Cody Garbrandt: Born to Fight
Photographs by Chad Griffith
Styling by Marisa Ellison
Cody Garbrandt has been a fighter all his life. Not in the metaphorical sense. In the actual, ‘I’m going to hit you and you’re going to hit me until one of us gives up’ sense. “Where I’m from, it’s just a way of life,” he says.
In his new book, The Pact, Garbrandt details the long and violent road that has taken him from Urhrichsville, Ohio to UFC champion. “Growing up in Uhrichsville, we used to have a saying,” Garbrandt says. “If you’re looking for help, call 911. If you’re looking for trouble, call 922.” 922 is the telephone exchange of Uhrichsville.
“We were tough kids growing up. Fighting has always been a part of my life. It’s always been there whether things were going good or bad. Growing up, we didn’t have much, we’d fight over anything. The backyard football game? It didn’t even matter.”
If idle hands are truly the devil’s workshop, the men of Uhrichsville often succumbed to the temptation to get into trouble. Both Garbrandt’s father and uncle Mike had ended up in prison. But it was Garbrandt’s uncle Bob, who had also served time, that would become a guiding light in Garbrandt’s life.
“I don’t know what I would have done if uncle Bob hadn’t come into my life,” Garbrandt says. “Uncle Bob was a tremendous boxer. He was an alternate for the US Olympic team. When he got out of prison, he was a changed man. He started taking me to the gym and teaching me how to box.”
Garbrandt certainly had athleticism. He was an Ohio state champion in wrestling as a freshman, the first person ever to achieve that elite level at such an early age. But once he came to boxing, he was hooked.
“Uncle Bob became a father figure to me. He would take me on weekend trips. When you are an amateur, you get this book, it kind of looks like a passport, and you can fight amateur fights around the state. So we’d have a book for Ohio and maybe we’d fight there on Friday. Then we’d have another book for Pennsylvania, so maybe we’d fight in Pittsburgh on Saturday, then another state on Sunday. I was getting all the experience I could.”
One day, while staying in a hotel for a wrestling tournament when he was 12, MMA came on the television. Garbrandt fell in love instantly. He convinced his teammates to line the room with their mattresses and he fought them all, even the heavyweights.
You can’t teach rage, and Garbrandt had plenty of it. And with that, trouble seemed to still find him. In 2011, when a friend texted Garbrandt and asked he could give him a lift from a local bar, Garbrandt drove over. After a big brawl broke out unrelated to Garbrandt or his friend, one of the brawlers confronted Garbrandt and his friend. Garbrandt kicked the man in the head and knocked him unconscious, but before he landed his blow, his opponent had sliced his calf with a knife almost down to the bone. Garbrandt began to wonder if this was all his life would ever be.
While convalescing in the hospital, Garbrandt’s older brother, Zach, called to check on him. “Did you hear about the Maple kid?” Zach asked. “The kid in Dennison, Maddux Maple. Kid’s five years old and he has cancer. A bunch of people in town are trying to raise money for the family. You should do something.”
Garbrandt sent a Facebook message to Maple’s father to ask If he could help. Wary of a stranger reaching out, it took a while before a connection was made. Months later, Garbrandt would visit Maple and become fast friends. Soon, Garbrandt was donating proceeds from some of his fights to Maple’s medical costs. Together they made a pact—Maddux promised he was going to fight his cancer and win. Garbrandt promised that someday, he was going to be an MMA champion and Maddux would walk him out for the fight.
Whenever Maple wanted to stop the chemotherapy treatments that would make him sick, it was Garbrandt urging him on to fight. “I don’t go to battle alone, and neither do you,” Garbrandt told him. “You’re almost there. I promise you that I’ll make it to the UFC, and I’ll take you to every fight. And I’m going to win the world title.”
When Cody’s back hurt so badly that he wanted to pull out of a fight, the UFC told him that Maple could walk him down to the Octagon for the first time, so he stayed in the fight and won the decision.
In 2013, Maple would be free from the symptoms of his leukemia. And in December of 2016, Maddux Maple walked Cody Garbrandt down to the octagon in Las Vegas, where he would defeat Dominic Cruz and become the UFC bantamweight champion. When Garbrandt won, he took the belt and immediately put it around Maddux’s waist in the octagon.
Garbrandt has always had something to fight for his whole life. When he was a kid, he was fighting to escape poverty. When he turned pro, he was fighting to support his buddy Maddux. And now, with a wife and newborn son, he has a family to support. His courtship of his wife Danny certainly betrays his nickname, “No Love.”
“Uriah Faber was coaching Season 22 of The Ultimate Fighter, so he brought me on as the boxing coach,” Garbrandt says. “There was a contestant named Johnny Nunez, who was competing for a UFC contract on the show, and we became good friends. Johnny ended up coming out to train with me in Sacramento. There were these twin girls, and we ended up randomly seeing each other on Johnny’s Snapchat. I was like, ‘Who is that?’ And it turns out she was asking about me as well. He got us in contact with one another. I was slated to fight Thomas Almeida, so I had to go out to Vegas a few months later to help hype the fight. So I asked her if she would like to go to dinner when I was in town.”
“For months, we talked every single night on FaceTime. We got to know each other so well. It was so much more than ‘just swipe right on Tinder.’ We knew so much about each other before there was even a physical attraction. Of course, when I met her, I was blown away by her beauty and what a big heart she had.”
The first week that they spent together, Garbrandt was sick. Instead of staying away, Danny took care of him and helped him regain his health. “I was sick with a sinus infection, so she was running to the store to get me medicine, neti pots, anything I needed. You can tell how much she cared about me and the type of person she was by how she took care of me. A few weeks later, she came to Sacramento where I live and train, and I showed her around Old Town and we just hit it off immediately.”
They were married at a drive-in chapel in Las Vegas. “I had a big fight coming up against TJ Dillashaw, so we didn’t’ have time to plan a huge wedding. Our family is all over the place. But Danny really desires the simplest things in life. We’re very much the same. We were raised by single mothers. Didn’t have much growing up. Right after she got off work. I was taking a nap, and she was like, ‘Let’s go to the chapel!’ And that’s how it went.”
With their son Kai born this past March, they’re now the family that Garbrandt fights for. And as he prepares to step into the ring at the Staples Center on August 4thto avenge his loss against TJ Dillashaw and regain the UFC bantamweight championship, you will not find a more confident fighter. “I’m ready for him. There’s nothing he can do that’s going to make a difference. I’m gonna beat his ass in front of the world.”
Cody Gabrandt faces TJ Dillashaw at UFC 227 for the UFC bantamweight championship on August 4. His new book, The Pact: A UFC Champion, a Boy with Cancer and their Promise to Win the Ultimate Battleis on sale now.