Recently signed UFC bantamweight Cody Garbrandt (5-0) strolls into the Octagon Jan. 3 at UFC 182 as a hyped prospect with everything to gain. In more than one way, though, he’s already won.
‘Cody, I’m going to keep fighting. I’m going to beat cancer.’
‘I know you are, buddy. I’m going to keep fighting too, and I’m going to make it to the UFC.’
One conversation with Maddux Maple, a 5-year-old leukemia patient, altered Cody Garbrandt’s life and his career trajectory.
A 5-1 amateur fighter at the time, Garbrandt found himself making poor choices, living a life that he now recognizes was one of desperation and carelessness.
“I used to have to sell drugs to just pay for my gym membership, and I’m not proud of that,” Garbrandt said. “It was a dark time in my life. I had to do what I had to do in the ways of getting money, and I’m not very proud of it, but that’s the past. That’s behind me.”
The then-5-year-old Maple played a major role in that turnaround.
At the suggestion of his brother, Zach, Cody brought Maple into his corner before an amateur fight in February of 2012. Getting the town to rally behind Maple’s cause, Garbrandt entered the cage at NAAFS: Caged Vengeance 10 with a new purpose and one seriously dedicated new fan.
He would lose that fight to Jerrell Hodge via third-round knockout, but the changes were already in place, and their effects were rapidly transforming the Ohio-based fighter.
Garbrandt has not lost since that day.
“I was young, making the wrong decisions, trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life, and Maddux came into my life at the right time,” Garbandt said. “I lean on him when I’m tired and sore and my body’s aching and I’m hurting. I choose to live this lifestyle, and this is a little 5-year-old kid who wakes up every day, and it’s not a choice. He has to fight for his life.”
He remembers their conversation.
“I’m going to beat cancer.”
“I’m going to make it to the UFC.”
Two promises. Two hefty, humongous, extraordinary promises.
Garbrandt, with Maple inspiring him every step of the way, pushed forward. He abandoned his harmful lifestyle and began to work toward a new goal, one he promised to a young boy who was fighting for his life. He was going to make it to the UFC.
Since the loss to Hodge, Garbrandt has won six straight fights, five as a pro, all via knockout. He moved to Sacramento, California, to join the esteemed Team Alpha Male a year ago to further hone his skills with some of the sport’s best, and his latest masterpiece, a 97-second knockout of Charles Stanford at NAAFS: Rock N Rumble 8 in Akron, Ohio, put Garbrandt on UFC officials’ map.
The big break came during a trip to Austin, Texas, where he traveled with teammate Joseph Benavidez to help with the former UFC flyweight title challenger’s UFC Fight Night 57 tilt against Dustin Ortiz.
Benavidez dominated the fight and took home a lopsided decision victory, and Garbrandt said the atmosphere and the energy in the building was positively electric. Helping a teammate prepare for (and win) a big fight is an incredible experience.
But getting signed to the UFC is even better.
“It’s something that I’ve dreamed of ever since I first laced up a boxing glove and stepped into the gym,” Garbrandt said. “I got done working out with Joe Benavidez in the UFC workout room, we just got done doing a shake-out and cutting some weight, and we were headed to the sauna when my manager texted me.
“I went to dinner with them in the resort we were at, and actually (UFC matchmakers) Sean Shelby and Joe Silva were behind them, so my manager texted Shelby to meet me, and Sean came up and shook my hand, asked if I wanted a fight, and that was it. He said the fight’s mine and the contract should be in.”
A promise kept.
Garbrandt held up his end of the deal with Maple.
And Maple held up his, too.
“Four years later, here we are,” Garbrandt said. “The time is upon us, and he beat cancer, he’s in remission now, he’s eight years old, and I’m about to make my UFC debut. I believe everything happens for a reason, and I believe we were brought to each other in this world for a reason.”
Thanks to the help of Martini 97, one of Garbrandt’s sponsors, No Love’s Jan. 3 debut at UFC 182 against Marcus Brimage will be accentuated by a special someone in the crowd. Maple and his family will make the flight to Las Vegas, and they’ll be there to watch their favorite fighter achieve his dreams.
“It’s amazing,” Garbrandt said. “Some of my fights he couldn’t make because he was really sick with the medicine and stuff, but I think the last three fights he came to and was at my fight. It’s just good to know that he’s there after all he went through. It keeps me calm just knowing he’s in the audience cheering me on. After every fight, his dad tells me his hands are beet red and his voice is gone from screaming, ‘Kick him, Cody! Get him!’ And it’s good to have that.
“He looks up to me, but in all reality, I look up to him for everything he’s been through. He’s a lot of my motivation. I have a lot of motivation, but he’s really my hero, to be honest.”
Make that promises kept.
With Maple by his side, Garbrandt navigated the regional scene as a professional fighter, knocking out foe after foe, before realizing his dream to make it to the UFC. As a 23-year-old former Ohio state-champion high school wrestler and 32-1 amateur boxer, Garbrandt’s fighting skills are downright scary.
What’s perhaps scarier, though, is his ability to see the future. When Garbrandt makes a promise, he keeps it, no matter how lofty and unrealistic it may seem. Five years ago, when he began his journey into the world of mixed martial arts, food was scarce, money even more so. On more than one occasion, Garbrandt recalls, donations from Zach and his mother were the only things keeping the ship afloat.
But his will remained intact.
“Give me until I’m 25, mom,” Garbrandt would plead. “I said, ‘Mom, I’ll make it.'”
Two years ahead of schedule, the Tuscarawas County, Ohio (colloquially called “T County” by most), native is 23, and he’s in the big show. His time is now.
Those hardships, the tough times, the backyard brawls, the shady negotiations—all of it shaped Garbrandt to be the man and the fighter he is today. Compared to his 18-year-old self, the current Cody Garbrandt is barely recognizable. He’s changed everything, and he’s now on to conquer his loftiest goal yet: becoming a UFC champion.
“Growing up in the 9-2-2 (T County) was rough,” Garbrandt said. “We grew up rough, but I wouldn’t change anything. I’d do it all over again, because I believe it got me ready. Life is tough.”
Making it to the UFC is tough too, though.
Beating cancer is even tougher.
Making a promise to your mother when you’re down on your luck with nothing but a far-fetched dream suspended in front of you? That’s tough, too.
But all of these troubles were overcome with hard work, determination, grit, belief, faith, and maybe just a touch of luck.
When Garbrandt rides into the Octagon to face Brimage at UFC 182, he’ll have one more prediction left to fulfill, one more promise to keep.
“I’m ready to prove myself to the world,” Garbrandt said. “I’m going to knock Marcus Brimage out, and I’m training hard and I’m going to get it done.
“I believe that my striking is some of the best, it’s elite. My wrestling is solid, it’s getting better every day, and so is my jiu-jitsu. I’m just becoming a more and more well-rounded fighter, and now I get to prove that at the most elite level in the UFC. I want to put on shows for the UFC. I want to be a household name, and this is what I’ve always envisioned, being here, and nobody is going to take that from me.”
That sounds like a promise.
Unfortunately for Brimage, when Garbrandt makes a promise, he comes through on it.