Uhrichsville, Ohio is roughly 2,200 miles away from Las Vegas, Nevada, depending on how you choose to traverse Middle America. Stationed in Tuscarawas County, calling it a city feels like a stretch, as 2010 census data pegs the population a couple hundred people shy of 6,000 residents.
Cody Garbrandt moved to Sacramento to chase his championship dreams in the UFC a few years back, but although he doesn’t live there any more, the mill town that helped shape him is never far from his thoughts.
“It’s something I think about every day and it keeps me humble, grounded and thankful for how far I’ve come,” said the 25-year-old, who steps into the Octagon to face Dominick Cruz for the bantamweight title Friday night at UFC 207.
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While his professional record is unblemished and his performance this year has been nearly flawless, Garbrandt’s journey to this point was far from a straight line.
Fighting helped him find a way out of the trappings of a hardscrabble hometown, where wrong choices are readily available and often appear like the only option.
Even though he was a standout wrestler in high school and showed incredible promise as an amateur boxer, the tough kid his uncle nicknamed “No Love” because that’s what he showed his opponents inside the ring felt the tug of the dangerous decisions that swallow up so many lives. Things very easily could have gone sideways, but instead, Garbrandt found his calling in the cage, set his focus on UFC gold and started pursuing that dream with dogged determination.
“It shows me how far I can go, coming from where I started to where I’m at now,” the unbeaten challenger adds. “There are no limitations on how far I can go; it’s up to me.”
Like many fighters to emerge from Team Alpha Male, Garbrandt’s arrival on the big stage was heralded before it happened. He was the next standout talent to come from the Sacramento camp that produced perennial contenders like Chad Mendes and Joseph Benavidez and helped turn TJ Dillashaw into a world champion, and his debut in the Octagon left little doubt that the hype was real, as he strode into the cage and stopped Marcus Brimage.
A decision win over Henry Briones followed in his sophomore appearance in the UFC cage, but it has been a trio of first-round triumphs this year that have carried Garbrandt from being on the outside of the rankings looking in to potentially closing out the year seated atop the bantamweight division.
While his tidy dismissal of Augusto Mendes was impressive, the fact that “Tanquinho” was filling in on short notice diminished some of the excitement the performance would have otherwise produced, but in May and August, the heavily tattooed Garbrandt put everyone – including Cruz – on notice that he was far more than just an undefeated prospect slowing making his way up the ranks.
Headlining an event for the first time in a matchup of undefeated upstarts, Garbrandt needed less than three minutes to banish Thomas Almeida from the Zero Losses Lounge, taking the best shots the Brazilian finisher had to offer and countering with something a little stronger in return.
Three months later, he ran through Takeya Mizugaki, dusting off the Japanese veteran in 48 seconds. Cruz was watching from the broadcast position inside T-Mobile Arena, where the two will clash on Friday night, and Garbrandt was acutely aware. He took aim at the bantamweight champion on the microphone, cementing the opportunity before him in the process.
“The gym was in a big ole cluster,” began Garbrandt, reflecting on the lone decision amongst a sea of stoppages on his resume. “We had no coach, no structure; none of that. I was bringing in coaches from different gyms and flying my uncle in and finding my own training schedule. I’m someone that feeds off the routine and structure. When I have structure in my life, that’s when I excel the most.”
With that structure in place and riding a wave of confidence, Garbrandt is confident that he will be the man to do what no one else has been able to accomplish in the 135-pound ranks to date: defeat Dominick Cruz.
While most challengers will talk exclusively about what they’re going to do in order to win the title – and Garbrandt has done plenty of that – he’s also quick to look at things from a different perspective, discussing the “never been done before” things the champion will need to accomplish in order to retain his strap as well.
“He’s tough – I know that and I’m not trying to downplay his skills and what he’s done for the sport like he’s trying to do to me,” he said. “He’s trying to persuade the fans and the crowd – and persuade himself – that I’m not a real threat because he knows what I am capable of and he’s desperate. He has everything to lose in this fight and I have everything to gain.
“He has to be able to put me in bad positions, but no one has been able to yet – no one has been able to take me down; no one has been able to out strike me in my professional career. No one has ever really put me in a bad position or put me into those close fights where I have to dig deep and he’s got to be the man that does that, so he’s got a lot of pressure on him to do something that no one has ever done.”