Urijah Faber: Why the California Kid is Ready to Blow Up

If you don’t know who Urijah Faber is, you will soon enough. That’s a promise. In the meantime, log on to YouTube and start watching some clips of the World Extreme CageFighting 145 lb. champ. If you’re not a diehard Faber fan after, say, thirty seconds, then you should probably give up watching mixed martial arts. This is the “California Kid,” and he may very well become one of the biggest stars this sport has ever seen.

 

From the moment he first set foot inside the cage as a professional in 2003, Faber has simply fought in a different gear, overwhelming his soon-to-be shellshocked opponents with an extraordinary combination of confidence, relentless intensity, and athleticism. In just four years, Faber has compiled a 19-1 record and won three titles (Gladiator Challenge, King of the Cage, and the WEC). What’s scary is that Faber hasn’t even realized his full potential as a fighter. Since dropping his first fight to Tyson Griffin two years ago (more on that later), Faber has reeled off eleven straight wins. None of those fights made it to the end of the second round.

Typical Faber fights, especially his most recent ones, tend to go something like this: Faber attacks, then attacks again, tossing his opposition around like a rag doll before bringing the fight to the ground. After that, it’s almost always just a matter of time before the guy is tapping or the ref is waving it off. If the other guy is unfortunate enough to make it through to the second round, God help him. Faber is one of the few guys who never, ever, seems to slow down. Maybe he’ll power out of a submission attempt with ease, then immediately ground and pound until the mat is covered in blood, or shake off a flush knee to the jaw before transitioning into an airtight choke. UFC referee extraordinaire “Big” John McCarthy didn’t nickname him “Baby Fedor” for nothing.

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I arrive at Faber’s Ultimate Fitness gym in downtown Sacramento on a hot Tuesday in October. A delayed flight from L.A. and a tricky rental car GPS have resulted in me showing up about two hours later than planned. I call Urijah; he’s gone home for a bit and won’t be back for another twenty minutes.

I decide to take an unguided tour. Inside is 9,000 square feet of pugilistic heaven: a row of heavy bags, a weight/cardio room, a boxing ring, a miniature octagon, and a few hundred square feet of BJJ/wrestling mats. Everything looks brand new, and that’s because it pretty much is — Faber opened Ultimate Fitness in November 2006. In less than a year, it’s become both a money maker (kids and their deep-pocketed parents flock to both the group and one-on-one fighting lessons) and a fully functional year-round training camp for Faber and his crew of fighters, Team Alpha Male.

But at noon on this Tuesday, the space is empty, save for two serious-looking men wearing “Staff” t-shirts and four sweat-soaked dudes laid out on a couch, watching Bloodsport on a wall-mounted plasma television. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that no one here is a working stiff; they’re pro fi ghters, all members of Faber’s team. The guys who notice me don’t pay attention for long. My lack of workout gear, not to mention the laptop messenger bag, make it abundantly clear that I’m not a member of the tribe. Another thing I notice – with the exception of one or two big hombres, none of the guys in here can be taller than 5’8”. This gym is a Mecca for lighter-weight fighters; the men who can test Urijah on a daily basis, keep him honest, and make him better.

When Urijah shows up, the first thing I notice about him is that he has the face of a DC Comics superhero, custom-tailored for the 21st Century: a chin with a cleft that would put Kirk Douglas to shame, shaggy blond hair, and a jaw line that looks like it’s been reinforced with titanium. And when the Kid speaks, it’s pure SoCal surfer, more Bill & Ted than Jeff Spicoli. “Sorry I’m late bro,” he says. “I needed some nap time.”

The laidback vibe vaporizes as soon as the Kid puts on a pair of gloves. His latest fighting guru (he’s gone through many of them) is Thonglor Armatsena, aka “Master

Thong,” a boxing/Muay Thai specialist who’s cornered a number of champions back home in Thailand. “Thong doesn’t speak any English,” Faber tells me, “but he’s an amazing trainer. We understand each other perfectly.”

Faber takes off his shirt to prepare for training. He’s built like a barrel – bulging arms and a torso that that might as well have been carved out of granite. Faber says he’s never been hurt by a body shot, and I believe him. He’s listed as 5’6”, but I’d bet he’s an inch or two shorter. If there was ever a secret weapon in a bar brawl, he’s it

Tuesday afternoons are reserved for traditional boxing, and for the next twenty minutes, Urijah hits the pads while Thong barks out unintelligible commands. Urijah adjusts, Thong smiles, and then they move on to the next lesson. Later, Thong corners Urijah in a round-robin boxing session with six other fighters. With his thick frame and relatively short reach, Faber isn’t built like a boxer, and each of the skilled guys in the ring outweighs him by at least twenty pounds. But each time, Urijah finds a way to impose his will and back the guy up against the ropes. Then it’s bombs away. I quickly understand that this is someone who does not entertain the concept of ever giving up ground. It’s his ring, and sooner or later, he makes sure you agree with him.

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Faber was born on May 14, 1979, in Isla Vista, California, and grew up in Lincoln, a quiet suburb outside Sacramento. His parents, Theo and Suzanne, insisted Urijah and his older brother, Ryan, embrace a holistic lifestyle, which encourages natural cures, a healthy diet, and a devotion to physical fitness.

“I never had immunization shots, never took any conventional medicines unless it was an emergency,” Faber recalls. “Wheatgrass, juice, bee pollen, raw apple cider with vinegar – I grew up on that stuff and I still use it all the time. I don’t crave bad food – that’s why it’s really hard for me to put on weight. My life is so healthy; my body just won’t go past a certain size. I could try to bulk up, but there’s so much to be learned in mixed martial arts, and that makes it hard to spend my time lifting weights.”

Faber was a standout high school football player, earning all-league honors as a two-way threat (cornerback and running back), despite the fact that he couldn’t make 150 pounds soaking wet. On the wrestling mat, taking on kids his own size, Faber was a beast. But despite an impressive high school record, he was unable to secure a college athletic scholarship.

Faber decided to go out and make all the recruiters realize their mistake. “I got into U.C. Davis based on my academics, then walked on to the wrestling team. Three of the guys on the squad had beaten me in high school. I took all three of them out, and won a scholarship by the end of the year,” Faber recalls.

Under the mentorship of renowned coach Lenny Zalesky, Faber excelled, thanks to the same attributes that laid the groundwork for his later career in mixed martial arts: awesome natural instincts, incredible physical strength, and iron-man conditioning. He went on to become one of the best 133 pounders in the country, and ended up breaking

the school’s all-time wins record before graduating in 2003.

Faber stayed on at Davis as an assistant coach for Zalesky, making $7,000 a year and working ten hours a day. According to Faber, “It was like college without the homework, and I got to wrestle all day. Besides the money, it was dreamland.”

It didn’t take long for fate to intervene. A high school buddy, Tyrone Glover, had decided to try his hand at MMA and invited Urijah to watch his first pro match. That’s all it took. Faber says, “Before I hooked up with my long time BJJ coach Cassio Werneck, I started training in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu at some hole in the wall place. Within a couple of days, I beat the crap out of the instructor there, so naturally I thought I was pretty badass. It might have been a naïve thing to do, but I just had total confidence that I’d be successful.”

It didn’t matter that he’d never done a lick of striking training, and had only been messing around with BJJ for a couple of months – Faber was going pro. And after a little hustling, he scored himself a slot on Gladiator Challenge card.

Faber fought his first opponent, Jay Valencia, on November 13, 2003. It didn’t last long; after tossing the guy around the ring for the better part of a minute, Faber sunk in a standing guillotine choke. Before tapping the guy out, Faber took the time to wave to his father, who was cheering him on ringside.

Most fighters would have been thrilled to dominate their first opponent so thoroughly, but not Faber. “After the fight, I was irritated. I was amped up for hours, pissed off, and wishing it had gone a little longer. For the next one I decided not to do any chokes, just punching.”

Think about that for a second: Faber had never had any striking training, and in his second pro fight he consciously limited his game to only striking because otherwise it wouldn’t be fun. The result was a brutal beatdown. After absorbing copious blows to the head, the guy’s corner threw in the towel midway through the second round. “The promoters loved it,” recalls Faber. “For my third fight, they decided to put me on the poster and give me a shot at the title.”

They wanted to call him “Relentless” Urijah Faber. But he went with his own nickname -California Kid. It had a nicer ring to it. On June 5, 2004, a mere seven months into his pro career, Faber won the GC featherweight title by absolutely dominating trash-talking champ David Velasquez in three one-sided rounds. As the final round came to a close, Faber punctuated his victory with two vicious elbows that sliced Velasquez’s head open. Three fights later, he added the King of the Cage belt to his trophy case with a third-round submission of Eben Kaneshiro, and in March 2006 he won the WEC championship with a second round corner stoppage of Cole Escovedo.

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After leaving the gym, I drive to suburban Sacramento, where Urijah owns two houses around the corner from one another, each filled with training partners and the occasional old friend. Most work at the gym and get a sweet deal on rent. A couple of Faber’s Davis wrestling buddies live a few doors down the street. “Besides us, everyone on the block is in their 80s,” Faber tells me. “It’s pretty fucking hilarious.” He mentions that there’s been talk of a reality show, an idea that immediately strikes me as a guaranteed hit for the SpikeTV generation.

I spend a couple of hours at Faber’s house, watching fights and goofing off with the inner circle. On this particular night, that includes his dad, his two protégés, Dustin Akbari and Poppies Martinez, and an old buddy from out of town, PRIDE veteran Olaf Alfonso. Akbari, a well-muscled BJJ practitioner, has been training with Faber since he was 16, and Faber is convinced he’s got the next world champ on his hands. Martinez is the former WEC Native American champion, and has been living at Faber’s house for the past two years. His tribe, the Tachi Yokut from Lemoore, California, pays Faber to keep him in shape and focused.

After seeing Faber interact with the rotating group of dudes who drift in and out of the house over the next few hours, it’s obvious that even if he wasn’t the big name, the sugar daddy, Faber would still be alpha male of this group, or any other. In or out of the cage, he seems utterly incapable of projecting anything except absolute, genuine confidence.

I ask Olaf what makes Faber a special fighter. “First of all, he’s as aggressive as they come. He literally never stops pushing, never takes a second off from trying to win. He’ll defend a submission attempt, but at the same time he’ll be doing something else, something offensive. But more than anything, he just refuses to believe in the possibility of losing. Even the best fighters get worried at some point in a fight, but not him. He has no fear.”

Later, the four of us sit down to watch the tape of the lone blemish on Faber’s otherwise perfect record: his fi ght against Tyson Griffin, which went down on September 10, 2005, on a Gladiator Challenge card in Lakeport, California. As Faber and Griffin receive their instructions from the referee, the size difference between the two men is jarring. Faber must be giving at least fifteen pounds to Griffin, who sports the lower body of an NFL running back. (Griffin has since moved up to lightweight and is fighting in the UFC, while Faber usually walks around at about 152.)

Within seconds, Urijah attacks, bullying Griffin to the mat with a bum-rush takedown. But there’s a problem – as the two men hit the canvas, Faber flies headfirst into the cage, opening up a massive gash on the top of his head. “I wasn’t the same after that,” Faber says. “The doctor examined me, but I heard later that he was a veterinarian. He should have stopped it.” After the fight, Faber needed seven staples to close the wound.

From that moment on, Faber fights with uncharacteristic desperation. Midway through the first round, he attempts to sink in a guillotine. “See that,” Faber says to me. “I went for that submission way too early. Normally, I would have broken him down with strikes, but I was worried about my head, so I moved in immediately.” Despite the cut, the next two rounds are about as good as it gets – constant shifts in momentum, multiple submission attempts, and precision striking. It’s one of the best, most exciting MMA fights I’ve ever seen.

As the third round opens, Urijah tries to ambush Griffin with a superman punch. But Griffin times it perfectly and throws a short right-hand counter. The punch hits Faber’s chin and he falls down in a heap. Several seconds later, the ref is waving it off.

“What can I say? That was a beautiful punch,” says Faber. “But the loss wasn’t a devastating thing. In college wrestling, you lose all the time. I wasn’t 100% after I hit my head, so what’re you gonna do?” Even in defeat, the Kid goes out with a bang.

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Why are so many MMA fans not yet familiar with the Kid? Because he’s small. The UFC – the fight game’s undisputed Big Daddy – doesn’t recognize the featherweight division, so Faber has built his reputation on non-televised PPV cards.

But his days as the sport’s best kept secret are coming to an end. Last year, the WEC was

purchased by UFC parent company Zuffa, LLC. Zuffa, under the stewardship of owners the Fertitta brothers and Dana White, has single-handedly transformed mixed martial arts from a fringe sideshow to a legitimate, mainstream attraction in the United States.

So far, Zuffa has lived up to expectations, inking a TV deal with Versus, a new basic cable channel, to broadcast all of the WEC events on national television. The series kicked off in June, and gave general audiences their first taste of the Kid, who choked out Chance Ferrar in the fi rst round. After the fi ght, White gave Faber a bonus “just for being a bad-ass.”

With his chiseled features, Hollywood charm, and sick skills, Faber is a made-toorder Zuffa poster boy, and you can bet White and his partners will do everything they can to make him a star. You think Tito or Chuck have made the big time? Just wait until major brands get wind of the Kid. All he has to do is keep knocking guys out, or at the very least, keep his fights exciting. And if there was ever a fighter who could convince the UFC to start showcasing featherweights, this is the one.

After returning home, I arrange an interview with Jens Pulver, the former UFC lightweight champ who recently signed a contract with the WEC. Pulver will be dropping down to fight at 145, where he’s gone 7-0 with seven knockouts. Despite losing his last two fights via stoppage, Pulver is a bonafi de MMA superstar, and a bout with Faber would certainly be the biggest event in WEC history.

“The only reason more fans don’t know about Urijah is because he’s fought at 145, but 145 is a whole different ballgame now,” says the 33-year-old Pulver. “He’s extremely confident, very aggressive, and very well-rounded. And he really loves that belt. Of course, I’d love to be the guy who goes out there and takes it from him.”

Before that potential superfight can go down, both men will have to get through their next opponents in Las Vegas on December 12th. While Pulver will take on the relatively untested Cub Swanson (11-1), Faber will be squaring off against a legitimate badass, Jeff “The Big Frog” Curran (28-8-1), a tough-as-nails 31-year-old Gracie Jiu-Jitsu black belt and professional boxer. Curran’s previous fights include a decision loss to current UFC 170 pound champ Matt Serra back in 2004. But Curran has won fifteen of his last sixteen

bouts, and hasn’t been knocked out in over six years.

Faber doesn’t appear to be taking Curran lightly. “The dude can fight, no doubt about that, and he seems like he’d be pretty hard to finish,” Faber tells me. “I’ve never gone the distance in a five round fight, so maybe that will happen. I’m preparing for a war.”

If Faber takes care of business with Curran and Pulver, fans have been clamoring for him to do battle with Norifumi “Kid” Yamamoto, the charismatic Japanese K-1 champ. “He’s cool, he’s marketable, but I think I’ll whoop his ass,” says Faber.

And there’s always the possibility of moving up in weight and showing the UFC what they’ve been missing. “I’m already small for 145, so moving up would require a lot of eating and lifting, but I’d do it under the right circumstances,” declares Faber. “For example, how cool would it be if Griffin became champ and then I got to fight him? Winning the UFC belt and avenging my only loss on the same night – that sounds like fun.”

 

Mixup In Ball

Fun was the furthest thing from Faber’s mind when, a little over a year ago, the Kid

found himself in the fight of his life. After retaining his KOTC belt with a first round stoppage of Charlie Valencia, Faber and a couple of college buddies took off to Bali for a few weeks of surfing. A few nights before heading back to the US, Faber found himself without his friends in a club.

All hell broke loose. Some dude started pushing him. Faber tried to ignore him, but he kept at it, so Faber asked him if he wanted to step outside and get it on. They walked into to an alley. As a group of thugs in the parking lot looked on, Faber planted his unlucky dance partner into the pavement, snapping his collar bone. As Faber was heading back inside to finish his night properly, he was jumped from behind.

“Apparently, the guys watching the fight had a problem with me, so they attacked. One of them had a pair of brass knuckles, another one had a bottle, and a third had a rock. The knuckles split my head open and I ran back to the club. That ended up being a bad idea.”

Inside the club, Faber found himself being chased by what one police witness later described as ten to twelve angry gangsters, including at least one of the club’s bouncers.

What followed was what Faber calls “some straight-up Jackie Chan shit.” Faber ducked, punched, and elbowed his way out of the club, only to find himself cornered by three of the guys in the back of a Billabong store.

“I fake begged for my life, then threw a nasty overhand right. Obviously, I took him out, then I kept running.” He made it to a cab, but was soon attacked by an angry mob. “At this point, I’m really fearing for my life, but some of the local Balinese felt bad for me, so they dragged the guys off me and the driver, and we escaped to the hospital.” Faber suffered multiple gashes to his head, neck and back, as well as a huge hematoma on his leg.

A month later, the unstoppable California Kid was back in the ring, knocking out Naoya Uematsu halfway through the second round.

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