Ten days ago, Cody Garbrandt looked like a lost cause.
Garbrandt had been so verbally destroyed by UFC men’s bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz leading up to their title bout at UFC 207 that many spectators were ready to award Cruz a TKO win via tongue-lashing.
Cruz also preemptively declared victory, claiming his inexperienced challenger was mentally broken.
Then the fight started, and Garbrandt dominated nearly every phase of it.
He beat Cruz to the punch with his superior speed and power, several times coming close to scoring a KO. The champion’s normally elusive style was rendered plodding and ineffective by Garbrandt’s agility and footwork. Perhaps most surprising, he stuffed seven takedown attempts, short-circuiting Cruz’s well-worn strategy of stealing rounds with late bursts of wrestling.
Before Garbrandt’s unanimous-decision win was even announced to the crowd at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, the same people who had once been so sure of his defeat were assessing the 25-year-old Team Alpha Male fighter with fresh eyes.
And he suddenly looked like the future.
After two years of unprecedented turnover at the championship level of nearly every UFC weight class, the fight company finds itself in dire need of star power to begin 2017. Ronda Rousey is gone, maybe for good. Conor McGregor is out on extended R and R. Jon Jones is suspended until July.
While it’s unlikely that Garbrandt will rocket to superstar status on the basis of his championship victory over Cruz, the performance has him shaping up as one of the new young guns the UFC might use to bridge the gap until McGregor and Jones return.
With his ostentatious collection of tattoos and punch-first, ask-questions-later mentality, Garbrandt certainly looks like a badass straight out of central casting. The earliest indications are that he also understands how to play the promotional part of the fight game.
It’s largely assumed former champion TJ Dillashaw will be Garbrandt’s first test as titlist, after Dillashaw sprinted past John Lineker via unanimous decision in a bantamweight contender fight at UFC 207.
Dillashaw and Garbrandt were once teammates at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. After Dillashaw left the team amid some fireworks in October 2015, a potential bout between them would come preloaded with beef.
Garbrandt already had some very NSFW things to say about Dillashaw inside the cage after defeating Cruz.
"Now I’m the best in the world, so anyone can come get it," Garbrandt said. "TJ Dillashaw, come try me, motherf---er."
But following UFC 207, Garbrandt has not limited his attentions solely to Dillashaw. He’s also set his sights on two much bigger fish—Jose Aldo and McGregor himself.
Garbrandt said Monday on The MMA Hour with Ariel Helwani he’d be willing to move up in weight to take on either the featherweight or the lightweight champ.
"I need to sit down with [UFC President] Dana [White] and Sean [Shelby], and find out the biggest money fight for me," he said, via MMA Fighting.com’s Chuck Mindenhall. "I know I could go up and fight with Jose Aldo. He has wins over my teammates, he’s a legend, and I’d like to test his chin. I know I hit hard, and I’m just getting started. And I could also have the biggest fight with Conor [McGregor]. I could easily go up."
Now, those are a couple of interesting—if perhaps far-fetched—ideas.
One fun fact about McGregor and Garbrandt often lost in the hurricane of the Irishman’s fame: The two had a brief physical confrontation during the filming of The Ultimate Fighter season 22.
That season pitted McGregor opposite Team Alpha Male’s Urijah Faber as head coaches. Garbrandt came along as one of Faber’s assistants and at one point played a key role in escalating a skirmish between the two teams—ironically over Dillashaw’s loyalty to Team Alpha Male—by springing out of his seat and shoving McGregor:
Granted, a few minutes of reality television footage isn’t enough to promote a fight between Garbrandt and McGregor, but it would make for an interesting side note. Against Cruz, Garbrandt proved he’s not likely to wilt under the bright lights of a high-profile matchup, nor would he let McGregor’s own vaunted brand of trash talk throw him off his game.
Though he’d surely give up some size to the current 155-pound champ, Garbrandt’s athletic, heavy-handed fighting style might make for an interesting matchup of styles against the southpaw slugger McGregor.
If anything, the thought of a fight between the two smacks of fantasy only because McGregor will have bigger foes to topple if and when he returns from his extended paternity leave near the middle of this year.
Aldo might present a slightly more realistic opportunity for Garbrandt to score a big-money superfight, but obstacles exist there, too.
For one thing, there’s still a backlog of contenders at 145 pounds after McGregor bolted the division for greener pastures during 2016. Last month, the UFC even resorted to putting an interim title on Max Holloway after he defeated Anthony Pettis at UFC 206.
In other words, there’s a lot of divisional business that needs to be done before Aldo starts thinking about entertaining offers from champions in other weight divisions. Then again, the trajectory of the UFC under new owners from WME-IMG points to more entertainment, more money and less worrying about rankings or the divisional status quo.
Were UFC brass to feel it could make more money with Aldo vs. Garbrandt than with any other available matchup, that’s certainly the one it’d make. Like McGregor, it would also provide a compelling matchup of styles between two powerful strikers.
If nothing else, as its newest champion, it’s clear Garbrandt gets the new direction of the UFC.
He’s already proved himself a better fighter and a bigger promotional asset than we might have thought a bit more than a week ago.