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Cody Garbrandt has found ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ after two straight title losses

Cody Garbrandt faces Pedro Munhoz at UFC 235.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

LAS VEGAS — Not so long ago, Cody Garbrandt was on top of the world. He shot up the bantamweight ranks and captured the title by outclassing Dominick Cruz in one of the most memorable fights in UFC history. Not only that, but his success was tied to a cause. He dedicated his championship to his young friend Maddux Maple, who’d overcome acute lymphocytic leukemia back.

Garbrandt even put out a book about that special bond entitled, The Pact, which was centered on the promises they made — and kept — to each other back in Ohio. All was going according to plan career-wise, and in life. He was undefeated (11-0) and only 25 years old, and the UFC was promoting him to be a star.

But as so often happens in the fight game, things changed drastically almost overnight. In Garbrandt’s case, it was at UFC 217 when he fought his rival T.J. Dillashaw in an emotional, bad blood bout between former teammates. Garbrandt was having his way in the first round against Dillashaw, and looked well on his way to defending the title. But then came the second round…then came the head kick, and the right hook that spelled the end. And of course, then came the rematch nine months later, and the second knockout. This time after a wicked knee.

It’s now been nearly seven months since Garbrandt’s dizzying fall from grace, yet as he gets set to fight Pedro Munhoz on Saturday night at UFC 235, he isn’t feeling sorry for himself. In fact, he has spent a lot of time regrouping, refocusing, and rediscovering what drew him to the fight game to begin with.

“I feel like true competitors, true fighters, understand that this is part of the sport,” Garbrandt told MMA Fighting during UFC 235 media day. “You can never be too high off the winning, or too low off a loss. You’ve got to have a short memory in this game, and move forward. Pick yourself up after a loss, and check yourself after a win.

“I’m fortunate enough. I’m 27 years old, with 13 professional fights, and a great adversary that’s going to bring out the best of me Saturday night. I had a great camp, I’m healthy, I’m hungry. I feel more motivated than ever to go out there and have fun. And that’s it, man, just going back there and enjoying the journey.”

Team Alpha Male’s most celebrated champion was dressed to the nines on Wednesday, sporting more bling than ever before. He was smiling again, too, even if what most the media wanted to talk about was where his head was at after losing back-to-back fights. He was taking the questions in stride, and philosophizing about how best to handle the certain cruelties of the game.

He was also talking about how every setback contains a silver lining, so long as you’re looking for it.

“Honestly, in this sport everyone is so good, everyone is so talented,” he said. “You fight with four-ounce gloves on — in a perfect world, you’d be undefeated and walk away. That’s a small percentage. That’s Floyd Mayweather. Some people look at a loss and it’s devastating, it’s the end of the world, they go in a downward spiral and they let dirt get piled on them. You just got to brush yourself off. You can’t let the dirt bury you.”

Garbrandt said that during his introspections over the last year or so he came to appreciate all that he had achieved, and all that was still available to him.

“I’m not OK with it, I hate losing, but it honestly re-lit a fire under me,” he said. “I remember the first time I lost, before I lost to T.J., the first time was five years ago. I got knocked out in one of my last amateur fights [against Jerrell Hodge]. I was like, holy shit, how am I going to be a professional fighter if I just got knocked out as an amateur?

“That was hard. I had to do a lot of soul-searching. I went to go speak with my mom, and she was like, what are you going to do, go to the coal mines and work? I was like, no, I’m going to go live out my dream.”

One of the things that Garbrandt has been dealing with is the negativity that accompanies losing. As a brash young fighter who wasn’t afraid to speak his mind — particularly in his Dillashaw series — it was inevitable that there would be backlash from fans who wanted to see him get his comeuppance.

Garbrandt, who took a break from social media to lessen the exposure to so many opinions, says that all the negativity that came his way had to be taken in stride, and put into context. After all, it’s him and him alone who can turns things around, just as it was him and his drive that earned the belt to begin with. That’s why he kept drawing things back to this weekend’s fight with Munhoz, the next step to righting the ship.

“I believe in myself,” he said. “That’s one thing I’ve kept this whole journey. Just that self-belief. I think that’s the most powerful trait we have as humans, that self-belief. And I always believed in myself no matter how many naysayers there were, people who came out of the woodwork saying you’re this or that, the trolls on social media. I don’t look into that because they don’t pay my bills. I got to go to sleep with myself, and wake up with myself — I know everyday that I wake up I’ve lost my world title.”

Garbrandt, who had his first child last March — a son named Kai Fisher — says his family has helped him keep perspective through the recent turbulence.

“It sucks because our emotions and our careers are broadcast throughout the world, so it’s hard,” he said. “When you’re a nobody or you weren’t a world champion before, I lost and it was okay, you just go deal with it yourself. For me [this time], you had the media day, you had the sponsors, you had to keep up with social media. So I kind of got off social media and took a little break, and find myself again. That’s what I did I was able to focus on being a husband, being a father, and getting back to having fun.”

Garbrandt’s most common refrain heading into his fight with Munhoz was that he’s enjoying the process, something he might have lost sight of when it was all coming so easy. What is the process these days? It’s to adapt and re-adapt on the fly.

“I remember after the first T.J. loss in New York, I was sitting back there and I thought, man, I’m going to have a Georges St-Pierre career,” he said. “I was like, that’s fine, lose then come back and win a world championship. Then I got beat again, and I was like, damn, I’m going to have a [Daniel Cormier] career. And you look at him now. He’s a double champion, he’s getting paid. He got beat twice by Jon Jones in close fights, and now he’s a double champion. For me, you’ve got to have light at the end of the tunnel.

“It’s a different journey I’m on now. I want to be on a journey to be a world champion but along that way I want to inspire and use my platform for other people to showcase that you should never give up.”

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