Rocky path for Garbrandt to UFC debut

LAS VEGAS -- Cody Garbrandt knows little about his biological father, other than that he has been in prison his entire adult life.

Garbrandt says he was fortunate to have a father figure growing up in his uncle, Robert -- although Robert's past also includes time in the penal system. A second uncle, Mike, is also serving time in an Ohio penitentiary.

"My father is in on numerous charges," Garbrandt told ESPN.com. "I don't keep up with it, but my grandma tells me about it sometimes. My uncle [Mike] was a heroin, crack junkie. I don't know if he robbed someone or something like that, but he got eight years.

"They are actually in the same penitentiary together. These are violent people."

Garbrandt, 23, is violent, too. Anyone who has seen him in a cage fight is aware of that. His aggressive striking style has produced a 5-0 professional mixed martial arts record, with each fight ending via knockout.

That style certainly has something to do with his quick path to the UFC. He'll make his promotional debut against Marcus Brimage (7-3) in a 135-pound contest at UFC 182 on Saturday.

Violence runs in Garbrandt's blood. Luckily, it ultimately led him to the Octagon. That was not always a given.

Garbrandt's earliest memory of martial arts starts with a car ride from New Philadelphia, Ohio (where Garbrandt was raised) to a boxing gym in Cambridge, Ohio, 45 minutes south.

His uncle Robert was an amateur boxer and would take Garbrandt and his older brother by one year to the gym when he was 4. He'd lace each boy up with 16-ounce gloves and turn them loose. Action was fast-paced and (more than likely) a little sloppy.

"I remember him lacing up the 16s and they'd be so heavy I'd fall over," Garbrandt said. "He would put us on the treadmill and see how fast we'd go, turning it up until we'd fly off. I have real vivid memories of that. He'd take us down in this car -- this was in the '90s -- and we'd be blasting Metallica the whole ride."

When Garbrandt turned 14, his mother, Jessica, enrolled her two oldest boys in a school wrestling program -- in part to see them burn energy in a way other than fighting in her home.

Garbrandt found a new love on the mats. In ninth grade, he won a high school state wrestling championship. He placed second the following year.

A back injury kept him off the wrestling squad as a junior. In his senior year, while lifting weights at football practice that fall (he was also on the football team), Garbrandt says a former student came onto school property to fight him over something he can't even recall now.

The violent streak in Garbrandt showed up that day, and he "smashed the kid." His school kicked him out for it.

Despite not competing in wrestling his final two years of high school, Garbrandt says he received interest from Division I schools, including Penn State and Rutgers. He even visited campuses and fielded scholarship offers, but for academic reasons, he eventually wound up at a Division II school, Newberry College in Newberry, South Carolina.

Shortly into his time there, he realized it wasn't for him. In less than one year, he moved back to Ohio and into his mother's house.

At that time in his life, Garbrandt figured he needed to work. Coal mining, he says, is a go-to profession where he's from. He applied to coal-mining school, took eight-hour courses for a few weeks and received a certificate that would allow him to tunnel deep into the earth and mine coal.

Companies started calling immediately -- athletic and young, Garbrandt was in high demand.

When it came time to accept his first mining job, though, Garbrandt went to his mother for a heart-to-heart. It essentially came down to one plea: Give me just a little time.

"I didn't want to be a coal miner, man," Garbrandt said. "It pays well. My older brother loves it. My grandfathers were coal miners. I didn't want to do that for the rest of my life, though. I had bigger plans.

"I remember sitting my mom down and saying, 'Let me chase my dream for a little bit.'"

At 19, Garbrandt hit the fight circuit hard -- amateur MMA and boxing matches. Whatever he could get. Sometimes, opponents wouldn't show up, and a matchmaker would try to make the best of it. Garbrandt boxed opponents everywhere from 139 to 162 pounds. He won far more than he lost.

It wasn't all smooth, however. When he was still 19, Garbrandt was stabbed in the leg during a bar fight. Within a two-year period, Garbrandt had been kicked out of school for fighting and stabbed in a drunken brawl. His athletic talents were in danger of being wasted.

After turning pro in 2012, Garbrandt decided to fly to Sacramento to get training in with Team Alpha Male, one of the most prestigious camps in the country. He knew TAM member Lance Palmer through the wrestling circuit in Ohio.

For the next 10 months, Garbrandt flew back and forth between Sacramento and Pittsburgh, where his mother had relocated. The TAM regulars, accustomed to seeing UFC hopefuls appear sporadically at the gym, noticed his talent right away, but talent alone isn't enough.

It was only when Garbrandt continued to show up in Sacramento every few months to prepare for a fight that it appeared he had a real shot in the sport.

"His boxing definitely stood out, but we see a lot of guys come and go," said Joseph Benavidez, a two-time UFC title contender and longtime TAM member. "Sometimes you see guys who are like, 'Hey, it was great training with you, I'll be back!' and you never see them again.

"It seemed like every few months, Cody would come back and say, 'I can't wait to move out here.' Everybody says that, but he kept coming."

Garbrandt moved to Sacramento full time in July. He rents a house from UFC featherweight contender Chad Mendes that he shares with UFC bantamweight Chris Holdsworth.

In November, Garbrandt flew to Austin, Texas, to help Benavidez in his final prefight preparations against Dustin Ortiz. On Thursday of fight week, Garbrandt had dinner with his manager, Jeff Meyer, and ran into UFC matchmakers Sean Shelby and Joe Silva.

It was the first time he'd met Shelby in person, but they'd spoken before on social media. Before they left the restaurant that night, Shelby offered Garbrandt a UFC contract.

"They were sitting behind us, and Sean came up and shook my hand," Garbrandt said. "He asked if I wanted to fight, and I said, 'Of course.' We signed the contract right there."

Heading into his UFC debut, Garbrandt is the kind of fighter who could cause a splash early. He throws hard, sets a high pace and can wrestle. Appearance-wise, he's can't-miss -- literally covered in tattoos.

Behind the scenes, he's a soft-spoken guy. Benavidez affectionately describes Garbrandt as a "sweetheart." His mother will be in attendance on Saturday -- in fact, she has never missed one of his pro bouts. Uncle Robert will be there as well and still trains Garbrandt at the tail end of his camps.

Garbrandt is also flying out his 8-year-old friend, Maddux Maple, for his UFC debut. The two met in 2011 and are from the same area in Ohio. Maple was 5 at the time and battling leukemia; Garbrandt was an amateur MMA fighter. They made a promise to each other: that Maple would overcome his ailment and Garbrandt would make it to the UFC. Maple, who has walked out with Garbrandt in his past three fights, was declared leukemia-free in August.

Garbrandt has drawn a difficult first assignment in Brimage, but then again, nothing has really ever been made easy for Garbrandt. The Vegas spotlights will feel pretty good on his back this weekend.