Rivalries: Urijah Faber

By Brian Knapp Sep 10, 2021

Urijah Faber was as influential as any mixed martial artist of his generation, even though he has never struck gold in the Ultimate Fighting Championship.

The former King of the Cage and World Extreme Cagefighting titleholder won 21 of his first 22 bouts and emerged as a true combat sports superstar despite his diminutive 5-foot-6 frame. Faber joined the UFC roster in 2011 and experienced his share of success, with an 11-7 record across 18 appearances inside the Octagon. While he has yet to announce a formal retirement from mixed martial arts, he has not competed since he was felled by a head kick from Petr Yan in the third round of their UFC 245 clash on Dec. 14, 2019. “The California Kid” turned 42 in May.

While the MMA world awaits word on Faber’s next move, a look at some of the rivalries that helped shape his remarkable career:

Dominick Cruz

When Faber submitted “The Dominator” with a guillotine choke in the WEC 26 co-main event in March 2007, it ignited one of the more heated lighter-weight rivalries in the sport’s history. The two nemeses met for a second time in the UFC 132 headliner on July 2, 2011 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, where Cruz bobbed, weaved, punched, kicked and wrestled his way to a unanimous decision over “The California Kid” to retain his undisputed Ultimate Fighting Championship bantamweight crown. Cruz utilized all his tools against the Team Alpha Male patriarch, lateral movement chief among them. He pressed forward relentlessly and landed brilliant multi-strike, multi-level combinations throughout the memorable encounter, tagging Faber with blows to the head, body and legs. More than one round was too close to call, as the evenly matched bantamweights went toe-to-toe with one another for 25 minutes. Faber found a home for his powerful straight right hand on several occasions and knocked the Alliance MMA star off-balance with it in the fourth round, sending the champion into scramble mode. He recovered soon after, and the two resumed their duel in the center of the Octagon. The fifth round was arguably Cruz’s best. He backed up Faber with a textbook flying knee and scored with multiple takedowns. Faber was quick to return to his feet each time, but Cruz often beat him to the punch and left him swinging at air. Once the dust settled, scores were 50-45, 49-46 and 48-47. Yet there was more story to tell. They completed their trilogy in the UFC 199 co-feature in June 2016, as Cruz laid claim to a unanimous verdict, moved to 2-1 in their head-to-head series and successfully defended his bantamweight title.

Jens Pulver

The former Ultimate Fighting Championship lightweight titleholder kindled hopes of a career resurgence in his World Extreme Cagefighting debut, as he needed just 23 seconds to submit Cub Swanson with a guillotine choke in December 2007. Soon after, Pulver was paired with “The California Kid” in a blockbuster showdown atop WEC 34, the fate of the undisputed featherweight championship hanging in the balance. The Pat Miletich protégé held his own for five rounds, only to fall short in a unanimous decision loss to Faber. The rematch did not go nearly as well for Pulver in the WEC 38 co-headliner on Jan. 25, 2009 at the San Diego Sports Arena. The two traded blows during the opening minute, but a Faber left hook to the body changed the tone of the bout instantly. Pulver winced in noticeable pain and backpedaled against the cage. Faber sensed the end was near and pounced on the wounded veteran, buzzing him with punches before he locked in a seated guillotine choke for the tapout. All told, the fight lasted just 94 seconds.

Mike Thomas Brown

Brown dethroned Faber and laid claim to the World Extreme Cagefighting featherweight crown when he put away “The California Kid” with first-round punches under the WEC 36 marquee in November 2008—the day after Barack Obama was elected president of the United States. Seven months later, the American Top Team ace proved it was no fluke. The explosive and charismatic Faber buckled Brown with a straight right midway through the first round of their rematch but was never the same. The Team Alpha Male empresario injured his hand with the costly blow that, in hindsight, he would have been better off leaving in the chamber. From there, Brown methodically chipped away at the former titleholder and notched a unanimous decision in the WEC 41 main event on June 7, 2009 at Arco Arena in Sacramento, California. Scores were 49-46, 49-46 and 48-47. The injury handcuffed Faber at every turn, as his offense was limited mostly to the first round. He cut Brown near the left eye inside the first five minutes but later had to resort to lunging elbows and open-handed slaps instead of punches. Faber threatened the champion with a modified guillotine choke late in Round 5, but he could not secure the maneuver because of the damage he had sustained to his hand. Brown, meanwhile, answered whatever doubters may have remained. He tightened his grip on the match in the third and fourth rounds with some nice clinch work, occasional ground-and-pound and crisp standup combinations. The Portland, Maine, native finished strong, as he took down Faber four times in the final stanza and cemented himself as the organization’s top featherweight.

Jose Aldo

The Brazilian icon denied Faber in the WEC 48 main event on April 24, 2010 at Arco Arena in Sacramento, California, where he registered a unanimous decision in his first defense of the World Extreme Cagefighting featherweight title. All three cageside judges scored it for Aldo: 49-45, 49-45, and 50-45. The leg kick tipped Aldo’s spear, as he exacted an insurmountable toll on Faber’s base with a steady stream of savage strikes to his lower extremities. The Nova Uniao thoroughbred landed 10 low kicks in the second round alone, a majority of them to Faber’s lead left leg. At one point, the Team Alpha Male founder had to be carried back to his corner. Aldo nearly finished Faber in the fourth round, where he knocked down “The California Kid” with a leg kick, mounted him briefly and attached himself to the challenger’s back. Faber escaped, but when the action hit the floor again, Aldo trapped him in a topside crucifix for nearly two minutes, grinding on him with punches and elbows. Taken the distance for the first time in nearly three years, Aldo seemed content to ride out the decision. Round 5 proved largely uneventful, save for a wicked right hook to the body that left Faber visibly shaken. With that, the torch had been passed from one all-time great to another.

Renan Barao

The Nova Uniao standout captured the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s interim bantamweight title with a surprisingly one-sided unanimous decision over Faber in the UFC 149 headliner on July 21, 2012 at the Scotiabank Saddledome in Calgary, Alberta. Barao swept the scorecards by 49-46, 50-45 and 49-46 counts. He kept Faber at arm’s reach throughout the 25-minute encounter, grew more comfortable in the pocket as the fight progressed and landed in combination, often punctuating his attack with vicious leg kicks. The tactic forced “The California Kid” to alternate between orthodox and southpaw stances, largely negating his powerful right hand. Faber’s offense was limited to short bursts, none of which threw Barao off his scent. He denied all of the Team Alpha Male patriarch’s takedown attempts, mixing in punches and knees to the body for good measure. Faber was awarded a rematch in February 2014 but lasted a little less than four minutes with the Brazilian. Barao disposed of the Isla Vista, California, native with punches 3:42 into the first round of their UFC 169 main event.
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