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It’s hard to believe, but Cody Garbrandt is still only 28. The knockout artist and former Ultimate Fighting Championship bantamweight titleholder—who returns to action Saturday at UFC 250—feels like he has lived many lifetimes in the Octagon. He was the upstart fighter in his early 20s rising up through the ranks. He rose to the top of the sport. He then fell all the way back down with a series of knockout losses that almost felt like a career coda. He now returns over a year later, still younger than UFC on ESPN 9 rising star Jamahal Hill, a man fresh off Dana White’s Contender Series.
Many have written off Garbrandt in spite of his young age. It’s difficult to survive at the top level when you can’t take a good shot and the repeated knockout losses have raised serious doubts about whether Garbrandt can still do so. It’s also the nature of those shots, as he has gone clean out multiple times. The last time it was against Pedro Munhoz, who is a very good fighter but hardly known for his concussive power. If Munhoz’s power is too much, it doesn’t bode well for matchups with Marlon Moraes or Petr Yan.
Perhaps the skeptics will be proven right. After all, not all fighters compete at the elite level until their mid-30s. Miguel Torres, one of the great 135-pound fighters of all-time, fell precipitously after his 28th birthday. Fellow all-time bantamweight Norifumi Yamamoto wasn’t the same after 30. Injury played a role in that, but the lower weight classes in particular can be rough when you age. Those challengers are amplified when you can’t be sure how your chin will hold up in an exchange.
Of course, more fans are likely to root for Garbrandt to begin an enthralling comeback story. He was strongly marketed as a rising fighter in significant part because of his crowd-pleasing style. Garbrandt went looking for knockouts, and he usually got them. His losses came not in timid stalemates but rather in exciting brawls where his desire to win spectacularly and to not back down overcame his caution. It’s sad to see fighters punished for exhibiting the traits we celebrate in them: courage and grit.
There’s reason for hope in a Garbrandt rebound, because he has so many positives going for him. He’s athletic, tough, powerful and skilled. He will almost certainly need to adjust his style in order to better protect his chin, but that can be done. We’ve seen it principally in the heavyweight division, where fighters like Alistair Overeem and Andrei Arlovski went from two of the most feared and aggressive knockout artists to more cautious technicians.
If anything, Garbrandt may have an easier task protecting his chin in the bantamweight division. At heavyweight, pretty much every opponent has dangerous knockout power because heavyweights are simply bigger human beings. Knockout rates are lower in the lighter weight classes, and that provides a greater margin of error as Garbrandt moves to prioritize defense.
Take Garbrandt’s UFC 250 opponent: Raphael Assuncao. He remains one of the best fighters in the weight class and is perpetually underappreciated for how good of a fighter he is in reality. However, of his 20 fights in the UFC, he has only finished two via knockout or technical knockout. That 10 percent LO rate is on the low side in the bantamweight division, where the overall knockout rate sits around 25 percent. At heavyweight, where around half of fights end via knockout, it’s pretty much unheard of for a fighter of Assuncao’s caliber to knock out opponents at such a low rate.
Other elite bantamweights like Cory Sandhagen and Aljamain Sterling also are not known for their brutal power. This does not mean bantamweight is an easy division to navigate; it’s currently deep with high-level talent. Luckily for Garbrandt, those fighters’ greatest strengths don’t naturally target his biggest weakness. He’s got a challenging path ahead of him to reach his former status, but with adjustments, he may be able to resolve the reason he fell from that perch.
The fact that Garbrandt is in the co-feature at UFC 250 over Sterling-Sandhagen—if not for the bantamweight belt being vacant, their encounter would be to establish the No. 1 contender—speaks to the clout that the Ohio native still possesses. It also speaks to the longstanding and unfortunate UFC lack of appreciation for Sterling and Sandhagen, but that’s a subject for another time.
Garbrandt is in a prominent position against a top opponent despite three straight knockout losses because hope remains that the still young “No Love” is capable of working his way back. In an unpredictable sport, forecasting the future for Garbrandt feels particularly difficult. It seems entirely possible he might never again be the fighter he once was, but it also seems conceivable he could quickly become a reinvigorated force if he can make the right adjustments. Garbrandt knows better than most how quickly fortunes can rise or fall.
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