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Fortunes changed for five at UFC Sacramento

UFC Fight Night: Faber v Simon Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

When Urijah Faber retired before his hometown crowd in Sacramento, Calif., the city he put on the MMA map years earlier, it felt like a perfect ending for a Hall of Fame career.

Faber’s career was notable for many things historically. He was the face of the WEC promotion that put under-155-pound weight class fighters on the map. He was actually the face of the promotion which presented some of the best live events of that era.

The television ratings success of his fight with Jens Pulver not only made him a significant star, but made the featherweight division. There was a strong mindset at the time that the public wouldn’t be interested in smaller fights, and Faber vs. Pulver, with tremendous promotional work by Versus (now NBC Sports) killed that theory almost dead, before Conor McGregor buried the theory for life.

Even though losing, the success of his fight with Jose Aldo on pay-per-view, was the key in the UFC’s decision to take over the featherweight and bantamweight divisions and merge the WEC into the UFC, giving fighters in both classes far more opportunities for exposure and money.

Faber had a unique UFC career. From 2011 to 2016, after dropping from featherweight to bantamweight as the sport evolved and the featherweights got a little bigger than he was, won 10 of 15 fights (plus a loss at featherweight to Frankie Edgar) and was a top contender the entire run, but also a genuine star, which few bantamweight contenders ever became. The record is even more impressive since he was a top contender his entire tenure and never had an easy opponent.

With hindsight, his UFC run can be described easily. If the title wasn’t on the line, Faber won, and usually looked great in doing so. If the title was on the line, he lost, and the fights were never close enough to be controversial. After he dropped his WEC featherweight title to Mike Brown in 2008, he got two WEC featherweight title shots and four UFC bantamweight title shots, losing them all.

While never a UFC champion, some would argue that his 2006 to 2008 run as WEC champion, the belt that became the UFC featherweight title, was the equivalent of being the rightful world champion at that time.

After being dominated by Jimmie Rivera three years ago, his first loss in a non-title fight, it looked like his career as a contender was over. He had one last hurrah, his retirement fight and win over Brad Pickett on Dec. 17, 2016. Next was an induction into the UFC Hall of Fame. While some would question that, citing his multiple shots at the title and never winning, his importance in establishing the smaller weight divisions due to his promotional work and charisma can’t be overstated.

Then, at 40, he came back on Saturday against Ricky Simon, a ranked bantamweight with a 15-1 record. He was not expected to do well.

The fight started, and the description was simple. The punch landed. Simon was stunned and Faber was all over him, winning in 46 seconds.

The nature of this sport is that if the right punch lands at the right time, any good fighter can win and any good fighter can lose. We really didn’t see what Faber truly had, other than for 40, he looked remarkably young facially and physically.

Coming off such a win, Faber brought up the name Henry Cejudo, the double division bantamweight and flyweight champion. It was the right fight for him to ask for. Cejudo had brought Faber’s name up himself when he defeated Marlon Moraes to keep the bantamweight title. You can’t look any more impressive than this kind of a win, and no matter what he looks like physically, Faber’s career still has only a finite amount of sand left in his hourglass.

If there was any doubt about his name value and marketability at this stage, Google trends for Saturday showed Faber as the fourth-most searched for category of the day in the U.S., trailing Area 51, the New York power outage and Serena Williams. That would be impressive for any show, but more so for a card that was really just another Saturday night event on ESPN+.

At another time and place in UFC history, Faber probably would have gotten a title shot off the performance. Cejudo has no other opponent that would generate the same level of public interest.

But this isn’t that time or place. With Cejudo holding two titles, and with a clear overdue challenger in Faber’s longtime teammate Joseph Benavidez at flyweight, as well as a viable contender in Aljamain Sterling at bantamweight, Cejudo really needs to take those fights first. Unfortunately, the longer that takes, the worst it is for Faber. Age probably caught up to him at the championship level a few years back, but the punch landed and people are clearly interested in him again. And for a story, which really is the key to all sports, there are few stories in UFC these days that would be bigger than Faber trying to turn back the clock and accomplish the one thing he never could after multiple chances, and that is take the UFC championship. He’d be a major underdog, but he also was Saturday. The odds aren’t good of this happening. But this is MMA, and the punch could land.

Let’s look at how Fortunes Changed for Five fighters off Saturday’s show.

URIJAH FABER - Faber (35-10) came off the show with a career resurrection. He said he considers himself back. Really, he has two options. One is to sit tight and perhaps wait for Cejudo to fight once, whether it be Benavidez or Sterling, and then hope to get the title match. The second is to fight once more, against somebody like Petr Yan (13-1) or Cody Stamann (18-2). For UFC, a Faber vs. Yan fight has advantages in the sense that if Faber wins, there’s at that point going to be no controversy in him getting a title match. But he’ll be a heavy underdog and you are risking the fight, Cejudo vs. Faber, that will garner more interest than any other in the division. If Yan beats Faber, it puts him in the spotlight, ups his name value and he’ll be more viable as a contender.

For Cejudo, the best thing is to push for Faber. It’s his biggest fight and not only could he lose to Benavidez, as he did once before, or to Sterling, thus hurting the fight, but Faber could lose if he fights someone else.

The UFC would be heavily criticized for bypassing earned top contenders for Faber unless he got one more win against a viable contender. With the nature of the ESPN pay-per-view deal, the UFC’s monthly pay-per-view revenue is guaranteed which actually is better for the incentive of putting on the right fight from a pure sports standpoint, which really would be Benavidez, over the fight with the most appeal, which would be Faber.

GERMAINE DE RANDAMIE - de Randamie (10-3) finished Aspen Ladd (8-1) in 16 seconds in a fight filled with controversy.

First, with the condition Ladd looked at weigh-ins, there was a real question regarding letting her fight the next day. Then, the early stoppage of the fight, perhaps referee Herb Dean being overly cautious because of how under the microscope everyone was regarding Ladd’s condition the day before, added another layer.

Still, de Randamie is the clear top bantamweight contender for Amanda Nunes (18-4).

However, it looks like UFC’s direction would be to get one more Nunes vs. Cris Cyborg featherweight title fight, provided Cyborg (20-2) beats Felicia Spencer (7-0) on the pay-per-view show on July 27 in Edmonton.

If that is the direction, and it is the more marketable direction, the UFC has two clear options. One is to just have de Randamie wait for Nunes, and the other is to put de Randamie against Ketlen Vieira (10-0) for the shot at Nunes.

ASPEN LADD - Ladd’s biggest issue really is to figure out the weight issue. If she has to go to those lengths to make 135, then maybe 145 is the way to go. But that’s a risk in the UFC, which has few women featherweights, and if Cyborg loses again, the future of that division would be in question. As far as a bantamweight opponent, Julianna Pena (9-3), who was a top contender before giving birth, and returned Saturday with a win over Nicco Montano, looks to be a good next direction.

JOSH EMMETT - It was a big night for Team Alpha Male, with the strong wins by Faber, Emmett and Andre Fili. Emmett (14-2) knocked out ranked opponent, Mirsad Bektic (13-2) in the first round.

For Emmett, he’s in line for a fight with one of the top contenders. The top choices are Zabit Magomedsharipov (17-1) and Calvin Kattar (20-3). An outside chance is also Alexander Volkanovski (20-1), who should be getting the winner of the July 27 fight with champion Max Holloway (20-4) and Frankie Edgar (23-6-1). If something happens where Edgar wins, or they are rematched, or there is an injury to the champion and Volkanovski needs an opponent before the title match, it would probably come down to Magomedsharipov and Emmett as key possibilities.

RYAN HALL - The ground master at featherweight, Hall (8-1) took a decision over Darren Elkins (24-8). Hall’s next opponent could be either Bektic or Ricardo Lamas (19-8).