The California Kid: A Sherdog Retrospective

By Staff Dec 24, 2016

Urijah Faber was one of a kind.

“The California Kid” was there when the sport of mixed martial arts went from crawling to walking to running, his remarkable career spanning more than 13 years and six organizations. He captured titles in King of the Cage and World Extreme Cagefighting, helping bring the latter to global prominence as an energetic bundle of chiseled muscles, cornrows and charisma on the Versus network. Faber joined the Ultimate Fighting Championship as part of the WEC merger in 2011 and went 10-6 inside the Octagon -- a run that included two “Submission of the Night” awards and a “Fight of the Night” bonus. Outside the cage, he founded a Team Alpha Male camp that was ahead of its time and served as a launching pad for fighters like T.J. Dillashaw, Joseph Benavidez, Chad Mendes, Paige VanZant and Cody Garbrandt. Faber on Dec. 17 exited the stage as a competitor for the final time at UFC on Fox 22, where, fittingly in his hometown of Sacramento, California, he recorded a unanimous decision over Brad Pickett. The 37-year-old departs with a 34-10 record and 26 finishes to his name, a hall-of-fame nod undoubtedly in his future.

As Faber turns the page in retirement, staff members and contributors weigh in on their most vivid memories, reflections and appraisals of the Isla Vista, California, native’s trials, triumphs and importance to MMA:

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Tristen Critchfield: Faber was the impetus behind the rise of lighter-weight fighters in World Extreme Cagefighting before the now-defunct promotion merged with the UFC at the beginning of 2011.

While the likes of Dominick Cruz and Demetrious Johnson were more skilled competitors, Faber lifted the WEC as its featherweight champion and then managed to remain relevant throughout his UFC tenure despite consistently coming up short in title bouts; and yet, the fact that he continued to find himself in those high-profile fights is a testament to his staying power.

Faber was a world-class fighter, a marketable star and a savvy businessman. Right up until his swan song against Brad Pickett at UFC on Fox 22, “The California Kid” was able to beat all but the very top of his division. In the meantime, he built Team Alpha Male, a camp that has survived highly publicized defections and controversy and, like Faber, remains relevant in the current climate, with rising star Cody Garbrandt challenging longtime Faber foil Cruz for featherweight gold at UFC 207.

Faber was never going to be one to outstay his welcome. While his skill set in the Octagon was not always the most evolved, it was largely effective. However, his being able to think two steps ahead outside of the cage might be his greatest attribute.

“It’s a great way to go out this way and go out on my terms,” he said at the UFC on Fox 22 post-fight press conference. “Part of the reason why I’m doing this is because I’m able-bodied and able-minded. I’ve been a world champion and a top contender and a poster boy for the organization for years [but] it’s a tough way to make a living. I can go on for another 10 years, but I’m choosing to wrap it up and head wherever I’m headed next.”

Just where is Faber headed next? He will probably be moving in multiple directions in his post-fighting career, but one destination should be a lock: the UFC Hall of Fame.

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Todd Martin: When I think back on Urijah Faber’s career, my mind tends to gravitate towards his time as WEC featherweight champion. This was the peak of his success in the cage, as he defended his title five times and staked his claim as the best 145-pound fighter in the world. More importantly, Faber was a pioneer for the lighter weight classes, and this was the period when he most felt like a pioneer. Faber would compete in front of sold-out arenas in the years to come, but those early days of the Zuffa-controlled WEC were when Faber led the way in establishing on Versus that fans would get into lighter weight MMA fighters.

It’s a shame more fans didn’t get to experience those early WEC shows at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, because it was such a great atmosphere for MMA. The intimate setting with the tightly packed crowd, the bar area and fighters absolutely everywhere had the feeling of watching the hot band in the underground club right before they blow up in the mainstream. Really, that’s pretty much exactly what it was in the MMA landscape. Press row was 5-10 people sitting with their computers in their laps, and the entryway for fighters was walking from the casino through the front door and past people on all sides. The whole thing was gritty.

During this time period, Faber was the man. It wasn’t just that he was popular, although he certainly was. He was also the dominant fighter running through the opposition. Only Norifumi “Kid” Yamamoto, himself rolling in front of tens of thousands of people in Japan, was thought to have a chance against him at 145 pounds. Faber was the attraction the WEC was selling, and fans were buying in.

It’s ironic that Faber outgrew those settings at the same time he lost the title and No. 1 status that he would never reclaim. Faber would spend nearly a decade trying to reestablish himself as the best fighter in the world, but he needed to do nothing more to cement himself as a beloved figure and important architect of the sport’s success. He put in that work a long time ago.

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Brian Knapp: Warrior spirit can be a hard trait to quantify, but you know it when you see it. Faber had it in spades.

He won 21 of his first 22 fights, and in his lone defeat, he struck his head on an exposed section of cage while executing a takedown on Tyson Griffin at a Gladiator Challenge event in 2005; the impact of skull meeting metal resulted in a huge gash on his head and set the stage for the finish. Faber went on to achieve full-blown stardom in the WEC, where he ruled the featherweight division and earned victories over Cole Escovedo, Dominick Cruz, Jeff Curran and Jens Pulver. Over a three-year period, no one was better at 145 pounds.

However, I won’t remember Faber for how he performed in victory but the manner in which he carried himself in defeat. He broke both hands in his rematch with Mike Thomas Brown at WEC 41 but nevertheless trudged forward, substituting elbow strikes in place of punches. Less than a year later, Faber was in the cage with the great Jose Aldo at the WEC’s first and only pay-per-view event, eating one horrendous leg kick after another from the man who now carries the mantle of greatest featherweight of all-time. Though he could barely stand late in the fight, Faber refused to yield to the pain and went five full rounds with the Brazilian. Pictures afterward showed that Aldo had painted his thigh all shades of black, blue, purple and red.

Faber never quite reached those same heights in the UFC, where he fought for championships on four different occasions. He went 0-4 in those bouts, losing twice to Cruz and twice to Renan Barao. All six of his defeats in the UFC resulted from matchups with top-flight opposition. The four men who defeated him -- Cruz (twice), Barao (twice), Frankie Edgar and Jimmie Rivera -- have 98 wins between them and only 11 losses. Faber walked away from the sport on his own terms, his place as a pioneer and one of the true tough guys having long since been secured. For that, he should be saluted.

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Mike Sloan: It goes without saying that Faber had a terrific MMA career and has long been one of the most beloved fighters to ever compete under the Zuffa banner.

He had so many fabulous performances inside the cage, whether it was in the WEC or the UFC, so there really isn’t much point in me waxing poetic about his fighting career and all he has achieved. Rather, I’m going to reveal the fondest personal memory I have of him for this retrospective. Faber has always been kind to his fans, and I’ve dealt with him on many occasions, mostly while he was dominating the WEC. “The California Kid” has always been accommodating, but one thing he did for me will always stick in my mind.

A good friend who once worked for me was a huge Faber fan. Cathy always talked about him and would ask me my opinion on his upcoming fights and whether I thought he was the best. He had just lost his WEC featherweight title to Mike Thomas Brown and was gearing up for his rebound fight against Jens Pulver. I texted Urijah out of the blue -- this was in the middle of his training camp, mind you -- and asked if he could somehow send me an autographed photo for Cathy. This was going to go along with a Christmas bonus she had earned. Even though he was in the midst of one of the most important training camps of his career and was not doing interviews, he still took the time out of his day, rounded up a glossy photo, personalized it for her and sent it to me just in time for Christmas.

Needless to say, Cathy was ecstatic about it and genuinely amazed that he spent the time to do that for her. She was nearly in tears because of his kind gesture; it’s a story I always tell anybody who asks me about Faber, whether they are a fan or not. Sadly, Cathy passed away the following summer, but that’s the kind of guy he is and always has been. That will always stay with me.

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Mike Fridley: Rewind more than a decade -- 13 years ago to be precise -- and memories surface of Faber fighting on the regional circuit in California.

I’m a proud Ohioan who has contributed to this website as an editor since the late 1990s and have never resided outside the Buckeye State, but most of my early tenure on Sherdog was spent on coverage originating from the local California scene. Many future big-league contenders and champions cut their teeth in the cages of Gladiator Challenge and King of the Cage on tribal land before mixed martial arts was sanctioned in The Golden State, and the largest collection of Sherdog contributors was based in Southern California and the Central Valley to soak it in at ground level. If a fighter was a UFC star in the first decade of the millennium, chances are they fought for one of those promotions. Many names stick out as poignant, but Faber seemed to be an entity from day one. Despite the obvious skill he possessed, “The California Kid” seemed to know very early on that he was to be a pioneer for athletes in weight classes south of 155 pounds.

Many competing at a high level were fueling the stereotypes that became synonymous with tough guy MMA clowns and even worse tattoos, but not this guy. Every bit as genuine as he is marketable with his looks, personality and skill, Faber stuck out as a talent headed for true stardom. A tireless worker that wanted to promote his name the right way without a forced shtick, this man was good enough and promotable to the point that every organization he ever signed with essentially built a division around him. Few, if any can say that from the onset of their career.

I don’t think he’ll ever be in the UFC Hall of Fame, but if there’s ever an independent and universal hall of fame, I’d vote for Faber on the first ballot.

More Coverage »
Stinton: Watching Through the Rearview
Breen: Faber is Great But Not Like You Think


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