Going back to Nov. 2008, Urijah Faber is 9-0 in fights in which weighty accessories aren't dangling in the balance. Yet after Saturday night’s loss to Renan Barao at UFC 169 in Newark, he’s 0-6 in title fights. This constitutes a pattern where the message is as clear as day and twice as cliché: Faber can’t win the big one.
And brother, for as peculiar as that seems, particularly for a guy who went 11-1 in title fights before that, that’s not even the real marvel here. The real marvel is that even at 0-6 in title fights in both the bantamweight and featherweight divisions through the last half-decade, this isn’t the last chance for Faber to win a Zuffa belt.
Far freaking from it.
Because, somehow, the stars are always in collusion to make (and remake) Faber’s case for another shot. Somehow he is always such a good sport, and such an ambassador of the sport, and always so excellent and loose and willing so long as they guy he’s fighting isn’t rolling up to the cage in gold, that he can’t be sent off to the land of gatekeepers.
This time? This time it was because of the infamous Thumb’s Up. Just when Barao was ambushing Faber in Newark, landing unanswered shots in volume and in increasing intensity, Faber gave a thumb’s up that, for as bad as it all looked, he was fine. The gesture was emblematic of the gladiator days when some laurelled, goblet-swirling official made the call on a man’s life by the north-south whims of his thumb. The fight game, at root, is all thumbs.
Only, Herb Dean, the world’s best main event referee, didn’t see this little wink in the maelstrom. He stepped in and called Barao off. In fact, nobody saw the thumb’s up in the Pru, either. Faber’s tiny thumbs sort of disappeared in those big four-ounce gloves. But on the replay, there it was, in plain sight for everyone to see. Just as Dean requested that Faber demonstrate intelligent defense (and I imagine the exchange was just that formal), Faber sent up a little assurance by way of a thumb pointed to heaven. Dean only saw the blur of Barao’s swinging limbs.
And so here we are. Barao may have been crushing Faber into a million molecules at UFC 169, but thems the asterisks. Poor Barao, who just had the "interim" tag lifted from his title out of necessity, is steeped in them. Even as the Brazilian put on his greatest performance, the focus became what could've happened instead of what actually did.
Call it the power of Faber.
Once again Faber has been cast aside but not vanquished. And once again, there is much change going on in the weight classes he’s associated with. With Jose Aldo almost assuredly headed to the lightweight division to challenge Anthony Pettis, the 145-pound division will be wide open. Even the 135-pound division, which right now belongs to Barao, could undergo a change when/if Dominick Cruz returns.
Should Cruz come back and beat Barao, you know who would look enticing in a title fight with Cruz? The trilogizer, Urijah Faber. At 35 years old, the "California Kid" is still hovering in the space of contention, even as he's batted back time and again. It helps that he is the most popular sub-lightweight in the history of the game, too. And it helps that this particular fight was taken on short notice, which always yields a little leeway in the matter.
"Barao is getting better and he caught me with a clean punch and went for the kill," Faber said afterwards. "I don’t know how to defend myself, when you say intelligently defend yourself, pull on the leg, cover my head? If they’re asking me to defend myself and I’m already defending myself I had to do something, so I put my thumb up, but…it is what it is.
"Again, it’s not a situation where I can ask for an immediate rematch or anything like that, so I’m just going to get back on the horse…and work my way towards being champion again."
How gracious is that? Pretty gracious. Call him what you want, but don’t call Faber a defeatist. He’s a class act.
In his post-fight interview with Joe Rogan, Faber even went so far as to politely suggest his young training partner at Team Alpha Male, TJ Dillashaw, might make for a fine candidate to next face Barao. In his biggest moment of failure, just as an early stoppage should have felt like the ultimate injustice, Faber was championing his teammate.
It’s what makes Faber a sort of champion in the people’s eyes, even if he’s not a champion in the literal sense. It’s what keeps him right there in the discussion to win that gold strap time and again -- this idea that a belt is the only way to symbolize the attitude.
Given all this, if we’re to predict whether or not he’ll get still one more title shot before it’s all said and done, it’s hard to keep a good thumb down.