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A little over nine months ago at a press event held at the iconic Madison Square Garden, Cody Garbrandt sat on stage as one of the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s handpicked brand ambassadors for the company’s partnership with sports-nutrition company Bodyarmor. It was 10 months after he’d lifted the 135-pound title from Dominick Cruz in a stunning upset at UFC 207, and “No Love” was waxing lyrical with NBA legend and Bodyarmor shareholder Kobe Bryant about what it meant to be a championship athlete.
It had been a good year for the Team Alpha Male export. Coming into his fight opposite “The Dominator” on New Year’s Eve, few pundits believed Garbrandt possessed more than a puncher’s chance; the conventional wisdom was that he was too young, too inexperienced and too emotional to pose a serious threat to the longtime king. However, after he masterfully outpointed Cruz to earn a unanimous decision, he’d decisively altered the narrative. Garbrandt wasn’t just a savage puncher whose distinctive look and propensity for first-round knockouts had put him on a fast track to a title shot. He was a surgical counterstriker, capable of five rounds of beautiful destruction punctuated with dance moves and trash talk in equal portions. At 25 years old and with less than two years under the UFC banner, he’d defeated the greatest bantamweight of all-time and made it look easy. He was a rock star.
The shine from the victory -- it had had served as the preamble for Ronda Rousey’s highly anticipated comeback in one of the biggest events of the year -- quickly translated into a sea of endorsements and other opportunities for the 25-year-old phenom. No longer “the kid who shoved Conor McGregor on Season 22 of “The Ultimate Fighter” reality series, Garbrandt emerged as one of the UFC’s brightest stars, a figurehead for MMA’s next generation of super athletes with a rags-to-riches backstory to match. A stint on “The Ultimate Fighter” as a coach opposite former teammate turned bitter rival T.J. Dillashaw was a no-brainer, setting up a highly anticipated grudge match that would take place on the biggest UFC card of 2017. Add to that, on the same day as the aforementioned Bodyarmor presser, Garbrandt announced a publication deal with the W Publishing group for his book “The Pact,” an autobiographical account of Garbrandt’s troubled upbringing and his unlikely friendship with 5-year old Maddux Mason, who battled and overcame leukemia.
Two days later, Garbrandt marched into battle at UFC 217 as a heavy favorite and left the Octagon as a former champion, courtesy of a beautifully timed right hook and follow-up punches from Dillashaw. While the fight was tightly contested before the stoppage -- Garbrandt knocked down Dillashaw in the closing seconds of the first stanza -- there was no real appetite, much less justification, for running it back. Garbrandt had never defended the title, and most expected he would need at least a win or two before clawing his way back into title contention. After all, that was Dillashaw’s fate after losing the strap to Cruz in a razor-thin split decision two years prior, and there was no shortage of worthy title challengers -- among them former World Series of Fighting champion Marlon Moraes and Jimmy Rivera, owner of a 20-fight winning streak -- for Dillashaw to face next.
However, Ultimate Fighting Championship brass, which had singled out Garbrandt as the UFC’s “next big star” a month before he was vanquished at UFC 217, had other plans and made its partiality for Garbrandt clear by awarding him an immediate rematch at UFC 227. The promotion for the fight recycled the same pro-Garbrandt narrative from their first, his loyalty to Team Alpha Male juxtaposed against Dillashaw’s less-than-rugged individualism, and the outcome in the latter’s favor was even more definitive.
Now Garbrandt finds himself in an altogether unenviable position. Despite only having lost two of his 13 professional fights, never in UFC championship history has a fighter gotten a third crack at a champion against whom he or she has gone 0-2. This essentially places Garbrandt in bantamweight purgatory unless Dillashaw loses his title, leaving him with the stark choice of moving up to featherweight where he will be outsized or going the route of Jose Aldo and Joanna Jedrzejczyk by continuing to fight top contenders without a clear route back to title contention.
Even by today’s standards and with all necessary qualifications concerning the benefits of hindsight, this seemed a particularly predictable -- not to mention entirely avoidable -- consequence of booking Dillashaw-Garbrandt 2.
Given Garbrandt’s youth and his past injury woes that include severe back problems and a scary run-in with vertigo related to head trauma he sustained in his early life, it was an awfully risky move to place him back in Dillashaw’s crosshairs so soon after being knocked out. Prudence dictated that he be given room to evolve as a fighter while letting interest in a rematch with Dillashaw build, see Tito Ortiz-Chuck Liddell at UFC 66 -- an option that would have also avoided eliminating other top contenders in the division.
Instead, the UFC’s inability to play the long game has squandered bantamweight’s best rivalry since Cruz-Urijah Faber in record time. More than that, it needlessly hindered the career of one of its most promising young athletes, a dangerous -- and ironic -- consequence of UFC favoritism.
Jacob Debets is a recent law graduate who lives in Melbourne, Australia. He has been an MMA fan for more than a decade and trains in muay Thai and boxing at DMDs MMA in Brunswick. His work has been published widely, including on Fight News Australia, LawinSports, LowKickMMA, MMASucka De Minimis and Farrago. He is currently writing a book analyzing the economics and politics of the MMA Industry. You can view more of his writing at jacobdebets.com.