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Cody Garbrandt’s first UFC victory was a story of shared fulfillment

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Christopher Nolan, Metcon Photos, LLC

Cody Garbrandt was installed as an underdog against Marcus Brimage at UFC 182, and that might have seemed fitting. Coming in, Garbrandt was an established underdog by circumstance. Anybody who knew him in his youth would have guessed he was more likely cut out for interrogation lights instead of spotlights. His father was an absentee ne’er-do-well who is currently behind bars in his native Ohio for a take-your-pick litany of crimes he committed. One of his uncles is in the clink, too. Prison was just another place growing up in the Garbrandt family. Even the uncle that raised him, Robert, was familiar with the sentencing process.

And Cody was drifting that way himself. He was kicked out of school for fighting, and was soon selling drugs, getting into trouble. There were no expectations on him other than the most foreboding kind. Cody’s path was either to work in the coalmines, or worse -- to become just another Tuscarawas County inmate.

But, before he got there something happened, a shepherd of sorts crossed his path, an intervening angel, and what oddsmakers couldn’t have known three years later was that there was simply no way Garbrandt would lose his fight against Brimage.

Garbrandt, who grew up mean and learned to box early, showed superior movement. He was all footwork and angles, a tatted-up Dominick Cruz-like understudy who got in-and-out before Brimage could find the mark. With a little over 20 seconds to go in the fight, Garbrandt slammed home a left cross, and then a right, a sequence that put Brimage on skates. Garbrandt came forward, and coolly landed another left, and another right, the fight slowing down in front of him as he stood in, the sweet endnotes of a long-held promise, until Brimage’s legs gave out. With ten seconds left in his UFC debut, the referee called the fight.

Garbrandt had won.

In his post-fight speech, he said there was a little boy who’d been battling leukemia, and he was in the building. He said that three-and-a-half years ago he told the boy that he’d make it to the UFC and win, and that the little boy had told him that he would beat leukemia.

The little boy’s name is Maddux Maple. He was in section 216 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena with his family. He was crying tears of joy, because both kept their promise to the other.

Because odds be damned.

*

Cody met Maddux through his brother Zach Garbrandt back in 2011. Maddux, who comes from the Dennison, a small-town in central northeast Ohio next to Uhrichsville, where Cody grew up, had just been diagnosed with leukemia. He was five years old, barely into the age of retaining memories.

"Maddux turned five in April and we found out in June," says Mic Maple, Maddux’s father. "We thought it was the appendix and we went to the hospital and the surgeons were like, it’s just not adding up. They did more blood work and the next day we met with our Godsend, Dr. Jeffrey Hord, of Akron Children’s Hospital. And that was Monday we went, Tuesday we found out, they were pretty sure it was leukemia. So Wednesday they did a bone marrow to confirm it and by Thursday he had a port put in and his first chemo dose.

"It was a crazy week. We went in Monday thinking appendix and Thursday he’s getting chemo. It was like…what happened?"

A month after that news blindsided the Maples, Zach -- who like Cody, was a state wrestling champion -- found out about Maddux’s story, and told his brother he should reach out. Cody himself was trying to begin a journey for himself in the fight game, but was making poor decisions in life.

Then it all changed. He contacted Mic through Facebook, and asked if he could come visit Maddux as soon as he returned home from the hospital. It was the first good decision Cody had made, the one that sent the proverbial apple bounding miles away from the tree.

"We had thousands of people reach out that we didn’t know," Mic says. "We had heard of Cody, being a small town, but I’d never met him. He reached out and said he wanted to meet Maddux and give him a little something. I didn’t think much of it. I just figured, ah, it’s probably not going to happen. Cody’s 19 years old, no big deal -- it’s him just being nice and reaching out to us, that was plenty. But sure enough, he texted us when Maddux got out of the hospital, and he asked if he was healthy enough that he could come by. I was like, sure."

Cody stayed an hour-and-a-half, talking to the "very shy" and soft-spoken Maddux. As a troubled teenager who’d put together a resume of amateur boxing bouts, fueled by a mean streak he’d inherited from his father, he realized something about himself that day. He was voluntarily throwing his life away. And here was an innocent kid being asked to fight for his own life before it had really had a chance to begin. Maddux hadn’t yet even had the chance to fail. His only option now was to succeed. For him, nothing in life wasn’t a given.

So two strangers came together at a crossroads that day, the fighter and a boy, their titles interchangeable. And to hear Cody tell it, those two strangers immediately became guides for each other through their own darkest nights.

"That little kid definitely helped change my life at a time when I needed a change, and I needed to grow up," Cody says. "He came into my life at the right time. It was a horrible circumstance but we were ready to make it our own miraculous story."

Cody was training a couple of hours away at the time, at Strong Style Martial Arts near Cleveland. Zach suggested that for his next amateur fight, at NAAFS: Caged Vengeance 10 against Jerrell Hodge, that he have Maddux accompany him to the cage.

"My brother said I should do a donation through ticket sales for that fight," he says. "I wanted to show [Maddux] we’re a tight community and came together. I wanted to show him he doesn’t have to fight this battle alone, that we’ll fight right with him. I got everyone -- thousands of people -- to come to the fight, and I donated all the ticket sales to him for medical bills. Or if they wanted to take him on a Disney vacation, those things the kid was missing out on so much, whatever they wanted. I just wanted to give him a little something. A little hope to keep fighting. It was just something I wanted to do."

Cody has raised over $15,000 for Maddux since that fight, and Maddux has been with him the whole way. As Cody turned pro and began putting together a run towards the UFC, Maddux continued taking his chemotherapy pills. He did it for two straight years. But when he was seven, two years into his treatment, he began to lose his will to continue.

"Around December or maybe January of last year, he just started struggling taking them, he would swish them in his mouth for thirty seconds to a minute, every time," Mic says. "And it was like, buddy, that’s ten times worse, just try to swallow it. He just hit a mental block. Finally one night he was like, ‘I don’t want to do it any more. I don’t want to take any more pills.’ I’m like, oh no, we’re not quitting now! I was like, buddy, we’re almost done, we’ll be done in August, just keep fighting."

That’s when Mic texted Cody. That’s when the two -- the fighter and the boy -- made a pact to beat the long odds still in front of them.

"They talked," Mic remembers. "Cody sent him a video and they talked. And he said, Maddux, ‘I need you to finish strong. I’m out here busting my butt and I think I’ve got a shot in a year or two of maybe getting to the big time. You’ve got to promise me…you face your treatment, you face these pills, you finish your chemo, you beat cancer and I promise you, I promise you, I will make to the UFC, win my fight, and you will be there.’

"And I swear to God, I swear to you, he ended up taking his pills that night and from the next day on, not one time, until treatment was over, did he complain or try to fight it. It was like, he had a mental block and Cody pumped him back up and he finished strong."

Cody, now with a mission, won five pro fights in a row. He ended up moving to Sacramento to train this past July with Team Alpha Male. In November, while helping his teammate Joseph Benavidez prepare for Dustin Ortiz out in Austin, Texas, he had a chance encounter with UFC matchmaker Sean Shelby. They agreed on a contract on the spot.

Garbrandt, who carries the nickname "No Love," was headed to the UFC. Which only meant he was keeping pace with his muse, the little boy out there in Ohio who was already one step ahead of him.

On August 25, an eight-year old Maddux took his last chemo pill. His cancer has gone into full remission.

Maddux and Cody walking to cage
(Christopher Nolan, MetCon Photos, LLC)


*

That’s why Garbrandt wasn’t going to lose at UFC 182 on Jan. 3. Maddux, along with his dad Mic, his mother Stephani Maple, and his little sister Makyah, were right there to watch him hold up his end of the bargain. One of Garbrandt’s sponsors, Todd Meldrum, who owns the restaurant/club Martini 97 just miles from Uhrichsville, flew the family out to be with Cody.

When Garbrandt finally put Brimage away, all the promises had been kept. Things like that don’t happen in real life. But they did for the Maddux family and Cody Garbrandt.

"To see him so emotional, waving the flag, waving and crying, seeing that was better than any other feeling I had," Cody says. "I’ve never had a feeling like that. The win was awesome, but after seeing that, it just puts everything into perspective. Everything I’ve been working for. He’s had so many tears of pain for the last three years, and just to see those tears of joy, it really got me choked up."

Mic Maple will never forget that moment either.

"You can’t even…unless you had a kid go through it, I don’t want to get all mushy, but there were a couple of times we thought we were going to lose him," Mic says, breaking up at the thought. "And to see him look at Cody, like we’d look at Michael Jordan back in the day, and to see him hang out with him in the room, and to watch the joy on Maddux’s face, and watch him cry because he was so freaking happy that he won. I’ll never forget that." 

"It was the best day of my life," Maddux says. "It was even better than Disney."

Maddux and Cody. Cody and Maddux. The greatest pillars in the fight game.

"I told Cody the next day, I can die because I’ve seen everything," Mic says. "I’ve seen the lowest of lows, and I’m at the highest of highs. My life is complete. I’ve seen my son, a happiness I’ve never seen. He’s a happy kid, but that’s the happiest I’ve seen him in my life. I will do anything to get Cody any love at all because I owe him my world. He helped my son get through it, and I truly believe that. There’s no doubt."

"That kid made me live my life with a purpose and made me fight with a purpose."


Likewise, says Garbrandt.

"That kid made me live my life with a purpose and made me fight with a purpose," he says, just days after the moment. "Just watching Maddux fight for his life for the last three-and-a-half years -- and not only him, but his family, his mom and dad, they’re all very strong people as well. He inherited that. And he’s very optimistic at a young age. Maddux definitely gave me perspective; I am living and fighting with a purpose.

"I’m glad that he’s a part of my life, and he’s helping me out with my career."

And now, having fulfilled their promises, Cody and Maddux have had to create new goals.

That new goal is for Maddux to one day walk Cody to the Octagon in a UFC fight.

"That would be the ultimate dream," Mic says. "I don’t know if the UFC would ever let that, but…we got to Vegas and Maddux had asked, because he’s walked him out the past three [in other organizations], and he’s like, ‘Dad, do you think I’ll get a chance to walk him out or probably not?’ and I didn’t even want to give him hope. I knew it wasn’t going to happen. I had kept telling Maddux, Cody made it, he’s at the big time.

"At the weigh-ins is when Maddux realized, wow -- look how crazy it all is. It was even more than he’d been anticipating. I was like, ‘do you see what I mean? This is the big time. He was like, ‘Dad, I’m just so glad I’m here.’ But if the UFC ever allowed him to walk out with Cody, that would probably top -- I don’t know if it would top the first win -- but that would be like a make-a-wish type of thing for Maddux."

The next step for Maddux is to finally have his port -- which has been used to access the main artery for all his chemo and other meds for the last three-and-a-half-years -- removed from his chest.

"That’s a big, exciting countdown day for Maddux," his father says. If all continues to go well, that could happen as soon as next month.

And whatever happens from here on out, an everlasting bond has been made. The kid and the fighter. Cody, the positive role model who never had one of his own, and Maddux, the survivor, the muse and the inspiration.

He’s Cody Garbrandt’s biggest fan.

"He’s my big brother and I love him so much," the little boy says. "He means the world to me."

Maddux and Cody hug

(Christopher Nolan, MetCon Photos, LLC)