Opinion: Watching Through the Rearview

By Eric Stinton Dec 19, 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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I watched UFC on Fox 22 after it had already finished. I had to work on Sunday morning, when most fight cards are live in my time zone, and after the requisite hweshik -- a Korean custom where you go out and drink with your boss -- all the hands had already been raised in Sacramento, California.

While I was out, I couldn’t help myself; by the time I rolled home, I knew the who and the how of the event’s winners. I probably could have left it at that and scanned through play-by-plays and post-fight analyses, but there’s a difference between reading about fights and actually watching them. So that’s what I did.

For whatever is lost in the way of genuine intrigue, watching fights through the rearview makes up for it with added clarity. Upsets, bad decisions, surprising performances -- they all make more sense when you expect them. The experience is less exciting than not knowing, of course, but it provides a different lens through which to understand what happened.

The strangest part about watching a fight for the first time when you already know the end result is how normal it can be. I assumed Urijah Faber would win, and by the time “California Love” cut through the showers of applause at the Golden 1 Center, I knew he would win. The odd part, though, is that it felt no different than the majority of Faber’s fights for the past 10 years.

I distinctly remember the first time I watched Faber fight live, when he defended his World Extreme Cagefighting featherweight strap for the fourth time against Jeff Curran. At that time, I had watched basically all of Faber’s WEC and King of the Cage fights after the fact, on DVD or online, knowing he had won before I actually watched any of them. Against Curran, Faber had cultivated an aura of inevitability; he would find a way to win, like he always did, because he was the best damn featherweight fighting in North America. Of course he was going to win and probably by some submission he’d find in a scramble.

From then on, I had always been a conflicted fan of Faber’s. He was undeniably the man when the sub-lightweight ponds were much, much smaller, but his ceiling was always floating barely above his performances. That’s a compliment, and it’s not. Very few people reach their limits in life, and Faber did, but he never seemed to be able to transcend them, even momentarily. Despite obvious areas of improvement, he essentially remained the same fighter from his WEC days until his retirement. He didn’t regress much in his old age, which is laudable, but he also remained stagnant as his opponents passed him by, year by year.

Faber compiled one of the finest resumes in the sport while simultaneously being one of the most predictable fighters in all of high-level MMA. Aside from his first fight with Mike Thomas Brown, Faber basically won every fight he was supposed to win and lost every fight he was supposed to lose. The inevitability of Faber that had once meant he was almost certainly going to win fractured, transforming into an inevitable win or loss depending on who he fought. He seldom had surprises up his sleeve, for better and for worse.

Still, I’ve always felt that Faber should be more of an inspirational figure than he is often considered to be. Yes, he’s a hit-or-miss personality, in general; he has been involved in some ugly behind-the-scenes feuds that don’t exactly paint him positively; and he has a chin that looks like it should be spanked with a wooden spoon. However, he’s also a true pioneer for lower-weight classes who put the featherweight division on the map and remained relevant for a decade until his swan song. He has been in 13 title fights in the WEC and Ultimate Fighting Championship, which is an accomplishment in and of itself, even if he lost seven of those fights. That’s to say nothing of his undefeated run as the King of the Cage bantamweight champion, which was the most legitimate arena for 135-pound fighters on the continent at the time.

I was one of the roughly 175,000 people who purchased WEC 48, the first and only pay-per-view card for the promotion. Headlined by Faber and Jose Aldo, it was the first time a major PPV card saw featherweights in the main event. Before that, the UFC had only had five events headlined by lightweights, and all of them involved B.J. Penn.

Since WEC 48, there have been 23 events headlined by fighters 155 pounds and under: eight of them by lightweights, seven by featherweights, five by bantamweights and three by flyweights. I won’t go so far as to say that Faber is unilaterally the cause behind the UFC’s increased willingness to use lighter anchors for PPV cards, but the relative commercial success of WEC 48 is certainly one of many factors; and even though Faber was the lesser fighter that night, he was undoubtedly the bigger name. Faber’s role in the increased prominence of smaller fighters is especially true since “The California Kid” himself headlined three of the five bantamweight PPV cards, while his protégés, T.J. Dillashaw and Chad Mendes, were involved in the headliners of five of the other PPV events at bantamweight and featherweight. You could even make the argument that guys like Aldo, Anthony Pettis, Benson Henderson and to a lesser extent Demetrious Johnson, who account for 13 total PPV headliners between them, owe a debt of gratitude to Faber: they cut their teeth in the promotion that Faber almost single-handedly put on the radar of fight fans.

When I look back on Faber’s career, I see a clear lineage from him to Aldo to Conor McGregor. There have been others in between, sure, but those are the Big Three of the featherweight division’s history thus far. That’s good company to be in, to say the least. Like anyone else, there are holes in his career and valid criticisms to be made. Still, in real time or in hindsight, Faber’s role in the history of the fight game is undeniable. Love him or hate him, the sport of MMA and we as fans are better off because of him.

Hailing from Kailua, Hawai’i, Eric Stinton has been contributing to Sherdog since 2014. He received his BFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University and graduate degree in Special Education from University of Hawai’i. He is an occasional columnist for Honolulu Civil Beat, and his work has also appeared in The Classical. You can find his writing at ericstinton.com. He currently lives in Seoul with his fiancé and dachshund.

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