Many times when promoters put on a fight and bill it as one between opponents who hate each other, it’s just made up drama to help increase interest in the bout.
That is most definitely not the case when it comes to UFC bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw and ex-champion Cody Garbrandt, who meet in a rematch for the title on Saturday in the main event of UFC 227 at Staples Center in Los Angeles.
Dillashaw and Garbrandt were teammates and friends until a long and confusing fallout led to them becoming mortal enemies. When Garbrandt defended his title against Dillashaw at New York’s Madison Square Garden in November, the trash talk started early and came often, and was always intense.
Dillashaw knocked Garbrandt out in the second round to reclaim the title, and got in Garbrandt’s face after the bout was stopped. It was, Dillashaw said, the ultimate bit of revenge after Garbrandt had released video before the fight that supposedly showed him knocking out Dillashaw in sparring.
Dillashaw has reveled in recalling the finish.
“I had to teach him a lesson and keep him in check,” Dillashaw said of Garbrandt. “I knocked his ass out. I don’t have to go and find gym footage like ‘Finding Big Foot’ where you can hardly see what’s going on of him supposedly beating me. Mine was on national TV, me knocking him out and screaming in his face.”
It’s been tough to swallow for Garbrandt, who emerged in 2016 as one of the rising stars in the sport. He had a stellar 2016, knocking out Augusto Mendes, Thomas Almeida and Takeya Mizugaki in the first round and then routing Dominick Cruz to win the championship.
No one had handled Cruz like Garbrandt had done. It was a one-sided victory in Garbrandt’s favor and not only stamped him as one of the greatest talents in the world, but also one of its burgeoning stars.
UFC officials believed Garbrandt had the fighting ability and the backstory to help ease the loss of stars such as Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey.
The plan was if Garbrandt got past bitter rival Dillashaw, he’d go on to challenge the legendary Demetrious Johnson for the flyweight title, as well.
The words flew as Garbrandt and Dillashaw promoted their battle, and it was a way of covering up a major problem for Garbrandt. He wasn’t healthy and hadn’t been able to train the way he needed to do. The bout was originally scheduled for May 29 but was postponed when Garbrandt injured his back.
He never felt healthy and wasn’t prepared to put on the kind of effort he needed against Dillashaw.
“There were some mistakes I made that resulted in my loss,” Garbrandt said, softly. “But it was the preparation for the fight, not being able to prepare properly to go in and defend my title against T.J. My health wasn’t there and that trickles down into your mind, your mentality. You start to doubt yourself and so you can’t picture yourself being in there fighting, so there were a lot of things I wasn’t able to prepare for. Literally, I got off the couch to fight this guy.
“And then he wants to get in my face after he TKOs me. He’s classless, man. That’s what irks me about the guy. He puts on a front for everyone and tries to be someone he’s not. He acts for the cameras. He tries to do reverse psychology and say that it’s me doing it. I’m raw and real and always have been. T.J. just switches back and forth of who he is. I feel bad for the guy.”
Garbrandt says he’s healthy and so the goal is to be the guy who shockingly dominated Cruz and not the mistake-prone guy who was knocked out by Dillashaw.
He seems at peace and while he unquestionably dislikes Dillashaw, the bitterness and the hatred are no longer oozing out of every pore. He’s been able to prepare the way he wants and needs and that’s made a difference in his outlook.
What will help him, he believes, is his memory of the difficult road to get back to a point where he is again facing Dillashaw for the world championship.
“Obviously, life’s about learning and growing and that’s what I’ve been able to do,” Garbrandt said. “After the win [over Cruz], I believed that I could do that against anybody. I believed in myself so much and whether it was a guy like Dominick, a world champion, or anybody else, I had the ability to fight like that.
“Now, I’m healthy and so there’s no reason I can’t be back to that guy. No one works as hard as me. No one is as skilled as me. No one wants it as badly as I do. I know what it has taken to get here and I remember that every day the alarm goes off and I get up to train. I remember that hard work and the sacrifices I’ve made and the hours I’ve logged with blood, sweat and tears. Life is all about learning and growing and so, lesson learned. I got too emotionally involved with the banter before the T.J. fight. But it was all I was able to do. I couldn’t do anything else because my body wouldn’t let me.”
He beamed, as if he knows someone no one else does.
“I’m healthy, I have had a great camp and I feel ready to go out and perform in front of my fans,” he said. “I’ve stayed quiet for the most part because there’s really no reason for me to do that, because I’ve been putting in the work. People say it was because T.J. humbled me, but that’s not the case. He didn’t humble me and he’ll never humble me.
“God humbled me. God taught me a lesson. But T.J. had nothing to do with it. And look, he’s said this and he’s said that, but I can’t be mad at the guy for trying to go out and sell the pay-per-view. Let him brag all he wants. He’s the champion and he has a win over me. But I’ve been laser focused on getting my title back and showing the adjustments I’ve made, and showing the real Cody.”
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