Brown-Faber rematch puts WEC at crossroads
With the biggest fight in the history of the featherweight division coming up on Sunday, the question is what looms in the business future for World Extreme Cagefighting and the company's most marketable fighter, Urijah Faber.
Sunday could be one of those perfect scenarios which only fall together on rare occasions. The former longtime champion and the company's most popular fighter is attempting to regain the 145-lb. championship from the man who defeated him, Mike Brown, in his hometown of Sacramento.
But this rare instance of the top two fighters in the world in their division battling for the title isn't getting the exposure that the ability of the two fighters and the stakes of the battle deserve.
It's not anything lacking in the fighters or the story, but the lack of the initials "U-F-C" – the insignia that, at this point, seems to determine whether the majority of mixed martial arts fans are going to pay attention.
Though WEC is a subsidiary of the same Zuffa corporation that runs the Ultimate Fighting Championship, Faber (22-2) is not as well known as Georges St. Pierre despite being equally marketable. Unlike the UFC's champions, Brown (21-4) isn't mobbed by fans everywhere he goes. It's not a slight on WEC as much as it is the reality of the sport.
There will probably be more than a million people buying next month's UFC 100 on pay-per-view, but the majority of those people will not be watching Sunday night's free fight that, on paper, is every bit as good as any fight on that UFC card.
There were business reasons for how this situation developed. WEC, a small California promotion operating out of a casino near Fresno, was purchased by Zuffa at the end of 2006 – largely in the guise of being a completely different company so Zuffa could make a deal with the Versus network.
At the time, Versus was looking to make a deal with the International Fight League. The IFL had raided several key executives from UFC, and when UFC president Dana White is in a promotional war, he doesn't exactly play by the Marquis of Queensbury rules. UFC had an exclusive contract with Spike TV, so the purchase of the WEC promotion allowed White to block the IFL from Versus without violating his deal.
From the start, the decision was made that the WEC would become the home to smaller fighters, and the organization lucked into the fact the Fresno promotion's featherweight champion, Faber, possessed a star quality that few in the game have. That was great for both sides two years ago, since there was no avenue in the United States for anyone lighter than 155 pounds to make real money.
"Without the WEC, if you were a 145-pound fighter, you had to look at fighting as just a hobby," Brown noted.
Faber, in particular, has come a long way in those two years. At UFC 73 – held at the Arco Arena during the summer of 2007 – when Faber was shown on the big screen in his hometown, well, crickets chirped almost as loud as the stunning lack of reaction. One year later, when Faber defended his title in the same building against Jens Pulver, he received a reaction comparable to the biggest stars in the sport. Faber vs. Pulver actually sold more tickets than the UFC event the year before, and nearly filled the arena with 12,682 fans, setting a record for a featherweight fight.
Now, when Faber is shown at a UFC event, the fans react like he's one of the top fighters in the sport.
But his most recent fight, a second win over Pulver, on Jan. 25 – ending with a guillotine in just 1:34 – was viewed by 700,000 viewers. That's less than half the number who watched The Ultimate Fighter reality show on Wednesday night. And that was the second biggest TV audience in WEC history, although Sunday's number should be significantly higher.
With Faber as the challenger in his home arena, that attendance record is expected to fall. More then 10,000 tickets were sold by midweek, and if it doesn't end up as a sellout, it will come just a hair shy.
If one year ago, starting with the first Faber vs. Pulver fight, you had put these same two fighters and their weight class on UFC pay-per-view shows, Sunday's fight would be one of the biggest fights of the year to the general public. As it is, it's only that to those who follow the sport closely.
"Well, I'd be getting paid a lot more if this was on pay-per-view," Faber said. "But more people are going to see the fight on free television. But I hope pay-per-view is in the near future." It's Faber who over the past two-plus years has put the division on the map, with a combination of skill and hard work in the gym and – being one of the most charismatic fighters in the world – working tirelessly in promoting.
After his loss of the championship to Brown on Nov. 5 in Hollywood, Fla. (just minutes away from Brown's home base in Coconut Creek), Faber flew to Mexico to promote a tape-delayed airing of the fight, talking to media and fans as if he was still champion, talking endlessly about getting ready for a title defense that he had already lost.
"I do a lot of interviews," he noted. "I've been starting at 6 to 7 a.m., and then go back to sleep. I do a lot of promotional stuff. It's part of the game. When you're getting established, you have to do that."
But at 30, the clock on his prime years is ticking – though he's almost four years younger than Brown. He talks about the day when a featherweight fighter can earn the kind of money in MMA that a boxer at the same level or top pro athlete would earn. And some day, it's inevitable that something close to that will happen. Whether it will be quick enough for Faber after paving the way to share in the spoils at the end is the question.
His chances, as well as those of featherweights around the world, increase markedly if he gets the championship back – and even more if he and his opponents in the division were to be exposed within the UFC brand.
As for the fight, it will be Brown's power, both in grappling and one-punch power, against Faber's speed and scrambling ability. The wild cards are Faber's creativity and unorthodox offensive moves, and conditioning by the time it gets to the late rounds.
"I think I got out of position," said Faber, who is a very slight favorite to regain the title after suffering his first loss at featherweight. "I knew exactly what I was doing. I did a spinning back elbow and got caught with a big punch.
"The last time I got caught for being careless. I sort of live by the sword and die by the sword."
Besides his usual training regimen of four- to five-hour daily sessions, Faber went back to lifting weights, trying to increase size and power against Brown. The champion is stronger than most lightweights, and a physical monster against most featherweights.
"I've added a bit of weight in my legs. I'm eating a little better. Other than that, it's the same stuff. I'll probably have added two pounds of muscle, but that's a big difference at this weight. I think I'll have a little more power."
"I felt fine in the clinch," he added. "He's a big guy for featherweight. I didn't feel like he was overpowering me."