Cody Garbrandt entered 2016 as a promising but unproven prospect and left it as the Ultimate Fighting Championship bantamweight titleholder. It was a meteoric rise, to say the least.
The ink dried on Garbrandt’s remarkable campaign at UFC 207 on Dec. 30, as he struck gold at 135 pounds with a five-round unanimous decision over Dominick Cruz at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. He swept the scorecards with 48-46, 48-47 and 48-46 marks from the judges, improved to 11-0 and cemented himself as the Sherdog “Breakthrough Fighter of the Year.”
Cruz could not cope with the challenger’s speed, power and precision. Garbrandt attacked the legs early on and then went headhunting. He opened a horrendous gash on Cruz’s left eyebrow in the third round and floored him twice in the fourth, first with a clean right hook and later with a left. Needing a finish, Cruz spent the final five minutes trying to chase down the Uhrichsville, Ohio, native. His pursuit appeared to win him the round but failed to net the desired result.
“I always was comfortable in there. I was really curious to see his speed and his angles. Everyone believed the hype of him, saying he’s The Matrix, he’s the ghost in there,” Garbrandt said. “He’s great. I’m not taking anything away from him, but I was almost in shock that he was as slow as he was. His movements and angles weren’t there.”
The loss was Cruz’s first since March 24, 2007 and closed the book on his 13-fight winning streak.
“It played out how I thought it was going to,” Garbrandt said. “Dom is a great champion. He’s arguably one of the greatest bantamweights to ever grace the Octagon, and it was a pleasure going out there and testing my mettle. I had a lot of what ifs, and I think I solved every one of them.”
Fitness was a key factor.
“I come from Team Alpha Male, and that’s something they pride themselves on is world-class cardio,” Garbrandt said. “That’s something I’ve always prided myself on since the beginning of wrestling and boxing is the pace that I would set in training is something my opponents wouldn’t be able to keep up with. That was never a question. I fight ferocious. I fight like that from first round to fifth round. I was living in the moment. It was great to go out there and fight one of the best in the world and do what I did.”
The victory over Cruz was the icing on the cake for Garbrandt, who went 4-0 in 2016 and graduated from prospect to contender to champion. It started at UFC Fight Night 83 on Feb. 21, when “No Love” took care of multiple time-Brazilian jiu-jitsu world champion Augusto Mendes with first-round punches at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh. A short-notice replacement for the Dengue fever-stricken John Lineker, the previously unbeaten Mendes met his end 4:18 into Round 1.
Garbrandt kept the Brazilian grappler at bay with biting leg kicks and fast hands. Mendes wobbled the Ohioan with an uppercut but allowed him to reset and recover. Soon after, Garbrandt leveled the MMA Lab export with an overhand right, raised his hands in victory, took his cue from referee Mario Yamasaki and polished off the finish with a stabbing hammerfist.
He would only pick up steam from there. Garbrandt was slotted opposite fellow prospect Thomas Almeida in the UFC Fight Night 88 main event on May 29 at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas. Almeida was 21-0 with 20 finishes when the match was made and opened as a -260 favorite. He lasted less than three minutes.
Garbrandt zapped the Brazilian with a left hook and refused to be drawn into a brawl, choosing instead to stay patient and pick his spots. Later, he clubbed Almeida with two right hands, the second of which put the former Legacy Fighting Championship titleholder on the canvas. Garbrandt followed with a pair of hammerfists, prompting referee John McCarthy to call for the stoppage 2:53 into Round 1.
“I delivered,” Garbrandt said. “We s--- talked, and he kept calm in there. He’s going to be a future champion, as well, so I’m looking forward to future fights with him. I don’t really have a game plan in there. I just kind of throw. I’m the hardest hitter in the division. I’ll knock anybody out.”
Those words proved prophetic against Takeya Mizugaki, as the two locked horns at UFC 202 on Aug. 20 at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. There, Garbrandt cut down the World Extreme Cagefighting veteran with punches just 48 seconds into the first round. Never before had Mizugaki been dispatched so quickly. Garbrandt dropped the Japanese standout to his knees with a ringing right hand, blasted him with an uppercut, followed up with hammerfists and then drew the curtain with unanswered rights and lefts.
Afterward, he started laying the groundwork for his showdown with Cruz.
“Three first-round finishes -- I don’t see any other bantamweights doing that,” Garbrandt said. “Obviously, if the champ wants it, I want the fight, the fans want it. I believe I deserve a title shot.”
Garbrandt blew past a number of worthy nominees for “Breakthrough Fighter of the Year,” from World Series of Fighting champion Angela Hill to emerging UFC contenders Jimmie Rivera, Raquel Pennington and Derrick Lewis. Hill also went 4-0 in 2016 and captured the WSOF women’s strawweight championship by defeating Livia Renata Souza by split decision on May 7, as she began to fulfill some of the promise she showed on Season 20 of “The Ultimate Fighter.” Meanwhile, Rivera and Pennington surfaced as legitimate top 10 talents in their respective weight classes, and Lewis breathed life into a heavyweight division in desperate need of it.