The MMA world has changed a lot over the last decade. Ten years ago, Pride was nearing the conclusion of its 10-year endless highlight reel of incredible fights. Strikeforce was widely considered to be the UFC’s biggest competitor. More importantly, the WEC was still running strong and had just recently crowned a champion who would become a staple, not only for the organization for years to come, but for the entirety of the smaller weight classes in general. That man, of course, was Urijah Faber.
Mainstream MMA fans first laid eyes on Faber at WEC 19 in March 2006. It was his first fight under the WEC banner and, surprisingly enough, he was given an immediate title shot. Faber was already the owner of an impressive 12-1 professional record and the King of the Cage bantamweight championship, a belt that he defended twice while he was the WEC featherweight titleholder. Faber quickly became a household name, taking out the likes of future WEC and UFC bantamweight champ Dominick Cruz, Jeff Curran and former UFC lightweight champion Jens Pulver.
The WEC had never — and to this day, still hasn’t — had a more iconic individual rise from its ranks. WEC veterans Demetrious Johnson, Joseph Benavidez and Ian McCall are all UFC standouts, but many casual fans still wouldn’t recognize these names or the fighters themselves. Faber became the face of MMA, at least for the “little guys.” Faber went on to defend his championship a record five times before running into Mike Brown at WEC 36 in 2008.
While Faber was never able to recapture championship gold, he ended up gaining another impressive streak when he went undefeated in a long string of non-title fights. This streak lasted until 2015.
On October 24, 2016, Faber announced that his next fight against Brad Pickett will indeed be his last in a career that has certainly been a whirlwind for someone who is almost assuredly a future Hall of Famer. It’s full of very high points, and low ones as well. In the spirit of celebrating his career upon retirement, let’s take a look back at the five most pivotal fights in the career of the “California Kid.”
Faber’s fight against Escovedo obviously is one of the most important moments in Faber’s career. It was the fight that brought his face and name into the spotlight. He was an outsider with an impressive record just itching to get another belt around his waist. Faber got the corner stoppage TKO victory and began a historical two-year title run as WEC’s featherweight champion.
This is the fight that started a rivalry that would continue for almost a decade. Cruz was the new kid in the division, and Faber was looking for his second featherweight title defense. In what would become typical Faber fashion, the champion ended Cruz’s night swiftly in the first round with a guillotine. Even though Cruz was able to come back and defeat Faber twice in the years to come, his loss to Faber in 2007 remains the only blemish on the current UFC bantamweight champion’s professional record. Don’t think Faber will ever let him forget that.
Yes, we have to talk about both of Faber’s fights with Brown, and for very good reason. Faber was the star of the WEC. He was the face of the company and its biggest draw by far. This was a fight that Faber was supposed to win. Instead, he suffered a TKO loss in brutal fashion early in the first round and relinquished his WEC featherweight crown. Faber didn’t fare much better in their rematch, though he at least hung in there for a full five rounds before losing by unanimous decision. These two fights are instant classics, with the antagonist, Brown, picking up wins against Faber in both bouts. The crazy part about their second fight is that Faber had broken and/or injured both of his hands and continued not only to fight, but to entertain and be aggressive at the same time. Faber would probably want these fights back, but they caused him to grow much more than any win could have. Go back and watch both fights. You won’t be disappointed.
It’s a clash that fans were clamoring to see. The rematch finally had a date and a role reversal, as Cruz was now the champion and Faber, now competing in the bantamweight division again, was the challenger. However, Cruz was not the same fighter that he was four years prior, when Faber topped him. Cruz spent much of the fight frustrating Faber and out-maneuvering the Team Alpha Male founder at every turn. Cruz took what many claimed was a controversial unanimous decision win. Faber even had a chance at retribution when he met Cruz in their rubber match at UFC 199, but he again watched UFC gold slip through his fingers when he suffered his second decision loss to Cruz.
This encounter with Aldo changed the course of Faber’s career for the better. After suffering through a five-round leg-kick clinic put on by Aldo, Faber dropped back down to bantamweight and started finding success all over again. Faber defeated Takeya Mizugaki and Eddie Wineland, both of whom were also WEC vets, before running into Cruz at UFC 132. Faber was able to bounce back from that loss with another Team Alpha Male special guillotine on Brian Bowles at UFC 139. In between Faber’s two losses to Renan Barão, he claimed four straight wins in the UFC bantamweight division, a difficult feat to accomplish.
It’s quite strange that many defining moments in the career of the “California Kid” ended up being losses, but sometimes a loss is exponentially more powerful than a win. A loss creates hunger that a win cannot. It creates a need for revenge and self-improvement, whereas a win provides complacency and foolish pride at times. It’s the reason that many champions have fallen in recent years. It’s the reason that many fighters plateau far too soon or not soon enough.
Faber was never able to capture the elusive UFC gold, but it certainly wasn’t for lack of trying. In all, Faber challenged for UFC gold on four separate occasions, losing by decision in three of those four bouts. He was the face of the WEC and more than likely the reason that the smaller weight classes have thrived in the way that they have over these past decade. On Dec. 17, 2016, his journey will come to a close and he will step inside the Octagon for the last time as an active fighter. With the exception of never wearing a UFC title around his waist, Faber should have no regrets. He had a great run.