Urijah Faber, the longtime promotional face of World Extreme Cagefighting, is one of the two people (along with featherweight champion Jose Aldo Jr.) who seem to have the most to gain from the recent announcement that the WEC will be absorbed into the industry-leading Ultimate Fighting Championship.
But he may also be the one who has the most to lose.
Faber has lost three of his four last fights, all in title matches, but he's still easily the WEC's most popular star as the group counts down its final days.
That's not unusual in mixed martial arts, where we've seen cases like Chuck Liddell and Wanderlei Silva, that fans will continue to support former champions even after they start losing more frequently than winning.
But in a highly-competitive UFC environment, while Faber comes in with a name, a reputation and quite a bit of popularity, the kind of depth his new organization offers means much tougher competition for spots on big shows than in the WEC.
With a win on Thursday night over Takeya Mizugaki (13-4-2) in Las Vegas, former featherweight champion Faber (23-4), making his bantamweight debut, would walk into UFC in a strong position, perhaps as a title contender, and almost certainly near the top of the card. But with a loss, Faber is in danger of being something less than a focal point when the bantamweight division shifts over to the UFC.
"We're going to find out now," said Faber. "I plan on getting the belt back, and I plan on continuing to grow my fan base and continuing to be a force in the sport."
Faber is in a familiar position Thursday as the main event on a live Versus network event. He holds all of the WEC's attendance and television ratings records. He also headlined the group's only pay-per-view show on April 24, considered a successful event, though he lost the main event to Aldo Jr.
Of all the WEC newcomers to UFC, Faber is the one with the proven fan base. So there has to be mixed emotions as he goes into the WEC's next-to-last show.
"I'm excited," he said. "I mean, when I made my goals out seven years ago, when I first started this sport, it was to become a UFC or Pride champion. I wrote that on a piece of paper. This organization has meant a lot to me and it's been part of the bigger Zuffa family," said Faber. "But inside of that, it's been its own little animal, and I put a lot of effort into expanding it."
Faber recalls his WEC debut nearly five years ago: a win over Cole Escovedo.
"I just remember feeling like it was a big step up because I was dealing with so many smaller organizations and the guys that were running it," said Faber, in talking about his March 17, 2006, title win over Escovedo. "[Promoters] Reed Harris and Scott Adams, the way they treated the fighters and everything was just awesome. So I think that's why they were acquired by Zuffa and were put in charge to do a great job."
When Zuffa bought the promotion in late 2006, the idea was to give the company a slot on Versus, since the UFC brand at the time had an exclusive deal with Spike. The decision was made for WEC to emphasize the smaller fighters, which generally resulted in it being the most action-filled of the major promotions. Faber is uniquely likeable, proven by the fact that despite fighting in the smaller organization, he quickly became one of the sport's most popular figures.
"The whole thing with the WEC was a lot of great timing," said Faber. "We were at a time when the Outdoor Life Channel turned into Versus. WEC was acquired by Zuffa. Pepsi was getting involved in the sponsorship with No Fear and Amp Energy. And I was kind of at the forefront of that. Then I continued to win and continued to connect with fans and grow my brand. So I was really lucky. A lot of hard work paid off, and that's what I plan on continuing to do."p>
Faber debuted in MMA as a lightweight, simply because that was the lowest weight class around at the time, then moved to featherweight when all it was in his home state was small shows on Native American reservations in California. But even while he was on top at featherweight, he believed bantamweight to be his most advantageous weight class.
Faber has noted many times that as a college wrestler at UC-Davis, he wrestled at 133, and would have entered this sport at 135 had that weight class existed when he broke in. But he's also noted he was hungry a lot while in college.
The reason he's spent the past several years at 145 pounds was because he won the championship there, and since has been either defending it, or more recently, challenging for it. But after the crushing loss to Aldo Jr., he was out of that title picture, making the move down to 135 logical.
Faber's eventual target would be current champion Cruz, who defends the title on the final WEC show on Dec. 16 in Glendale, Ariz., against Jorgensen. Faber defeated a then-21-year-old Cruz via guillotine choke in just 1:38 when Cruz was the challenger to Faber's featherweight title on March 24, 2007.
Faber has not been told he's getting a championship fight right away with a win over Mizugaki, but he likely wouldn't be far away from it. And while nothing has been said, speculation has been heavy about an "Ultimate Fighter" season to promote the UFC's two new weight classes, with Faber then being the logical pick to be one of the coaches.
"In my mind, I was a champion at the highest level, and it's really just a change of some initials," he said. "But the implications on the money side and the respect factor of fans in general, and not having to explain to people who don't understand the intermixing of the two from the get-go, and it's just going to be easier on me."
Mizugaki has fought four times in WEC. He debuted on April 5, 2009, as a late replacement in a championship match against then-champion Miguel Angel Torres. He lost a close five-round decision that went down to the final round, a performance that instantly made his name in a fight that finished high in many fight-of-the-year polls. All four of his WEC fights have gone the distance and included wins over Jeff Curran and Rani Yahya and a loss to current bantamweight No. 1 contender Scott Jorgensen.
- Urijah Faber