In the fight game, it’s usually the up-and-coming prospects and hungry contenders calling out the champions, speaking the names of the titleholders they hope to face and making their desires to claim gold known long before they’ve reached a place where potentially making that dream a reality is possible.
Seldom do you have a sitting champion name-checking an unbeaten threat coming off a first-round knockout win on the eve of his return to action, let alone one that hasn’t lost in nine years and is considered one of the top pound-for-pound talents in the sport today.
But that’s how things are playing out at the top of the UFC bantamweight division right now.
“How many guys has he gone out and said, ‘I want to fight him?’” Cody Garbrandt asks in regards to reigning champion Dominick Cruz recently stating that, if given his choice of opponents, he’d like to face the undefeated rising star next.
In schoolyard terms, Garbrandt “started it” by joining the list of fighters from Team Alpha Male to take shots at Cruz, who has an ongoing rivalry with the Sacramento-based fight team and its leader, Urijah Faber, who handed “The Dominator” the lone loss of his career at WEC 26.
But in the years since that initial encounter, Cruz has not only drawn level and then won the rubber match in his feud with Faber, but he’s also twice bested longtime Alpha Male standout Joseph Benavidez and a former member of the squad, TJ Dillashaw, to reclaim the bantamweight title he never lost in competition earlier this year.
Garbrandt is the next emerging threat from the highly respected camp and he has made his championship aspirations and desire to fight Cruz clear from the outset, but why all of a sudden has the champion chosen to start talking about the undefeated 25-year-old? The heavily tattooed, heavy-handed finisher has a few ideas.
“The reason (he’s doing it) is because he knows that he can’t act like he doesn’t know me any more. He can’t act like he doesn’t know who I am. He knows it’s his next fight,” suggests Garbrandt, who cemented himself as the top young talent in the 135-pound division with a first-round knockout win over fellow young gun Thomas Almeida at the end of May. “He’s like, ‘Oh (expletive) – I’ve got to get mentally ready for this guy. I can’t keep putting him off.’ He knows that I’m coming with savagery and viciousness.
“He’s just trying to make me lose focus,” adds Garbrandt, who steps into the Octagon against veteran Takeya Mizugaki next weekend at UFC 202. “(He’s) hoping that I lose focus and Takeya comes out and pulls off an upset, but I’m mentally strong. I know the task at hand and I know my responsibilities on August 20 and that’s going out there and picking up a win against Takeya.”
That’s not just fighter-speak from Garbrandt either.
After halting Almeida’s rapid ascent up the rankings and now having Cruz publicly declare his desire to face him, it would be easy for the Uhrichsville, Ohio native to view a win over Mizugaki as a formality and start looking too far down the road. But as much as he’s got quick responses for Cruz at the ready, “No Love” is not looking past the Japanese veteran.
“Mizugaki is a veteran and he’s been around since the WEC days. He’s still here, he’s still dangerous, still ranked in the Top 15 and coming off a win,” Garbrandt offers in assessment of his opponent. “I want to stay busy and this is a fight that keeps me busy. Mizugaki is a guy that stepped up to bat and will go out there and fight.
“His style is perfect for me,” he adds. “He’s built his name off being tough and taking some people’s best shots, but he’s never fought a fighter like me that can hit like I do. He’s never been hit by a puncher – someone that knows how to punch.”
But even with his focus on Mizugaki, the conversation still finds its way back to the bantamweight champion.
“Cruz knocked him out and that guy doesn’t even know how to throw a correct punch,” jabs Garbrandt, who actually appreciates Cruz taking verbal shots at him in the media. “I use that trash talk to get me up, get me motivated. That helps me stay focused and grind hard with Mizugaki because I’m right there. If I go smash Mizugaki, then I get my hands on Dominick and I can’t wait to get my hands on that dork.
“I’m not overlooking Takeya,” he reiterates. “I think he’s the most dangerous fighter to date that I’ve faced because he has nothing to lose and everything to gain. With a knockout win over Takeya, I’m next in line for a title shot and if Dominick Cruz wants it and wants to keep talking trash, he’s going to eat all his words.
“It’s one fight at a time, but I have a light at the end of the tunnel: I see Dominick and I’m very much looking forward to that matchup.”