After one of the fastest ever rises to a UFC title, Ohio’s Cody Garbrandt is looking to get back on a win streak for the first time since 2016. A fantastic athlete, Garbrandt aggressively boxed his way to his shot at the belt, then put on a disciplined backfoot counter-punching performance against bantamweight great Dominick Cruz.
A major key to his victory over Cruz was his ability to neutralize Cruz’s wrestling game. In past breakdowns on Cruz, I’ve noted how his ability to threaten takedowns was the glue that held his game together. While he hadn’t demonstrated it in his MMA career at that point, Cody Garbrandt had the pedigree to wrestle with anyone in the division.
Ohio is one of the top-five toughest states in the country for high school wrestling, and Cody Garbrandt won a state title as a freshman - over future Virginia Tech Hokie Zach Neibert. He would lose to Neibert at states the following year, but a high placement at a folkstyle national tournament for his age group garnered interest from Division 1 coaches. Ultimately Garbrandt chose boxing, and later MMA, but he was clearly incredibly talented as a wrestler. Working out on a daily basis with wrestlers like Chad Mendes and Lance Palmer, it’s likely that his skill grew to new levels.
Wrestling hasn’t been a central point of any of his fights since, but the exchanges in the first round of his fight with Dominick Cruz have a lot to offer.
How Cody Garbrandt Outwrestled Dominick Cruz
There are two general ideas that allow Dominick Cruz to take down his opponents. The first is that his unorthodoxy on the lead often creates opportunities to attack the weakened base of his opponents - either from his angling off or from his opponent covering up high. The second is that his opponents are desperate to hit him, and they often run themselves into reactive shots trying to chase him down.
Cody Garbrandt’s main tactic was to take the backfoot, to sit back and let Cruz lead and come to him. Against slower and less competent counter-punchers, Cruz generally does well in these situations, it gives him time and space to do what he likes. However, his inability to land on Garbrandt early clearly frustrated him, he became more careless and aggressive.
However, he was still able to make some solid reads. Knowing that Garbrandt was committed to counter-punching, Cruz walked into Garbrandt’s range, as bait. As Garbrandt set his feet and threw his right hand, Cruz changed levels and hit a solid double leg.
Cruz stepped in with his lead right leg as part of his level change under the strike, but it also served as a penetration step for his takedown. Cruz then drove off his back leg and began to pivot on his front foot as he got a hold of the legs, looking to turn the corner and drive Garbrandt across his base. One detail about Cruz, and MMA fighters in general, is they generally prefer the knee tap finish to double legs, over the traditional styles you see in wrestling.
The simple explanation is that the knee tap is a more accessible finish from the standing position, and thus easier to transition to from striking situations. However, it can also leave the attacking wrestler vulnerable when they look to cover. Cruz pulled in the leg with his left hand and pushed down the hip with his right, angling Garbrandt’s right hip to the ground. This position can be a bit awkward for the attacking wrestler - their weight is off-center as well. This is why immediately hitting the cartwheel pass to finish, like Merab Dvalishvili, is an excellent idea.
Cruz put all of his weight on his left leg, and Cody Garbrandt used the arm-in guillotine position to control Cruz’s upper body. In freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling this is a similar position to a “head pinch” counter. Garbrandt was able to continue his momentum of rolling toward his left shoulder by ripping the head pinch in that direction. Cruz was easily pulled off that base leg and rolled across his own back.
It still would have been possible for Cruz to cover top and finish this takedown, but there was one key detail that allowed Garbrandt to get the upper hand in the scramble. As he rolled through, he used his head as a post to get just enough height to quickly swivel his hips to the mat and cover. It’s hard to say if it was a premeditated read on Cruz’s wrestling or just great intuitive scrambling, but it was impressive from Garbrandt regardless.
In that exchange, Garbrandt discouraged Cruz from banking on reactive takedowns. It would be wasted energy if he couldn’t out-scramble Garbrandt, and there was a risk of ending up on bottom for extended periods of time. Cruz’s only option now was to do most of his work on the lead, and hope that he can put the rest of his game together around that.
However, it was Garbrandt who got to his reactive takedown game at that point. As Cruz jabbed in, Garbrandt slipped outside and then rolled under, shuffling back toward the center of the cage. Cruz was forced to turn and face him, which disrupted his base and put him out of position. This alone was not a great look, but Cruz made a huge mistake and insisted on continuing the sequence, crossing his feet in order to get back in range with Garbrandt as soon as possible.
The slip, roll, and shuffle had switched Garbrandt’s stance so that his right leg was leading, which lined him up perfectly to shoot a powerful straight-on double. Typically when a fighter is right-handed, you can assume they prefer the right leg lead as a wrestler. Cruz barely had a base under him, his feet were crossed, and he was moving forward - it was a takedown entry on a silver platter. At that point, the finishing mechanics aren’t all that important - any double leg will do.
These first round wrestling sequences set the tone for the rest of the fight. Cruz gave up on the idea of out-wrestling Garbrandt and spent the next three rounds chasing after him and eating counters. It wasn’t until the final round of the fight that Cruz realized he could just stick Garbrandt at range and build his offense without worrying about landing clean or getting big scores in the pocket.
Cody Garbrandt has taken a lot of flack for his subsequent performances, and rightfully so. His win over Cruz aged in a way that suggested the “master class” had more to do with the specific matchup than any generalized ability to strategize or gameplan. After all, Team Alpha Male had a decade of work put in scouting Dominick Cruz at that point, and Garbrandt happened to be the perfect candidate to carry out a gameplan they had toyed with over several attempts.
While “wrestle more” is not a comprehensive solution to Cody Garbrandt’s issues in the cage, it could serve him well in his upcoming matchup against Rob Font. Font is a decent enough scrambler and not a terrible wrestler, but his fights against men like Raphael Assunção and Marlon Moraes demonstrated a clear vulnerability in that area. Will Cody Garbrandt make good use of that information? We’ll find out on Saturday.