SACRAMENTO, California -- Cody Garbrandt operates under the belief that yesterday’s stitches become today’s worthwhile scars.
The Ultimate Fighting Championship bantamweight is covered in tattoos. Ink may be more common today than ever, but the trend obscures the fact that tattooing is at its core a ritual scarification process -- a process the 24-year-old takes to heart. He is willing to endure the many pains life offers because he knows scars demonstrate character, no matter what judgments are lobbed his way due to physical marks.
After a Tuesday morning mid-camp practice at Ultimate Fitness, home to Urijah Faber’s Team Alpha Male, Garbrandt sat on a blue bench in front of the gym’s lockers near the front desk, reflecting on a decade of fighting in the ring and a lifetime of fighting outside it. The heavy-hitting 135-pounder explained his numerous negative experiences have shaped him into a person willing to give a stranger in need the shirt off his back. However, people observe he is covered in tattoos -- they especially react to his neck -- and assume the worst.
“Mother [expletives] drop a fork when you walk in somewhere,” Garbrandt told Sherdog.com.
His neck reads “self made” under a diamond with wings. In Garbrandt’s world, he is “stitched with good intentions.” The diamond is solid and luminous, originating from intense pressure. It serves as a visual representation of Garbrandt’s story. The wings remind him to never accept anything less than soaring. He dreams of flying high and seems hell bent on achieving once unthinkable heights. Garbrandt believes everyone can start something but only those who bite down, finish and see it through truly take flight. After all, as he later asked, “Why be afraid to dream? Dreaming’s free.”
Garbrandt’s earned a reputation at the gym. He embodies the team’s future. Faber took a moment after training to put over the young fighter, asserting Garbrandt’s most recent performance -- a first-round knockout against Augusto Mendes in February -- was his strongest in eight career appearances. Such confidence furthers Faber’s estimation that the Ohio native will be UFC champion someday. Garbrandt embraces his role in representing the team’s defacto slogan: “Team Alpha Male vs. Everybody.”
“Whatever the sport brings me and gives to me, whether it’s the highest highs or lowest lows, I’m ready for,” Garbrandt said. “I believe that’s why I’m having success. I know if I get knocked off the top, I’ve been at the bottom before. I came back. I can come back from that. I’m not afraid to lose my fight.”
Fearlessness ranks among the most useful qualities in fighting. Garbrandt mentioned hitting the lowest of lows, even though he has never been defeated in his pro mixed martial arts career. His hardscrabble, Midwest rust-belt upbringing fuels his California dreaming.
“I fight with relentlessness to go out there and be a savage,” Garbrandt said. “I have my pen and paper to write my future, but this guy across from me who is doing the same s--- is trying to steal it from me. That gives me motivation to hurt him. That’s why I don’t glove touch. I don’t like to talk to you. I like it when you s--- talk me. That’s fine. It’s a fight.”
His words may sound like attitude, but they are born of self-preservation. In Uhrichsville, Ohio, Garbrandt fought fiercely to survive. He battled to defend his name and family as one of the have nots. He started boxing with his uncle at 4 years old. He was the kid teachers went out of their way to declare had no future. The second oldest among four brothers and three sisters, he grew up fighting. It was literally a competition: Who gets to eat? In that way, he is a born fighter.
“You can go back to any of my teachers, from first grade all the way up to my senior year: ‘Cody was always fighting.’ Doesn’t matter who it was -- coaches, people in the stands, whatever,” Garbrandt said. “They looked at me like a troublemaker, but I just wasn’t going to take anyone’s s---.”
Garbrandt’s biological father was never in his life, a drug addict who was willing to chase any high. To this day, the habit has him locked up. Garbrandt’s mother’s ex-husband adopted him when he was 10. At 14, he was on wrestling treks in the heartlands, although organized competition would not keep him from outside fights. Fighting kept Garbrandt on the outskirts, where he figured out he could move away from that life if he became a pro.
Still, Garbrandt attempted to abide by other’s expectations of him while entrenched in the beginnings of a fight career. So he went out for the football team. During two-a-day practices his senior year, someone no longer at the school wandered into a weight room scrap with Garbrandt and was worse off for the incident. The school had designs on suspending Garbrandt for six months, as the pull to fight stifled his collegiate wrestling aspirations.
At a crossroads, Garbrandt begged for his mother’s permission to fight because he had no interest in going down the career path his family knew best: coal mining. Taking a nine-to-five job to get by, in his view, was selling out his greater ambitions. It was troubling for him to go against convention in this instance, but he assured himself it was necessary. All she asked was that if he did pursue fighting, he would deliver 100 percent. Garbrandt excelled in amateur boxing, and his mother has never missed one of wrestling meets, boxing matches or MMA fights. He recalls her blessing every morning and vows to live up to it. Becoming a fighter had other benefits.
“That’s when I started feeling complete,” Garbrandt said. “I had a void in my life for so long. I don't know if it’s [that] my father was in prison and wasn’t in my life. You don’t know at that age. You kind of do some soul searching at a young age, and some people use those crutches their whole entire life. I didn’t. I always thought about it. I never heard a successful person make excuses. They make mistakes, but they never make excuses.”
Excuses are abundant in Garbrandt’s recollection of his hometown. He resented his father for being a drug addict, or in his words, a “coward.” Fighting allowed him to leave all the anger, rage and blame behind.
“Why do I have hatred for this guy I don’t know?” he asked. “I don’t love him but I don’t hate him, because I don’t know him.”
Garbrandt’s desire to fight was about overcoming the past, until it became solely about fashioning a worthwhile future. Despite being a fighter in every sense of the word, his career was nearly over before it began.
Going for Broke Out West
Garbrandt drove 90 minutes each way every day to kick start his training at local gyms in Ohio and Pennsylvania. He awoke at 4 a.m., completed his first workout and then worked construction all day. He found more bodies with which to train, but they were other nine-to-five workers moonlighting as fighters. It was not enough. Garbrandt mainly sparred with his uncle and hit pads. There was no wrestling or jiu-jitsu involved. He adhered to Muhammad Ali’s wisdom: “Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.” However, he felt limited by the situation, knowing he was not training like a true professional.
Garbrandt’s pro debut in December 2012 brought with it unexpected aggravation. His opponent showed up 13 pounds overweight. Barely old enough to legally drink alcohol, Garbrandt replenished his fluids, checked in at 137 pounds and fought as a featherweight. He broke his right hand after throwing his first punch, and later, a guillotine choke popped out his mouthpiece, causing him to bite his tongue. Surgery to repair the hand injury sidelined him for four months. Then a more serious issue arose. Garbrandt dealt with vertigo, as the bill for his past came due.
“I had some brain trauma, just cumulative concussions I didn’t think were concussions,” he said. “Symptoms of concussions from wrestling, fighting, street fighting -- all that stuff. Cumulative. Just caught up to me.”
Another six months with vestibular therapy corrected his eyes, curtailed his vertigo and restored his chin. The brush with brain trauma and the 11 months out of competition turned fighting into a now-or-never endeavor for Garbrandt. Team Alpha Male’s renowned status in the sport attracted him, and he reached Faber on Twitter. The team has been a “savior” to him since his arrival in late 2013. He had not trained for a year when he stepped through the doors at Ultimate Fitness. Faber looked at the rough kid after four days, inquiring about his motivations. Garbrandt asserted that he wanted to be in the UFC someday and believed this was the place to steer him there. To solidify his position, he flew home for a week, collected his life and headed west permanently to buy into Faber’s positive training lifestyle. It was a whole new world for “No Love.”
“I didn’t grow up in a martial arts background. I grew up street fighting, boxing, wrestling. I wasn’t in a dojo,” Garbrandt said. “I didn’t have a sensei or a master, whatever the hell they call ’em. I grew up just fighting for the love of fighting. I came out here, [and] it was a complete life change, lifestyle change, coming from small-town Ohio, a poor kid from Ohio, to California.”
No stranger to mat time, the blue mats at Team Alpha Male represented the deep mental and physical waters Garbrandt needed to traverse.
“I always wanted to challenge myself,” he said. “Why not take yourself to one of the best gyms in the world against the best fighters in the world and see how you size up?”
The team’s head coach, Justin Buccholz, has helped orchestrate Garbrandt’s rise through the bantamweight ranks.
“He’s kind of got that [Mike] Tyson-like style of viciousness,” Buccholz said. “That’s an advantage.”
Buchholz learns about Garbrandt in the gym on a daily basis. However, it was not until he met the young contender’s family and friends while cornering him that he gained true insight into his motivations.
“He’s had to fight for his life as a teenager,” Buccholz said. “His life has been at risk by another human, and he’s had to fight his way out.”
Garbrandt worked as a bouncer at rowdy bars during his days struggling to become a legitimate fighter. Nearly every weekend, he was physically confronted, slashed at or even stabbed, suffering a knife wound to his calf during one incident. Following another, he had to have a tooth pulled from his hand after nailing someone with a clean punch. Garbrandt has no concept of an easy day’s work. He fights for everything.
“As a young man like that, to knock out a grown man, it puts you at a different level of awareness of everything in the fight,” Buccholz said. “We can train martial arts and do all that stuff ... it’s not essential to have that, but it sure as [expletive] does not hurt. It does not hurt to have that street mentality, that do-or-die mentality. He’s straight gangster, but he’s one of the most high-level athletes, one of the highest-level athletes on the team.”
Garbrandt remains committed to seeing his sacrifices pay off. He will headline UFC Fight Night 88 opposite fellow undefeated prospect Thomas Almeida on Sunday at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas. A win against Almeida -- the Brazilian is 20-0 with 19 finishes -- would carry Garbrandt to heights he has not yet experienced.
“I’m about to have my main event against Thomas Almeida to show the world what kind of level I’m on against a tough, crafty fighter,” he said. “That’s hard work my whole entire life, stepping on the mat since fourth grade ’til I’m 24 now.”
Success has not removed adversity from the picture.
“More temptation comes in your life,” Garbrandt said. “It’s even harder to stay motivated and hungry, but now, when you work your whole life to where you are now, some people can’t handle that success. They crumble under pressure in the spotlight. That’s where I shine.”
Garbrandt has won all eight of his pro bouts, but the thought of losing does not concern him. No matter what happens, he believes will live to fight another day, having already seen some of the worst life has to offer.
“I’m not afraid to lose in there,” he said. “I go out there and fight my heart out, kill or be killed, come back with my shield or on it.”
Garbrandt views Almeida as “a hype train” that has been fed opponents who stood there to accept a beating. The step up in competition excites him.
“Almeida falls and he falls hard,” he said. “I can’t wait. I finish him. I visualize [it]. Everyone seems to forget I asked for this fight. I asked for the tough fights. I don’t ever want to get comfortable. Even if I have money in the bank, I live like I’m poor. You know what I mean? I’m in here three to four times a day. I devote my life to this. I fight like I’m broke. Even if I have money, I’m going to fight like I’m broke. It keeps me hungry and humble.”