There may be no fighter as closely tied to the business ups and downs of a mixed martial arts organization as World Extreme Cagefighting’s top star, Urijah Faber.
When “The California Kid” returns to action on Sunday night after injuries to both hands, the charismatic former WEC featherweight champion will be one win away from arguably the biggest fight in company history. He also will be just one loss away from likely being out of the title picture for some time to come.
Standing in the way in Faber’s hometown Arco Arena in Sacramento is Brazilian foe Raphael Assuncao (14-1), who in no way is a setup-level opponent being handed to him in a match where the winner is slated to face current champion Jose Aldo Jr.
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After losing two of his last three fights, Urijah Faber faces a critical test Sunday night.
“I’ve got a great opponent in Raphael,” Faber said. “He’s always in good shape and I think it’s going to be a coming-out party. I think there will be a lot of eyes on me on my return. He’s No. 5 in the world, and I expect both of us to put on a great show – and I expect to win.”
But at 31, Faber is in the most danger of losing his status as the WEC’s marquee star since the company’s relationship with Versus started. He’s 22-3 but has lost two of his past three fights, both to former champion Mike Brown.
A win would lead to what could be promoted as the biggest event in company history – perhaps even the WEC’s first pay-per-view main event, as has been discussed internally. A loss would for the first time remove him from title contention. Assuncao is a submission expert, having submitted eight opponents, and is particularly dangerous with the armbar.
“He deserves to be where he’s at,” Assuncao said of Faber. “He’s worked hard to be where he’s at, and I’m just coming up. Obviously, I didn’t just get this opportunity. I fought my way up to co-main event status and fighting Urijah. I didn’t just get lucky getting it.”
“I just hope we don’t take it to a decision,” Assuncao added. “I just hope, if it does go to a decision, that everything is fair. I’m not worried about being in his backyard and if it goes to a decision, I’ll lose; I just hope that it’s fair and that the judges and the commission are fair and that’s it.”
Big matches aren’t unfamiliar territory for Faber, who held the title for two years and eight months before losing it in an upset at the end of 2008 to Brown in their first meeting.
Faber’s big fights of the past two years – a 2008 match with Jens Pulver and June’s featherweight title rematch with Brown – were the two biggest money fights in WEC history. He retained his title by winning a decision over Pulver in the former. In the latter, Faber lost a decision in a match high on most lists as match of the year in a match where Faber injured both his hands, which had been sore for a long time coming off the Pulver fight.
The Pulver match drew 1.6 million viewers and the Brown fight on June 7 drew 1.3 million. Those numbers on Versus are even more impressive when you consider that no fight without Faber has done more than 700,000 viewers, and the most recent WEC show on Dec. 19 (featuring Donald Cerrone vs. Ed Ratcliffe) did 333,000.
Faber has the home-court advantage of fighting at Arco, the same site as the first Pulver and second Brown fights. Both events drew in excess of 12,000 fans, easily the two biggest numbers in WEC history, and numbers rarely reached in North American MMA without a UFC banner attached. While Faber doesn’t have the same general-public name recognition of the biggest UFC fighters, among MMA fans Faber gets cheered as loudly as Georges St. Pierre and Chuck Liddell – who get the strongest crowd reactions in the sport.
“Every sport has its stars that shine above the others,” noted Marc Fein, Versus’ executive vice president. “When Faber fights, ratings tend to be up. We’d love to be able to get other fighters to that level. … In every sport – basketball, golf – you have the guys that the public wants to watch.”
Faber’s popularity is the result of a combination of factors. He’s got a look that stands out in a crowd, and his personality comes across well, giving the vibe of a cool California surfer type. He’s worked tirelessly with WEC over the past three years in promoting himself and the brand. All that work can get you to a certain level of popularity, but to stay at the top you have to win fights. Faber has been able to deliver not only wins but memorable fights as well.
“Being in fights of the year, that comes down to having to face adversity,” said Faber, a former college wrestling star at Cal-Davis who now runs a stable of fighters called Team Alpha Male based in Sacramento. “You need a back-and-forth battle, and that’s the case when I fought Brown. In that case, I had to fight with people knowing both my hands were broken. That’s the same with Ben Henderson and [Donald] Cerrone [in their October fight, considered by many the match of the year]. Cerrone was getting his butt kicked. Henderson was almost submitted a couple of times. Those are the fights that are classic and go down in history. Not everyone has that kind of heart and people appreciate it.”
Fighting on Sunday will end months of frustration, as Faber fought competitively with Brown for five rounds, losing a decision after being unable to punch with either hand in the later rounds. And his quickness on the stand-up was probably his best weapon against a strong opponent who was able to negate much of Faber’s wrestling.
“The first round, I had a break in the fourth and fifth metacarpal in the left hand,” he said. “One shattered. I needed two metal plates put in and eight screws. In the third round, I dislocated my thumb [in the right hand]. They had to be casted. But it’s good now. My recovery time ended up being cut in half. They told me I couldn’t hit a bag for six months. I was hitting a bag in three months and fighting in six. But it sucked; the whole process was frustrating, the fight was frustrating. That sucked.”
With Faber on the shelf, Brown dropped the title to Aldo on Nov. 18 in Las Vegas. With six straight knockouts, people are starting to peg the 23-year-old Aldo as someone who could be the next dominant champion in the sport, like a new-generation Anderson Silva.
“I thought Aldo was going to win,” Faber said. “I’ve been in there with Brown. I lost to him, but I feel I have the tools to get it done with him. I think the way both of my fights with Brown went down, I thought I should be close to a title shot. I’m happy we’re going to find out who the best guys are right now. Aldo, right now, without a doubt, he’s the one I have to beat, but I have a tough opponent first in Raphael. I don’t want to get excited about Aldo because I’ve got another hardheaded Brazilian. I’d like too have a great performance and hopefully I’ll have the belt midway through 2010.”