Ailene Voisin

Sacramento’s Urijah Faber planning to finish with a flourish

Urijah Faber on the end of his fighting career and new endeavors

Ahead of Saturday’s mixed-martial arts bout at Golden 1 Center, Urijah Faber admits "it's not an easy way to make a living."
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Ahead of Saturday’s mixed-martial arts bout at Golden 1 Center, Urijah Faber admits "it's not an easy way to make a living."

In a relatively short period of time, all of his 37 years, Urijah Faber has enjoyed more lives than any cat in Northern California. He has dabbled in art, written poetry, earned a degree from UC Davis, ranked among the nation’s top collegiate wrestlers, coached both his male and female Aggie successors.

On Saturday, against Brad Pickett of East London, Faber will step into the octagon for a final time. This is it, the grand finale, the retirement. Such that it is.

“I would like Urijah to win,” said his mother, Suzanne Yates, “but I want him to come home safe. I am just elated that this is almost over.”

The ending to a local story that developed into a global tale was dictated – not surprisingly – by the meticulous and charismatic Faber, who had contemplated retirement for a number of years. Though still immensely popular within the industry, the former World Extreme Cagefighting featherweight champion is no longer the best fighter on his team or in his downtown gym. His expanding interests and financial empire occupy increasing amounts of time, and because of his age and the physical abuse inherent in his chosen profession, the bruises take longer to heal.

But he wanted that perfect ending. He waited for that special moment. Essentially, he held out until the doors opened at the hometown Golden 1 Center, and then booked his final fight.

“I’ve always had a great pride in Sacramento,” said Faber, who grew up in Lincoln, “and as time went on, I understood that there are a lot of great things that can happen because of loyalty. I really wanted to end my fighting career here.”

Why wouldn’t he? This is his last chance to “be a rock star for a few hours.” Afterward, he will have to settle for just being among the most recognizable sports figures in town. The thick, wavy blond hair. The cleft chin. The boyishly handsome features. The perpetually tanned and chiseled 5-foot-6, 135-pound body that is occasionally cloaked in jeans and a hoodie. More often, though, he is seen walking around bare-chested, in flip flops and baggy shorts, with a baseball cap worn backward and a cellphone attached to his ear.

All of this – the fame, the fortune, the future financial opportunities – materialized within a fast-paced 13 years. The recession seems to have rocked everyone around here except Urijah. Somehow, he always found a way to make a buck. After joining the now defunct Aggies wrestling team as a walk-on, he earned a scholarship and twice appeared in the NCAA Tournament. After completing his degree in human development, he supplemented his income as an Aggie assistant by moonlighting as a busboy at INK Eats & Drinks in midtown.

“I would get of there around 3 or 4 a.m., then have to get to Davis for a morning practice,” he recalled, smiling. “When I took my first (MMA) fight, I was still busing those tables. I’ll never forget it. Joey Valencia. Colusa Casino. November, 2003. There were about 800 people in the tight-knit quarters. But it just felt right.”

Faber, who had long been intrigued by professional cage fighting, was a natural in and out of the octagon. A superbly conditioned athlete, he took lessons to master Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and with his wrestling skills and exceptional hand speed already major assets, quickly moved up the ranks. During what he rates as his best stretch (2005 to 2008), he held the WEC featherweight championship for more than two years and ranked fourth in the bantamweight rankings. Additionally, as his celebrity grew, he popularized the lighter weight classes and was influential in the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s decision to incorporate the WEC under one umbrella.

Closer to home, Faber’s success enabled him to lease the downtown gym and form Team Alpha Male, a group of 35 professional fighters that includes Chad Mendes, Joseph Benavidez, Cody Garbrandt and Saturday’s headliner Paige VanZant. Within the next few months, he is relocating Ultimate Fitness to a 22,000-square foot structure he is lease-purchasing near Sacramento State and recasting as a multi-use fitness center.

“The concept is, ‘let’s make it so these guys can have everything under one roof,’ ” said Josh Espley, Faber’s partner who is overseeing the move. “These guys don’t just do martial arts anymore. They do strength and conditioning training, yoga, stretch exercises, eat healthy foods. This is the way gyms are going these days, and by growing the gym and staying competitive, it gives us a home base to recruit and train fighters from all over the world.”

Brazil. Thailand. Russia. Mexico. Faber is intent on recruiting aggressively while furthering business interests that already consist of a clothing line, a juice company, a Sacramento-based construction company he owns with his father (Theo), a vacation rental and property business his mother runs out of Santa Barbara, and Ultimate Fitness investments with Kings minority owner Mark Mastrov.

Opportunities like this somehow just seem to present themselves to Faber: While he was climbing into a cab seven years ago in Las Vegas, Mastrov rushed over, introduced himself, and asked if he could share the ride. The rest, as they say, is money in the pocket.

“Mark is a great guy,” Faber said, adding with a grin, “and he offered to pay for the cab.”

As he sat in a cluttered and shared office the other day, reflecting on his fascinating career, the fighter who markets himself as “The California Kid” insists he has no regrets and retires without having sustained major injuries. Though cage fighting is a uniquely vicious sport, with strikes to the head particularly dangerous, Faber has not been rendered unconscious and says his only notable injuries were jammed thumbs that required surgery.

His most memorable fight – and this was an easy call – was his June 1, 2008, Sacramento debut against Jens Pulver for the WEC featherweight title. Fighting in front of a raucous, soldout home crowd, a relentless, exhausted Faber, his long hair braided and beaded, prevailed in a grueling fight that went the full five rounds.

His worst beating was inflicted two years later by Jose Aldo, the nimble, athletic Brazilian whose quick, powerful kicks debilitated Faber and caused massive swelling in his legs.

“That Aldo fight was pretty brutal,” said Theo Faber. “I was there. I remember. I’m happy Urijah is walking away intact, for the most part. The last few years I kept waiting to hear him say the words, retirement. We were all happy to hear it.”

Saturday’s finale will be the usual family affair. Theo and Urijah’s two siblings, Ryan and Michaella, will be in the Golden 1 Center audience. Suzanne, who is remarried, will drive from Santa Barbara and stay at Urijah’s house in East Sacramento during the event; she refuses to attend any of his fights.

“I’ll go to the after-party like I always do,” she said, “and then Urijah can get on with his life.”

Ailene Voisin: 916-321-1208, @ailene_voisin

UFC Fight Night on FOX

Saturday: Golden 1 Center

Prelims: 12:30 p.m., UFC.TV; 2 p.m., FS1

Main card: 5 p.m., Ch. 40

Main event: Paige VanZant vs. Michelle Waterson

Co-main event: Urijah Faber vs. Brad Pickett