There were rousing cheers for Urijah Faber, rhythmic chants for Sacramento, and plenty of love for UC Davis, the university that produced the popular wrestler/cage fighter/entrepreneur.
Forget, for the moment, that the Aggies’ wrestling program no longer exists, that Faber’s career finale and Golden 1 Center debut Saturday wasn’t even the co-main event, and that Team Alpha Male’s Paige VanZant submitted in the opening round.
Retirement plans and celebrations vary among individuals. Most importantly, Faber, 37, escaped with his health intact and only a knot on his forehead. He utilized his elbows, his powerful legs and his exceptional grappling skills to overwhelm Brad Pickett of London. Pickett, by contrast, walked out of the Octagon sporting a trilby hat, nasty welts on his face and blood trickling down his cheeks.
The victorious Faber absorbed only one damaging blow – a left to the chin with about 1:22 remaining in the third and final round – and departed pretty much the way he arrived: Arms raised. Sold-out crowd in his corner. Barely a blemish on those boyish good looks.
Later, he suggested a video tribute that aired on the overhead scoreboard just before the fight messed with him almost as much as his opponent.
“I wasn’t expecting that whole buildup in the back, sharing special moments of my career,” Faber said, “so I had to turn my back on that. I’m getting ready to go spike this dude, and he’s gonna take my head off, and I’m getting choked up. It was a little much for me. (But) I kept it together, and I’m proud of that.”
Faber’s story in many ways reflects the fruits-and-nuts image of his beloved home state. His parents, who are now divorced, preached peace, love, education and work ethic.
“We had an espresso shop in Lincoln when Urijah was little,” Suzanne Yates recalled earlier in the week. “ ‘Morning Glory.’ He worked in there, pouring coffee, helping out. Then we got into buying fixer-uppers and opened a gardening store. Urijah helped out there, too. He has his Dad’s peppy, positive personality, and just a ton of energy.”
Before becoming known as “The California Kid,” Faber was a standout wrestler at Lincoln High School. After walking on at UC Davis – and almost getting thrown out for partying too much during his freshman year – he earned a scholarship and twice appeared in the NCAA Tournament. He completed a degree in Human Development, took a position as an Aggies wrestling assistant, and to supplement his meager income, worked as a busboy in a midtown restaurant.
But know this, too, about Faber: The guy can see and smell opportunity where others have no clue. He is like one of the wineries in Amador County; he digs into the soil and comes up with a medal winner. He recognized a decade ago this region was a cage fighting wasteland – and no longer a boxing hotbed – and planted seeds for what proved to be an astonishingly successful mixed martial arts career.
Almost from his first pro fight at the Colusa Casino Resort in November 2003, the Octagon felt like home.
“I got goosebumps for a minute, but then got down to business,” Faber said. He took classes in Brazilian jiujitsu, sharpened his wrestling skills and turned on the charm with the promoters.
Barely three years into a pro career, he defeated Cole Escovedo for the World Extreme Cagefighting featherweight championship in March 2006. He held the title for more than two years, traveled the world, made friends, lobbied world leaders, created a brand. In his hometown debut in June 2008, he defeated Jens Pulver in a grueling, five-round title fight he ranks among his most gratifying.
Faber has no trouble recalling his most difficult opponent, either: That would be Jose Aldo. Two years later at Sleep Train Arena, the Brazilian striker overwhelmed the local favorite with relentless, punishing kicks that turned his thighs and calves into swollen red tree trunks. The bruises were visible for weeks. Typically, though, Faber recovered, persevered and remained a contender for a few more years.
“Urijah has always had appeal,” UFC President Dana White said earlier in the week. “Good-looking kid. Great energy about him. And, obviously, a very talented fighter. When we decided to merge (2010), it (WEC) was the 155 pounds and lower, and when we brought them in, Urijah Faber was by far the biggest star.”
Besides relocating his Ultimate Fitness gym to a larger and more modern 22,000-square-foot facility near Sacramento State – along with pursuing his real estate, vitamin and clothing line businesses, among others – Faber wants to expand the Team Alpha Male roster to include more females and fighters in all weight classes.
Mexico. Brazil. Germany. Russia. His ambitious recruiting itinerary would exhaust Jim Harbaugh. But his more immediate plans were to join his father (Theo) and two siblings (Ryan and Michaella) at a party downtown, meet up with his mother, who refused to attend any of his fights, and cherish the memories. He says he will watch that video tribute. Just not Saturday night.