Urijah Faber has lost his last five title fights. | Photo: Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com
Just like league executives and their television partners secretly root for the Yankees, Cowboys and Lakers to do well in their respective sports, you can rest assured the Ultimate Fighting Championship and those invested in the promotion have their fingers crossed that Urijah Faber’s rejuvenation comes full circle on Super Bowl weekend.
Never mind that recently promoted bantamweight champion Renan Barao is unbeaten in his past 32 fights and is already one of the best pound-for-pound talents in mixed martial arts today; or that Barao against a healthy Dominick Cruz, who was forced to vacate his title after suffering a groin tear, might have been one of the most intriguing matchups of 2014. Oh, and the memory of Barao handily dispatching Faber at UFC 149? Wipe that from the memory banks.
With a 0-5 record in his last five title fights, Faber has spent the past few years as the most successful bridesmaid in combat sports. However, his reach still exceeds that of Barao -- or virtually anyone 145 pounds and below, for that matter. Before the UFC expanded beyond 155 pounds, Faber carried the banner, not just a single division but for an entire legion of smaller-weight fighters. World Extreme Cagefighting shows did significantly better when Faber headlined them, and his star power alone made pay-per-view a viable option for the now-defunct promotion.
Thanks to his work as a MetroPCS pitchman, we know that Faber hates “mayo, admires Abraham Lincoln and is a photographer, author and artist.” Like Georges St. Pierre, he holds some sway over otherwise indifferent members of the opposite sex. Most importantly, when he is on his game, Faber can put on one hell of a show. Other than the last part, you cannot say the same for Barao, Demetrious Johnson or Jose Aldo. All are outstanding champions, yet all still somehow lack Faber’s panache.
For the duration of 2013, “The California Kid” looked arguably better than he did in his WEC heyday. In posting a 4-0 record, Faber emphatically rebounded from yet another disappointing championship showing and did so in every imaginable way. He vanquished veterans, prospects and former training partners, as well as strikers, grapplers and wrestlers. He did all of the above in dominant fashion. Faber was not simply handed another title shot due to a combination of Cruz’s misfortune and his own reputation. He earned it.
“I’m ready for the opportunity. That’s why I’m in this sport,” Faber said after he submitted Michael McDonald at UFC on Fox 9. “When I’m not shooting for the stars, I’m going to be out of this sport.”
That was nearly a month before Faber learned he would be replacing Cruz at UFC 169. As heart-wrenching as it was to hear the news of yet another injury for Cruz, who has already been sidelined for more than two years as a result of multiple knee surgeries, the emergence of Faber 2.0 might be the best-case scenario for the UFC.
If he can correct the mistakes that cost him at UFC 149 and capture 135-pound gold, he will inject some life into the bantamweight division that neither Barao nor Cruz -- no matter who would have won -- could provide. Considering that Faber stays in fighting nearly year-round, it is not unfeasible to imagine him defending the belt two or even three times in 2014. With champions Cain Velasquez and Anthony Pettis on the mend and St. Pierre and Anderson Silva gone indefinitely, Faber’s presence atop the division would certainly be welcome.
None of this seems fair to Barao, who scored a spectacular knockout of Eddie Wineland in his last outing at UFC 165. Is it his fault that fans have yet to gravitate to him, despite a formidable skillset and finishing prowess? Of course not, but Silva’s legend was not built in a day, either. Instead, it took a suitable foil, first Chael Sonnen and then Chris Weidman, for “The Spider” to become a blockbuster attraction. Barao’s growth as a star could -- believe or not -- be stunted with another lopsided win over Faber.
On the other hand, a loss to Faber could foster a rivalry that might eventually lead to a breakthrough for the Nova Uniao representative. A near-defeat to Sonnen at UFC 117 boosted Silva’s stock immensely back in 2010, and his upset loss to Weidman in July led to their rematch reportedly doing more than one million pay-per-view buys at UFC 168.
Even the most popular bantamweight is not going to produce those kinds of numbers -- Faber headlining opposite Barao at UFC 149 reportedly drew approximately 235,000 pay-per-view buys -- but having the Team Alpha Male product remain relevant still beats the alternative: viewer indifference. In terms of talent, Barao may very well be leaps and bounds ahead of the 135-pound field. He just needs the right kind of push.
Faber, the little guy’s version of America’s Team, is the one best equipped to provide it. If he comes up short once more, do not be surprised if he gets up, dusts himself off and is again knocking on contention’s door before too long.