Urijah Faber Built the Bantamweight Division; Now He Should Let it Move On

By Jacob Debets Jul 18, 2019


Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

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On Saturday night, Urijah Faber marched into his first non-title Ultimate Fighting Championship bout where he was pegged as the underdog. Ricky Simon, the 26-year old upstart with a 3-0 record in the organisation and a Legacy Fighting Alliance strap having only recently been mounted in his trophy case, waited patiently on the opposite side of the Octagon. The overwhelming feeling of the audience -- if not in the Golden 1 Center -- was one of resignation.

Simon was a 4-to-1 favorite, and there was every reason to suspect this was not going to be the homecoming Sacramento was pulling for. Even if you ignored Simon’s 15-1 record and credentials, the storyline of a 40-year old Faber scoring an electrifying win, two and a half years removed from his swan song, is one the Fight Gods have always been reluctant to manifest. Simon was going to do to Faber what Yair Rodriguez did to B.J. Penn and Francis Ngannou did to Cain Velasquez, and after it was all said and done, we were going to collectively admonish ourselves for believing in an alternate scenario.

But Faber did pull out the victory, in all of 46 seconds, and in one of the most bizarre reversals of fortune has thrust himself into the orbit of dual bantamweight and flyweight champion Henry Cejudo. After he successfully dispatched the streaking Marlon Moraes back at UFC 238 in June, the man who recently anointed himself “Triple C” outlined a hitlist of 135-pounders that he wanted to defend his second strap against, which included “The California Kid.” The storyline between him and Cejudo may be less compelling than former Team Alpha Male fixture “Joey two-times,” who’s campaigning to rematch the champ down at 125 pounds, and deserving challengers -- among them Petr Yan and Aljamain Sterling -- abound at 135. But Faber is undoubtedly the most popular figure on the shortlist, and if history is any guide, the UFC will closely consider slotting the former World Extreme Cagefighting champion into the title-challenger position, to hell with the rankings.

And that, moreso than his TKO over Simon, is the story: after all these years and failed title shots -- four in the UFC, three more before that after he lost his WEC strap to Mike Thomas Brown -- Faber still has a way of capturing our imagination.

People will run down his list of accolades both in and outside the cage as the anchors of his popularity: pioneer of the scramble-heavy style which features prominently among sub-lightweight fighters, WEC featherweight champion with six title defenses, record-setting cable numbers for his bout with Jens Pulver at WEC 34, highest selling non-UFC pay-per-view in MMA history at WEC 48, a finishing percentage of over 75 percent.

These point-in-time stats tell part of the story, but his potency in 2019 -- at 40 years old! -- is really only explicable if we take a more holistic view of Faber’s career and the contemporary state of the UFC.

Faber paved the way for featherweights, bantamweights and the (presently beleaguered) flyweights, becoming a popular fighter in his own right in the California area in the mid to late 2000s before the UFC purchased the WEC and made him the butt-chinned face of the promotion. The acquisition was all about market share, rather than Faber himself, but the organization went all in on “the kid” and he -- the country’s best-known 145’er -- made it worth their while. His shaggy blonde hair, comic-book physique and natural charisma made him prime real estate promotionally, as did his exceptional personal branding (see: headband, “California Love” walkout, excessive use of the term “bro”) and the frenetic pace he set in his fights.

Even before the sub-lightweight divisions had a foothold in the North American MMA scene, Faber had opened a gym and was shuttling out rent-paying training partners from his Sacramento sharehouses, acquiring both an invaluable leg up on the competition and sowing the seeds of a sprawling business empire. From his perch as Sacramento statesman and Team Alpha Male’s alpha, Faber oversaw the subsequent evolution of scores of needle-moving contenders that ran through TAM’s stable, including Benavidez, Chad Mendes, T.J. Dillashaw, Paige VanZant, Cynthia Calvillo, Cody Garbrandt and Sage Northcutt. He’s been a conspicuous presence in the promotion of all of them, playing the part of coach, training partner, confidant and friend to some of the sport’s shiniest prospects -- kind of like a latter-day Ken Shamrock without the ‘roid rage.

Also distinguishing him from Shamrock has been Faber’s ability to continue winning consistently enough for the UFC to justify slotting him into title fights, cashing in on his broad fan appeal while fueling sellable storylines. From June 2011 to June 2016, he had four cracks at a version of the 135-pound title, going 0-4 in a series of increasingly lopsided losses, alongside frequent appearances on the UFC’s reality programming. He served as head coach of both Season 15 (against Dominick Cruz) and Season 22 (against Conor McGregor) of The Ultimate Fighter, and played perhaps an even more prominent role in Season 25, which pitted then-bantamweight champion and TAM poster boy Cody Garbrandt against the “turncoat” T.J. Dillashaw.

Faber has been so synonymous with the bantamweight division, and in the headliner/title-challenger slot in particular, he’s almost an institution: a part of MMA’s “regular season” every bit as reliable as a cryptic McGregor tweet or an 11th hour weight-cutting mishap. He made the division in North America viable, sold the hell out of his rivalries with Dominick Cruz, Dillashaw and Nova Uniao, and has helped mold some of the division’s present-day kingpins.

So yeah, it makes sense that people are interested in seeing him make one last run at the finish line. It’s fun to watch him fight and perhaps even more entertaining to watch him sell the spectacle – and we’re suckers for that Michael-Bisping-esque Cinderella storyline.

But that’s no reason to pull the trigger – and you already know the reasons why. Faber’s barely a top-15 bantamweight for a start, and would literally need to leapfrog his own teammates in Garbrandt and Yadong Song for a fifth crack at gold. He would, in all likelihood, get smoked, perhaps the most surefire way to erase his homecoming over Simon, and his swan song against Brad Pickett before that. Bantamweight is healthier than it’s been in years and Cejudo, by marrying scintillating performances in the Octagon with a succession of cringeworthy stunts outside of it, is a legitimately popular champion with obligations across multiple weight classes.

Faber’s work is done, and there’s simply no justification for booking him into the title shot. The guy built the division; now it’s time that we let it move on.

Jacob Debets is a law graduate and writer from Melbourne, Australia. He has been an MMA fan for more than a decade and trains in muay Thai and boxing at DMDs MMA in Brunswick. He is currently writing a book analyzing the economics and politics of the MMA industry. You can view more of his writing at jacobdebets.com.

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