in Dominick Cruz, in the penultimate Octagon fight of 2016. But the challenger harbored a secret the world was yet to discover – he was simply better than the champion.
It took the heavily-inked 25-year-old – who has ‘SELF MADE’ imprinted on his throat under a winged diamond – less than 10 minutes to break Cruz, and a further 15 to destroy everything the former champion had built during a two-part, six-year unbeaten reign as 135lb champion – first with WEC, then the UFC.
Dubbed by some as the greatest performance by a title challenger in UFC history – even overshadowing the display former teammate and now increasingly bitter rival TJ Dillashaw produced against Renan Barao in May 2014 – Garbrandt couldn’t have timed his inauguration as champion any better.
Minutes later in the same cage the UFC would bid a sorrowful farewell to one prized PPV star when Ronda Rousey’s return was ruled redundant by Amanda Nunes. Yet if ‘Rowdy’s days are indeed numbered, at least Cody Garbrandt’s are just beginning.
ZERO TO HERO
Randy Couture once said: “I’m not scared to fail. I’m not scared to lose. I’m not scared to die, for that matter… It’s going to work out the way it’s supposed to work out.” Those are words that resonate with Garbrandt.
A self-confessed street punk who was misguided and at times out of control, with little interest in education, there was only one thing in life that satisfied his soul: fighting. He’s been doing it since before he can remember. He was taken to boxing classes by his uncle aged four. Growing with seven other siblings – including three other brothers – it’s no surprise Garbrandt learnt to fight. He had no other choice.
“I barely finished high school. I struggled to learn to read. I’m a street punk from Ohio. But I’m proud of who I am and I don’t pretend to be anything else,” Garbrandt admits. “Listen, I love fighting. I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t fighting, whether it was in the street or boxing.
“I always had fun fighting. It always made sense to me. It’s my true passion and I never don’t have fun if I’m fighting, even when I get my ass beat. Because I know I’ll learn either way.”
He adds: “I’m not afraid to lose. I think that’s something a lot of fighters struggle with. But it’s not something that worries me at all. I’ve lost before. I’ve been knocked out before, so I’ve been at the very bottom working my ay back up. So returning to that place holds no fears for me. I’ve fought my way from nothing to the top before, and if I had to I could do it again. That gives me so much freedom.”
That freedom has enabled Garbrandt to achieve something few outside of his Sacramento base at Team Alpha Male thought possible. The gym’s long-running feud with Dominick Cruz was a scar on the gym’s legacy. Urijah Faber, Joseph Benavidez and TJ Dillashaw had faced the champion a combined five times without success.
At the start of 2016, as he walked to the Octagon to face Augusto Mendes, who had stepped in at a week’s notice to replace John Lineker in Pittsburgh, Garbrandt’s chances of facing Cruz any time soon and redeeming the team looked remote. Just 7-0, few fans knew too much of the man dubbed ‘No Love’ outside of his TUF spat with Conor McGregor six months earlier.
However, Garbrandt insists he was focused on beating Cruz and becoming UFC champion for some time: “I’ve been dreaming of being UFC champ for nearly 13 years and I have so many people to thank who have been on this journey with me. It’s such a surreal moment for me and my family and my coaches. It was amazing.
“I always believed. I always knew I could win the title. But it feels ever better. To live my dream, to defeat a great champion – it’s a special thing. Once I set my mind to something, and I dream about it and work for it 110% every day, then I know I can achieve anything. I believed I would become the champion and even though I started 2016 unranked I was still confident I would make it happen.”
It only took three first-round right hands to get within striking distance of his dream. First Mendes was dropped and stopped courtesy of an overhand right in Pennsylvania in February. Then the much-fancied Thomas Almeida, himself unbeaten in 21 fights with 17 knockouts, was pinned up against the fence and dispatched with a straight right in May.
Then Takeya Mizugaka kissed the right hand in August at UFC 202 to add Garbrandt into the title equation – and make a decade-old prediction become a reality. It was back in high school that Grabrandt first made his UFC title intentions clear, writing in a paper how he would become champion before 2017. And the win over Mizugaki at least ensured opportunity would knock.
“People thought I was living a fairy tale at times but I knew if I wanted it enough, worked hard enough and kept my sights on the goal I would make it,” Garbrandt states. “Of course to achieve my dream with just two days to spare is incredible really. But at no point in time did I ever doubt I would do it.
“I like to write down my goals. It’s a Team Alpha Male thing. We all do it. We all write down our goals for the month, for the year, for the future. And top of my list was always to be UFC champion. That was one of the first notes I wrote down when I arrived in California and it’s always stayed at the top. It reads, ‘UFC champion by 2017’ – and I did it.”
STYLE & SUBSTANCE
Garbrandt didn’t just do it. He did in style. Not only did he defeat the most successful champion the bantamweight class has ever seen, he battered him. He beat him at his own game. His footwork and counter punching were just too slick and smart for the now former champion, a man who so often has been impossible to hit. At times, it seemed like Garbrandt couldn’t miss.
“I put on a masterful performance against one of the greatest champions there is,” Garbrandt said. “It’s because I live in the present. It was my first title fight and you only get one of those. So I was determined to enjoy it. I honestly didn’t want the fight to end. I gave him a beatdown. I could have finished the fight, but I wanted to go the full five rounds, I didn’t want it to end.
“He was one of the greatest and I knew he would bring out the best in me. But this is just the start of what I can do. I know I’m just getting started and there’s so much more to come from me. This is the beginning of my legacy.”
The judges at UFC 207 gave Garbrandt the fight by a clear unanimous margin. But there was no suspense before Bruce Buffer read their decision. There wasn’t a soul inside the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas that didn’t realize the coronation of a new king was about to take place. Indeed, even Cruz knew and praised his conqueror for his performance.
Cruz was teed off on, smack-talked at and even forced to watch some improvised breakdancing after his punches whistled past his intended target. Rocked in the first, staggered in the second, at times the former champion just couldn’t get out of the way of Garbrandt’s piston-like punches.
Of course, while the performance itself stunned Planet MMA, Garbrandt was confident that would happen. He’s adamant his speed and power would always be an equalizer against Cruz’s unorthodox movement and switch hitting.
“I knew by studying his movements that I would be able to catch him. I’ve always known it,” Garbrandt says with a shrug. “I was too quick for him. This was a guy who claims to be a ghost, someone that doesn’t get hit. But he was nothing. I was hitting and hurting him and I was telling him during the fight, ‘That hurt you.’ And he was like, ‘That didn’t hurt,’ and I was laughing back.”
The real turning point seemed to come when a Garbrandt knee opened up a cut over Cruz’s left eye. Cody says he knew the fight was his from that point.
“When I cut him, the way that he reacted, – his pupils got really big when he saw the blood, and he panicked. He was in trouble so I said, ‘Hey Dom are you still having fun?’ When he didn’t answer me back I knew it was my fight. I turned it up again then, but I was having so much fun in there.”
Unbeaten since 2007, Cruz’s demise was one of the biggest shocks of 2016 – outside of Team Garbrandt’s circles of course. But perhaps even more impressive is the way the new champion’s public persona has enjoyed a complete reversal in light of his 207 exploits, both inside and outside the cage.
Garbrandt’s friendship with young leukemia survivor Maddux Maple has peeled back the heavily-inked skin and R-rated trash talk to reveal the soul of a genuine role model. It showed that his nickname couldn’t be further from the truth. Garbrandt is from the wrong side of the tracks, but he’s proven himself to be a far more of a hero than a villain.
“I was being billed as the bad guy in this fight, like I have been in other fights too. The neck tattoo and the background kind of makes that happen, but Cruz played on that too,” Garbrandt says. “Cruz was talking s**t in the run up to the fight. Believe me, on camera he’s completely different from what he’s like off camera. So I called him out on that.
“But I was just me right the way through. He was the one trying to bill me as the bad guy. But I’m just me: raw, emotional, passionate. I say it like it is, but that doesn’t mean I’m not in control. He puts on a front for the TV, but I am what I am.”
There’s no hiding behind the ink any more though. Planet MMA has a new star on its hands in Garbrandt and 2017 could be the year he becomes a pay-per-view star in his own right. He can begin his climb up MMA’s money ladder with a grudge match against Team Alpha Male exile TJ Dillashaw. Anticipation for that fight is bound to generate new levels of anticipation after what promises to be a fractious season of The Ultimate Fighter.
His former teammate is unlikely to be a pushover, but typically, Garbrandt is not just thinking about what comes next. After all, now he’s on top he wants to get paid. Whether that’s by fighting Cruz again or aiming higher.
“I became better fighter in the Cruz fight,” he adds, “and while there’s definitely a second fight to come with us – although, I’ll knock him out in the second round next time – there are other fights out there that interest me.
“Conor McGregor is obviously the money fight and we have a little history already, so I’d move up to 150lb for that fight for sure. My homie Nate Diaz choked him out, and I still can’t believe that McGregor is ranked number two on the pound-for-pound list. So I’d love to go up for that fight.
“I know I’m a draw now so I just want the biggest money fight out there. Whether that’s Cruz, Dillashaw or even José Aldo, I’m in this to get paid so I’ll fight any of those guys. Whatever makes the most money. Whatever benefits me. I’m the champ. I’m the number one. I’m the draw. I just beat a great handily so whatever is next needs to pay and be a challenge. I’d like to fight Aldo or Conor.”
Few people believed in Cody Garbrandt in high school. Few people believed in him in MMA. But he closed out 2016 as a champion, and now very few people would bet against him becoming one of the sport’s biggest and most colorful stars.
*** Feature originally published in the March 2017 issue of Fighters Only ***