LAS VEGAS — Rarely does an MMA fighter put together a winning streak longer than 10 bouts because of the nature of the sport. The fights are almost always evenly matched and there are so many ways to win and lose a fight.
And for the last three years, Cody Garbrandt, who had been one of those rare talents to reel off 12 consecutive wins, kept finding ways to lose.
After improving his record to 11-0 and becoming the UFC bantamweight champion by defeating the legendary Dominick Cruz in a brilliant performance on Dec. 30, 2016, at UFC 207, Garbrandt’s career did a stunning 180-degree turn.
He was knocked out in the second round of his first title defense on Nov. 4, 2017, at UFC 217 at Madison Square Garden in New York by archrival T.J. Dillashaw. Dillashaw repeated the trick in just four minutes, 10 seconds in Los Angeles on Aug. 4, 2018 at UFC 227.
And then Pedro Munhoz got the biggest win of his career to that point by stopping Garbrandt at 4:51 of the first round of a shootout that won Fight of the Night honors at UFC 235 in Las Vegas.
At that point, Garbrandt was about as low as an in-his-prime former champion could go.
“He was in a tough spot, but we never gave up on Cody,” his manager, Ali Abdelaziz, said. “We never doubted him, not once.”
Garbrandt admitted that something was missing. The 28-year-old remains part of Team Alpha Male, but Abdelaziz has a lot of fighters who train in New Jersey under coach Mark Henry and he felt Henry could make a difference.
Garbrandt ultimately decided to go, and the difference was noticeable on Saturday in his bout on the main card of UFC 250 at Apex against Raphael Assuncao.
He was relaxed and calm. Home run hitters in baseball often say the most difficult time to hit a home run is when you’re trying to do it. The same thing is true of knockouts. When a fighter forces things, instead of reacting to what happens, problems can arise.
Henry managed to get Garbrandt to relax and be patient and the results were, well, a home run. He fought superbly in the first round and then scored a dramatic buzzer-beating, one-punch knockout in the second.
He was backed against the cage and dipped, came up and fired a right hand that landed squarely on the jaw. Assuncao went down and Garbrandt walked calmly away, knowing he’d scored his first win in a three-and-a-half years.
His time away helped him rediscover his love and passion for the sport.
“I never doubted myself, but I didn’t have that fire, that hunger to go in there every day and [work],” he said. “I felt like I was just clocking in, like it was a job. When I had nothing, I always had fighting. Even when I was trying to be away from fighting; run away, crawl away, I always got sucked back into fighting.
“This is my true destiny, to be the best fighter. This is what God has blessed me with, this ability, the speed, the power. I was never giving up. There are so many people in this life that get knocked down and they stay down and they don’t get up. I was freaking on top of the world. I was 25 years old, world champion, defeating one of the greatest bantamweights in the world, on a three-fight skid. You know how hard that was?”
There is such a mental component to all sports, but particularly so at the highest level of the game. The athletes are evenly matched physically and a lot of times it’s the mental edge one has over another that can determine the difference.
Garbrandt seemed poised for stardom. He was rolling through the best fighters in the world, was a draw and had seemingly unlimited potential.
It all crashed at the worst possible time, when he faced Dillashaw, his one-time friend and mentor who turned into his biggest foe. Garbrandt had accused Dillashaw before the first fight of using PEDs, which Dillashaw denied.
But Dillashaw tested positive after a loss to Henry Cejudo in 2019 for EPO, the very substance Garbrandt had accused him of using.
“We all knew what T.J. was doing and Cody was saying it, but nobody believed him,” Abdelaziz said. “It’s easy to say you shouldn’t worry about it, but that [substance] he was taking, it made him stronger, it made him faster, it gave him better [endurance]. Of course, that’s going to be an advantage.”
Garbrandt was finally vindicated by Dillashaw’s positive test, but it was Henry and his new teammates, such as Frankie Edgar and Marlon Moraes, that helped him get over the edge.
And Garbrandt decided to use his career as a teaching moment for his son, Kai, as well as for the fans he had developed on his championship run who hung with him through everything.
“I have people who watch me, I have people who look up to me, I have a son who I want to show the work ethic,” Garbrandt said. “I want him to know that no matter how many times you fail at something, you have to pick yourself up and keep marching forward. I wanted everyone to be motivated by what I was able to do.”
It’s only one fight, but this was a different Garbrandt than we’ve seen the last three years. He was calm, he was prepared and he was ready to win.
If that’s the Garbrandt we see, the bantamweight division has another major player at the top of the rankings on its hands.
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