mma / Columns

A Farewell to Faber

December 24, 2016 | Posted by Robert Winfree

Last Saturday evening one of the most impressive and important careers in the relatively young history of MMA came to an end. Former WEC featherweight champion and four time UFC bantamweight title challenger Urijah Faber had his final fight in his hometown and went out in typically dominant fashion with a win over Brad Pickett. Those of you who’ve heard me on the 411 Ground and Pound Radio Show know that I am not now, nor have I ever been, a fan of Urijah Faber. Like most fandoms this was irrational and emotional and I have done my best not to allow it to color my analysis or have it be a reflection of his abilities. The reality is that Faber is a critical figure in the history of the sport, and with his career now done I wanted to talk about it. Faber is such an important figure that simply talking about his career wouldn’t tell the entire story, there is a much greater context to him that requires an understanding of the history of MMA as a whole. So before we jump more completely into the career of Urijah Faber we need to take a brief look at some history in the UFC.

In 2002 Jens Pulver defeated BJ Penn via majority decision to score his second title defense, and subsequently left the promotion after a contract dispute and went on to fight in PRIDE vacating the lightweight title in the process. We’ll talk about Pulver again a little bit later. The UFC hated vacant titles back then too, though they now it seems they’re creating interim titles just to have more titles that aren’t vacated, and scheduled a four man tournament to crown a new champion. BJ Penn and Caol Uno made it to the finals, a rematch of a one sided fight that saw Penn knock Uno out cold in just eleven seconds, but in the first of many times that “unmotivated” BJ Penn showed up rather than his more perfect motivated form Penn and Uno fought to a draw. Rather than schedule a rematch the UFC simply scrapped the entire lightweight division. From 2003 to 2006 the UFC operated with just four full time divisions, welterweight up to heavyweight. While the UFC would host the occasional lightweight during this time they recognized no champion and placed emphasis on larger fighters. It’s an odd thought that during the MMA explosion that occurred during that time frame the UFC had so few divisions, but it’s important to note that the majority of the current hardcore fan base that came into the UFC out of the first season of The Ultimate Fighter were introduced to a world where 170 pounds was the smallest division for the North American MMA leader. That is the greater context of Urijah Faber’s rise that needs to be understood, a division like lightweight wasn’t in the greater consciousness of the casual or even more ardent UFC fans for a substantial period of time during an important growth period for the company and the sport.

Urijah Faber made his early start at 145 pounds, don’t let the listing of bantamweight on Wikipedia fool you, there was a lot of confusion about the names of weight classes during that time but both the King of the Cage and Gladiator Challenge titles he held were in the 145 pound divisions. Heck the 155 pound division was called bantamweight until 2001. Faber won titles in both the aforementioned promotions, he never lost the KOTC belt as he vacated it after signing exclusively with the WEC promotion while the GC belt was taken from him by future UFC lightweight staple Tyson Griffin. Faber’s first fight with WEC was a featherweight title fight, and he battered then champion Cole Escovedo so badly his corner stopped the fight between the second and third rounds. When Faber won the title WEC hadn’t yet been purchased by Zuffa, but that would change before his first title defense for that promotion.

There are a few relationships in combat sports, or professional wrestling which I’ll be referencing on occasion here, that are of prime importance. Fighter vs. fighter of course, fighter and coach as well, but sometimes overlooked is the importance of the right fighter with the right promoter. Ric Flair and Dusty Rhodes both were more successful under the NWA banner than they were with the then WWF, Chuck Liddell was always going to be a successful fighter but likely wouldn’t have ascended to the status of Saint Iceman had the bulk of his career been in PRIDE rather than the UFC, and absolutely deserving of being in that same conversation is the pairing of Urijah Faber with Scott Adams. Adams and Reed Harris were the original owners and General Managers of WEC, and retained their GM status after the purchase by Zuffa in 2006 with Adams being the primary matchmaker until 2008 and the introduction of Joe Silva protege Sean Shelby. WEC was also on a better network following the purchase, prior to Zuffa’s involvement they aired on HDNet but moved to the more visible Versus network after the purchase. Adams understood the importance of Faber, a young, exciting, talented, clean cut, affable champion who had deep ties to a specific community located a short flight day’s drive from Las Vegas where they’d be running shows now that they had the backing of the Fertitta brothers. Faber defended his featherweight title four times in 2007, submitting all four of his opponents including future bantamweight king Dominick Cruz and jiu-jitsu specialist Jeff Curran. Coming into 2008 Faber had a record of 20-1 and was riding one of the hottest streaks in the sport. He was regularly appearing in pound for pound lists around the MMA world, including right here on 411mania, and his popularity was building quite naturally. If you saw the man fight you talked about it, or if you read about his accomplishments you were intrigued and tuned in to see if the hype was justified.

The important thing to Faber’s growth as a property was his in cage skill set. As the sport was growing and the UFC was looking to reintroduce lightweight here was a division set even lower in weight but that displayed the value it held. Faber’s game has always been scramble oriented, but in 2006-2007 you didn’t see scrambles in the UFC, certainly not on the level that you got from the lighter weight classes. You as a fan were more used to guys giving up takedowns and either conceding guard for minutes at a time and minimizing damage while holding on hoping for a stand up or ground fighters who would methodically move from position to position while the crowd booed louder and louder. Watching a Urijah Faber fight for the first time, especially if you were only used to the UFC’s product, it almost felt like a different sport. That kind of technique, speed, relentless action, it existed in stark contrast to so much of how we as a fan base had come to understand the sport. There’s a proven effective maxim in the world of promotion, “If you can’t be better, be different” that Zuffa allowed the WEC to exploit. WEC was never going to have the same name recognition as the UFC or the best fighters in the heavier weight classes, so rather than try to be UFC-lite they differentiated themselves as the home of lighter weight classes who did things that you just didn’t see in the UFC. 2008 saw the high water mark of Faber’s career, and to give full context to the event we need to return to the UFC for a moment.

The UFC’s plan for global domination required more weight classes and in 2006 they brought back lightweight. Unfortunately the division struggled a bit early as Sean Sherk, essentially a less interesting version of Matt Hughes, won the title then failed a drug test after his first title defense and was stripped of the belt. To help reintroduce the division the UFC centered the fifth, and in personal opinion best, season of The Ultimate Fighter around lightweights. The season produced some of the best talent in the shows history and one of the more genuinely intense rivalries between coaches BJ Penn and Jens Pulver. At the finale the two fought in a rematch, this time Penn submitted Pulver in the second round of a one sided fight. After the fight Pulver talked about dropping to featherweight and fighting in the WEC promotion. Pulver, a former UFC champion who’d just had weeks of free publicity and a high profile fight was going down to meet WEC featherweight champion and promotional center piece Urijah Faber at WEC 34.

WEC 34 was a big event and was held in Faber’s hometown of Sacramento, California. It was the coming out party for the promotion in many ways, Pulver’s exposure combined with the ground swell of popularity that Faber was enjoying culminated in what easily felt like the biggest event in that company’s history to that point. It was a strong all around card, three future champions fought on the prelims, and had the top two fighters in the promotion at the top as bantamweight champion Miguel Torres got a showcase fight against Yoshiro Maeda and Urijah Faber’s clash with Pulver in the main event. The fight was a great introduction for Faber to those who were seeing him for the first time, over the five round fight he displayed improved striking, his trademark power and fast grappling skills, and endless cardiovascular conditioning. Pulver had his moments through the fight but they were somewhat isolated and Faber ended up taking all five rounds and the decision to score his fifth title defense. It was a big moment, the event drew the largest TV rating that WEC had seen to that point at 1.54 million viewers and the talented but affable main attraction had delivered everything a fight fan could want and was received like a hero by the fans. It would be the last time Faber exited the cage with a belt around his waist.

Faber’s next fight, riding high on the momentum of his winning streak and a surge in popularity with the increased exposure the Pulver fight had brought him, took on WEC’s homegrown talent Mike Brown. Brown was a heavy handed and powerful wrestler who’d competed at lightweight in the UFC back in 2004 but was a notable underdog against Faber. Brown shocked the audience when he countered an ill advised back elbow from Faber with a powerful right that dropped the champion and a few seconds later it was all over. Faber took the loss very well, in fact his amicable personality shone brighter in loss as he expressed a continued love of his fans, the sport, and life in general in the immediate aftermath of the loss. At a time when most fighters took losses with bitter disappointment and frequently with anger or denial, his relaxed response was anything but the norm. Faber rebounded from that loss by beating Jens Pulver in a rematch, this time the fight lasted a grand total of ninety four seconds before Pulver tapped to Faber’s world class guillotine choke. Brown ran over Leonard Garcia around the same time and the rematch was on. Faber and Brown’s rematch was sold around the narrative that without Faber’s flashy attempted elbow things would have gone differently and Brown’s desire to reaffirm the original outcome.

The rematch went the way of Brown again, this time via unanimous decision, but again Faber was the party the narrative centered around. Faber broke both of his hands during that fight and in the fourth and fifth rounds, unable to throw punches, threw elbow strikes instead. To anyone who felt that Faber could only fight from ahead or questioned how he reacted to adversity this fight was the answer, he never quit and never stopped trying to win. Despite Brown taking the unanimous decision people talked about the courage and creativity of Faber and again had to wonder if they fight would have gone differently without the injury. While a third fight between Faber and Brown wasn’t out of the question, it would become a moot point going forward. Mike Brown’s next fight saw him run into the best featherweight of all time, a Brazilian destroyer by the name of Jose Aldo who dominated him en route to a second round TKO win. I know Conor McGregor’s rhetoric has soured a lot of fans on Aldo but at the time he was scoring highlight reel finishes, including a spectacular flying double knee knockout win over Cub Swanson less than ten seconds into their fight. Faber won his rebound fight though, submitting Raphael Assuncao and setting up a potentially bigger opportunity.

I mentioned before that there are more professional wrestling similarities with MMA than other combat sports. In Urijah Faber the WEC had the clean cut hometown baby face, a fighter near the very top of the game who had been critical to their growth and success and despite the setbacks was still good enough and popular enough to warrant another shot at the title he’d held for so long. Now with Aldo they had another pro wrestling trope to play around with, the evil foreigner. Zuffa decided this was the perfect set up to try a PPV event for the WEC, headlined by the popular former champion in his hometown trying to reclaim the title from an unstoppable wrecking machine. It was about as perfect a set up as that promotion was going to get to try and sell a PPV, which still sold less than 200k buys and was the only PPV in WEC history.

The fight itself remains the most lopsided loss of Faber’s entire career. Aldo’s leg kicks, already a notable weapon, became legendary after this bout. Aldo darn near crippled Faber with those leg kicks, landed blistering combinations, and completely shut down all of Faber’s offense. The fact that two judges gave Faber a single round should indicate that Clucky loves all promotions equally, the fight wound up being a showcase for Aldo and solidified his status as the best featherweight in the world. It was a turning point for Faber, there would be no rematch here. There was no momentary lapse in judgment, no in cage injury, no mitigating circumstance. Faber had entered the cage and was proven unequivocally the lesser fighter. In the wake of that loss Faber talked about dropping down to bantamweight. Much of Faber’s amateur wrestling career took place around 135 pounds and the cut was no real obstacle. At WEC 52, the second to last event in the promotion’s history, Faber debuted at bantamweight and choked out former title challenger Takeya Mizugaki.

After the UFC absorbed the WEC’s lighter weight classes Faber made his UFC debut by defeating former WEC bantamweight champion Eddie Wineland and setting up a fight for the UFC bantamweight title. Dominick Cruz had won the UFC bantamweight title by defeating Scott Jorgensen at WEC 53 and defended his WEC title at the same time, Cruz also had a history with Urijah Faber. The two had fought at featherweight in 2007 and Faber had submitted Cruz in the first round, the circumstances of that fight setting up a rivalry between the two that still existed when they clashed for the UFC belt. The fight was competitive, Faber and his corner believed he had won the fight, but the judges scored the fight for Cruz. Faber rebounded by submitting former WEC bantamweight champion Brian Bowles and set up a trilogy fight with Cruz, the UFC does love their trilogies. The two were opposing coaches on the fifteenth season of The Ultimate Fighter where those who were unaware of their mutual animosity got a weekly front row seat to just how much they disliked each other. Unfortunately Cruz suffered the first of the knee injuries that would eventually cost him his title, and Faber was rescheduled to fight Renan Barao for the interim title.

Barao was a teammate of Jose Aldo who’d scored impressive UFC wins and was looking nearly unstoppable in his own right. While only an interim belt this was another chance for Faber to claim a UFC belt. The fight wasn’t quite as lopsided as Faber’s clash with Aldo but played out essentially the same way, Barao’s leg kicks, takedown defense, and superior technique saw him take home a unanimous decision. Unfortunately that entire card was something of a dud and Faber would have to work hard to get back into title contention. Fortunately he was more than prepared to do just that. Faber fought four times in 2013 defeating Ivan Menjivar, Scott Jorgensen, Iuri Alcantara and Michael McDonald. While there had been arguments that Faber received some of his prior title shots based on promotional desire to see him champion more so than purely on merit the same could not be said of his rematch with Renan Barao on the back of that winning streak. But to those of us watching closely Faber was starting show some cracks. He struggled in the first round against Jorgensen and Alcantara and the same lightning speed and powerful takedowns weren’t quite there anymore, yet he was showing veteran savvy and persevering while making adjustments.

Barao had been promoted to full champion by this point as Cruz’s injuries had kept him out of competition longer than anticipated and too long to remain champion. When Faber and Barao met for the second time it was for the undisputed UFC bantamweight title. The fight was over in the first round, Faber was dropped by a right hand and then hit with enough blows to get the ref to step in. There was some controversy as Faber was giving the thumbs up and the blows were partially blocked and mostly hammer fists without much more than muscle behind them, but the result stood. Faber showed class in the loss, not dwelling on the swift stoppage and lobbying for teammate TJ Dillashaw to get a title shot in the future. Dillashaw would go on to become champion not too much later while Faber faced the unenviable position of becoming a high level gate keeper. He defeated Alex Caceres and Francisco Rivera but his in cage issues still showed, his first round struggles persisted and the fight with Rivera went his way because of an accidental eye poke that the referee didn’t notice leading to Faber choking Rivera out. With the title around the waist of his current teammate at this point Faber turned his attention to a money fight. He moved back to featherweight for a super fight with Frankie Edgar.

Edgar was a former UFC lightweight champion and another fighter driven by relentless pace and superior technique in both striking and grappling. The thought of these two clashing had been a dream fight for years, especially as Edgar was a natural featherweight who had simply competed at his walk around weight to stay in the UFC. The fight, a five round main event, was a joy to watch from a technical perspective. Edgar’s footwork, accuracy, and technique proved too much as he out classed Faber for five rounds and took a unanimous decision but the fight was entertaining and a fun showcase for fast and technical fighting. This was the first loss of Faber’s entire career in a non-title fight, an absolutely astounding achievement for a career that had gone for 13 years to that point.

Edgar returned to bantamweight and took on Frankie Saenz at UFC 194, a somewhat unheralded fighter who scored an upset over Iuri Alcantara in his UFC debut to earn a crack at Faber. Faber extended his bantamweight winning streak to three but visibly struggled with Saenz. At this point it was clear that Faber was slowing down, Faber in or around his prime had feasted on fighters like Saenz but here the fight was a back and forth affair. Still he’d won three fights at bantamweight and fulfilled a dream fight for hardcore fans by taking on Frankie Edgar, despite slowing he’d earned another crack at the title. Faber was well positioned for a title fight from a story perspective, the current champion was a former teammate of his who he’d had a public and somewhat messy break with while the next challenger was former champion Dominick Cruz who Faber was 1-1 with and the two still held plenty of mutual dislike.

Just one month later Dominick Cruz would regain the title he never lost and set up the much delayed trilogy with Faber. Their first fight was a one sided affair that showed Cruz a level he had yet to achieve in fighting, the second was competitive but showcased the growth and skills of Cruz, their final meeting was another one sided affair but this time in favor of Cruz. Faber was clearly the slower of the two, he struggled to land any offense and was out scrambled during their brief grappling exchanges. Cruz dropped Faber twice with punches, once in the second round and again in the fourth, and took home a clear cut unanimous decision to close out their rivalry.

Despite visibly slowing down and with another title shot highly unlikely Faber showed his quality again by taking on Jimmie Rivera. Rivera was on a substantial winning streak and, while generally unknown, has more than enough talent to take on the very best. Most fighters in Faber’s position would avoid an up and comer like Rivera, Faber signed on the dotted line and met the rising contender. Rivera announced himself in that fight, he pitched a shutout taking all three rounds from the veteran, out striking, out maneuvering, and at times out grappling Faber. The loss to Rivera marked two firsts in the career of Urijah Faber, it was the first time he’d ever lost a three round fight and the first losing streak of his professional career.

Faber, probably knowing better than those of us simply watching, that his career was nearing the end decided to go out on his own terms. He signed to fight in Sacramento for a FOX card and then publicly said it would be his last fight. His opponent was a fellow WEC veteran Brad Pickett. The fight was a vintage Faber performance, the speed may not have been as pronounced as during his prime but he looked more fleet of foot, his wrestling was back on point and his scrambling was still superb. He nearly finished Pickett in the first and dominated all three rounds to take a unanimous decision and close out his career with a win in his hometown. You really couldn’t have scripted it better.

Faber’s importance cannot be overstated, especially within the context of lighter weight classes. While the UFC was struggling to bring back lightweight he was dominating competition at featherweight and drawing while doing so. Faber opened the eyes of fans to what lighter fighters could do, the speed, the conditioning, the pace, things so many fans hadn’t seen before. He essentially carried the WEC as a promotion, always conducting himself as a gentleman with fans and the media, and turning in some of the finest in cage action the sport could produce. His success is remarkable, a career that lasted over forty fights and stretched over thirteen years. During that time he competed against the very best, lost a grand total of two non title fights and had just a single losing streak. To have done that across two divisions that are reliant on sharp technique and quick reflexes rather than lumbering power is an outstanding achievement, the man will be in the UFC Hall of Fame as soon as humanly possible and unequivocally deserves that honor.

I was never a fan of Faber, but thank you for your influence and for the years of memories and action.

Robert Winfree is a libra, host of the 411 Ground and Pound radio show Sunday’s at 8pm eastern standard time, and current live coverage guru for 411mania.

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UFC, Urijah Faber, Robert Winfree