Cody Gibson gazed into his bathroom mirror on a regular Sunday morning in February with the same existential questions as he had every morning.
Known also by his fight nickname, The Renegade, he peered at the goals taped up next to the mirror, looking for something.
“Be the best version of yourself that you can be today.”
“Find a winning formula.”
“Become a World Champion.”
What was the best version he could be? Was it time to give up the fighting dream, start coaching and teaching full-time? Bellator, the World Series of Fighting, and other Mixed Martial Arts organizations had been knocking at the door for weeks, but for Gibson it was UFC or bust. Maybe that call would never come, despite a six-fight win streak in the highly competitive state of California.
Gibson continued his Sunday by teaching a private wrestling lesson to a high school freshman he sees once a week on the heels of his own early morning strength and conditioning session. He set his phone in the wrestling room office and continues on with the two-hour wrestling session with the student.
When he returned to his phone after the workout, there was over a dozen missed calls from his manager and a series of text messages.
“You ready to fight in the UFC???….It’s GO TIME BRO!”
“‘I made it, great,’I thought,” Gibson said. “Now what am I going to do with it.”
It was the moment Gibson had been waiting for and working for his entire life, he just didn’t always know it.
A Renegade is Born
The Renegade was born in Blackwell, Okla., to a drug addict mother and a father that was in and out of the hands of the law.
At a young age, he and his brother Keith were put into foster care and eventually ended up in California with Mike and Debbie Gibson, who had been looking to adopt after being unable to conceive children.
Soon after adopting Cody and Keith, Mike and Debbie were graced with a pair of children of their own: Joshua and Jacob, though the births of the two were not without their own obstacles.
Joshua was born premature and suffers from Cerebral Palsy, while Jacob suffered a stroke as a result of his umbilical cord being wrapped around him during birth. The trials of the Gibson family were not seen as hindrances, but rather a reason to grow together as a unit.
“Because of the nature of our family, it brought us close together and we remain close today,” Gibson said. “I’ve always had a special bond with Jacob. We shared a room together growing up and I always felt like I understood him.”
Jacob was left severely mentally and physically handicapped in the aftermath of the stroke, and is unable to see anything other than light, unable to walk, and unable to talk.
To Cody, however, Jacob could do everything that he and his brothers Keith and Josh could, and Jacob’s condition has helped Cody understand the meaning of compassion and give a new definition to the phrase “best friend”.
“His stroke left parts of his brain undeveloped, the one part of his brain that is fully developed, however, is the part which produces emotion and personality,” Gibson said. “He laughs and smiles often; he really represents everything that is good in this world.”
“His life expectancy was only a few years,” Gibson continued. “My parents, however, have become amazing caregivers to him and have really adapted their own lives to meet his needs. I’m happy to say that Jacob is now 20 years old and still making me laugh to this day.”
With the support of his parents throughout his youth and emergence into adulthood, Gibson has begun to form his own family and legacy.
Gibson, now 26, and his wife of a year and a half, Jackie, live in Visalia with two dogs, and are discussing the possibility of children of their own come fall 2014.
“My parents have always been great to me, they told me that I could be and do whatever I wanted to do in life,” Gibson said. “As a kid, I don’t think I quite grasped the concept they were trying to relay, but it stuck and I attribute a lot of who I am today to them.”
“Find a winning formula”
Even though he had a knack for getting into fist-fights as a kid, Gibson didn’t always know he was going to be a fighter, or even a wrestler for that matter. But, The Renegade has always had a back-against-the-wall mentality.
“I always felt like I had something to prove,” Gibson said. “Whether it’s an MMA fight, a wrestling match, or a game of chess, I’ve never done anything without the intention of winning. I’ve always been an extremely competitive person.”
Growing up in the small Central California town of Visalia, Gibson used to watch tapes of old UFC matches and professional wrestling, and mimic what he saw with his brothers, but he always saw himself as the next Michael Jordan or the star quarterback on the football team.
“I always played more traditional sports like football and basketball as a kid,” Gibson said. “Although…genetics weren’t in my favor and I sat the bench a lot up until high school.”
Gibson tried out for the basketball team his freshman year at Mt. Whitney High School and made it through the first few rounds of cuts, though he attributed it “to hustle more than skill”.
After he was informed he didn’t make the roster, Gibson was encouraged by Keith to try wrestling, despite never having any real training with the sport.
“When I first started wrestling, I was a train wreck,” Gibson said. “I lost my first twenty-five matches, (but) despite the failure I fell in love with the sport.
“It was aggressive, one-on-one, and the most exhilarating thing I had ever done.”
As Gibson matured physically, he began to see more success on the mat. By the time junior year came around, he was captain of the team and qualified for the prestigious California High School State Championships tournament. Unfortunately, the temptations of youth began to simultaneously lead Gibson down a questionable path.
“I was heading in the wrong direction with some of the choices I was making,” Gibson said. “I was trying to find my place in the world, experimenting with who I was, and was really headed down the wrong path.
“Wrestling is what saved me.”
Gibson took the life lessons he learned from wrestling and channeled his energy into the sport, eventually becoming ranked in the state his senior year. Gibson suffered a heartbreaking double-overtime loss in the round of 12 and fell just short of the podium, but the failure fueled his desire to continue on with the sport at the collegiate level.
“Because of my late start in the sport, I knew I still had a lot to learn,” Gibson said. “I got recruited by a few junior college teams and eventually chose to move to Bakersfield, where they were the returning state junior college champions.”
Still feeling like there was more to prove, Gibson devoted a great deal of energy to wrestling while at Bakersfield College, whose mascot is none other than “The Renegades”, becoming a two-time JuCo All-American and a California JuCo state finalist.
Following his stint as a Renegade, Gibson moved to the Bay Area to complete his education and wrestle at Menlo College in the NAIA division. It was at Menlo that Gibson discovered that fighting could be a way to make some extra money while wrestling and attending school, but he admittedly channeled most of his energy into going to parties, drinking, and having fun.
“By the time I got to Menlo, my priorities were all out of whack,” Gibson said. “I wrestled for Menlo and went to school for three years, but I never met my athletic or academic potential. Although I did stay focused enough to graduate from college, I left Menlo with a lot of regret and fuel for change.”
Forging his own path
“When I first got into MMA, I looked at it as a fun way to compete and make a little bit of money in the summertime in between wrestling seasons in college — $500 seemed like a lot of money for one night’s work to me,” Gibson said. “During my junior and senior years of college, I began to really fall in love with the sport.”
Gibson started his MMA career taking fights here and there in between college seasons, and in one instance even during the middle of his senior season at Menlo.
“I was very stubborn from the time I was about 17 until about my mid-20’s, I thought I could do everything on my own, and was always struggling financially,” Gibson said. “During my senior year, I found myself in a financial crunch…I was offered a fight in the middle of my wrestling season and thought it was a good opportunity to make some money so I wouldn’t have to work during the second half of the season.”
Luckily for Gibson, his risk of taking a fight in the middle of a senior campaign as a Menlo Oak paid off, and he won the fight without suffering any injuries.
Still, Gibson admits his priorities weren’t in line as they should be and the different components of MMA didn’t cross his mind until after graduation from college.
“I always enjoyed a good fist fight, but I definitely used my wrestling almost exclusively when I first started fighting,” Gibson said. “The discipline, hard work, and mental toughness it takes to be a wrestler translates well into the sport (of MMA).”
Gibson said his wrestling background allows him to dictate where a fight takes place, depending on the style of his opponent.
“If i’m fighting a heavy-handed striker, for example, I’ll likely take the fight to the ground,” Gibson said. “If I’m fighting a jiu-jitsu-based fighter who I feel I can outstrike, I use my wrestling defensively to keep the fight standing.”
As MMA expands and becomes a more common and universal sport with more balanced and well-rounded fighters, however, Gibson said it becomes increasingly important to adapt on the fly and use more of a mixture of MMA components.
“My home gym in Visalia is a jiu-jitsu based school, so I have a lot of great training partners,” Gibson said. “My head coach is a black belt in jiu-jitsu and judo, and I’ve learned so much under his tutelage.”
While learning the sport of MMA, Gibson also finished an undergraduate degree and completed a teaching credential program in December 2013. Gibson has been substitute teaching for the past four years in between rigorous training programs, and eventually hopes to become a full-time teacher and wrestling coach when the fighting career is over.
“Outside of fighting, my finest accomplishments have been re-applying myself and becoming a better person,” Gibson said. “The last four years have really been about growing up and finally meeting the potential I knew I always had.
“I got married to the love of my life, and I’ve had the opportunity to give back to my community coaching wrestling and substitute teaching.”
For Gibson, teaching isn’t just a way to bring in money, though that’s a helpful component in-between fights. Gibson feels a connection to high schoolers, especially those trying to find their way, and hopes to help touch their lives in a way that has a profound and meaningful impact.
“For me, high school was a pivotal time in my life, I remember a lot about… the mood swings, emotions, and general perception of the world,” Gibson said. “I want to help students meet their potential and steer them in the right path for success.”
The first fight
When the call from the UFC came that Sunday in February, Gibson was in shock.
“No one could understand, besides maybe my wife, close family, and a few friends and training partners just what those text messages meant to me,” Gibson said. “It took quite a while to really set in…as the days passed and I began preparing as much as I could for the short-notice fight, I also got this overwhelming calmness about the whole thing that’s hard to describe.”
Gibson’s “fight camp”, his training prior to the fight, consisted of a strict diet in which he mostly consumed egg whites, salads, chicken, vegetables, and authentic Mediterranean food from one of his local restaurant sponsors, Pita Kabob.
Gibson’s two-week whirlwind of preparation culminated with his arrival in Las Vegas for fight week events, starting with a greeting from the UFC’s Burt Watson and several media appearances, dealing with sponsors, and medicals and travel.
“Burt Watson greeted me with an inspiring speech that I had a feeling he told to every UFC debut fighter,” Gibson said. “The week consist of media obligations, workouts, and most of all, weight cutting.”
Gibson had taken the fight on short notice, and normally walks around at a higher weight than his 135-pound bantamweight-class maximum, which made the weight-cutting process more difficult than usual.
“When I have a full training camp, I’m able to get my weight down naturally through a strict diet and discipline so my water weight cut isn’t too extravagant,” Gibson said. “But in this scenario, I was behind and I knew it. On the day of weigh-ins, I struggled.”
Gibson endured several sauna sessions and hot baths filled with epsom salts in his hotel room, and battered and delusional arrived for weigh-ins thirty minutes late.
“Burt Watson scolded me for my late arrival, and I saw the irony in the whole thing,” Gibson said. “I’m the kind of person who always shows up early to everything, and here I was, at the biggest moment of my life, late.”
Gibson said that when he arrived, Watson told him that the most important thing was to arrive on weight, and that’s the reason he gave Burt when asked why he arrived half an hour after his scheduled weigh-in.
“He looked at me, puzzled, and kind of awkwardly said I should have been on time and on weight,” Gibson said. “I felt like an idiot. Here I was, my first UFC fight, and I was smack dab in the middle of an argument with the nicest guy on the planet. The weight cut was starting to kick in.”
Eventually, the weigh-ins were underway, and Gibson was overwhelmed by the lights, crowd,
and the booming voice of UFC commentator Joe Rogan.
“I stepped on the scale, made weight, and flexed and screamed and shouted in enthusiasm,” Gibson said. “The autographs, pictures, photo shoots, and hype surrounding the hotel and arena could eat you up. But somehow, someway, despite all of this, I felt an overwhelming sense of calmness that can’t be explained.
“In my mind, it was another fight. It was a bigger stage and a larger audience, but the fundamentals of the game did not change. Two people walk into a cage. They lock the door. You fight. And that’s what I did.”
Become a World Champion
Gibson lost the fight by a close judges decision to another UFC newcomer in Aljamain Sterling, and a lot of friends, family and teammates told him that he won and the loss was due to unfair circumstances.
“It was short notice, I had some injuries, it was my first fight in the UFC, but at the end of the day, I lost,” Gibson said. “I thought the fight was close, but my opponent did a better job of implementing his gameplan than I did.”
“I learned so much from the experience, and the loss has fueled me to make a real statement in my next fight.”
Gibson signed a four-fight contract with the UFC, and received a discretionary bonus as well as sponsor bonuses from the fight, but his life and his goals haven’t changed a whole lot. He still plans on substitute teaching during his time off from fights, but the goal of becoming a world champion hasn’t changed, and the training doesn’t stop because the fight is over.
“I’m still working, still training, and still grinding away,” Gibson said. “The life of a professional fighter is not sunshine and rainbows. Some days, when I get off work and go straight to the gym, I wonder why I chose this life.
“My feet are sore, I’m tired, and my day as a professional fighter hasn’t even begun until I step into the gym after work. I enjoy the struggle, I enjoy the sacrifice, I enjoy grind. I’m always busy, which doesn’t leave me a lot of time to lost focus on my goals.”
Gibson is living what he called the real American dream. He does what he loves, spends time with who he loves, and never loses sight of his goals when they are taped up in his bathroom next to his mirror.
But when it’s all said and done and he has fought his last fight, what will they say about the one and only Cody Gibson? How will he be known?
“A Renegade. That’s what I hope,” Gibson said. “My nickname might just sound like a cool tagline to a lot of people, but for me, it encompasses everything I believe in.
“It’s important to look towards others who have been successful and learn from them, but at the end of the day, everyone is on their own life journey. Victory is never guaranteed, but if we’re talking about probability, then the probability of victory and success is a lot higher for the person who works hard.
“I might not be the greatest, but I’ll be damned if I don’t go out doing everything I can to become the greatest.”