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Dana White had the shine in his eye when he looked at Cody Garbrandt.
You know the shine. It’s a glimmer in the eye, a flash of something that might be happiness or something different. You’ve seen it before, back when the UFC president used to bloviate about Conor McGregor or Ronda Rousey or, going back even further, Chuck Liddell in the heady early days, back when White had a head at least one-third full of hair.
The shine is mostly absent these days. You still catch glimpses of it whenever White talks about Greg Hardy and how he deserves a second chance (despite previously assuring us that those accused of domestic violence have no place in the UFC). The shine is mostly hidden behind White’s efforts to put on an I Am Very Serious and Somber face, but it’s still there. It’s a look that can only be described like this: I feel as though this person can make me a lot of money, and I am happy about this.
Garbrandt exploded onto the UFC bantamweight division a few years back, with all his tattoos and power punching and other tattoos, and White was soooo smitten. It took White something like 35 seconds to fall in love with the potential of Garbrandt. Whited hooked him up with the guy who makes his suits, which is a special thing reserved for only the brightest stars on the roster. He brought his name up in the strangest conversations, like the time in 2017 when Dan Le Batard asked him who the next big UFC star would be.
“Nov. 4 at Madison Square Garden, this kid who’s the world champion, he’s gonna fight,” White told Le Batard while clearly trying to remember Garbrandt’s name. “His name is Cody No Love. Very marketable guy. I think Cody No Love could be the next big star.”
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And so, when Garbrandt got his ass good and thumped by former teammate TJ Dillashaw in November, you could be sure he wasn’t going to have to earn his way back to title contention.
Back in the old days (which were really only two or three years ago), the only way a champion would get an immediate rematch is if they lost a close fight, lost a controversial fight or if they were someone like Demetrious Johnson who reigned over a division for years.
None of those traits applied to Garbrandt or to his loss to Dillashaw. But the UFC recognized an opportunity to try to get the result it wanted last year, so it just ran it back again in the hopes of achieving a different result.
In what was essentially a replay of the first fight between them—keeping the big moments and tossing the chaff—Dillashaw knocked out Garbrandt in the first round Saturday night to keep the UFC bantamweight championship. Garbrandt rocked Dillashaw just like he did in the first fight, and then Dillashaw mounted a comeback, just as he did in the first fight.
It wasn’t that simple, of course. Dillashaw fought a completely different style of fight the second time around. He remained far more stationary than usual, instead planting his feet to wait on Garbrandt to lumber forward and make the mistake Dillashaw and his team had identified.
“We were planning on him throwing a right hand,” Dillashaw said, per Marc Raimondi of MMA Fighting. “Every time he throws a right hand, he drops his left. He’s looking to throw a left hook. He’s fast. He throws a big right, left hand. But he drops it to his pocket. So [we] were planning on timing it.”
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Oh, did Dillashaw time it. Repeatedly. And once Dillashaw has you hurt, he is relentless. He possesses a troubling combination of near-perfect athleticism and mental toughness combined with an obsessiveness bordering on compulsion.
He might also be the most competitive person on the planet, as I showed in a 2014 profile on Dillashaw:
“For example: The Dillashaw family had two cars, and they would often split up. TJ sometimes rode with his dad, and his brothers piled into their mom’s car. A simple drive from point A to point B morphed from a leisurely drive into a chance to score a victory over the rest of the family.
“TJ and his dad had to win. They had to be the first to arrive at their destination.”
Garbrandt has all the potential in the world, but he is in need of fine-tuning. He is surrounded by great athletes and even better humans at the Team Alpha Male enclave created by Urijah Faber in Sacramento, California. He’s got all the stuff it takes to be a huge star.
He’s a good-looking guy (unfortunate neck tattoo choices aside).
He has an incredible story of perseverance.
He’s a thrilling fighter in the cage.
He’s just not ready for Dillashaw. Not yet. No matter how earnestly he may tell himself or the rest of us that he is.
But there’s no shame in that. Dillashaw is the greatest bantamweight fighter of all time. He’s the guy the UFC should be strapping a rocket to, but for whatever reason (the reason is that Dillashaw has taken a pro-union stance in the past), the promotion just won’t get behind him. It decided Garbrandt was its guy when Dillashaw was right there.
And Dillashaw, as all great and disrespected champions do, blew up its plans. The best part came after the fight: We got to watch as White—forced to strap the championship belt around the wrong guy again—made little effort to mask his pout before turning around to get the hell out of the cage.
Dillashaw may never bring a glimmer to White’s eye. But he’s got a shine of his own, sparkling around his waist, and it’s going to be there for a while.