"If you come at the king. You best not miss." - Omar Little - HBO's The Wire
February 18th, 2012.
Jerrell Hodge sat quietly inside his locker room at Gray's Armory in Cleveland, Ohio, while the crowd inside the arena pulsated, awaiting their charge — and Hodge’s opponent — Cody Garbrandt.
One statement stood out, among the many regarding his foe, in the lead-up to the fight:
He’s the next best thing.
Hodge didn’t believe the hype. In fact, before the bout was made, he never heard of Garbrandt. In Hodge’s mind, they were on an even playing field: they both had similar three-win records, and they both were in the formative years of their careers. Garbrandt did believe the clamor surrounding his own talent, though, and before their meeting inside the cage it was clear that the young prospect was looking past Hodge.
"I took [the fight] on short notice, and then I saw an interview of him talking about it and I realized, This kid thinks I’m outta my league. [He was] saying I’ve never fought anybody like him, and I was like, 'Good, because he’s never fought anyone like me either,’” Hodge said. "When I seen him at the weigh-ins, he’s got his little hair cut all done and I’m thinking, Imma' knock this kid out! He was saying, 'I’ve never gone the distance.' I’m like, ‘Okay, well I’ll go the distance with you.’"
Rounds one and two were split affairs — both fighters had varying moments of success. Cody's takedowns were proving successful, but Hodge's striking was accurate enough to seemingly even the bout to one round apiece.
"Third round came and I thought, Okay we’ve gone far enough. Now it’s time for you to go night-night."
Round three began and both men took the center of the cage. Just seven seconds in, Hodge lunged forward and landed a right that proved a devastating salvo. Garbrandt likely had not yet experienced such power during his young tenure in combat sports, and the results spoke for themselves: Garbrandt was out cold.
The crowd, many of whom were frothing at the mouth with adulation and excitement just seconds earlier, gasped and fell into an eery hush. Small pockets of pro-Hodge fans clapped and screamed — they were there and they were audible — but a blanket of disappointment had befallen the audience, and their silence was deafening.
Hodge, bubbling with emotion, knew that something special had just occurred.
"He went to sleep and I was hype man, because there were so many people in the stands from his crew. I guess he was doing his thing with the kid he likes to walkout with and everything, and that’s cool, I respect that a lot, but I got people to support too," he said. "I had a son on the way, I got family members there, and I was doing my thing for my people too. So, I’m not about to just lay here and let you beat me just ‘cause you're doing it for a good cause."
Since that faithful day in Cleveland, Hodge has gone onto win 11 of his last 13 bouts including his TKO over Alfred Leisure in at Iron Tiger Fight Series 73, where he captured their Bantamweight Title. Garbrandt, of course, is the reigning UFC Bantamweight champion.
"All the people from [Garbrandt's] crowd were talking all kinds of mess — a couple of them even tried to fight me and some of my crew afterwards, but I was just there to do my job," Hodge said. "We both did what we came to do. It was crazy man, definitely one of my best fights and one that I’ll remember forever.”
Hodge will now face the talented Tony Gravely at CFFC 68 in Atlantic City on October 21.
“I’ve watched a couple of his fights, like the one where he fought Francis Healy," he said. "There was a lot of grappling in that fight, not much standup from what I saw. Tony seems like a tough dude. He’s got some good wrestling and he likes to throw a good head kick here and there, but I don’t see anything I haven’t already seen before."
With his career ascending into the stratosphere, Hodge knows that plans -- like the one Garbrandt had in mind before he was KO'd -- have a tendency to shatter in the fight game. To combat that, he's not looking past Gravely.
"I always tell myself you can have a gameplan when you’re training for a fight, but once you’re in the cage, the gameplan kind of goes out the window. It’s just fight, survive and knock somebody out."