Bon Voyage to The California Kid

Fightland Blog

By Jake Hughes

Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC

Urijah “The California Kid” Faber announced on Monday he will appearing in the Octagon for the last time on December 17th in a fight against the scrappy Brad Pickett at UFC on Fox 22 in front of his hometown crowd in the new Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, California.

Talking to Ariel Helwani on the MMA Hour, Faber said: “I've been waiting for this, and this is actually going to be my last fight. It just feels right to do it in [Sacramento] in this new arena. It just feels like the right time and the right place. I've been waiting for this new arena to be built, I was waiting for that Dominick Cruz opportunity, and I feel like this is going to be an epic event and I can't wait to do it in front of the people I love."

"I've been teetering with it for a long time. The thing is that I'm lucky. Like I said, I have my health and I really love what I'm doing. But just as far as the passion goes, I have a passion for what I'm doing still, but it doesn't get the same emotion (out of me) that it has in the past. I remember my favorite fighter of all-time is Roy Jones Jr., and I remember him talking about him kind of feeling that, where he was playing little basketball games the same day as a boxing match.

"It took a long time to get to this point where I'm skilled enough and I'm in a position where I can fight and have a great time, but like my last fight, and my last couple fights, I haven't found that emotional rise or fall. That is kind of a strange thing for me. I still love what I'm doing and that's the reason why I'm doing it, but I just feel like this is going to be something that's going to be an emotional thing for me, it's going to be a passion thing. I'm going to train my butt off, and I just feel like right now is the right time."

Faber’s opponent reached out to Helwani to express his delight in being the California Kid’s last in-cage counterpart. "When I was offered this fight I was pumped. It has relit a fire in me that I was worried was slowly burning out. Faber is a true pioneer of the sport. He is an excellent role model and a ridiculously talented athlete and I'm humbled that I get to share the Octagon with him in his hometown for his last fight.

“When I saw your announcement this evening, I texted him straight away letting him know how honored I was to be his last opponent. I know we're going to put on a good old fashioned scrap to send him out in style. It will be one no one will forget, I'm sure we'll both make sure of that."

It will be the grand curtain call a certain future Hall of Fame career is deserving of. Many cynics will point to Faber’s inability to win UFC gold in four attempts, losing out to long-time foe Dominick Cruz twice and Renan Barao twice. But, as Pickett can attest, Faber has broken ground and drawn plenty of interest for the lower weightclasses of MMA and has been one of the sport’s finest ambassadors during a fight career spanning close to 15 years. Here is how Faber made his unique imprint on mixed martial arts.

The early days

Faber started his MMA career during the sport’s dark days. Outlawed in his home state of California, Faber forged his fledgling career on the nearby Indian reservations where MMA competition was legal. His professional debut was made in 2003 at the reservation in Colusa, California, under the Gladiator Challenge banner.

Jay Valencia was Faber’s first opponent and succumbed to the much-vaunted guillotine choke of the California Kid in just 82 seconds—pocketing Faber $500 for his victory. Speaking to the Canadian press, Faber later said of his debut: “I loved it. My rent was $225 a month. I had a tiny little room in an apartment with a couple of my buddies. It only took me a minute and a half for the fight and I was like ‘man, this is awesome.’”

Faber had a good base to start of his MMA career—he was an NCAA Division 1 wrestler in his days at UC Davis, before becoming a wrestling coach at his old school. That grounding in martial arts helped him to earn a Brazilian jiu jitsu brown belt under Carlson Gracie protégé Fabio Prado, a fifth degree black belt. That brown belt has helped him earn 19 of his 33 wins by way of submission.

Before making his name at World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC), Faber carved out success in both Gladiator Challenge and parent promotion King of the Cage (KOTC), earning bantamweight titles in both organizations before the career-changing call-up with a record of 11-1.

WEC, KOTC and Gladiator Challenge title stints

As the reigning KOTC bantamweight champion, Faber stepped up a weight division and made his WEC debut in a featherweight title fight against Cole Escovedo—a winning inaugural showing by TKO.

After that, Faber spent his time switching between King of the Cage and Gladiator Challenge—defending his KOTC bantamweight title and regaining his Gladiator Challenge bantamweight belt by TKO against Japanese fighter Naoya Uematsu before committing to the WEC full-time. Faber’s last KOTC title defence was against celebrated Brazilian bantamweight Bibiano Fernandes, who is now the ONE FC bantamweight champion—with Faber handing him his sole loss by knockout to this day back in 2006.

Faber started his new stint in the WEC with a submission win, a verbal submission to strikes, over Joe Pearson in early 2007. What was more impressive was Faber’s next outing against the now-dominant UFC bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz, who was forced to tap to Faber’s patented guillotine choke in just 98 seconds. Further title defences against Chance Farrar, Jeff Curran and Jens Pulver rounded out his run of two-and-a-half years as the king of the WEC’s uber-competitive featherweight division—a run which was shockingly cut short with a surprise TKO loss to Mike Brown towards the end of 2008.

Following that loss, Faber alternated wins and losses to Pulver, Brown, Raphael Assuncao, Jose Aldo and Takeya Mizugaki—the latter of which was fought at Faber’s natural bantamweight division in a triumphant return. But, ultimately, Faber ended his WEC run with the promotion’s most title defences before its close.

With a string of WEC events taking place in Faber’s hometown of Sacramento, Zuffa, who had bought out the WEC in2006, helped build Faber’s star—earning him unrivalled popularity in the promotion and, ultimately, enough popularity to help provoke Zuffa into incorporating both of WEC’s bantamweight and featherweight division at the tail end of 2010. This is all in spite of Faber not holding a title.

UFC run

As mentioned before, Faber fought four times for UFC gold and came up short against Dominick Cruz and Renan Barao twice apiece. But, Faber’s position as one of the most popular fighters in the UFC was never compromised throughout his run.

Faber’s value to the UFC was exemplified on multiple occasions, headlining various UFC events—including a rare return to featherweight for the UFC’s debut event in the Philippines against Frankie Edgar—as well as mucking in as a headliner on the UFC’s preliminary fights on Fox Sports to showcase the upcoming pay-per-view card of that night (a notable example being against Alex Caceres at UFC 175), while promoting the UFC’s place on Fox Sports programming. The UFC also utilised Faber on two occasions to appear on The Ultimate Fighter on two occasions within a coaching capacity.

Ahead of his upcoming grand finale against Pickett, Faber went 9-6 in the UFC, defeating the likes of Eddie Wineland, former WEC bantamweight champion Brian Bowles, Scott Jorgensen, Iuri Alcantara, former UFC interim bantamweight title challenger Michael McDonald, Frankie Saenz and Francisco Rivera. However, Faber lost two consecutive fights in a row—and three fights from four—in his last couple of Octagon outings, this time against Cruz in their rubber match at UFC 199 and the surging Jimmie Rivera.

Giving back

Faber’s aforementioned stints on The Ultimate Fighter proved Faber’s worth as a coach and mentor to up-and-coming fighters, as well as proving his worth as an all-round decent guy. Hell, even Conor McGregor begrudgingly admitted to liking him during their season as rival coaches.

The Californian has developed his Team Alpha Male stable from the ground up, as well as introducing a series of fighters to mixed martial arts from the wrestling mats, including former UFC bantamweight champion TJ Dillashaw among others. In Faber’s interview with Helwani, it would appear Faber would like to continue this trend. "I've loved just being a part of other people's success," Faber said. "Even guys like T.J. (Dillashaw), I enjoy the fact that T.J. and Chad and guys like (Mark) Munoz and Scotty Jorgensen, all these guys that I helped get into the sport.

“I feel like it's kind of like a perfect time for me to make an exit and work on building this team. I have some entertainment stuff I've been working on, shows and some movie stuff. I've got business stuff that I've been working on, but I'm most excited about growing the next generation of fighters, bringing multiple belts back to the Sacramento area. And I want to go out with a massive win against a great opponent in my hometown."

Training out of Ultimate Fitness in Sacramento, Team Alpha Male remains a top breeding ground for talent despite some high-profile deserters in Dillashaw and Joe Benavidez. Currently, the stable hosts names such as UFC veterans Chad Mendes, Danny Castillo, Chris Holdsworth and Justin Buchholz, while surging newcomers Cody Garbrandt and Paige VanZant continue to impress in their rise up the UFC rankings—so much so, Garbrandt now has a title shot against Faber’s arch nemesis Dominick Cruz at the end of the year.

In addition to his work as a mentor and team owner, Faber also launched sporting apparel company Form Athletics, which was later acquired by sneaker giant K-Swiss. Form Athletics supported a number of MMA fighters with sponsorship, including Jon Jones, Anthony Pettis, Chad Mendes and Mark Munoz, before going bust in 2010. In the current landscape with the UFC and its Reebok deal, Faber’s help with fledgling fighters through sponsorship couldn’t look more positive right now.


Check out these related stories:

My First Fight: Urijah Faber

Dominick Cruz: One More Ghost From the Past