SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- With all due respect to flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson, to the 11,573 in attendance at Sleep Train Arena on Saturday night, Urijah Faber was the evening's real main event.
Faber's entrance music, "California Love" by Tupac Shakur, has rocked arenas, well, from Diego to the Bay over the years.
But rarely has there been a response like the outpouring Sacramento fans showed Faber before, during, and after his second-round submission over Michael McDonald.
Faber was treated like a conquering hero in front of his hometown fans at UFC on FOX 9. And the pioneering lighter-weight fighter, who had been all but left behind as a headliner after a loss to Renan Barao last summer, responded by capping off a spectacular 2013 with his fourth consecutive win.
If he's not the Fighter of the Year -- and he belongs on the short list along with the likes of Johnson, Vitor Belfort, and potentially Chris Weidman -- then he's the Comeback Fighter of the Year. Less than a year and a half after being assumed done as a major player, the former WEC featherweight champ stands as the clear-cut choice to fight the winner of the Feb. 1 match between bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz and interim champ Renan Barao.
"I would love to fight either of those guys," Faber said. "Dana paid me a great compliment, he said I'm ready to fight anyone at any time. He knows that, everybody knows that. I'll fight Godzilla, I'll fight King Kong, I don't care. I'm a little delusional about stuff."
You could credit Faber's performance in 2013 to the resurgence in Team Alpha Male under new striking coach Duane Ludwig. You could credit it to smart matchmaking by the UFC in rebuilding Faber. You could credit it to a bunch of things. But it comes down to Faber never losing confidence in himself.
"I'm not the kind of guy who dwells on things and feels bad for myself," he said. "I'm the type of guy who finds something positive and, a win or a loss isn't necessarily the defining thing for me."
As unflappable as the 34-year old Faber might seem, however, he's a bit perturbed by the notion he's never won a UFC title. After all, when he reigned over the WEC that company was the pinnacle for MMA's lighter-weight class.
"What people don't understand about the UFC is that the WEC was the UFC for light-weight fighters," Faber said. "That's what it was brought to me as. Dana [White] was my boss, Lorenzo [Fertitta], same matchmakers, all the guys who are in the UFC now. You have people like Dominick Cruz who like to say stuff like that to get under my skin. The only difference between the first time I fought him and the second time I fought him is, the second time I fought him, one time he squeaked out a decision and the first time I finished him. Like I said, because of the rules in mixed martial arts, he's still alive today. That's the difference."
As far as White is concerned, after Faber's hometown heroics, he'll get that final chance at UFC gold.
"A lot of people have said [the UFC] is just looking for excuses to give Urijah Faber a title shot," White said. "You can't deny it now. You can hate. You can dislike. You can do whatever you want, but you can't deny him.
UFC on FOX 9 quotes
"If people want to see me as the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world, that's totally fine. My job is just to go back to the gym and keep on improving and hopefully, keep on showcasing my skill set." -- Johnson, after his first-round KO of Joseph Benavidez.
"I had a bad sinus infection a few weeks ago. I didn't want to take antiobiotics, we all saw what happened with [Jose] Aldo when he started taking those before your fight. It messes with your performance." -- Chad Mendes, on fighting with nagging cold/flulike symptoms.
"I could not be more embarrassed by this than I am," White said. "It's very, very embarrassing and very amateur. " -- Dana White, on Cody McKenzie's choice of fight attire, which was white basketball shorts with the price tag still attached.
Stock up: Demetrious Johnson
I could have just as easily led this story with "Mighty Mouse" as I did Faber. I switched up this time because I feel like I've been saying the same thing about the UFC flyweight champion after each of his past five or so fights: That he's underrated, that he's one of the best and most versatile fighters in the world, that he's earned his spot among the sport's pound-for-pound best.
Finally, everyone else seems to be coming around.
You can't put much bigger an exclamation point on your year than the one DJ did on Saturday night. Benavidez was fighting in his home arena. He was looking to cap off a near-perfect year by the sport's hottest camp. His team had produced a ridiculous string of finishes. And Johnson went out and knocked him cold. That happened one fight after he hunted down John Moraga and submitted him in the fifth round when he could have easily cruised to a decision.
This from a guy who supposedly can't finish fights. And from one who had shoulder surgery in the spring.
The crazy thing about "Mighty Mouse" is how nonchalant he seems about the whole thing. He treated his victory like just another day at the office. Success clearly isn't getting to Demetrious Johnson's head, and that's bad news for the rest of the flyweight division.
There are a few guys who ended up on this list after last night, all for different reasons.
Picking on McKenzie kind of seems like shooting fish in a barrel at this point. The guy seems to need help both in and out of the cage.
It also doesn't seem fair to pick on McDonald, either. "Mayday" seemed spooked by stepping into the cage in Sacramento with the guy who inspired him to get into the sport to begin with. I think we need to step back a bit and remember McDonald is still only 22 years old. Remember Robbie Lawler at 22? McDonald is a hell of a young fighter, but he needs to take a right turn out of the career fast lane for a bit.
Then there's the fighter who undoubtably faces the toughest rebuilding job coming out of last night: Benavidez. This is an excellent fighter who has come up just short in his biggest fights. He lost twice to Cruz and twice to Johnson. Three of those four fights were decisions, two of them splits. That's a painfully fine line between champion and purgatory. Where does Benavidez go from here?
Mike Beltran is famous for his braided beard. But he should also be known as one of the sport's most underrated referees. Beltran made the key non-call in the opening round of last night's Fight of the Night, Edson Barboza's majority decision victory over Danny Castillo. Barboza absorbed the sort of beating in the first round that would have made a lesser referee pull the trigger on the fight. But Beltran let the fight continue, and Barboza shook off the cobwebs after round one and rallied over the final two.
Of course, it's not Beltran's fault that the scoring of the fight was royally botched. Which brings us to ...
Are you sick of hearing about the scoring system? Sorry, it's not going away any time soon. The judges are apparently the only ones not yet getting the memo that their habit of scoring 97 percent of rounds 10-9 needs to be broken. Last week, three judges looked at the Ryan Bader-Anthony Perosh fight and saw three 10-9 rounds, even though Bader basically destroyed Perosh for 15 minutes. At least in that case, it didn't affect the outcome of the fight: Bader won 30-27 across the board when it could have been anywhere down to 30-24.
That wasn't the case on Saturday night, when the judges robbed Castillo of a draw in what turned into Barboza's majority-decision win. By any reasonable measure -- like, say, having two functioning eyes -- Castillo worked Barboza over something fierce. From huge unanswered blows to submission attempts, Barboza had nothing for Castillo. If anything, you could have made a case for a 10-7 round.
But no. Wade Vierra and Mike Bell were the only two people at Sleep Train Arena who saw a 10-9 round. Only Derek Cleary had the sanity to score it 10-8. When Barboza staged his valiant rally to claim round two and three, because of the inept first-round scoring, he took 29-28 scores from Vierra and Bell, instead of the 28-28 card Cleary produced.
California State Athletic Commission executive officer Andy Foster has taken the lead in trying to get the ball rolling on scoring changes. Hopefully he follows up by giving Vierra and Bell an earful over their terrible scores.
Fight I'd like to see next: Urijah Faber vs. the winner of Cruz vs. Barao
4-0 in 2013. Three finishes. The numbers speak for themselves. I don't care if Faber had a million previous title shots, he's the only fighter at bantamweight right now with a real case for a shot at the winner of the 135-pound unification fight.