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For fans hoping that Urijah Faber would make a triumphant return to the Octagon in his hometown of Sacramento, California, on Saturday, the events leading into that bout were concerning. MMA isn’t a kind sport to respected veterans, and UFC 239 the previous weekend made that point emphatically. One of the predominant stories then was accomplished former champions in their mid to late 30s suffering humbling defeats.
In the co-main event, Holly Holm at 37 was knocked out for the first time in her MMA career. A 34-year-old Luke Rockhold was a 2-to-1 favorite but became the victim of Jan Blachowicz’s second knockout win since 2010. Diego Sanchez went into the card with momentum in the cage and celebrated hall of fame recognition, but Michael Chiesa thoroughly dominated the 37-year-old in a bout that wasn’t as close as the 30-26 scorecards indicated. Gilbert Melendez, the same age as Holm and Sanchez, had little success against Arnold Allen and dropped his fifth straight fight. It was a sad night for these great fighters, and Faber is three years or more older than all of them.
Needless to say, UFC 239 was not an anomaly. A significant age difference is one of the leading predictors of who will win an Ultimate Fighting Championship bout, and the list of fighters who go out on a happy note is much shorter than the list of fighters who retire with a defeat. As such, there were many who doubted Faber going into his fight with Ricky Simon. Simon, who was 11 when Faber made his professional MMA debut, was the second biggest favorite on the card. Many lamented the matchmaking, which seemed like a rough draw for the popular “California Kid.” There were of course reasons to doubt Faber. However, looking back now, after Faber secured the quickest win of his career with a 46-second TKO, his victory seems to make a lot of sense. After all, Faber has always seemed to live a charmed existence. In a sport full of wild and rugged characters, Faber’s boyish good looks and easygoing smile seemed almost out of place. He was right out of central casting for an MMA poster boy.
Faber almost seemed too good to be true when he grew into a star in 2006-07. Yet, he was authentic, both in and out of the cage. Inside the cage, he could really fight. He may have come up short in title fights, but he was clearly one of the elite fighters in his division for nearly a decade. Moreover, his sunny disposition was no put on. He was good-natured, generous with his time and looked out for his friends, his falling out with T.J. Dillashaw notwithstanding. The frustration Dominick Cruz and Duane Ludwig had with Faber seemed to stem in significant part from their perception that people naturally sided with him no matter what they said.
Fighters aren’t supposed to return at 40 after a two and a half-year retirement and beat high-caliber, much younger opponents. They’re certainly not expected to do so in the 135-pound division. Then again, fighters who are Faber’s age aren’t supposed to look as young as he still looks. So often they haven’t invested their money and so they are in need of that one last paycheck, which isn’t the case with Faber. There’s a need to prove a point when Faber just wants to do something he enjoys while he still can. In sum, Faber defies so many rules of the sport that it only feels appropriate he’d defy one more with the way he won at UFC Fight Night 155.
Of course, that’s no guarantee Faber’s magic will continue. Faber’s knockout of Simon was in some ways reminiscent of when the legendary Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira returned to Rio de Janeiro to take on Brendan Schaub in 2011. Schaub was the sizeable favorite, but Nogueira knocked him out and the Brazilian crowd exploded with joy for its beloved hero. It was a special moment. Unfortunately, the magic wouldn’t continue for Nogueira, as he would lose four of his next five fights -- a tailspin that included the first two submission losses of his career.
Following Faber’s win, talk has shifted to the idea of his receiving a title shot against Henry Cejudo. It would be the wrong move. Cejudo has deserving challengers in two different weight classes at the moment, and Faber has received more than his fair share of title shots over the years. Plus, with the new pay-per-view arrangement between UFC and ESPN, it’s unlikely it would make any difference for UFC coffers. It’s better to save an unwarranted title shot for when it can make a bigger difference at the gate.
With that said, if the UFC does elect to grant Faber a title shot, there will likely be more fans pleased with the decision than upset with the perceived unfairness of the move. Faber showed in Sacramento he still has passionate fans who believe in his ability to defy the odds. It just feels to them like the way Faber’s story should go.
Todd Martin has written about mixed martial arts since 2002 for a variety of outlets, including CBSSports.com, SI.com, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, MMApayout.com, Fight Magazine and Fighting Spirit Magazine. He has appeared on a number of radio stations, including ESPN affiliates in New York and Washington, D.C., and HDNet’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Wade Keller at PWTorch.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. Todd received his BA from Vassar College in 2003 and JD from UCLA School of Law in 2007 and is a licensed attorney. He has covered UFC, Pride, Bellator, Affliction, IFL, WFA, Strikeforce, WEC and K-1 live events. He believes deeply in the power of MMA to heal the world and bring happiness to all of its people.