Cody Garbrandt’s head coach explains the key to beating Dominick Cruz

It didn’t take much time into the opening round between Cody Garbrandt and Dominick Cruz for Team Alpha Male head coach Justin Buchholz to know the fight was swinging in favor of the challenger.

Buchholz has coached, cornered or trained for fights with Cruz numerous times before while working with Urijah Faber, Joseph Benavidez and TJ Dillashaw, but it was something about Garbrandt’s performance in those first couple of exchanges that let him know this was going to end differently than all the other matchups before it.

Garbrandt showed no fear in the face of Cruz’s constant movement, but it was actually one of his early taunts that had Buchholz brimming with confidence.

“I wasn’t that surprised the way things went. I felt like Cody was just on another level but I’ve got to say within the first minute, Cody did a little shimmy-shake on him and hit him with a couple dance moves and Cruz just looked at him like ‘are you serious?’. From there I was like we’ve got the upper hand now,” Buchholz told the Fight Society podcast.

“Cruz is coming and he’s not going to sit there and let him dance on him and that’s exactly what we wanted.”

Actually, Buchholz felt like they had the advantage going into the fight with Cruz after something he said during an episode of “UFC Embedded” in the final days prior to UFC 207.

The behind the scenes documentary captures fighters in training and preparation for the fight and it was one of Cruz’s random comments that caught Buchholz’s attention to let him know that Garbrandt was really in his head.

“When Cruz said in ‘Embedded’, cause we’d be on ‘Embedded’ and then we’d watch ‘Embedded’ all through fight week, it was just a great time. Laughing about what happened or there was like three street fights between camps during fight week going into it, but when Cruz said ‘that’s the energy he’s putting off so I’m going to match that energy’ and when Cruz said that I was like ‘dude that’s not your style’,” Buchholz said.

“You’re supposed to be the cerebral assassin. You’re not supposed to match this guy in a street fight. That’s crazy.”

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As far as the strategy for the fight, Buchholz and the other coaches at Team Alpha Male, including retired UFC fighter Danny Castillo and former “Ultimate Fighter” winner Chris Holdsworth felt there was really one key into taking Cruz out of his game once he stepped into the Octagon with Garbrandt.

While Cruz is best known for his fancy footwork, fast head movement and lightning quick reflexes, Buchholz says wrestling has always been his secret weapon to win rounds and keep opponents guessing. When Cruz failed on an early takedown attempt — and ultimately went 0 for 7 during the fight — the coaching staff at Team Alpha Male knew Garbrandt was taking over.

“If you can’t win the wrestling with Cruz, you’re not going to win,” Buchholz said. “The stand up is to dazzle you. He doesn’t finish guys on the feet except for (Takeya) Mizugaki but that was with a ground-and-pound combination but he’s dangerous. He can set up those takedowns. He’s the master at that. Lulling you into a stand-up exchange and then switching it up and taking you down and scoring that round.

“Right in the first round, Cruz realized he was with a different animal because he had an amazing timed shoot and Cody reversed to the north-south (position). That’s a credit to (Danny) Castillo and (Chris) Holdsworth jiu-jitsu. Just that body awareness. Putting him in new situations. (Cody) ended up on top and Cruz is like ‘holy (expletive) this is a different type of guy’.”

As intense as the rivalry was between Garbrandt and Cruz leading up to the fight, Buchholz compliments the now former champion on the heart and tenacity he showed throughout the five-round battle.

Cruz received a nasty cut courtesy of a kick from Garbrandt in the third round before suffering two knockdowns in the fourth round but refused to stay down and just kept coming back for more.

“We were expecting Cody to finish this guy, to finish Cruz when he connected but that’s just a testament to Cruz. Cruz, I’ve got to describe him with three words — hard to kill,” Buchholz said. “This guy is no joke. Just the way his body’s shaped and his head is shaped, the way he moves, I mean for having no ACL’s and pumping out that footwork in the fifth round, it’s amazing. Cody broke one of our guy’s orbital bones in camp, he had knockouts in camp, we did it all in house, didn’t bring in any other sparring partners and when the camp got over I seriously took a big sigh of relief went ‘thank God he didn’t (expletive) up the team too bad.’

“It’s just the intensity of it and the guy is just so powerful. I mean he can knock out an elephant. That right hook from southpaw, we were calling that the coal shovel in camp cause his dad was a coal miner, he was from that area, that right hook from southpaw put (Cruz) down hard and it’s just an amazing performance from Cody.”

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Garbrandt ultimately won a unanimous decision to beat Cruz to become the new UFC bantamweight champion but his celebration didn’t last long before questions started about what comes next.

On Friday night at the post-fight press conference, Garbrandt said he would like to give Cruz an automatic rematch after being the longest reigning bantamweight champion in history but his former teammate TJ Dillashaw also seems to be a popular choice for his first title defense.

Immediately after the fight, Garbrandt and Dillashaw were already sniping at each other in various interviews and with their shared history as part of the same team, it seems like an easy sell for a title bout.

Dillashaw claimed at one point he made Garbrandt cry during training while the new champion said there’s video footage that exists where he knocked out the former champion during one of their sparring sessions.

Buchholz, who coached both fighters during those training sessions, isn’t going to reveal what happened but says he’s confident in Garbrandt’s chances to beat Dillashaw if they meet in the UFC.

So whether it’s Dillashaw, a rematch with Cruz or somebody else, Buchholz feels like Garbrandt is ready to beat anybody to defend his title.

“Whenever said incident happened, that’s sparring between teammates at the time so whatever footage is taken, I don’t think that line can get crossed to put that out there,” Buchholz said. “Whatever happened, I’m not going to say but the matchup at the end of the day, it’s like I said, if Dominick Cruz is standing across the cage or whoever, we’ve been training Cody through our system from day one to be the best fighter in the world. We’ve got a decent grasp of what it takes to be the best fighter, we’ve been doing this for a while so whether it be TJ or Cruz or the winner of (Bryan) Caraway and I heard Caraway say Cody’s dodging him, he needs to get the fight maybe just for saying that cause that’s insane, but Caraway versus (Jimmie) Rivera is coming up and that’s No. 3 in the division.

“If Cruz wants that rematch, that’s great. If not, TJ can get some, too. The last two performances (Dillashaw) calling for a title shot, they were good performances don’t get me wrong, but Cody’s knocked three guys out in the first round this year. He’s the best and he proved it. Basically, whoever, bring them on.”

Listen to the rest of the interview from the Fight Society podcast via Soundcloud or download and subscribe to the show on iTunes.