Ailene Voisin

Opinion: Urijah Faber heads to Philippines with title on his mind

Urijah Faber trains at Ultimate Fitness on Thursday in Sacramento for his fight with Frankie Edgar in the Philippines on Saturday, May 16, 2015.
Urijah Faber trains at Ultimate Fitness on Thursday in Sacramento for his fight with Frankie Edgar in the Philippines on Saturday, May 16, 2015. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

Urijah Faber crunches the numbers and consults the calendar. Though he retains his youthful, surfer-dude appearance – when he isn’t fighting or training, his thick, wavy hair hangs loosely above his shoulders – he turns 36 in a week.

The California kid isn’t such a kid anymore. His next professional fight will be No. 40. Though the worst physical punishment he absorbed took place below the knees – Jose Aldo’s kicks left his legs looking like swollen tree trunks five years ago – Faber’s head is clear. His mind always races ahead. When he sees opportunity, he strikes. When he reflects on his role as an MMA pioneer, he fixates on two factors: title bouts and legacy fights.

“Two more years,” the longtime Sacramento resident said Thursday after working out for his May 16 UFC featherweight fight against Frankie Edgar. “I don’t want to retire prematurely or live with any regrets. I don’t see myself slipping. So why not do a couple more fights?”

This is where Faber has changed. Or call it a concession to age. The owner and founder of Ultimate Fitness, the downtown gym that is home to eight of UFC’s top competitors, isn’t interested in just another fight or just another opponent. Title fights or legacy fights, those are his conditions, which makes his upcoming fight in Manila something of a natural fit.

This is the UFC’s first card in the Philippines, a country still brooding about Manny Pacquiao’s loss to Floyd Mayweather Jr. in boxing’s welterweight unification bout Saturday in Las Vegas. For Faber, that’s the legacy part. Though he pressed to have the fight at his hometown Sleep Train Arena, he eventually embraced the notion of expanding the MMA brand.

“It’s pretty cool to be in a fight that introduces an entire country to UFC and a live event,” he said. “Obviously, Manny is king over there, but that is a huge market for us. There are only a couple of big fights in the boxing world, and with our growth, there are a lot of potential fans for us in the Philippines.”

The other condition? The one about title fights?

Faber, who was entrenched as the featherweight champion during his late 20s before being stunned by Aldo and moving down to bantamweight, studied the path to another title bout and foresaw a quicker route at his original weight class. A victory over the No. 2-ranked challenger Edgar, he believes, would significantly enhance his prospects for a rematch with the spectacular Aldo.

But the move has its risks. Faber will arrive in Manila as an underdog and is almost 3 years older than his opponent. As athletes age, conventional wisdom holds that less is more. Fewer pounds means less pounding on joints, limbs and muscles.

Then again, this is Urijah Faber. Sacramento’s midtown sports treasure is anything but conventional. Though he won six of seven fights as a bantamweight, he feels stronger and faster and has spent more time training than cutting weight. He weighed 161 pounds when he woke up Wednesday and anticipates little trouble dropping to 145 for the weigh-in.

“Getting down to 135 (pounds) the last couple of years was always a trying time,” he said. “I usually have to cut 23 pounds, and I start cutting about a month before a fight. I’ve been able to eat pretty much anything I want, and I’ll only be cutting about 15-16 pounds, and only starting about a week out. I also think that being heavier through training camps helps with injuries. When you have to cut so much weight, you tend to overtrain.”

As the 5-foot-6, perpetually tan Faber worked out in his gym, at times with a shirt on, other times shedding the sweat-soaked shirt and favoring his familiar bare-chested look, he appeared noticeably thicker than in recent years. Apart from a small bruise on his forehead, he appears healthy and eager, with few visible hints at the brutal nature of his profession.

Sacramento's Urijah Faber trains for his upcoming featherweight fight in the Philippines against Frankie Edgar on May 16. It will be the first UFC bout in the country.

When he stops fighting, the gym will become his playground, and his numerous other businesses will dominate his schedule. But two years is two years. Faber’s manager, Mike Roberts, said his client has been paying less attention to his other business interests (apparel line, filming movies and forming a dental company, among others) and is unusually committed to the upcoming fight.

“He has a lot of things going on,” Roberts said, “but I haven’t seen him train like this for years. He turns 36 next week. And this wasn’t an easy fight to put together. He realizes that. This is a legacy fight on a big fight card, and (UFC President) Dana White is promoting this as an MMA version of the ‘Thrilla in Manila.’ People have waited years to see this fight.”

Putting Faber and Edgar in the same conversation as Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier is almost cringe-worthy. The third meeting between the legendary boxing heavyweights in Manila was epic, so let’s drop that thought.

But the UFC is overtaking boxing in popularity and doing its best to catch up with the hype.

Call The Bee’s Ailene Voisin, (916) 321-1208.

UFC

FIGHT NIGHT 66

Who: Sacramento's Urijah Faber (32-7-0) fights Frankie Edgar (17-4-1) on the main card

When: May 16

Where: Manila, Philippines

Weight class: Featherweights (145 pounds)

TV: Main card, 7 a.m., FS1; prelims, 5 a.m., FS1

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