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Garbrandt angling to become the UFC's next star

Unbeaten bantamweight Cody Garbrandt returns on Saturday to face Takeya Mizugaki at UFC 202 in Las Vegas. Joshua Dahl/USA Today

The UFC has never seen a marketing machine exactly like featherweight champion Conor McGregor.

But another loss of any kind, even above his natural weight class, would debilitate McGregor's mystique and leave a glaring superstar vacancy.

Unbeaten bantamweight Cody "No Love" Garbrandt (9-0), who turned 25 the day before UFC 200, may be posturing to fill it.

"The guy has [Justin] Bieber appeal," said Justin Buchholz, Team Alpha Male head coach. "When he fought [Augusto] 'Tanquinho' Mendes in Pittsburgh, there was a girl who was 15 years old. She [skipped] a Justin Bieber meet-and-greet to go to Cody's weigh-in."

When offered a slot on Saturday's UFC 202 undercard opposite No. 11 bantamweight Takeya Mizugaki (21-9-2), Garbrandt understood the promotional benefit.

The event could rival UFC 196 -- also headlined by McGregor and Nate Diaz -- as the organization's best-selling pay-per-view of 2016.

But accepting the fight meant turning down a Sept. 10 spot on UFC 203, in the promotion's first trip to Cleveland, which would have been a homecoming for Garbrandt.

"Obviously, Cleveland, Ohio, would've been awesome," said Garbrandt, who grew up 90 miles south of the city. "But business has to be handled Aug. 20 in Vegas. I love fighting in the fight capital of the world, and Vegas is a short flight from Sacramento. It's on a huge card, so I'm super excited to get out there and get the job done."

Garbrandt, ranked No. 8 among UFC bantamweights, headlines Saturday's preliminary card at UFC 202. It's the last free fight before the coverage turns to pay-per-view.

The time slot will make his bout among the most watched of the night, particularly among casual fans who don't end up buying the main card.

"I actually just talked to [UFC matchmaker] Sean Shelby about his place on this card," Buchholz said. "We all know this as fighters -- that's the spot you want to be on. It's free TV. You get the commercials on [FS1].

"He's going to have $10 million worth of advertising on Cody with his face."

Garbrandt's soap opera good looks, comfort on the mic and dynamite in his hands all check boxes in MMA promotion. A top-shelf tattoo game doesn't hurt either.

But as important as the ingredients to stardom are the actual results. And Garbrandt has those.

He has won every pro fight by knockout or TKO except one, a shutout decision win over Henry Briones at UFC 189.

Garbrandt's most recent fight was the main event of a UFC Fight Night card in May, when he knocked out previously unbeaten Thomas Almeida (21-1) in less than three minutes.

"I was kind of surprised at the change after my fight with Almeida," Garbrandt said. "I knew I was going to do that to him. I knew it was just another fight to me, another man who stands in the way of getting the title."

As much as Garbrandt stresses he's not looking past Mizugaki, conversation naturally drifts toward a future fight against UFC bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz (22-1), who has been outspoken in recent weeks about the prospects of facing him. Promotion for the potential fight has already spilled over to Twitter and Instagram.

Cruz's last win came at UFC 199 against Urijah Faber (33-9), which capped a nine-year trilogy. Faber is Garbrandt's teammate and a mentor at Team Alpha Male.

Garbrandt thinks Cruz recognizes his title reign could be an inevitable casualty of the Ohio-native's evolution in the cage.

"Dominick Cruz wants this fight now because he's not a dumb fighter," Garbrandt said. "He's not a dumb person. He has a high fight IQ. That's why he's a Fox analyst. You see in all my fights I'm progressing, progressing, progressing.

"He's like, 'Man, I don't want to wait any longer. I want to get this kid now.'"

Added Buchholz: "I tell Cody every time Cruz mentions him, I'm like, 'Dude, it's funny that the champ is calling you out. The champ is trying to get a fight with you.' Who the f--- is the draw?"

A world title would be a storybook ending for Garbrandt, who remains in the early chapters of his career.

But Mizugaki stands in the way of dreams inching toward reality. And with fellow bantamweights John Lineker, Bryan Caraway and former champion TJ Dillashaw -- also a former Team Alpha Male member -- making cases for the next shot at Cruz, winning over more fans is as important for Garbrandt as winning over the judges at T-Mobile Arena.

"He's one of those guys who comes to fight," Garbrandt said of Mizugaki. "But I'm the better fighter. I'm meaner, I'm faster, I'm a savage in there.

"I'm laser-focused on destruction: destructing Mizugaki and then having my eyes set on Dominick Cruz. ... Taking Takeya Mizugaki out in the first round, then proceeding to grab the mic and going from there."