A new year is here, and that means it’s time for Combat Press to take a look back at the best of MMA in 2023. In the coming days, Combat Press will announce its award winners in multiple categories, covering everything from the action in the cage to the biggest stories surrounding the sport.
The sport, and especially the fans, of MMA can be particularly unforgiving. One minute, a fighter can be on top of the world, and within months, that same fighter can start to hear, “What have you done for me lately?” However, it takes a true fighter to go from the very highest point of the sport to the very lowest point and still make a huge comeback.
2023 saw a few comebacks in MMA, and the runner-up for the Combat Press 2023 MMA Award for Comeback Fighter of the Year could easily have been the winner. After suffering back-to-back losses in the latter half of 2022, Sean Strickland came back in 2023 with back-to-back wins, the first of which was on short notice. Then, on Sep. 10 at UFC 293, he pulled off a huge upset with a dominant decision win over Israel Adesanya to capture the UFC middleweight title. However, there is one much deeper comeback story that is even more impressive than that.
Seven years ago, Cody Garbrandt was the baddest bantamweight on Planet Earth. He was 11-0 as a pro with nine knockouts, and the Ohio native and Team Alpha Male mainstay had just captured the UFC bantamweight title from Dominick Cruz. Cruz had already defeated many of Garbrandt’s teammates, including Joseph Benavidez, T.J. Dillashaw, and TAM patriarch Urijah Faber, so the title win for Garbrandt was even sweeter than most. However, that tide quickly turned.
Over the years, TAM had been twisted up in some drama that started with Dillashaw deciding to move his camp to Colorado in late 2015 to train with Duane Ludwig. Over the course of the next two years, Dillashaw had a dominant run, minus his loss to Cruz, and he positioned himself for a shot at his former teammate’s belt, which he also briefly held. For Garbrandt, this was a huge opportunity to make his team even prouder by defeating another enemy of the gym with a title on the line. Things did not go as planned, as Dillashaw not only took Garbrandt’s title with a second-round TKO, but he defended it in their rematch nine months later with a first-round knockout.
Garbrandt had tasted the title, but not for very long, and that hurts worse than not ever having it at all. Then, he dropped a wild one-round fight to Pedro Munhoz by TKO, before getting back in the win column with a TKO of Raphael Assuncao. However, he dropped his next two fights to Rob Font and Kai Kara-France, the second of which was his flyweight debut. Garbrandt went from undefeated in 11 fights, and holding a UFC title, to 1-5 over the next five years. Needless to say, he found himself in a very dark place. Between injury and cancelled fights, he found himself on the bench for 15 months.
In Mar. 2023, Garbrandt returned to action back in the bantamweight division, as he faced Trevin Jones. He got back in the win column, taking two of three rounds on each scorecard. Then, after a cancelled fight in Aug. 2023, due to his own injury, he returned for the UFC’s final event of the year with a first-round knockout of Brian Kelleher at UFC 296. It finally appears that the Garbrandt of seven years ago is finally back and ready to make another title run.
While Garbrandt is not yet back in the UFC’s official rankings for the super-stacked bantamweight division, he certainly got his career back on track in 2023 with a tremendous comeback for a guy who seemed way too young to have his career on a downward trajectory. For that reason, the 32-year-old former champion has earned the Combat Press 2023 MMA Award for Comeback Fighter of the Year.
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