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UFC 217’s Cody Garbrandt ready to take his place as sport’s next big thing

Cody Garbrandt
(John Locher / Associated Press)

The way Cody Garbrandt sees it, the back injury that delayed his first UFC title defense was the latest thing to shape his rise from imperfect youth to a champion with a perfect record.

“I’m always being tested in this life. You can say whatever about your own beliefs, but I feel God tests me, so I’m always on my toes,” Garbrandt said. “You’re tested to see if you can handle the win, and the loss.”

By winning the bantamweight belt in December over veteran mixed martial artist Dominick Cruz, Garbrandt (11-0) was positioned for the type of rapid rise that saw Conor McGregor become an international star.

He was given a coaching role on cable television’s “The Ultimate Fighter” against former stablemate and ex-bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw to build up their scheduled July fight, and was penciled in for a variety of other promotions to maximize his audience.

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UFC parent company WME-IMG, the Beverly Hills talent agency, couldn’t have hand-picked a better potential star than Garbrandt, 26, whose turbulent youth — he has a knife wound in his leg and tattoos up his neck — complements his thunderous right hand.

Saturday night in the co-main event of UFC 217 at Madison Square Garden, Garbrandt’s close-up arrives when he and former Cal State Fullerton wrestler Dillashaw (15-3) settle their score.

“We weren’t really friends,” Dillashaw said of his time with Garbrandt in retired UFC fighter Urijah Faber’s Sacramento-based Team Alpha Male gym. “[Garbrandt] was a hungry kid coming in. I had the belt. I coached his practices, held mitts. It was strictly business.”

But while Dillashaw lost his belt to Cruz by a narrow decision, Garbrandt hammered Cruz with the most significant strikes to then claim the belt.

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So what if no one has solved Garbrandt in the octagon yet, Dillashaw said, theorizing he’ll be the first — just like when he won the belt from Brazilian Renan Barao.

“Everyone puts their pants on one leg at a time. I’ve trained with this guy. I know his holes. I’ve seen them. I’ve watched his tape,” Dillashaw said. “Everyone’s beatable. … There’s holes in his game. You’ve seen him change a lot, change his character. … All this fame coming to him is going to mess with him a lot.”

Garbrandt disagrees, contending that the stability and loyalty in his camp contrast with the shifting voices Dillashaw relies on in his fight preparation.

“T.J. was always out for himself. It was about whatever T.J. could get out of it, obviously. Look at him now. He’s all over the place. He’s … on the corner, bouncing around the gyms. He uses everyone until it’s all washed up and then he moves on, and that’s the God’s honest truth,” Garbrandt said. “The truth always comes out, and the truth will come out Nov. 4. I am the truth.”

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Dillashaw admits he counted on multiple voices to shape his preparation for Garbrandt.

“As long as you’re willing to soak up information and learn from everybody that’s worth learning from, it’s going to help me become a new fighter,” Dillashaw said. “The best thing you can do is keep your opponent guessing.”

During Garbrandt’s injury layoff, he and his wife learned their first child, a son, would be born in March. And that blinding allure of a brilliant future in the sport was softened amid the extended downtime before this week’s arrival in New York.

“I went out there and dethroned one of [the UFC’s] best champions — a master-class opponent — and nobody had been able to do anything like that with him,” Garbrandt said.

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In a year when the UFC’s biggest moneymaker was McGregor’s novelty boxing loss to Floyd Mayweather Jr. and the most successful pure UFC card was headlined by Jon Jones, since stripped of his light-heavyweight belt because of a repeat positive performance-enhancing drug test, the organization needs Saturday’s card.

Former welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre returns from a four-year absence to fight for middleweight champion Michael Bisping’s belt in the main event, but Garbrandt thinks his performance will have a more lasting impact.

“We’re the real main event — two guys who don’t like each other, a backstory, two guys who put it on the line all the time,” Garbrandt said. “T.J. had his time; he hit his peak. I looked him in the eyes. Man, he looks old.”


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