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The making of a star: Does Cody Garbrandt have what it takes to reach MMA’s next level?

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

LAS VEGAS — It's hard to pinpoint exactly what makes someone a star in MMA. Exciting performances are one thing. But the biggest draws, the ones who connect the most with fans and make the most money have a little something extra.

For Ronda Rousey, it's the look and attitude. For Conor McGregor, it's the unbridled charisma and creative trash talk. Georges St-Pierre was a Canadian hero. Brock Lesnar is a menacing specimen of a human being. Chael Sonnen's WWE-style promos, Anderson Silva's aura, Chuck Liddell's coolness.

You get the idea.

There is no formula for this in a sport built around this level of stars. For some, it just kind of happens organically. Others will it by sheer force of appeal.

Targeting and ferrying out future stars is part of the UFC's duty. Stars sell pay-per-views and push merchandise. They put butts in the sears. And it seems like the UFC has pinpointed a little something in Cody Garbrandt as someone to keep an eye on the future.

This week, the UFC brought Garbrandt out to Los Angeles for media obligations ahead of his UFC 202 fight against Takeya Mizugaki on Saturday at T-Mobile Arena. Garbrandt is headlining the FS1 portion of the big card. In May, he was in the main event of a Las Vegas card of his own, an FS1 Fight Night event in which he knocked out Thomas Almeida in the first round.

A win over Mizugaki could very well earn Garbrandt a bantamweight title shot against Dominick Cruz. In other words, the 25-year-old is on the fast track. It's really up to him and the UFC on what happens from here.

Garbrandt, an Ohio native, has the looks (he's rather popular with the ladies), style (he shares a tailor with Conor McGregor), nickname ("No Love" is one of the best in the game) and willingness to put himself out there. He trash talks Cruz whenever asked by a reporter. He is charismatic, though polite and even somewhat soft-spoken. Certainly nothing like the bravado of a McGregor, but there is a presence about him.

"Just look at the guy — he's a tattooed gentleman," said Justin Buchholz, Garbrandt's Team Alpha Male head coach. "And then when he gets into the cage he's ‘No Love.' He's like the perfect fit. Honestly, he has a chance to be the biggest star at 135 pounds ever."

Garbrandt already has a confrontation with McGregor under his belt. The two had to be separated during an altercation on The Ultimate Fighter 22 last year.

That, though, is not how Garbrandt sees himself. Buchholz used the word "class" when describing him. "No Love" is not willing to jump in the mud, per say. He doesn't see himself exchanging f-bombs or throwing water bottles at press conferences like McGregor and Nate Diaz have. Then again, you never know.

"Don't get it twisted," Garbrandt said. "If someone were ever to throw some birds up at me or some water at me, said some stupid sh*t, I would never shy away from confrontation. Obviously I'm a professional at all times. But we're in the fight game. Crazy stuff can happen."

Garbrandt (9-0), like most fighters, is a little hesitant promoting himself outside the traditional comfort zone. Stars like Rousey and McGregor have a pretty good understanding of their brands and they have built quite the following. But are trash talk and saying outlandish things a pre-requisite to making those million-dollar paydays. Garbrandt does not believe so.

"What's great about this sport is the individuality of it," Garbrandt said. "Everyone is different. Everyone has a different fighting style, different fan base. You can build your own self. You're kind of self made in this game.

"Those big paydays, that's what I'm coming for. Thankfully, Conor is paving that road for some of us young fighters that are coming up, having the same dreams."

Many athletes don't want to think about promotion. They feel like they're martial artists or athletes and only care about getting wins inside the Octagon. That's fine, but the peripheral stuff is what separates the Fight Night headlines from the true pay-per-view draws. Garbrandt already has elements in place.

"Cody has that unique blend of personality and fighting performance that goes perfectly together," UFC senior vice president of public relations and athlete health and performance Dave Sholler said. "When you watch him fight, he's an all-action fighter. He's always looking for the finish. Then you meet him and you get to know his personalty, he's just a really charismatic kid. He's got a chip on his shoulder, which works for him in many different ways. I think what comes through also is he's a really humble kid.

"When you meld that all together, you get that ‘it' factor. As we've talked about before, not everybody has the ‘it' factor. But Cody Garbrandt has the ‘it' factor. What he's been able to do in the Octagon has created a lot of opportunity out of it."

Not everyone comes on saying wild things like McGregor and then backs it up in the cage, allowing him to reach new heights in the sport financially. Some, like St-Pierre and Anderson Silva, need to put together many wins before being bonafide draws.

It's soon to tell what will happen with Garbrandt. The only thing he can focus on right now is getting a win over Mizugaki, preferably a knockout. Then, a title shot is on the horizon and a potential feud with Cruz, who already has history with Team Alpha Male, can elevate his career.

That's when we can start seeing the possibility of all those characteristics coming together. The opportunity is his. The UFC PR muscle is already getting behind him.

Garbrandt has the game up wobbled and up against the fence. It's what he can do next that will determine the heights he can reach.

"I've always felt in my career — fighting, wrestling, boxing — that the bigger the fight is for me, the more the pressure is on, the more that I shine," Garbrandt said. "The more that the best comes out in me.

"I'm gonna be a better McGregor. I'm gonna be the American superstar. He's the Ireland superstar."

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