Opinion: Urijah Faber is Great, But Not Like You Think

By Jordan Breen Oct 28, 2016

Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

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Urijah Faber appeared on “The MMA Hour” with Ariel Helwani on Monday and announced that his forthcoming bout against Brad Pickett on Dec. 17 would be the final one in his distinguished career. It struck me as fitting that Faber would go out against Pickett on network television at UFC on Fox 22 and not just because it’s in front of his hometown Sacramento, California, crowd at the brand new Golden 1 Center.

Within minutes of Faber’s revelation, my Twitter timeline was alight with quick, casual tributes to “The California Kid,” calling him a pioneer, a legend, a “true” or “real” MMA hall of famer, which is ironic given that no such establishment actually exists. I got messages and emails in a similar vein, as well as those asking how I felt personally about Faber’s career in a historical context. I mentioned recently that when Dan Henderson decided to retire -- allegedly retire, anyway -- conversations about his MMA legacy are made complicated by a variety of sticky topics, from his glut of bewildering decision victories to his place in the testosterone replacement therapy era. It’s easy to get folks to agree that Henderson was great, but dissecting and trying to define how great gets pricklier.

Faber, however, is a different animal. Greatness may be an abstract, wispy concept in its own right, but with someone like Henderson, it isn’t hard to form a mental hierarchy of all-time greats and situate him in your Top 10, Top 20 or whatever. Discussions of Faber’s career seem to rely on a whole host of nebulous terms that cry out for definition.

Is Faber a pioneer? Yes, absolutely. Pioneer, even in a sporting context, has some pretty hard definitions, and they definitely pertain to the former World Extreme Cagefighting champion. Faber was the first sub-lightweight fighter of note in the west and the first to capture a serious slice of the MMA contingent’s attention, and he balked at moving to 155 pounds in favor of forging his own path in the game. The overall development of the bantamweight and featherweight divisions is better for Faber existing, to say nothing of his contributions via starting Team Alpha Male, even if you want to ding him points for not being the head coach of his own team.

I would also submit that Faber is a technical pioneer. Over his 13-year career, Faber’s scramble-heavy approach -- it emphasized finding ways to attack both in and out of transitional phases -- helped define the style that we’ve come to associate with every division from lightweight on down. His incredibly clever, diverse array of guillotine chokes inspired tons of grapplers and fighters alike and highlighted the enormous value of being able to attack from the front headlock in MMA.

With all that said, when people talk about Faber’s pioneering spirit, they tend to emphasize his stardom. I think it’s fair to diagnose Faber as the west’s first sub-lightweight star, but “star” is a contextual term. Faber was far from Conor McGregor; in fact, he wasn’t even a Rich Franklin. Faber always helped gates in California and was a solid television draw, especially during his WEC tenure. However, he never sold more than 320,000 buys on a UFC pay-per-view -- UFC 132 was his peak -- by Dave Meltzer’s estimates, and his WEC on Versus events, while basically doubling the typical viewership in his absence, still averaged below a million viewers.

The WEC 34 broadcast where Faber first fought Jens Pulver was a definitive success; averaging 1.53 million viewers on a cable channel built on rodeo is impressive. Even so, McGregor-Dennis Siver averaged 2.75 million for its main card slot on Fox Sports 1 in January 2015, before McGregor became an international phenomenon. If we want to give merit for being the first at something, again, Faber is only the first sub-lightweight guy to draw anything on this side of the Pacific. His great star-crossed lover in a fighting sense, Norifumi “Kid” Yamamoto, drew incalculably more money for K-1 during his tenure of fighting essentially as a 154-pound bantamweight. When Yamamoto fought K-1 Max star Masato Kobayashi on New Year’s Eve in 2004, 31.6 percent of all Japanese television sets that were on -- remember, this is the biggest Japanese TV watching night of the year -- were tuned to their fight. All this to say Faber was a draw and a promotional asset in a specific, historical context, but on an absolute scale, even against some sub-lightweights, it’s not as though he was any sort of record-breaker.

Faber is a true MMA pioneer, but it has much less to do with the box office than people seem to reflexively think. I’ve even seen some overly-keen Twitter users attempt to revise history, painting Zuffa’s acquisition of the WEC as a manifestation of its desire to promote the sub-lightweight classes. This is categorically untrue: Like all Zuffa acquisitions in that time period, it was done to take up another spot on cable television and deny a competitor that luxury. Faber was undoubtedly the WEC’s biggest star, but Zuffa hardly purchased the brand with that in mind.

Is Faber a legend? He sure is. Like “pioneer,” the word “legend” has a few, rigid definitions. The problem is that in a sporting context, the word “legend” is typically used to denote “all-time great,” which is not what “legend” means. Legends are people, for better and for worse, who are parts of a historical narrative. They are individuals who are both famous and notorious; they are folks of lore. You cannot tell the full tale of this sport without discussing Faber -- he is a legend -- but you know who else is an MMA legend? Charles “Krazy Horse” Bennett. “Legend” is not necessarily a badge of honor, and it is semantically not a demarcation of greatness. Paul Bunyan is a legend, but so is the Jersey Devil.

Which brings us to the hall of famer question. As I’ve talked about it for years on radio and in passing in this space, I’m content to let history continue to play out before proclaiming this sport needs either a physical or conceptual place to canonize itself. On top of that, without having some kind of electoral body to establish the criteria for getting into such a hallowed hall, you’re left debating your standards of excellence against someone else’s in a casual conversation. However, when people ask whether or not someone is a hall of famer, they’re more often than not asking, “Is he or she one of the best ever?” That is the murkiest question you can ask about Faber.

As I said, Faber is a legend and a pioneer, but most of that is built off of him helping to establish the featherweight division, as well as being a longstanding top-five fighter at both 145 and 135 pounds. However, it is telling that the elevator pitch on Faber’s MMA legacy will always be that he faltered in title shots, going 0-6 in WEC and UFC title fights after losing his WEC featherweight title to Mike Thomas Brown in November 2008. Packed into that factual nugget is the more stark and real truth: Faber lost to every truly great fighter he ever fought.

Ironically, people would be less inclined to diagnose Brown or Renan Barao as “hall of famers,” despite the fact both of them completely destroyed Faber twice. While he did beat a green, 22-year-old Dominick Cruz back in March 2007, their two subsequent bouts saw Cruz handle Faber while simultaneously and successfully publicly mocking him. In his bouts with Jose Aldo and Frankie Edgar, Faber won maybe one of the 10 rounds. Faber’s best career wins, those of the most historical merit, are Pulver, Raphael Assuncao, Takeya Mizugaki and Brian Bowles.

Yes, a retiring Faber, whether he wins or loses against Pickett, is still one of the five best bantamweights and one of the best featherweights ever. However, like so many pioneering, legendary forces, his career efforts are due to be usurped. If we include all three standard men’s weight classes below 155 pounds, Faber barely makes an all-time top 10 list at this point, given the likes of Aldo, Cruz, Barao, Edgar, McGregor, Demetrious Johnson and two men he helped train and develop: Joseph Benavidez and T.J. Dillashaw.

The first time I started seeing the MMA Hall of Fame hypothetical posed on forums and the like was around 2001 or 2002; I suppose fans thought eight or nine years of modern MMA was long enough to wait before deciding on the best ever. I’d watch debates over who should have been included, and I was always struck by how vehemently so many folks argued for particular fighters, fighters who were pioneers, fighters who were legendary, but fighters who were definitively not the best of the best.

The two that always stand out for me are former UFC heavyweight champion Maurice Smith and Shooto legend-slash-Christ figure Rumina Sato. Smith, while he showed us what it meant to sprawl-and-brawl and destroyed Mark Coleman’s legs, was 11-12 when he initially retired in 2000 and had lost to almost every great fighter of his day other than Coleman and Marco Ruas. People insisted he was a hall of famer because he was the first to show us something, because he was a pioneer and a legend and that alone was good enough.

Sato was arguably the first non-heavyweight to capture MMA fans’ attention, and from at least 1995 to 1998, he was the most thrilling fighter the sport had ever seen and by several standard deviations. Longtime UFC matchmaker Joe Silva to this day considers Sato his favorite fighter. Shooto is one of the most important institutions in MMA history, and this man is considered the savior of pro Shooto and is literally nicknamed “The Charisma of Shooto.” Like Faber, you cannot tell the story of MMA without Sato. However, like Faber, Sato is defined by failures: He turned down UFC title shots against Pulver and B.J. Penn during his prime, saying he would never leave Shooto until he won a Shooto world title. In 18 years of fighting, he never did.

If we start an MMA Hall of Fame discussion today, how soon will Sato and Smith come up for nomination? Surely no one will consider them first ballot-types, yet just over a decade ago, it seemed like blasphemy if you excluded them in the same conversation; this is why the distance of history is necessary. I think Faber is a more accomplished MMA fighter than Sato or Smith, but like those two, we can see how the tide of history is turning. When Faber, who is not physically shot by any dimension, has nothing to offer an upstart Jimmie Rivera, it’s a reminder of how much better the divisions Faber helped establish have become. A few short years from now, we won’t even consider Faber one of the five best featherweights or bantamweights.

However, when that day comes, we will still consider Faber. He will still be a pioneer and a legend, and he will still be a fighter that mattered to this sport. If you ask me whether or not Faber is a “hall of famer,” I can’t give you an answer. That depends on your own imagined hall of fame, what it entails and who it elects. If you want to know whether or not Faber was a great fighter, the answer is yes but probably not for the reasons you expect. Five, maybe 10 years from now, when you’re looking at the FightFinder, you won’t be blown away by his record, but I can’t imagine you’ll forget this man. I’ve never forgotten Sato’s instantaneous flying armbar or the mortified look on Coleman’s face when Smith chopped off his legs. Even if he lost to every truly great fighter he ever fought, I’m not going to forget Faber’s diving elbows into guard slashing open faces, scrambling takes of the back and devastating high-elbow guillotines. You won’t either.

That’s why this Pickett fight is the perfect exit for Faber. It would only be cruel and absurd to see him go out in one-sided defeat in a title fight if you afforded him a Henderson-like opportunity. That is not Faber. Let him go on television, where he has been at his best as a drawing card. Let him flurry and scramble against a similar, retirement-minded veteran. Let us hear “California Love” one last time in front of his Sacramento crowd. Regardless of your hall-of-fame criteria, the man’s a pioneer and a legend. That’s more than good enough for me.

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