Just moments after coming out on the losing end of a decision to longtime rival Dominick Cruz at UFC 199 this past weekend, Urijah Faber made it clear he isn’t sure where his career goes from here. At 37 years old and having lost four straight UFC title fights since joining the Zuffa roster back in 2011, Faber doesn’t have much left to achieve at this point in his career. The title opportunities have likely dried up at this point, and while he proved he can still go five rounds with the absolute best, there’s really no reason for Faber to continue fighting if there’s no chance to win the belt.
As one of the more business-savvy fighters we’ve ever seen in MMA, Faber seemed to realize the predicament he was in as soon as the fight was over. During his post-fight interview with Joe Rogan, Faber did everything from address a potential retirement to give Cruz a rare compliment for his winning effort. But perhaps most importantly, while Faber wasn’t ready to commit to a future in the cage, he did find a way to help move along his future Saturday night when he talked up his 135-pound protégé Cody Garbrandt.
Fresh off a career-changing win over the previously undefeated Thomas Almeida in the main event two weeks earlier at UFC Fight Night 88, Garbrandt has gone from unranked prospect to the hottest rising fighter in the bantamweight division overnight. He sports a 9-0 record with eight of those wins coming by knockout. Garbrandt, who is just 24 years old, is the best prospect to come out of Team Alpha Male since former champion T.J. Dillashaw and has the potential to be a major player in the bantamweight division for years to come. Faber obviously realizes as much, and he made sure to throw in his support for his guy multiple times after his loss to Cruz, both in the cage and afterwards at the press conference.
Faber can’t be faulted for hyping the fighter that may end up being the future face of his gym, but it’s hard not to look at how dominant Cruz was this weekend and think that Faber may be putting Garbrandt in a position the youngster isn’t quite ready to be in. While there’s no denying that Garbrandt has a ton of talent, he’s still young and has less than a dozen pro fights under his belt. The win over Almeida earlier this month was a great way to make a statement, but the young Brazilian’s 21-0 record wasn’t exactly filled with a ton of notable names. Garbrandt still has a bit to prove before he can join the likes of Cruz and Dillashaw at the top of the division.
The good news is, despite Faber’s subtle promotion of “No Love,” there doesn’t really seem to be any place for Garbrandt in the title scene quite yet. Dillashaw lost the strap to Cruz in January by a razor-thin decision and could have easily been given an immediate rematch, yet the UFC elected to finish off the Cruz-Faber trilogy instead. The former champ is now set to rematch Raphael Assuncao at UFC 200. Assuncao is riding a seven-fight winning streak — a streak that includes a win over Dillashaw in 2013 — and is in line for a title shot if he beats Dillashaw. By the time UFC 200 is in the books, we should have a new top contender for Cruz’s crown.
While Garbrandt is not quite ready to jump into title contention, there are still a handful of excellent options for him going forward. If “No Love” could have his choice, he’s made it clear that he’d love to take on Bryan Caraway, who squeaked by Aljamain Sterling the same night Garbrandt finished Almeida. Caraway has title aspirations of his own, but his two-fight winning streak doesn’t exactly scream out for an immediate title shot. “Kid Lightning” has definitely looked impressive, but he’s less than two years removed from a pretty clear decision loss to Assuncao and is more in line with Garbrandt than he is a guy like Dillashaw when it comes to the title scene. While Caraway has said he doesn’t want to take fights against anyone ranked below him, that’s not always an option. Caraway was given a pretty big opportunity against Sterling, and as disappointing as it may be, MMA is a give-and-take sport and Caraway may have to repay the favor against Garbrandt unless he wants to be stuck on the sidelines.
However, even if Garbrandt doesn’t get his wish and is forced to fight someone other than Caraway, he’s still swimming in a sea of great match-ups in the suddenly stacked division. John Dodson recently moved up from the flyweight ranks and instantly inserted himself into the division’s top tier. Dodson’s combination of speed and precision would be a great test for the up-and-coming Garbrandt. Or, if Garbrandt fancies himself a break, he could wait out the winner of July’s fight between Michael McDonald and John Lineker, a fighter Garbrandt has been scheduled to fight before.
There are plenty of options for Garbrandt, but a quick route to a title bout shouldn’t be one of those options. A year or two ago, there’s no doubt that “No Love” would be walking into a title fight. However, the bantamweight division has never been this stacked. The way things sit now, the Team Alpha Male product is going to have a much longer road to the title, even with Faber doing his best to plant a seed in Cruz’s mind that Garbrandt is the biggest threat to his belt.