Cody Garbrandt walks down Third Street in tiny Dennison, Ohio, the gleaming UFC title belt slung over his shoulder. Decorated trucks and floats line the street. He’s flanked by his stepfather, his mom and his girlfriend, Danny, who carries her small white Chihuahua.
A crowd swarms. People ask for pictures. Cody poses for a few, then his mom, Jessica, and his stepfather, a large, quiet man named Mark, help him move through the people and into a small brick office.
Inside, Cody embraces 10-year-old Maddux Maple and hands him the belt. Maddux is decked out in UFC gear, including an official black T-shirt with “GARBRANDT” in gold on the back. Just outside, an orange float bears a giant cutout of the two of them. It’s January 22, 2017, five years to the day after they met, and now their hometown is holding a parade in their honor.
Cody goes to the bathroom and throws up. Food poisoning, he explains when he returns. Airport Chinese. He gave in to a craving and now he’s paying. Last night was rough. He was up all hours. Any other day, he probably stays in bed.
After the title fight in Las Vegas three weeks before, he’d returned to his training base in Sacramento, California, then went to New York City twice, Los Angeles twice and Vegas six more times, meeting with agents, film producers, UFC brass and media. In just a year, he has risen from unranked and unknown to the UFC’s next superstar.
Cody’s exhausted. The day of the parade is the first in nearly a week that he doesn’t have to get on a plane—and he’s flying again tomorrow. The UFC wanted him back in Vegas yesterday to start filming The Ultimate Fighter, but he insisted that he come here. “Had to bring this home first,” he says, knocking his knuckles against the belt.
It’s what he’s wanted since he was 12 years old and in Illinois for a national wrestling tournament. A UFC fight showed up on the TV in his hotel room, so he convinced his teammates to line his room with mattresses and then fought them all, MMA-style. Even the heavyweights. Cody fought everyone.
And now, not only is he the champ, but also, in the words of his mentor, retired fighting star Urijah Faber: "There's no doubt he's going to be the next face of the UFC.''
Before he met Maddux, though—as Todd Meldrum, one of his sponsors, puts it—“He was fucking on his way to prison.”
Cody was 20 years old then and starting to chase that UFC dream, but he was also well on his way to becoming his father, who is already in prison.
(Editor's note: This story features explicit language some readers may find offensive.)
Like their father before them and his father before him, Cody and his older brother Zach loved to fight. They were born only 10 months apart, and by the time they were teenagers, they fought so much that they wrecked the homes their mother rented. Sometimes she sent one of them to go live with her mom and dad for a while. (And they fought each other over there.)
All fighters’ lives are all about fighting, of course, but for the Garbrandt boys, fighting was more than that. It was just what people did where they came from.
They call it “The 922,” the prefix for all of their phone numbers. About an hour-and-a-half south of Cleveland, it is two towns, Dennison and Uhrichsville, which cover a grand total of four square miles and contain a population of 7,000. The area is deeply rural, a place full of and surrounded by hills that roll in from the horizon like large waves about to crash.
You want help, dial 911. You want trouble, dial 922. — Unofficial "Dreamsville" motto
Downtown stretches about six blocks, mostly mom-and-pop shops and restaurants, and the Dennison Railroad Depot, The 922’s most iconic landmark. Right between Pittsburgh and Columbus and built in 1873, it was a main stop on the Pennsylvania Railroad, a hub of life and commerce. During World War II, tired and hungry soldiers arrived here to find free coffee, doughnuts and sandwiches waiting for them—“a dream come true”—and the town became known as “Dreamsville.”
Banners bearing the nickname still fly from downtown light posts, but the train doesn’t run anymore and hasn’t for decades. Most of the bars are long gone. Freight trains pass through sometimes, but they don’t stop.
“This place is better than Vegas,” one local says, “because shit can’t leave here.”
And in this inescapable place, fighting became normal, especially among the men, who saw it as the only immediate means by which to test themselves. “That’s all we’ve done down here all our lives,” says Walt Stewart, a longtime Garbrandt family friend. “Everyone here just fights.” An unofficial town motto, he says, is, “You want help, dial 911. You want trouble, dial 922.”
The 922 had its own personal backcountry Octagon: the Pump House, a water treatment plant outside town where cops never went, on a hill across the road from a river. People parked in a small pull-off area and brawled in the street. Fights were even scheduled—“Fuck you! Friday night! Ten o’clock! PUMP HOUSE!”—so crowds formed, and inevitably the crowds fought, too.
Cody’s father, John Meese, along with his uncles Bob and Mike, grew up going to bars with their father as young as 13, watching him fight people and shoot at their cars when they fled. Then he’d go home drunk and beat his mom. John followed in kind, becoming an alcoholic and drug addict, and is now serving hard time for abduction, rape and a slew of domestic violence charges.
Cody’s mom, Jessica Enos, thought she could save John, but he got violent with her one night in front of one-year-old Cody and two-year-old Zach. She heard something different in Zach’s cries when John hit her, and she left him. John wasn’t around much after that. Jessica says, “Maybe that was a good thing.”
By the time they were four and five years old, Cody and Zach were always fighting with each other, trying out boxing moves taught to them by their Uncle Bob, who was once an amateur boxer himself.
I was the smallest out of everyone I hung out with. And I never took shit from Zach, so I wasn’t going to take shit from anyone else. — Cody Garbrandt
Bob took them to the gyms where he trained and strapped their tiny hands into 16-ounce boxing gloves and let them whale on each other. He put them on treadmills and sped them up until the boys flew off. “I was always scared to death of Bob,” Cody says now, laughing. “He was crazy.”
Not wanting her boys growing up punch-drunk, Jessica forbade boxing and redirected, sending them to wrestling camps when they were four and five years old.
And for a time, wrestling gave him the sort of home many kids with violent, absent fathers only dream of. See, wrestling was huge in The 922. As Cody grew up, he was one of those kids naturally great at any sport, an All-State football linebacker his junior year. But on the orange mats in the Claymont High wrestling room, he was special. He mastered the technical stuff with ease and did things nobody else did—leapfrogging guys when they shot for his legs, scampering around on his knuckles like a monkey, barrel-rolling across the mat to avoid and to get takedowns.
Like many young men in The 922, not to mention adults, Cody saw Claymont High wrestling coach Eric Toukonen “as like a god,” Cody says. “He was Bud Kilmer of Varsity Blues.” And the god saw Cody.
Come middle school, Toukonen began personally working with him and driving him to tournaments and camps. And then, Cody’s freshman year at Claymont High, wrestling at 112 pounds in front of some 15,000 people, he became The 922’s first freshman state champion.
With that he transcended his father’s name and won The 922’s love. Even “Chuck,” an 80-something alum and wrestling booster all the wrestlers wanted to impress, took to him, offering Cody rides to practices and tournaments. People prophesied that he’d become their first four-time state champion. A college scholarship seemed inevitable, which made his mom so happy. Cody set it in his heart to become an Olympic champion and, while he was at it, the greatest wrestler ever.
But then, the very next year, in the state finals again, he got pinned. And just like that, The 922 at large turned its back on him. “There were a lot in the community who were just like, ‘How could he go out there and lose?’” Jessica says. Even old Chuck, who has since passed away, ignored Cody after that, not only never driving him anywhere again but also never speaking to him.
Cody didn’t love wrestling anymore after that, and he never wrestled for Claymont again.
“I felt lost,” he says. “And it turned into rage.”
In his rage, Cody fought.
He tried to channel it. He convinced his mom to let him box. Boxing gyms were Cody’s favorite places as a kid, especially one about 40 minutes south, in a little village called Byesville. Part gym, part woodworking and mechanic shop, Cody still remembers the smell, all sweat and oil and sawdust. Uncle Bob trained him, along with family friend and wrestling coach Brian Cadle, who even paid for Cody’s boxing license. Cadle, a cabinet maker in neighboring village Roswell, and Uncle Bob laid down mats and hung heavy punching bags in Cadle’s workshop.
And as a boxer, Cody was great, an unlikely chimera of speed and indefatigability and power, a deadly surprise. Out of 32 amateur boxing matches, Cody won 31. And he fought with such ferocity that Uncle Bob started calling him “No Love,” as in, “Boy, you got no love for that person you’re fighting.”
But the rage overflowed. He fought everyone. Neither bully nor saint, he didn’t pick fights, but he never avoided them. “I was the smallest out of everyone I hung out with,” Cody says. “And I never took shit from Zach, so I wasn’t going to take shit from anyone else.”
Ah, yes. Zach. After everything that happened with wrestling, the brothers only fought each other more, and fighting Zach was never about winning for Cody; it was about survival. Zach was a state champion wrestler himself, and he’d learned how to hit from Uncle Bob, too—but he had one more thing Cody never would: size. Cody is 5’8” and around 140 pounds; Zach, about 6’0” and upward of 220. And, Cody says now, “He’s the meanest guy I ever had to fight.”
So Cody learned to fight like a savage: “I wasn’t going to sit there and talk if I had a problem. I had to be about action. So I always tried to hit first, and hit hard, and crack him with some quick shots, because if he hit me first, then I’d be seeing stars.”
One time, after he’d just gotten dressed and fixed his hair to see some girls, Cody swung a kitchen knife at Zach to keep him at a distance. He nearly cut off Zach’s finger.
Zach to Cody was like the physical manifestation of the frustrations of Dreamsville. For Cody, their fights were like an almost futile exercise against such an enormous presence, against this unbeatable force, like gravity, something he’d always fought but never overcome.
Until one day when Cody was 17, and Zach was 18. It started over a sandwich.
It was the night before one of Cody’s last amateur boxing matches. Cody ate half of a footlong Subway chicken sandwich and stashed the other half in Grandma’s fridge to eat after he worked out. He was watching his weight closely for the fight, so that was his last food until weigh-ins.
When Cody returned from his workout, famished, the sandwich was gone. “Grandma!” he yelled. “What happened to my sandwich?”
He heard a husky, country laugh from the living room recliner. Zach sat there smacking his belly. “Oh, shit, dude. I ate it.”
A wrestling match broke out. The wrestling gave way to a fistfight. Grandma tried breaking them up. Zach picked Cody up and DDT’d him skull-first onto the floor. Cody almost blacked out and thought he might’ve died, and he nearly bit through his tongue.
Grandpa, a big, strong man with a powerful voice, kicked them out. They chased each other in their trucks until they found themselves at the Pump House, the site of many a fight night. They parked, got out and squared off.
“I’m gonna knock you out and throw you in the river!” Cody said.
“Try it, you little fucker!” Zach replied.
Then they fought some more.
Zach and Cody’s fights were not like most dumb fights, ending in seconds with a couple of punches and tackles. Their fights were technical, as much practice as conflict. And that day, the fight lasted 45 minutes. They wrestled some but mostly punched and countered and grappled, Cody landing two or three shots, then Zach countering with powerful blows and forceful shoves to create space, and on they went.
Cody fired off a one-two combination that threw Zach off-balance and then unloaded a savage overhand right that caught Zach square on the jaw.
Zach’s leg buckled and he almost went down, barely catching himself. The only reason he caught himself at all was because Cody was standing there stunned he had hurt him.
“Nice shot, you little fucker,” Zach said.
Zach unloaded on Cody and took him to the ground and pounded him. (That's what gave Cody the trademark cauliflower-looking MMA scar in his right ear.)
The fight only ended when they realized that if they kept going like this, one of them would probably die.
He and Zach never fought again. In fact, right after, they were friends once more, same as after every fight. For all they fought, they also forgave. That, too, was what people did in The 922.
And when he fought his first cage fight at 18—the legal age requirement in Ohio—even though he lost, he felt something new in there. In the cage, Cody felt whole.
He tried to do life “the right way” and make his mom proud. He was, and shamelessly remains, a mama’s boy—he still calls or texts her every day and apologizes for the days he can’t call. Thus, in his senior year of high school, despite being out of competitive wrestling for two years, Cody went to Senior Nationals on his own to earn himself a scholarship, reached the semifinals and placed fifth. “Just unheard of,” says Cadle, the family friend who paid for Cody’s boxing license, laughing. “Natural badass.”
But college—first Newberry, in South Carolina, then Notre Dame-Cleveland—only lasted a few weeks total before Cody quit. He was homesick and unable to focus on anything other than that UFC championship belt anyway, doodling about it in class when he should’ve been taking notes.
Natural talents and good genetics—that doesn’t mean shit. We have a million of those guys. When you meet someone who’s disciplined and who’s humble—that’s a recipe for a world champion. — Justin Buchholz, Garbrandt's coach
Back home, Cody sold weed to get by, but “that wasn’t the guy I wanted to be,” he says, so he went to West Virginia to join Zach in the coal mines. Zach had tried college, too, getting kicked out of Ashland his second week. (Got in a fight, broke the guy’s skull, went to jail.)
But after finishing coal miner training, Cody quit that, too. He told his mom he had to give fighting a full commitment, so she gave her blessing. Cody went to Dallas Brewer, his tattoo guy, and commissioned a grenade on his right hand, “the hand that puts everyone to sleep.” Brewer asked if he was sure, what with future job interviews and such. Cody said do it. He had to make it as a fighter, and this was his contract with himself.
But his vice was violence. For instance, Meldrum, one of his financial sponsors, met Cody after he knocked a guy out in Meldrum’s bar, Martini 97 in Dover. (Cody was becoming known in the area as an MMA fighter, the other guy was drunk and wanted a story for his friends, and what happened next was inevitable.)
The bartender told Meldrum that Cody was a nice kid from The 922 who just needed to catch a break. So, Meldrum just asked Cody to please not knock people out in his bar anymore, as it was bad for business. Cody responded with such an earnest and understanding apology that Meldrum became a sponsor and has since spent some $50,000 on his career.
Just as Cody lived by fighting, he was dying by it. Wherever Cody was—football games, the bar, the pool—fighting just happened, like summer thunderstorms. Even Zach, for all his love of fighting, began to worry.
Once when Cody was working as a bouncer, he went home with another guy’s tooth stuck in the skin between his knuckles. Then there was what happened at Tammie’s Tavern, this middle-of-nowhere tiny country bar with a couple of pool tables and a dark corner for dancing, a parking lot full of holes.
Cody went in to pick up some friends, then a big bar fight broke out and spilled into the parking lot. It was raining and dark, and a guy with a switchblade stabbed one of Cody’s friends through the arm. Cody squared up with him and won—he kicked the knife away and knocked the guy out—but suffered a gash to the calf that left flayed meat hanging.
Doctors needed 14 staples to put him back together.
Sometime in the summer of 2011, Zach told Cody about a kid in town he should try to meet, Maddux. He’d just been diagnosed with leukemia, and meeting a fighter might lift his spirits.
After trying to work it out for months—Maddux was too sick—Cody finally met him January 22, 2012, nearly a year before his first professional MMA fight. The boy was only five, and skinny, and bald. To this day Cody will cry as he recalls it all, especially the sight of a kid and his fragile innocence taking that beating from cancer.
When he met Cody, Maddux and his chemo-addled brain processed that first meeting thusly: “Who the heck is this guy with all these crazy tattoos? Oh my gosh! Is Dad trying to kill me by bringing this killer in? Who the heck would come visit me? This is awesome!”
Cody gave Maddux a pair of white boxing gloves and told him he’d win his next fight for him. And he told the Maples that the fight’s ticket and T-shirt profits were theirs. Maddux’s parents, Mic and Stephani, protested. Cody didn’t listen.
Maddux was too sick to make the trip to Cleveland three weeks later for the fight against Jerrell Hodge, but Mic and Stephani were there. Cody walked to the cage wearing an orange T-shirt that read “MADD ABOUT MADDUX,” with the same phrase on his shorts alongside “922” and his sponsors. He spent Rounds 1 and 2 “whupping the dude’s ass,” Cody recalls, and started Round 3 with a vicious exchange. He dodged a punch, moved to counter—and the world went black.
A right hook had found his chin.
Even flat on the mat with his brain turned off, Cody’s hands stayed up.
In all his fights in all his years, he’d been pinned, choked out, and he’d even seen stars, but the world had never gone black like that. Getting knocked out was like entering the lobby of the afterlife. And so moments later, in the basement locker room, he fell down and bawled.
Most people don’t have the courage to dream anymore. You take the safe job. You take the steady paycheck. You don’t take the dream. You’re the guy that took the dream. — Zach Garbrandt, to Cody
He barely remembers this, but Zach and Cadle do. (Uncle Bob was home sick.) Suddenly, he was in high school again, getting pinned in front of 15,000 people, having The 922 turn their backs on him—and now he’d let people down all over again. If he couldn’t make it as a fighter, what the fuck could he do? This is all I ever wanted, he cried. I don’t know what I’m going to do. This is all I ever wanted.
“Chill out, man,” Zach said. “This shit will make sense in a couple hours.”
Cody just kept crying. I lost. Fuck. This is all I ever wanted. Fuck.
“That’s it,” Cadle snapped. “Enough of this fucking crying, Cody. Get your fucking ass up off the fucking floor and act like a fucking man. You cannot let one punch define you like you let one pin define you. This is not the end of the world. It’s different times now. Before, people ran from you. Now, we’re running to you. And we are not going to just lay down.”
Cadle’s outburst knocked Zach on his ass—goosebumps rising and tearing up, he had to sit down. “I’ve never heard him raise his voice,” Zach says. “It chilled me.”
Cadle wasn’t finished. “You’re in there fighting because you chose to fight, goddamnit. And there’s a boy out there you are supposed to be a hero to, that kid whose name is on your shirt, and he’s out there fighting, and he has no choice. He loses his battles, and he gets back up, and he fights again, because if he gets knocked down, and if he don’t get up, he dies. We are going to hold our heads up high, and we are going to walk upstairs—together—because we live to fight again.”
Cody sat up. He stopped crying. He stood, and he got dressed. And upstairs Mic and Stephani greeted him with smiles and hugs.
Getting knocked out woke Cody up.
“The life I was living, man,” he says, “it was karma that happened.”
And in the karma, a lesson: “I wasn’t unstoppable.”
Living in Cleveland to train, then later in Pittsburgh, Cody survived with help from people back home, from sponsors and by teaching MMA classes. He avoided fights and situations in which fights routinely occurred.
Cody’s next fight was his professional debut, which he won by first-round knockout.
He hit the guy so hard he broke his hand, which took four months to heal, and then he suffered vertigo brought on by his lifetime spent collecting a million concussions, which took another several months to treat. Then there were roommates and trainers and romantic interests that formed toxic entanglements, which in turn inspired violent desires. “I felt,” he says, “like I was in quicksand.” Instead of fighting, however, he left.
He went across the country to Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, hoping to win over Faber, the retired fighting star, and his team, whom he’d long admired and hoped would show him the way to the belt. On his first visit, he asked “just every single question you could imagine,” fighter-turned-coach Danny Castillo says. What’s your schedule? What do you do for fun? What do you eat? Castillo joked he thought Cody had to be an undercover cop.
Faber was skeptical, what with Cody’s tattoos and perfect hair and plucked eyebrows. “A lot of guys come to the gym that look the look, talk the talk,” he says. “Not many walk the walk. So I put him through the ringer. We put him in with the killers.”
Cody killed it with the killers, going nine rounds deep with a half-dozen fighters. “He knew what the hell he was doing,” Faber says. “I was like, This guy is GOOD.”
Urijah saw promise in Garbrandt’s boxing, his quickness, his relentless stamina, his ridiculous power for such a little guy. So he told him, “Try to get back out here.”
Cody went home, packed up and returned to Sacramento a week later. “I need this,” he said. “I need to be out here, to get away from where I am.”
Faber and his team shored up Cody’s jiu-jitsu and muay thai, made his hips and kicks more flexible. And when Cody held back while wrestling against Faber, Faber put him straight: “Don’t put me on some pedestal. Your wrestling is good. You need to be fucking me up.”
So then Cody did.
“Natural talents and good genetics—that doesn’t mean shit,” his coach Justin Buchholz says. “We have a million of those guys. When you meet someone who’s disciplined and who’s humble—that’s a recipe for a world champion, for something real special. He comes from such a humble upbringing, but he doesn’t forget that. That’s like his superpower.”
Plus, he hit so hard even during training that he once made Buchholz think he shit himself, a ferocious left hook into his liver that Buchholz felt even through the body pad.
Above all, they saw Cody’s heart. Faber’s been around fighting for a little while now, and he says one factor above all makes fighters great: a willful delusion that you are unbeatable. “That’s how Cody is,” Faber says. “Nobody’s going to get the upper hand on him.”
And he had more heart than they even knew: Sacramento is expensive, as is the life of a dedicated fighter. For most fighters, income hovers around the poverty line, and Cody ran out of money. He would go days without eating, paying for training instead of food. Pep talks were had, none more ardent than Zach’s, who had lent him hundreds if not thousands of dollars. He was angry Cody didn’t ask for more; Cody said he was tired of taking their money.
“Listen, man,” Zach said. “Most people don’t have the courage to dream anymore. You take the safe job. You take the steady paycheck. You don’t take the dream. You’re the guy that took the dream. That’s not being a bum. That’s living for something.”
Even still, by the end of the year, he thought he should go back home again.
Then Mic called him. He sounded broken. He said Maddux had given up.
Maddux had been fighting for two-and-a-half years by then. Infections had come and gone, open sores the size of 50-cent pieces in his mouth and down his throat, and he had all too many times been rushed to the hospital. Treatments had gone wrong and even left Maddux turning blue, his eyes rolling back in his head, doctors just barely yanking him back from death…but it was pills that had finally done him in.
And Tuesdays were the worst because Tuesdays meant eight more pills than the other days. One final Tuesday at the end of 2013, Maddux couldn’t take any more. He had swished them around over and over only to spit them out.
When Stephani tried again, little Maddux screamed at her: “They taste like barf and all they do is make me sick! All you do is make me take medicine and make me sick! I hate you!”
Stephani barely made it from the bedroom to the kitchen before she collapsed on the floor, weeping. Mic held her. Then he called Cody.
The next day, Cody FaceTimed Maddux. “You’ve been fighting this battle a long time,” Cody said. “We’ve come a long way. Who’s going to walk me out to my cage fights, man? I need ya.”
Maddux just said, “Yeah,” his sweet, high-pitched voice sounding too tired.
“You know, buddy,” Cody said, “we’ve come so far, and we’re right here. You can’t give up now. If you keep taking your medicine and beat cancer, don’t give your mom and dad a hard time, I’ll make it to the UFC and become bantamweight champion, and I’ll take you with me.”
“I promise. You promise?”
“Yeah, buddy. I promise.”
Maddux still wanted to quit after The Promise but didn’t. “Especially on Tuesdays,” he says. “But then I thought of that promise, and I thought I couldn’t let my best friend down. It really saved my life.”
That August, he was done with chemo. He called Cody, and they yelled about it, and then in his sweet voice, Maddux said, “You gotta keep your promise now.”
When Cody hung up, he went straight to the gym.
Two months later, Cody’s professional record was 5-0—all wins by first-round knockout except one, which was by second-round knockout—and he had a UFC contract. Over the next year-and-a-half, he went from unranked to the No. 3 bantamweight in the world by winning five more fights, four of those also by knockout.
Maddux was at every fight.
The only fight Cody didn’t win by knockout, he almost withdrew from after hurting his back so badly that he needed help getting out of cars. But that month the UFC said Maddux could walk Cody to the Octagon, so Cody couldn’t bear backing out. He won by unanimous decision.
By the fall of 2015, the UFC had a star on its hands. Faber ticks off one reason after another: Interesting. Well-spoken. Women love him. Guys look up to him.
Cody has tattoos everywhere, too: “TRUE LOVE” across his knuckles, the grenade on his right hand, a full chest tattoo. There’s a gun stuck in the waistband on his back and “Jesus Saves” on his calves. “BLESSED” and “DREAMSVILLE” stretch across his stomach. And he has full sleeves up and down both arms, including a gorgeous Japanese koi fish. “They fight till they die,” he says. That’s all just to name a few—there’s also the piece de resistance: the diamond on the throat, glowing behind the words “SELF-MADE,” bordered by black wings.
In October, after a whole lot of public trash talk between Cody and bantamweight champ Dominick Cruz, the UFC scheduled them for a title fight. They were the lead-in to Ronda Rousey’s comeback fight against Amanda Nunes at UFC 207 on December 30.
Cruz hadn’t lost in nearly a decade. He was a technical wizard, one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world. The last fighter to beat him was none other than Cody’s mentor, Faber, who then lost to Cruz twice over the next nine years. Cruz’s style was some slippery drunk-fu, all shifty feet and quick hands. Statistically, he was the hardest fighter to strike in all the UFC. A ghost who could hit.
Cody calmed his mother, Jessica, who feared a loss and another spiral, by saying something that stunned her: “What’s the worst thing that could happen? I could get beat?”
Maddux walked Cody to the cage, holding his hand, such a different kid from when they first met. He had hair and looked tall now, even carrying a delightful bit of pudge.
When they reached the Octagon, Cody turned to Maddux and said, “Whatever happens in here, in 40 minutes, we’ll be with our family, laughing and hugging. I’m proud of you. No matter what, I’m proud of you, and I love you.” He kissed his forehead, then entered the cage.
Then Cody made the ghost human.
Cody didn’t just cut him and knock him down; he made Cruz look like an overmatched sparring partner, and for five rounds at that. The longer the fight went, the more Cody hurt him, putting him on the ground repeatedly—and when Cruz tried to counter with his trademark flurries of fists, Cody was the one who looked untouchable.
Beyond the fighting, Cody won the crowd: He danced and stuck out his tongue and roared in Cruz’s face. All the times he knocked Cruz down, instead of pouncing with hammerfists for the finish, as with so many fighters before, Cody taunted him, pointing and saluting and posing. One electrifying exchange, Cody dodged a half-dozen punches in a row, and then—with Cruz inches away—he robot danced.
UFC president Dana White said after the fight, “Dominick Cruz is amazing—and Cody Garbrandt made it look easy.”
When it was over, Bruce Buffer yelled his name into the microphone—“By unanimous decision annnnddddd NEEEWWW undisputed UFC bantamweight champion of the worrrrrld, CODY ‘NO LOVE’ GARBRANDT”—and Dana White wrapped that heavy leather belt around his waist. You expected Cody to go full Conor McGregor, climb the walls, beat his chest, scream at you to see him. But he didn’t.
Then he took the belt and put it on Maddux.
Back home with the belt, Cody and Maddux’s big day begins with the first of what will be many interviews with local press, this one with a TV crew, and then a high schooler interning for the local paper. Cody smiles frequently and gives thoughtful answers.
Then the parade begins. He makes one last quick trip to the bathroom, then dons his owl-tipped tortoiseshell shades and exits the office with calm, cool waves and more smiles. He all at once looks like he belongs and like he stepped out of a fashion magazine in an alternate universe. Freshly manicured beard and brows and haircut, fading from shaved up to a slick side part. Black wingtip dress boots, dark blue jeans, a light blue V-neck T-shirt and a navy blazer with subtle red accents.
He climbs up on the orange float made for him and sits on a white bench between Maddux, who holds the belt, and Cody’s girlfriend Danny, wearing a green TEAM NO LOVE T-shirt. Theirs is last in line, trailing a slew of pickup trucks and a few other floats, including a big black one Stephani made. It features a miniature Octagon in the center—and Cruz in effigy, being “burned” by a cardboard fire.
Thousands line the streets. There is much rock music and dancing and drinking on the sidewalks.
A mile and some 40 minutes later, the parade ends at Claymont Middle School, and Cody is hustled into a van with Danny and Maddux and the Maples. Danny coos over the town. “This is the cutest thing ever. I love the little 922.”
They make their way to an old familiar place: Claymont High a few miles east.
A classroom has been converted into a hospitality suite. Cody apologizes to the caterer, who cooked him a special meal of salmon, rice, sweet potatoes and asparagus—he can barely touch it, nibbling on a sweet potato.
Even still, he smiles for countless pictures and signs countless autographs and makes little boys smile and encourages shy girls holding boxing gloves to show him what they’ve got. And he makes sure to talk with Maddux. “You’re getting a good workout carrying that everywhere,” he says.
The belt, plated in gold and studded with diamonds, weighs a solid 13 pounds. Much heavier than it looks on TV.
Cody squeezes Maddux’s arm. “You’re getting swole, too, man!”
“Yeah!” Maddux laughs.
“That’s good. I need you to hang on to it for a long time.”
“You sure, Cody?” Mic says.
“Man, that belt’s his. I don’t care.”
It’s friends and family only in here, but some 200 or more pass through over the next hour. Among the many who ask for pictures are the scores of police officers working security.
“What a day. Nice to see you taking pictures with police instead of mugshots,” Jessica jokes.
“Times have changed,” Cody says. He grins, and the cops laugh.
Brandon Sneed is a writer-at-large for B/R Mag, and the author of Head In The Game: The Mental Engineering of the World's Elite Athletes (out now from Dey Street). His writing has also appeared in Outside, ESPN The Magazine, SB Nation Longform, and more, and has received mention in The Best American Sports Writing. His website is brandonsneed.com. Follow him on Twitter: @brandonsneed.