clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Urijah Faber is the key figure historically in establishing lighter weight MMA

New, comments
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Urijah Faber never held a UFC championship, and he had a record setting amount of opportunities to do so, but his legacy and importance to the company are far beyond that of most belt holders.

Faber, 37, announced on Oct. 24 on The MMA Hour that he would be retiring after his next fight against Brad Pickett on Dec. 17 in his home city of Sacramento, Calif., at the first UFC event at the newly-opened Golden One Center. Faber and MMA in Sacramento are synonymous. His home city popularity and name recognition ranks with almost any modern fighter. Between his big fights at the Arco Arena, and his Team Alpha Male gym in the city, he turned Sacramento into one of the hottest MMA cities in the world.

But his greatest legacy is paving the way for lighter weight fighters to not only get a shot to be on television in high-profile fights, but in opening the door for them -- and most notably Conor McGregor -- to be as big a star as anyone the sport has seen.

When Faber, who wrestled at UC-Davis at 127 pounds, started fighting professionally in 2003, the UFC's lightest weight class was welterweight, or 170 pounds. In 2006, the UFC brought back the lightweight division, but Faber and Japan's Kid Yamamoto, who were generally considered the two best fighters in the world at 145 pounds, were really too small to be elite at that weight, even though each had success fighting at lightweight.

Faber's career at the time looked to be that of a skillful and talented guy who was too good for most of his competition on smaller shows in Northern California. He was marketable, featured on some area television shows that covered the lower level of the sport, but he'd be a small-time player in a very fringe sport.

Fighting in smaller promotions, Faber captured a variety of championships, with the most notable being the World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC) featherweight title from Cole Escovedo on March 17, 2006.

The WEC at the time was a promotion that ran shows at a casino in Lemoore, Calif., not far from Fresno. Faber by this point had made a name for himself as the most talented smaller fighter on the California scene. His first big break came in 2007, when the UFC purchased the WEC, and decided to build the company around Faber as its top star.

The story behind the purchase was that in 2005 and 2006, the UFC, shunned by television stations for years, started having major success on Spike TV. Most television stations wanted nothing to do with the sport, which was still getting very negative media coverage almost everywhere. The UFC's ratings, particularly the numbers pulled by a Ken Shamrock vs. Tito Ortiz fight on Spike in late 2006, changed the mentality of at least some in the television industry. In the 18-34 demo, that fight out-rated several games of that year's World Series. In the TV industry, that statistic was stunning, even though the majority of sports channels still felt it was a violent spectacle and not a real sport. 

Versus, a small sports station, was looking at MMA content. There were plenty of smaller promotions looking for a television partner, particularly one that would pay for content, hoping they could mirror the UFC's success. Largely to head off a competitor from getting the slot, the UFC, which had an exclusive contract with Spike, purchased the WEC. The idea was to produce live prime time shows every other month or so on Versus.

Joe Silva, the UFC matchmaker, wanted the WEC to have its own calling card, which was the best smaller fighters in the world. With UFC not having anyone under 155, he saw the chance for WEC to not be a UFC copycat promotion, but have its own identity using weight classes from 135 to 205 -- but at 135 and 145, it could feature the best fighters in the world. Silva felt that smaller fighters could be marketable, and his own experience as a pro wrestling fan seeing his favorite wrestlers like Jushin Liger and Rey Misterio Jr. not get their due at the time also played a part in wanting to prove something.

Faber was immediately promoted as the face of the promotion, along with Brian Stann, an inexperienced but well-spoken war hero, who fought at light heavyweight. Faber was the right guy with the right personality and the right skills at the right time.

Faber hit the ground running, working endlessly in media to promote the brand and himself, quickly making himself one of the most popular fighters with the media. He was creative in his approach to fighting, coming up with new moves people had never seen. He was always upbeat. He had the California surfer look, the ring entrance to "California Love" by 2Pac, which became synonymous with him, and the monstrous reaction he'd receive almost everywhere, particularly when fighting in California.

At the time, the featherweight division was in its infancy and Faber's combination of wrestling and unique submissions, in particular guillotines, were enough for him to dominate the field for a few years.

Faber's fights always drew bigger ratings on Versus than anyone else, which led to the most important fight in the evolution of the lighter weight division, on June 1, 2008, at the Arco Arena in Sacramento. His opponent was Jens Pulver, a popular fighter who was UFC's first lightweight champion back in 2001.

Versus got heavily behind the promotion of the event. Faber and Pulver were brought to different events around the country with them plugging the fight. An excellent countdown show was produced. Unlike most shows of the type, where artificial grudges and heroes and villains are created to sell, the Faber vs. Pulver build was unique. Both came off as likable, and it was promoted as the coming out party for the featherweight division. Both men's personalities shined through on television. The pre-fight hype show was generally considered the best non-boxing show of its kind in 2008.

Faber's previous fights were against unknowns, and with Pulver, he was facing a former UFC and Pride star who was probably at the time better known than he was. It was very much meant to be Faber's introduction to a larger audience, or at least larger than the 500,000 to 650,000 viewers that had been watching his title defenses.

Faber was too quick for Pulver, and won the exciting five-round fight via decision to retain his title. But the business numbers were the real success.

The show drew a 1.44 rating and 1.54 million viewers, the latter number notable because Versus, now NBC Sports Network, wasn't in nearly as many homes as it is today. With the exception of Stanley Cup playoffs and Tour de France, it was the most viewers the station had ever had. In Males 18-34 and 18-49, it broke station records. It was five times what most WEC shows had been doing, and more than doubled Faber's best ever numbers previously.

It was the most-watched non-UFC MMA television show on basic cable until the Ken Shamrock vs. Kimbo Slice Bellator fight on Spike last year, and Spike was in far more homes than Versus was at the time. From a straight ratings standpoint, the Faber vs. Pulver show would to this day be the second highest rated non-UFC fight on basic cable, trailing only the 1.70 rating that Spike did on February 19, 2016, for its Slice vs. Dada 5000 and Shamrock vs. Royce Gracie double main event.

That translated to the live gate as well, as the show drew 12,682 fans paying $738,855, coming at a time when most WEC shows were drawing 1,000 to 2,000 people and nobody outside of UFC or Strikeforce in San Jose could pull paid numbers even half that.

After beating Pulver, Faber was 21-1 and generally considered one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the sport. That was also the last time he won a championship fight.

By this point Jose Aldo had emerged as the best fighter in the featherweight division. Aldo was only 21 when he debuted, in the WEC, knocking out Alexandre Franca Nogueira in the second round on the Faber-Pulver undercard. He looked so impressive that he was immediately viewed as the one guy in the division who could beat Faber.

But on the way to the Aldo showdown, things got derailed.

In Faber's next fight, he rushed in against Mike Brown, left himself open and was knocked out. Faber's game plan up to that point included taking chances most fighters wouldn't, but always coming out ahead.

After beating Pulver in a rematch, Faber vs. Brown drew 13,027 fans and $815,415 in Sacramento, and 1.3 million viewers on Versus. This time it was Faber who was the draw, and not a combination of Faber and Pulver. Faber broke both hands early in the fight, but was still competitive in losing a close decision after five rounds.

Aldo, as expected, smashed Brown to seize the championship. Faber then submitted Raphael Assuncao in a top contenders fight.

The decision was made to do Aldo vs. Faber as a pay-per-view event on April 24, 2010, back at the Arco Arena. WEC had never tested those waters and the hope was to do 60,000 buys. Instead, the show did closer to 200,000 buys, making it the most successful non-UFC pay-per-view event in MMA history.

But for the first time on the big stage, it was clear the torch was being passed. Faber hung in for five rounds with Aldo, but it was not competitive and he had no answer for Aldo's low kicks.

But more importantly, it was the success of the show, and Faber was the draw, not Aldo, which made UFC realize there was more economic value putting the bantamweights and featherweight title fights on UFC cards. In late 2010, largely due to the success of Aldo vs. Faber, the decision was made to close up the WEC and bring the smaller divisions and the top stars to UFC.

After recovering from the beating his legs took in the Aldo fight, Faber moved to bantamweight in late 2010. From there, he established a career pattern. For the next five years, fighting at 135, he beat everyone he faced on the way up, but then would earn a title shot and lose. This happened four times, with two losses to Renan Barao and two to Dominick Cruz.

The reality on Faber was this: he was a good wrestler, but not elite. He never took All-American honors nor national titles. He had exceptional conditioning and good speed. He was small at 145, but strong enough with his wrestling and far more advanced skill-wise than his opponents during his years at the top of that division, and years after near the top.

The story was the same at bantamweight. At 5-foot-4, he'd give up reach standing to people like Cruz and Barao, and couldn't beat either standing. Against opponents he was able to get to the ground, his submission wizardry gave him win after win, even out-grappling and submitting black belts like Assuncao, Jeff Curran and Ivan Menjivar.

He was also durable. In 43 pro fights, he was only stopped three times, once against a much bigger Tyson Griffin, once against Brown, and once against Barao. His unique record was such that he never lost a non-title fight until May 16, 2015, when he lost a decision to Frankie Edgar, himself a future Hall of Famer, who was a superior boxer who could stop his takedowns. As Faber got older and his takedown game wasn't as effective, that's when he started to fade. But even moving up a weight with Edgar, he was competitive with a top title contender and it wasn't until his last fights, decision losses to Cruz and Jimmie Rivera, where he stopped being competitive with the elite.

He will end his career as the pioneer in putting featherweights and bantamweights on the map. He not only was the first featherweight star, but his success brought major league featherweight and bantamweight fighting from being an experimental idea on a small television station to a worldwide fixture at the major league level. His drawing power opened the previously closed doors of UFC to men of his size.

Some will look at his dubious record, notably seven straight losses in title fights, to categorize him as very good, but not Hall of Fame worthy. And his period of dominance, a two-and-a-half year reign as WEC champion, did come before the division was loaded with the type of athletes it now has. But Faber did remain right under the top guy in two divisions for seven more years after his title loss to Brown.

But most importantly, when you tell the history of the smaller weight divisions, he will always be the first superstar, and the key catalyst for everything that transpired.