In a weekend where the term "the biggest" is being thrown around liberally, it may be the smallest that winds up as the most memorable.
Gary Shaw is proclaiming Saturday night's first live primetime MMA event ever on a major network, a two-hour CBS special, as the biggest thing ever to happen to MMA. Spike TV is tabbing the basic cable television premiere of the Dec. 29 Chuck Liddell vs. Wanderlei Silva, which will go head-to-head with the main events on the CBS show, as the biggest match in the history of MMA.
Yet all week, the best hype job has been the endless commercials all over cable sports programming and building up of Sunday night's Urijah Faber vs. Jens Pulver match for the World Extreme Cagefighting featherweight championship.
Champion Faber is billed as the No. 1 fighter in the world, which, at least within his weight class, he very well may be.
It's also billed as the biggest match ever, which it most surely isn't, although it is the biggest featherweight match ever, biggest WEC match ever, and biggest MMA match in its short history on Versus.
The anticipation is being built without any bad blood or grudges. For Faber, Pulver was the fighter he dreamed about facing when he was younger, years before getting into the sport. Former UFC lightweight champion Pulver has nothing but glowing comments about Faber's skills.
The two share a lot of similarities. Both grew up with rough childhoods, and were undersized guys who learned to wrestle and fight. Both ended up as high school and college wrestling stars, Pulver at Boise State and Faber at Cal-Davis.
Faber was 14 when he saw Royce Gracie dominate the early UFC events, and when he was in college, he used to imagine what he'd be able to do if he faced Pulver, then UFC's first lightweight champion.
"He's the most dangerous guy I've fought," said Faber. "He can knock me out because he's done it over and over again. My challenge is to do my game plan, avoid being finished, and be the one doing the finishing."
Pulver is known for the left hand of death, while Faber is known for explosive athleticism, almost a smaller version of Georges St. Pierre, but with more varied and creative attacks.
As an example, take his most recent fight, on Dec. 12 when he retained his tile by using a guillotine on Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt Jeff Curran. Right before the finish as Curran had taken one of Faber's legs off the ground going for a takedown, Faber, balancing on the other leg, lifted the leg on the ground up to crash a knee into Curran's chin hard enough to stun him and lead to the finish. Faber said it was something he came up with fooling around in practice.
But Pulver will be the first to tell you about the differences. Faber, nicknamed "The California Kid," looks like a fitness model you'd see on a magazine cover. He bears an amazing resemblance to 1980s wrestling heartthrob Kerry Von Erich, and if we're judging based on looks, it's a battle between a prized show dog and, as Pulver describes himself, a mutt.
"This is hands down the biggest moment in my career," said Pulver, 33.
"I've had big moments. The first time I main evented at the Mohegan Sun, the first time fighting Caol Uno, the first time headlining in Las Vegas. People say, `Who wants to see two little 145-pounders fight.' Well, obviously, people do."
But don't let the idea Faber looks like some pretty boy in a health club fool you into thinking he's a manufactured star. He's won his last 12 fights in a row against quality opponents, and none have gotten out of the second round. Overall, he's 20-1, with his only loss to Tyson Griffin when fighting as a lightweight, and giving up about 18 pounds of real bodyweight inside the cage. Pulver, UFC's first lightweight champion, who has spent almost his entire career fighting men physically bigger, is 8-0 when fighting as a featherweight, also with none going the distance and seven knockouts.
If Faber has a weakness, it's that he's fearless.
"I've always believed since I was a little kid that I was a tough guy that nobody's going to beat up," said the 29-year-old Faber. "At times it was unrealistic, but now it's something I've given my life for."
Faber has gone, in less than one year, from being someone who even the UFC fans in his home town didn't know, to becoming one of the biggest drawing local stars in the game. He owns his own MMA training gym, and trains a team of fighters. With the exception of Frank Shamrock and Cung Le in nearby San Jose, nobody outside of UFC has been able to sell 10,000 tickets to an MMA event in North America, a number this event is just shy of as of Thursday night.
When the WEC booked Arco Arena, it was only to be set up for 6,000 people, and given that UFC hadn't done well the last time in town (paid attendance: 8,622), there was a lot of questioning if they were booking too large a venue.
The idea of defending a title in your home town would seem to be a benefit, but there is also the added pressure. Cincinnati's Rich Franklin couldn't wait to get out of the state when preparing for UFC shows in Ohio. Matt Serra figured fighting in Montreal against St. Pierre would be to his benefit because all the pressure was on St. Pierre, although that theory didn't play out so well.
"The pressure is the same as it's always been," said Faber. "It's a dangerous environment but that's what I've chosen for my living. The pressure has been there since I decided I was going to be the kind of guy who is going to be a champion. My life is good whether I win the match or not. I've got my friends and family who are always going to be there. For a living, I work out all day, and get a chance to test myself. It's not like my life's over if I lose."
Faber, ranked No. 7 in Yahoo! Sports' world pound-for-pound rankings, is physically a little smaller than Pulver. Faber's natural fighting weight class would probably be bantamweight (135 pounds, as he wrestled at 133 pounds in college) but when he started, there was little opportunity for anyone lighter than 155. When the chance opened up at 145, he ended up becoming the first legitimate star in the division.
"My goal in the last couple of years has been to put on weight for this weight class," he said. "I went in as a 133-pounder. I was a 133-pounder for five yeas. As of late I've been trying to put on weight. I walk around now at 154, but I've gotten as high as 158 after a big dinner."
"Wrestling wise, I don't think I've been in with a bigger threat," said Pulver. "B.J. (Penn) had good takedowns, but Urijah's style is a catch wrestling. I haven't been against too many guys this fast and this explosive. He's one of the pound-for-pound best. I've been against hard hitters and I've been against good grapplers. I've fought against guys at 160, but never been in with anyone like him."