Cody Garbrandt and T.J. Dillashaw share an intense dislike for one another, or so they continue to tell us, as they continue to sell their sport.
This is MMA, so who really knows?
But the apparent enmity between the former Team Alpha Male teammates nonetheless brings Saturday’s UFC bantamweight title bout at Madison Square Garden within teasing, striking distance of Sacramento. Win or lose, this one hits home.
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Garbrandt is the defending champion, the once-troubled scrapper from Urichsville, Ohio, who discovered MMA in his late teens and believes the sport saved him from his destructive self. He is a loyal player and a staunch supporter of his mentor, Urijah Faber.
Dillashaw is the pride of Calaveras County and was once the pride of Sacramento-based Team Alpha Male. He has a kinesiology degree, a nurturing family and a strong independent streak. He won the bantamweight belt in 2014 as a member of Team Alpha Male, then bolted for a gym in Colorado, citing clashes with Faber about coaches, coaching methods and control.
“It’s been a real rivalry ever since T.J. left,” Faber said. “Him leaving is one thing. But the way he left, and the things he said, rubbed a lot of our guys the wrong way.”
The verbal exchanges between camps – the pro-Faber vs. anti-Faber factions – have been ongoing and often childish and occasionally entertaining. Alpha Male. Get it? The fact Garbrandt is undefeated (11-0) and responsible last November for dethroning Dominick Cruz, who stripped Dillashaw of the belt in 2016, seems to give him an edge in bragging rights as Saturday’s co-main event approaches.
During the midweek news conference in New York, Dillashaw, who recently moved his training base from Colorado to Southern California, was asked if he had any regrets about his split with Team Alpha Male. When he danced around the topic, Garbrandt interrupted.
“Let me answer that for you,” he said. “Yes, he regrets it every day of his life, but his ego won’t let him admit that. Let’s be honest, T.J.”
Dillashaw, 31, continues to explain that he prefers fresh approaches and multiple voices, that he wants to continue capitalizing on his quick feet and strong wrestling background while furthering his boxing and kicking skills, and expanding the location of his strikes.
Garbrandt attacks like a born prizefighter, reliant on his fast hands, tremendous power and athleticism. At 5-foot-8, he also has two inches on Dillashaw and is five years younger, though youth didn’t inoculate him from a back injury that postponed the fight several months.
“I remember when Cody contacted me through Twitter and asked if he could train with us,” Faber said. “I looked him up, and a few things stood out. He was 1-0 as a professional at the time. I told him to come out to Sacramento, and I threw him to the wolves. He came back out the following week and we went from there. It was a matter of blending his boxing, wrestling and kick boxing, but he has some of the best pure boxing in the sport.”
While the styles of the former teammates contrast notably, so do their backgrounds. Their small-town roots are among their few commonalities.
Dillashaw grew up about 90 miles southeast of Sacramento in Angels Camp, the gold rush town where author Mark Twain wrote “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” a literary classic. Members of his tight-knit, intensely competitive extended family – several who own homes on a nine-acre spread just off Main Street – spent their spare time mountain biking, wakeboarding, boating, hiking, fishing, hunting, or swimming in a communal pool in the middle of the premises.
The Dillashaw Conclave, as it is known, served as a neighborhood playground for area youths and a social hub for active adults.
As Dillashaw progressed from wrestling standout at Bret Harte High and Cal State Fullerton to mixed martial artist with Team Alpha Male, the folks back home monitored his career closely. His pro fights were featured events, regardless of location or time difference. Teachers and students peeked at cellphones during class for updates. Friends and relatives refused to stray from their laptops until outcomes were known. The night Dillashaw defeated Renan Barao for the bantamweight belt in 2014, the high school prom was disrupted by relentless tweets and texts relaying the news from Las Vegas, turning the dance into a boisterous party.
A few weeks later, the place known fondly as “Frogtown” threw him a parade, making a strong case that T.J. trails only Twain on the region’s celebrity meter.
Garbrandt, 26, can’t even begin to fathom such a safe, stable environment. Born in a town of about 4,000 located 90 miles south of Cleveland, he describes a turbulent, often violent childhood. His father was imprisoned for committing several felonies, including rape, abduction and spousal battery. Though he cites his mother, stepfather and older brother as positive influences, he was an angry child and a raging young adult, overwhelmed and resentful of his circumstances.
Wrestling and boxing, and football for a while, were welcome, if intermittent escapes. Garbrandt attended two high schools and withdrew from two colleges, eventually working as a bouncer, contemplating working in the mines in West Virginia, while consistently getting into brawls and knife fights.
Two events shook his world and changed his life. When he was in his late teens and experimenting with both amateur boxing and MMA, he had his first cage fight. Though he lost the bout, he was encouraged by his performance and, in this most violent of sports, says he experienced a surprising sense of calm.
“When I step inside that octagon, that’s my home,” Garbrandt said. “That’s where I feel the most comfortable in my entire life. That’s like when the world slows down and I can see all my shots, see what my opponent’s doing, and I’m at home there.”
Later, as he prepared for his first pro fight, he was introduced to Maddux Maple, a 5-year-old boy who was emotionally wilting from weekly chemotherapy sessions and desperate for something – or someone – to lift his spirits.
Garbrandt was that someone. The two formed a tight bond that persists, with Maddux now a healthy, happy 10-year-old with a full head of hair and an unwavering devotion to his MMA hero. When Garbrandt entered the arena to face the heavily favored Cruz last November, Maddux was at his side, dressed like a miniature Garbrandt. After Cody scored the upset, he wrapped the title belt around the beaming youngster.
Maddux will be at the Garden, of course, joining Garbrandt’s expectant wife Danny, Faber and several other teammates.
“I was put on this earth to fight,” added Garbrandt, “and that’s what I’ve done successfully in my life. I’ve really scratched my way to the top from the bottom, and emotionally, I can be friends with a guy. So it (verbal bantering) doesn’t bring anything extra. It focuses me more. T.J. is saying this and I’m saying that. That’s the difference between me and T.J. I believe what I’m going to do. T.J. hopes he believes what he’s going to do to me.”
- When: Saturday, main card begins 7 p.m.
- Where: Madison Square Garden, New York
- Who: Michael Bisping defends his middleweight title against Georges St.-Pierre in the headliner
- Local interest: Cody Garbrandt defends his bantamweight title against T.J. Dillashaw in another top bout
- TV: Main card is pay-per-view ($49.95); prelims, 5 p.m., FS1