With a victory on Oct. 4 in Canton, Ohio, at NAAFS: Rock N Rumble 8, Cody Garbrandt will find himself knocking on the UFC’s door.
A knife to the leg can change a person.
Twenty-three-year-old professional bantamweight mixed martial artist Cody Garbrandt learned that fact firsthand in 2011, when an all-out brawl at a local Ohio bar left him wounded and in need of serious medical attention.
After a tense evening inside the tavern, Garbrandt and his friends headed out to their cars, trudging through the rain and gravelly mud clumps along the way when the night’s violent festivities began. One fight kicked off in the parking lot, one-on-one, but another bar-goer quickly jumped in, and the situation spiraled out of control from there.
“When that happens, shit goes south real fast,” Garbrandt said. “It was basically a big melee, man. I just remember putting people out and trying to get to my car…There was a crazy amount of people just wanting to fight, and it was raining, it was muddy out, it was hard. I was in sandals for Christ’s sake!”
As Garbrandt worked toward his car, however, a furious man shouting obscenities cut him off, raising his hands in a motion to fight.
“And he pulls out a knife,” Garbrandt said. “It was a switchblade, actually, and I didn’t realize what it was because he had his hands up when he came at me.”
Luckily for Garbrandt, a lifelong devotion to wrestling and boxing sharpened his combat instincts, and he knocked the knife-wielding brawler out, disarming him and reaching his car in the process. Despite his escape, the Ohio-born fighter emerged from the scrap needing staples in his leg to close a knife wound courtesy of the mad-talking assailant.
In this moment, Garbrandt realized he needed to make a change. Not a career change. Not a change of scenery. He needed to grow up, and that’s exactly what he did.
“It made me realize that I was risking my life doing what I was doing at the time,” Garbrandt said. “I wasn’t doing what I needed to be doing, so I got back in the gym.”
Attentive readers probably noticed problem number one for the young Mr. Garbrandt: He was hanging out at bars until closing time as an underage teenager. While he boasted considerable success as an amateur wrestler and boxer—he won states in wrestling as a freshman and eventually hung up the boxing gloves with a 32-1 record—Garbrandt had not yet fallen into the lifestyle of a dedicated, professional mixed martial artist. To his credit, Garbrandt was still technically an amateur fighter as far as athletic commissions were concerned. Already well into his career as an amateur boxer, Garbrandt decided to try MMA at the age of 18, losing to then 0-1 Nick Hyatt via rear-naked choke at NAAFS: War on the Shore 3 in July of 2009.
Still, his athletic pedigree and his will to succeed propelled him forward after the loss. Garbrandt and his brother, Zach, 10 months Cody’s elder, wrestled virtually their entire lives, falling hard for the sport in fourth grade and continuing to dedicate themselves to the grind from there.
“You don’t really notice it when you’re younger, but now when you look at it and you’re older, you understand the whole success aspect of it,” Garbrandt said. “I think being in a wrestling environment and grinding and doing that—losing tournaments, winning tournaments—you’ll get a competitiveness in you that fuels you to win and be successful.”
“At a young age, we were doing our schoolwork then driving,” Garbrandt said. “We used to drive to Jeff Jordan’s (State Champ) Camp two-and-a-half hours one way two days a week and back. Get down there, wrestle, then come back. It was a grind. We’ve been grinding since we were little kids. You wanted to win, wanted to be successful, wanted to rack up those medals.”
Rack up the medals he did. In addition to his first-place finish in states as a freshman, Garbrandt took second as a sophomore and was named an All-Ohio linebacker as junior.
“Football’s a simple game, man,” Garbrandt said. “If you get the ball, you run your ass off to try to get the touchdown; if someone else has the ball, you try to find a way to tackle them. It’s kind of simple, and I ended up being good just by being hard-nosed.”
At the same time, Garbrandt continued to express an interest in boxing, a sport he took up at the age of 14. Trained by his uncle, Robert Meese—a standout former professional boxer and training partner to some of the sport’s best—Garbrandt paved the way to a 32-0 boxing record before losing a decision in his final amateur match.
“I actually lost my last amateur boxing match, if you can call it a loss, honestly,” Garbrandt said. “They gave it to the kid. I was showboatin’. The kid had 20 pounds on me because my guy didn’t show up…I wish I could get that one back, but I’m on to bigger things than that.”
Losing fights because of showboating. Hanging out at bars. Getting in parking-lot brawls. There’s the old Garbrandt rearing his head, representing the fighter of the past, the fighter who wasn’t sure where he was going or how he was getting there.
After the bar fight which left him with a fancy new battlewound, Garbrandt lost for the second time as an amateur inside the cage, halting what would have been a five-fight winning streak via third-round knockout to Jerrell Hodge. Combined with the recent misfortune outside the Ohio bar, Garbrandt had all the persuasions he needed to finally step back and make that change.
“When I came back after that fight (at the bar), I got knocked out,” Garbrandt said. “I trained hard, but it just goes to show, man, anything can happen. I needed that. Since I got knocked out, my last five opponents I’ve knocked out. I really think that’s what turned me around.
“I turned pro, and I knew, ‘OK, this is not amateur bullshit.’ You can’t live an amateur lifestyle when you’re trying to be pro. That’s what a lot of these pro fighters do. They’re ‘pro’ status as far as calling themselves pro. Anybody can be pro. There’s levels to it, you know? For me, ‘pro’ is real. If you’re a professional athlete, you better act like one. So I made some life changes. I got out of the bars, quit drinking, quit f***ing around.”
Now, the Garbrandt that exists is barely comparable to the one who lost to Hodge in 2012. Strip away his signature ink-covered skin canvas and one might be able to pass off present-day Cody Garbrandt as a different person entirely.
Currently living in Sacramento, California, Garbrandt calls the esteemed camp Team Alpha Male home, and training with UFC standouts such as bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw and featherweight superstar Urijah Faber has given Garbrandt the confidence and the tools—both mental and physical—to go out and to compete at his peak abilities.
And his peak abilities are pretty damn good.
Garbrandt is 4-0 as a professional—all via knockout—and he strolls into an Oct. 4 showdown against Charles Stanford (5-2) at NAAFS: Rock N Rumble 8 in Canton, Ohio, with a lifetime goal suspended just inches in front of him. He’s already turned down an offer to compete in an upcoming bantamweight tournament for Bellator MMA, and there’s only one other place he wants to be: among the world’s best inside the historic UFC Octagon.
“I don’t have Bellator in my dreams. It’s not in my vision. I believe in signs, I believe in visions that I have, and I’m not going to settle for less than I believe I’m worth,” Garbrandt said. “I’m going to be a superstar, you know? I know I’m going to put in the work. It just takes time. They say Rome wasn’t built in a day. I’m only 4-0. I know I’m 4-0 with four knockouts, but it’s hard to get into the UFC; it’s even harder to stay in. So when I get in the UFC, I want to be a household name. I want people to remember me. I want to build a legacy and leave it. I want to get there and stay and retire in the UFC.
“I’m excited to fight and get in there and get my hands on this dude. He’s standing in the way. He’s why I can’t sleep at night. He’s in the road. He’s trying to be a roadblock, and I’m going to get past him with some violence.”
After that, Garbrandt’s vision is clear. The next logical step takes him to the world’s top mixed martial arts organization, where he will test his skills against the 135-pound elite.
“I believe that the UFC is like the NFL of MMA, and that’s where I want to be,” Garbrandt said. “I see myself walking out to the UFC arena with Team Alpha Male behind me and with my UFC gloves on. I get goosebumps thinking about it. I dream about it all the time. That’s what my ambitions are.”
From getting stabbed in a parking lot to testing himself against the world’s best on a daily basis, establishing himself as a top prospect for the UFC, it’s safe to say that Garbrandt has that whole “growing up” thing down pat. And he’s still just 23 years old. And he’s still evolving. And he’s still learning.
Even worse, he can sense his goal just over the top of the hill, and he’s cresting quickly. One more knockout, and it just might be his.