Cody Garbrandt

If you were to ask the average MMA fan in January of 2017, shortly after Cody Garbrandt had put together what was arguably the most outstanding title performance we had seen in the UFC against the former king of the division Dominick Cruz, how long they thought he’d reign as champion, it’s very likely that some would say he’d retire undefeated. Up until that point, the rising star had mostly looked invincible, having an undefeated record against great stars of the bantamweight division like the former rising star Thomas Almeida, Takeya Mizugaki, and the seemingly-invincible Dominick Cruz. The highlight reel fighter had become one of the youngest champions of all time at 27 years old with a meteoric rise to title contention, backed by some of the most excellent boxing in the UFC and solid grappling to back it.

Fast forward six years, and he’s become an afterthought of the division. More skilled strikers like Sean O’Malley, Cory Sandhagen, Marlon Vera, and Petr Yan have appeared to lap him, and dangerous grapplers like current champion Aljamain Sterling and Merab Dvalishvilli never had to deal with him in the first place. People who have beaten him, albeit not without some trouble, like Pedro Munhoz and Rob Font have fallen out of the top five of the division, and, in Garbrandt’s first attempt to compete at flyweight, he was knocked out in the first round against the rising star in Kai Kara-France. So the question has been raised to a large portion of the fanbase: What’s happened to one of the most fascinating fighters to watch on the roster?

Following his win against Dominick Cruz, Garbrandt was pitted against his former teammate and rival T.J. Dillashaw in an extremely anticipated fight. He actually looked fairly great in this fight, knocking Dillashaw down in the first and putting him on shaky legs. However, the second round of this bout revealed one of the biggest deficits in Cody’s game, his unwillingness to leave the pocket. Cody and T.J. entered the pocket to trade and it only took one sharp right hook and some follow-up shots for the air of invincibility in Garbrandt’s striking to dissipate. 

Cody got an immediate rematch after this, given the drama between the two fighters and the fact that the first fight was a major success for the promotion. This fight largely went the same, with the only differences being that Garbrandt scored zero knockdowns and was finished in the first round rather than the second.

Cody Garbrandt: The rise and fall of a former champion 1Cody Garbrandt: The rise and fall of a former champion 2

Garbrandt took almost a year off after this, and rightfully so. The young fighter had fought eight times in under three years since he had entered the UFC and would get booked opposite of the at-the-time rising star Pedro Munhoz to open the UFC 235 main card. Garbrandt was looking like his old self for the majority of the first round, firing solid low kicks and using crisp head movement to shoot sharp jabs and hooks. However, old habits die hard, and Garbrandt eventually found himself in the pocket, yet again, trading hook after hook with a fighter known for his more than capable chin. By the end of the round, Garbrandt had been dropped by a right hand, with Marc Goddard stepping in to end the fight.

It was at this point that fans began to worry about Garbrandt. There have been far too many cases like that of Chuck Liddell, Renan Barao, and Johnny Hendricks that told the story of fighters with meteoric rises to stardom only to fall once their chins had faded. Cody was starting to look like one of these stars, and so the matchmaking at the UFC had to be careful in who they paired him up against next. 

After over a year-long layoff, Garbrandt found himself in one of the first post-pandemic fight cards at UFC 250, this time against a fellow star of the same era, Raphael Assuncao. The two had come off of a combined five consecutive losses and so the fight made a lot of sense from a matchmaking standpoint. Garbrandt once again looked like his old self in this fight, landing sharp low kicks and putting his boxing to good work. He danced around the cage with phenomenal footwork to avoid the threat of the takedown and, eventually in the second round, knocked Assuncao out with a single right hand at the buzzer, almost out of a movie. Up until that point, Assuncao had only been knocked out once in 2011, so in a lot of ways this fight showed that Garbrandt still had dynamite in his hands and could still hang with the top tiers of the division, as long as he stayed defensively responsible. In short, Garbrandt was back with a bang.

Cody Garbrandt: The rise and fall of a former champion 1Cody Garbrandt: The rise and fall of a former champion 2

That was until a year later when he was put back into a main event spot against Rob Font. Garbrandt didn’t even look bad in this fight, showing some of his wrestling background by trying to take Font to the canvas and winning the first round. I’d be lying if I said that he wasn’t outclassed though. Whether it was Font’s granite chin, which would later get proven in his next bouts against Jose Aldo and Marlon Vera, or his boxing style fundamentally being a strong counter against Cody, Garbrandt just didn’t look himself in this fight, eventually being beaten in a unanimous 49-46 decision.

It was at this point that most fans came to the cruel acceptance that Garbrandt simply wasn’t cut out to be a contender in the division that he had previously looked invincible. Font was no slouch, but from an X’s and O’s standpoint, it was Garbrandt’s kind of fight: a striker with limited power who didn’t like to sit in the pocket, but even that proved to be difficult for the former champion. Cody’s career was largely up in the air at this point. The matchmakers had given him multiple chances to remain in the top five of the division, but too many rising stars were entering their prime and Cody’s lack of wins against top contenders essentially forced him out of the top ten. Something needed to change, which made his next career choice understandable to most fans. 

In what seemed like a sudden move to flyweight, Garbrandt was paired up against the always-game Kai Kara-France, a young and powerful striker who had a slow but noticeable rise to the top of the flyweight division. A win would certainly put Garbrandt into the title picture of flyweight and bring his prestige to new and old fans alike. He was always a fairly small bantamweight and so the move felt like a natural progression in his career. After making weight and having a good exchange with Sean O’Malley, a bantamweight contender with a rise similar to Garbrandt, he entered the cage opposite of Kara-France. However, the fight didn’t go as many fans expected.

This was likely the most depressing bout to view as someone who watched the rise of the former champion, as Kara-France largely made short work of Garbrandt, knocking him out in the first round. I wish I could say that Garbrandt looked good in this bout but, in reality, he didn’t. He was outclassed in every aspect of the fight, taking heavy blow after heavy blow until Herb Dean was forced to stop the fight. Garbrandt’s career, at this point, was largely in the hands of the UFC brass, having lost most of his negotiating leverage and star power.

And that brings us to the modern day leading up to UFC 285, where Garbrandt appears on the prelims for the first time since 2015, against a relative no-name in Trevin Jones. With a loss, it is very likely that the former champion will hang up his gloves and move on to different endeavors like boxing or coaching. However, the more interesting question is: What happens if he wins? What place does Garbrandt have in a division filled with some of the best fighters in the sport? Given his recent record, how many fights is he away from getting back into the title picture; that is, if he ever makes it to that point? He’s only 31 years old, which is relatively young for the UFC with champions like Glover Texeira gaining the title well past his athletic prime, and still has time to put together a solid win streak.

Cody Garbrandt: The rise and fall of a former champion 1Cody Garbrandt: The rise and fall of a former champion 2

As, someone who’s grown up watching Cody, and even rooting for him despite the fact that he outclassed my favorite fighter at the time, Dominick Cruz, a part of me wants him to win. A part of me wants him to put forward a striking masterclass, once again, and show the world how exciting his style could be. But, with that in mind, what’s the point if he does? Even if he gets past Jones and puts together a decent win streak, I still don’t think that he could hang in the upper echelons of the current bantamweight division. If small fighters like Kai Kara-France could knock him out and inconsistent fighters like Rob Font could cruise to win a decision against him, who’s to say what a terminator like Cory Sandhagen or Marlon Vera could do to him, or how much the grinders of the division like Merab Dvalishvili could make him look like an amateur. 

In my opinion, Garbrandt’s rise and fall is a great allegory for the current change of the guard within the UFC. If you were to look at the champions who reigned alongside Garbrandt at the time; Miesha Tate, Jose Aldo, Eddie Alvarez, Tyron Woodley, Michael Bisping, etc. all of them have either retired by now or moved onto different things, with the only exceptions being Max Holloway and Jon Jones. 

The main difference between Garbrandt and these former champions, however, is that Garbrandt is still only 31 years old. On paper, without considering the knockouts he’s been put through, he’s one of the only athletes in his division still in his athletic prime and has plenty of potential. However, I believe that the skill gap in this new generation of fighters could leave Garbrandt in the dust, and this next fight against Trevin Jones will prove if he still has the mental and physical faculties to still hang in the sport, let alone compete against the savages far ahead of him in the current rankings.

Cody Garbrandt vs. Trevin Jones will feature on the UFC 285 preliminary card. Order the UFC 285 PPV event on ESPN+ to watch every fight live on Saturday, March 4.

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