But when the Octagon door shuts on Saturday, Simon may have to turn Faber’s comeback into a nightmare.
The two meet in the bantamweight co-main event of UFC Sacramento, with Simon having the responsibility of welcoming Faber back when the former World Extreme Cagefighting champion and multiple-time UFC title challenger returns from his retirement, which lasted all of 30 months.
Simon is 3-0 in the UFC and one of the fastest-rising contenders at 135 pounds, so the matchmaking is somewhat curious even given Faber’s revered status in the MMA community. When Faber last fought it was against fellow veteran Brad Pickett, himself one appearance away from hanging up the gloves.
It’s a matchup that Simon has had on his radar for years, but even he wasn’t sure that campaigning for the fight would pay off.
“I was a little surprised. If you look at the matchmaking in his retirement fight, Brad Pickett, someone kind of in the same situation as him, I believe,” Simon recently told MMA Fighting. “A veteran, someone who’s been around the game for a while. But yeah, it just goes to show that Urijah Faber still sees something in himself and that he thinks he can still compete with the top-15 in the world.
“Props to him, but I feel like it’s going to be a different animal. This is a new era. I’m 26 years old and I’m waking up in the morning feeling the pain, so I can’t imagine being 40 years old and doing it.”
Though Simon has expressed nothing but enthusiasm about the booking, there are aspects of it that make it clear he still has some work to do to achieve wider recognition. For one, he and Faber were given co-headliner status as opposed to the top spot and it’s also unclear if a win over a recently retired fighter will improve Simon’s ranking.
Simon made a statement with a unanimous decision nod over veteran Rani Yahya in his last outing, and his other two wins came against Montel Jackson and Merab Dvalishvili, who have both strung together consecutive victories after losing to Simon. The 26-year-old admitted that he still feels overlooked.
“I do,” Simon said. “I don’t know, I say that sometimes and some people are like, ‘Oh no, people are starting to realize’ and everything, but I still don’t feel like I’ve hit that spot in my career that people think I’m a real threat.
“But if you look at just my opponents in the UFC—even before the UFC I fought some studs—I’ve fought some real killers and I feel like as times goes on and those people like Montel and Merab, they’ve been killing their opponents since we fought and I feel like I’m at that point maybe that after this fight I’m gonna be a household name and people are going to start realizing ‘Okay, this guy’s the real deal.’”
Still, with most of the bantamweight division’s top names either tied up or MIA for various reasons, Simon is thrilled that he was picked to fight Faber. In his career, which dates back to 2003, Faber beat several marquee names like Dominick Cruz, Jens Pulver, and Bibiano Fernandes, and he went the distance with the best of the best including Cruz on two other occasions, Jose Aldo, Renan Barao, and Frankie Edgar.
The majority of Faber’s losses have been to world champions and Simon could join that list on Saturday.
“It’s definitely the name that stood out to me right away,” Simon said. “I knew that this fight could really [boost] my name and turn me from that hot prospect into a title contender. I was obviously excited about the name and how many eyes are going to be on this fight, but at the same time it’s Urijah Faber. He’s a Hall of Famer, I grew up watching him fight. He was a trailblazer for my weight class, so it’s going to be really exciting to fight him.
“I did a reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) right before I got signed to the UFC and someone had asked me if I could fight any fighter past or present, who would it be? And I said Urijah Faber. I’ve always wanted to fight him. We have similarities in our style and our pressure and it’s gonna be exciting.”
In another world, Simon might have become one of Faber’s star pupils. He was a 20-year-old undefeated amateur when he first traveled to California to work with Faber and after the Team Alpha Male founder put him through the paces with some the fighters there (Simon says he did not get to work with Faber himself), Simon considered making a permanent move south.
Instead, Simon kept his camp in Portland, a decision that hasn’t worked out too badly for him. When he talks about Faber, he shows great respect and appreciation for “The California Kid,” but when asked if he realized he could be the one to send Faber off into retirement for good, Simon accepted that it could just be the nature of the game.
“I haven’t thought about it too much,” Simon said. “I guess I have felt like after I show my strength, my speed, and my pressure, it might hit him and it might dawn on him that he should probably hang it up.”