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.