Tuesday September 6th, 2016

Cody Garbrandt, adorned in a custom suit, steps out of a bus and heads towards the service entrance of the new T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. He is squarely focused on the task at hand, a showdown with veteran Takeya Mizugaki, one of the biggest fights of his life, in the coveted Fox Sports featured bout on the most visible pay-per-view of the year.

As Garbrandt reaches the rolled up garage door, he walks through a metal detector. His eyes begin to scan the throng of people awaiting his arrival. Just as the rush of air conditioning funneling out of the arena hits him, so does the gaze of UFC bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz. 

Garbrandt isn’t a stranger to Cruz, a familiar agitator not only to him but to his Team Alpha Male teammates as well. Cruz, who was on hand for his responsibilities with the Fox Sports coverage team, immediately makes his presence known in an effort to intimidate Garbrandt, potentially distracting him from his fight a few hours away.

Cruz had belittled Garbrandt in the days prior, calling him the CM Punk of the bantamweight division, implying he has “daddy issues,” and claiming he owes his success to the reputation of his team. 

This wasn’t the first run-in between the two; a similar meeting backstage after UFC 199, also allegedly started by Cruz, sparked an exchange of unpleasantries. Garbrandt stood his ground, let the champion know how he felt, and walked off to handle his business. It was nothing new for for a guy who has been fighting bullies his whole life. 

“I beat the bullies up,” he told Sports Illustrated. “I got suspended a lot for beating up kids in our schools that were bullying other, sometimes mentally handicapped kids. That always pissed me off. That’s why I don’t like Dominick, he tries to be a bully.”

Garbrandt wasn’t bullied himself, but he wouldn’t sit back while other kids were targeted by the local faux-tough guys in his school.

“I guess I had a soft spot in my heart,” said Garbrandt, whose fighter nickname is ‘No Love.’ “I could only imagine if you were not the popular kid, or not gifted athletically, or whatever, and people bullied you and made fun of you. I always brought those kids to my lunch table in high school and junior high. I feel like everyone’s equal, I never thought I was better than anybody.

“I just thought they’re humans and they wanted to be accepted for who they are. They didn’t know any better. It wasn’t their choice.” 

Garbrandt carries their faces with him, a rolodex of memories that help him keep track of the timeline of his own life.

“I remember vividly when I almost got suspended. There was this kid, his name was Isaac, he was one of the nicest kids ever. I’ve had him in my home room since seventh grade and he would always come and say, 'What’s up' and rock pound you. Super smart kid, great kid. He got picked on because he was a little slower, a little different. But every morning he’d come say, 'What’s up' and rock pound, always a smile and always happy, Garbrandt said. “People were making fun of him, but really he should’ve been making fun of them because they got life all wrong. He is happy with life and enjoying life and full of spirit.

“It was my freshman or sophomore year, I remember him coming down with his lunch tray and he always sat with us. This kid stuck out his foot and tripped him, and he crashed with his tray and probably felt embarrassed because it was in front of the whole student body. It was right before the state sectionals and I remember just running up there to the top of the cafeteria and picking the kid up that tripped him and slamming him on top of the cafeteria table and we got into a little scrap.”

Noble as they were, these scuffles weren’t making things any easier for Garbrandt, who had a tough enough life as it was. Isaac was tripped in the week before sectionals, the tournament leading into Ohio’s state wrestling title, an event Garbrandt was entering with a lot of hype behind him.

His wrestling coach’s wife, who was a teacher at the school, saw Garbrandt fighting the bully who tripped Isaac and pulled Garbrandt away, perhaps saving the bully as well. She knew what Garbrandt was risking by defending his classmate.

“I didn’t care,” Garbrandt said. “It was an important time in my life. I was about to wrestle for a state title the next week and I remember that kid tripping him. I still didn’t care, I always liked Isaac and that is one of the stories I’ll always remember.”

Garbrandt went on to win the state tournament that year as a freshman, a week after standing up for Isaac.

These incidents were headaches for his mother, Jessica Enos, who raised Garbrandt and his brother mostly by herself. 

She tried everything to curtail the schoolyard brawls, including bringing her son in for discipline on her own. Once, Garbrandt entered their home with blood flowing from his nose. Jessica knew instantly that he had gotten into another fight on his way home from school, so she put Cody in the car, drove him to school and got him suspended.

“She was never too pleased with us, but she knew we grew up rough,” Garbrandt said. “I think it got to the point and she knew that I was going to fight. She knew who I was and accepted me for who I was. Obviously she would be upset that I’d come home and be suspended from school, cause that’s me missing out on school and getting in trouble. She raised us to her best ability. She is angelic and I’m so thankful for her.

“In seventh grade she was just tired of me fighting, then after that we started doing a little bit of boxing and wrestling and focusing on wrestling.”

That wasn’t the beginning of the journey for Garbrandt, however. He had spent time boxing with his uncle since before he started school. His uncle would use flip flops as pads for a 4-year-old Garbrandt to hit, and Garbrandt would spar with his older brother, Zach.

“I couldn’t even lift up those 16 ounce gloves, I was so small. I just remember trying to hold them up to tag Zach, giving it everything,” Garbrandt said. “Zach was a natural, slipping and moving and hitting me with the jab. He was my uncle’s buddy, he got coached and everything, but I never gave up.”

The boys were constantly roughhousing and eventually Garbrandt’s mother enrolled them in a wrestling program. Her brother had been a wrestler and she preferred that sport to boxing, fearful as she was that her sons would become punch drunk. 

That’s when Garbrandt found his calling and fell in love. Garbrandt had always had natural talent and a fierce competitive drive. But when he began wrestling seriously he also discovered a whole new world of gyms, tournaments and opportunities to travel around the country.

“It’s what we loved to do, we loved wrestling as hard as it is. Wrestling is the hardest sport in the world, hands down. She loved us doing that and took us everywhere,” Garbrandt said.

Jessica made sacrifices to help her son do what he loved. She scrimped and saved, wearing the same pair of shoes for years at a time to make sure her sons had everything they needed. She saved up money to make sure her son could compete in tournaments across the country, packing up their minivan and driving herself. Garbrandt’s adoptive father did the same, when he was with Jessica, driving Garbrandt to and from tournaments around the country.

“She went above and beyond to make sure we were taken care of,” Garbrandt recalled. “She wanted that for us. She always made sure every one of her kids was taken care of and loved. I can’t be more thankful for the mother I have.”

She became a role model for Garbrandt.

“I would say she’s instilled a lot of humility, humbleness, nonjudgmental … especially coming from a small country town. We grew up right and she raised us to the best of her ability,” Garbrandt said.

And his relentless drive is a product of his mother.

“I was always competitive and she was always pushing me to get better,” Garbrandt said. “She always said, When we start something we don’t quit. She never let us quit. There was never an ounce of quit in us, never. No matter if we were getting our a-- beat in the wrestling room, practice, the matches, the football games, the boxing matches, the fights. We never quit. My mom instilled that attitude in us, that never quit, never surrender.”

Garbrandt isn’t even sure if it was intentional on his mother’s part, but that attitude was the greatest impression she made on him.

“That right there is why I’m so successful. That attitude that she showed us as a kid,” Garbrandt said. “She showed us tough love and to never quit. When you start something you finish it. When you say you’re going to do something, you do it.”

Garbrandt has been looking to reward a mother that put her unconditional faith and belief in him when he laid out his goals as a middle schooler. 

“I envisioned being a world champion since I was 12, 13 years old,” he said. “I envisioned Dana White strapping the gold belt around my waist and saying, ‘and new UFC champion.’ I used to wake up from dreams that were so real my heart would be racing. But nope, we’re not there… still got three more hours of sleep and we’re going to go to our first workout. We’re going to keep grinding. You’re not going to be in the struggle forever. I kept the light at the end of the tunnel and that was always the gold title, the gold strap. 

“This is my destiny.” 

After winning a state title as a freshman and finishing in second during his sophomore year, he saw his wrestling career take a turn for the worse. A back injury kept him sidelined during his junior year, and a fight his senior year got him kicked out of school.

Still, his talent was undeniable and he decided to try his hand at nationals, where he received All-America honors. Division 1 programs like Rutgers, Penn State and Michigan State came calling, but Garbrandt’s disinterest in academics prevented him from seizing those opportunities.

“I was a s----head I didn’t grasp the whole schooling. I thought I was an athlete,” Garbrandt said. “That’s where I went wrong and that’s where some of my peers went wrong who should’ve been pushing me in that aspect.”

As a young adult, Garbrandt was at a crossroads, trying to make a living. He entertained going into the coal mining profession, but opted against it. He was still dreaming of the moment when Dana White would strap that gold belt around his waist.

“Since I left wrestling and the way I left, it’s left a bad taste in my mouth and it has me hungry,” Garbrandt said. “I believe everything happens for a reason and I’m thankful for the path I’ve chosen in my life.”

Garbrandt’s blue-collar work ethic took over as he set out to make his presence on the fight circuit known. He began competing in amateur MMA and boxing matches, fighting whoever he could find, however they wanted.

And Garbrandt was good. He began boxing when he was still in high school, racking up 30-plus wins and losing just once. At the age of 18, he began an amateur MMA career, which he finished with a record of 6-2 before making his professional debut in 2012. He hasn’t lost since.

Garbrandt broke his hand in his professional debut after knocking out his opponent in the first round. That’s when Garbrandt made the decision to visit Sacramento, Calif., to train with Urijah Faber and Team Alpha Male, one of the best gyms in the MMA community. 

Eventually, Garbrandt moved out there permanently to fully commit to a career MMA, and his UFC debut soon followed. 

Garbrandt’s first fight was against Marcus Brimage at UFC 182. He dispatched his veteran opponent with a late third-round knockout. Seven months later, Garbrandt picked up his second win, at UFC 189, after the judges scored the fight in his favor—the only time in his professional career his fate has been left in the judges’ hands. 

In early 2016, Garbrandt fought in Pittsburgh, near his hometown. He knocked out Augusto Mendes late in the first round.

Momentum began to build, and the undefeated Garbrandt was rewarded with a main event slot against his toughest opponent to date, the also undefeated Thomas Almeida. Garbrandt, 8-0 at the time, was a relative newcomer to the sport compared to Almeida, who had 20-plus wins without a loss. Garbrandt knocked him out in under three minutes.

A week later, at UFC 199, Garbrandt ran into UFC bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz while backstage with his mentor Urijah Faber, who Cruz had just beaten. 

That’s when it began to sink in. Garbrandt was on the cusp of seeing his UFC championship dream become a reality. 

“I know that this is my time. I’ve been patient, I’ve put in the work. I’ve struggled. I’m more observing. You see me surging. You see me performing. You see me living under the spotlight. You see me living under the pressure,” Garbrandt said. 

“From the underdog beginnings, the humble beginnings. From my mom raising us through all the adversity. That was a test to see if I am worthy of these times now, that are upon me. And they’re upon me, and I’m focused full-steam ahead that I’m going to be the world champion. I’ve never felt such a burning desire in my soul, in my heart, in my mind, in my training, in my everyday life to do this. 

“I remember dreaming of it and it feeling so real that it would wake me from a dead sleep. Then you come to the realization that you’re not the world champion so you have to keep grinding. But I clung on to that dream through everything, through the dark times, the good times, the highs, the lows, the peaks, the valleys, the injuries, the obstacles, the adversity, all of that. I kept my dream and now I’m here.”

Garbrandt returned to the cage roughly three months after beating Almeida, at UFC 202, one of the biggest events of the year because of the main event, a rematch between Conor McGregor and Nate Diaz. The UFC booked Garbrandt to fight veteran Takeya Mizugaki in the highly visible featured bout of the Fox Sports 1 prelims.

Garbrandt knocked out Mizugaki in under a minute, his unforgiving attack having overwhelmed the veteran. It was his third first-round knockout of 2016, and third in a row.

Veteran commentator Joe Rogan stepped into the octagon to interview the winner. But Garbrandt’s gaze remained fixed on the Fox Sports news desk situated at the top of the arena, where Cruz was looking down in his direction. 

Rogan let Garbrandt know that Cruz had expressed an interest in fighting him, just under three months after Cruz denied knowing who Garbrandt was at the post-UFC 199 press conference. Garbrandt didn’t break his stare, speaking directly to the champion.

"I'm gonna break your jaw," he said. 

The fight has yet to be booked, but it is expected to be the next bout for both men given the build up and disdain between challenger and champion. For Garbrandt, it could be the last step in realizing a life-long goal, fulfilling a promise he made to his mother when he was still a teenager.  

Garbrandt is brimming with confidence, stemming from the adversity he has overcome over the course of his life, and the opponents that have crumbled before him and his heavy hands. He knows in his heart that he will defeat the greatest 135-pounder the UFC has ever seen, and begin his journey as the sport’s next bantamweight king.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.