BY DAN GELSTON
NEW YORK (AP) — Cody Garbrandt got a pair of championship pep talks in the week leading up to the biggest fight of his career: Kobe Bryant and Mike Tyson each stopped by for a motivational pick-me-up and to rub elbows with perhaps UFC’s next big thing.
Garbrandt yearns to share more than championships with the stars — he wants to be stamped with the same greatness that defined them.
The 26-year-old Garbrandt, a tattooed tough guy with remarkable charisma out of Ohio, makes his first defense of his 135-pound title Saturday night at UFC 217 at Madison Square Garden.
His rapid ascent up the card — on the strength of an 11-0 record — has him positioned as a fighter who could make the leap into pay-per-view headliner and gravely needed superstar.
The MSG card is headlined by two stars pushing 40 in middleweight champ Michael Bisping (38) and UFC veteran Georges St. Pierre (36). UFC mainstream stars Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey have no fights on the horizon. Jon Jones, perhaps the greatest pound-for-pound MMA fighter ever, is again out indefinitely as he faces his latest doping penalty.
The cage door for a breakthrough star is wide open for 2018.
Garbrandt puts the bantamweight belt on the line when he fights T.J Dillashaw (15-3) in what could be the fight of the night on a three title-fight card.
“We’re the real main event,” Garbrandt said.
Garbrandt won the championship at UFC 207 when he battered Dominick Cruz, snapping his 13-bout winning streak with flair. Garbrandt repeatedly knocked down Cruz in the fourth round and handed him his first MMA loss since March 24, 2007.
Garbrandt, a native of Uhrichsville, Ohio, was a competitor on the reality series “The Ultimate Fighter” for fellow Team Alpha Male teammate Urijah Faber when he famously shoved McGregor and they had to be separated. Garbrandt would later coach against Dillashaw on TUF.
UFC President Dana White has said Garbrandt’s talent and remarkable charisma gives him the potential to become UFC’s most marketable budding star in 2018.
“It humbles you to have Dana White and the UFC believe in you, finally,” he said. “I feel I am going to be the next superstar. However, that doesn’t put extra hype or pressure on me to fulfill those shoes. I go out there and perform. And look, I have fun fighting.”
Garbrandt vs. Dillashaw could be the fight of the night, but here’s what else to check out at MSG:
Joanna Jedrzejczyk (14-0) puts the 115-pound championship on the line against Rose Namajunas (6-3). Jedrzejczyk is set to tie Rousey’s mark of six title defenses.
With a win Jedrzejczyk would make UFC history — and maybe headline her own PPV card.
“There’s no if. I will,” Jedrzejczyk said.
St. Pierre ends his four-year sabbatical to fight Bisping for the middleweight championship in the main event. St. Pierre was one of the UFC’s biggest stars and pay-per-view draws during his long reign atop the 170-pound division, but the Canadian star walked away in November 2013.
“He looks impregnated by aliens,” Bisping said.
NEW YORK, NEW YORK
UFC wraps up its first year of cards in New York with its second trip to Madison Square Garden. McGregor headlined a card last November that set an MSG gate record of $17 million.
White said the sold-out 217 show should again rake in the cash.
“We’re No. 1 here and this weekend we’re going to be No. 3,” White said. “New York’s been very good to us and we’re going to continue to come. We want to be No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 at MSG.”
UFC also ran a show at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center and one in Buffalo. UFC seems poised to expand its East Coast footprint in 2018 with a card set for Boston and a possible return to New Jersey’s Prudential Center on the horizon.
“This will be the biggest year in company history. We’re on track for the biggest year ever,” White said of UFC’s profits.
McGregor, the lightweight champion, was revealed Friday as the EA UFC 3 cover boy. McGregor shared the cover last year with Rousey. McGregor is coming off his richest payday yet in a boxing match against Floyd Mayweather Jr., and said he wants a piece of the company before he returns to UFC.
White was confident McGregor would return, possibly for a bout against interim lightweight champ Tony Ferguson.
“As we go into negotiations with Conor, there’s always all kinds of crazy stuff out there,” White said. “We always get deals done with Conor. Conor has been easy to deal with, and we’ll get it done.”
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