It has been almost four years since Urijah Faber competed in his adopted hometown, in a packed, impassioned Arco Arena, and the scars – the ones stitched into memory – still exist.
Jose Aldo’s punishing kicks caused significant swelling from his left hip to his knee, left him limping for days and, worse, stripped him of his championship featherweight belt.
Faber is older (34), lighter (135 pounds), and presumably wiser. But, at least on the exterior, he hasn’t changed much. With his free-flowing wavy hair, boyish features and days-old beard, and dressed in the casual uniform of sneakers, a hoodie and baggy jeans that sweep the floor, he could almost pass for a college wrestling star.
He was a wrestling star once, remember, about a decade before UC Davis dropped its program because of budget cuts. But the former Aggie stuck around. The Faber of today – the No. 2 bantamweight contender who faces Michael McDonald in the UFC card Saturday at Sleep Train Arena – has evolved into an increasingly intriguing local sports personality.
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He is a blend of the following: a surfer dude who oozes charm, a political savant who maneuvers for building and parking permits, a community activist who participated in rallies to keep the Kings, a businessman who owns and renovates houses, an entrepreneur who operates one of the most successful gyms in the country.
Then there’s the part about his day job. Faber also happens to be an intensely competitive human being who plans to remain among the elite of mixed martial arts as long as possible.
MMA will probably have to kick him out of the gym one day, except, of course, the one that he runs. Ultimate Fitness on the corner of 17th & I is his baby. Within the past several years, between title bouts, when belts were won and belts were lost, he has transformed a rather unremarkable downtown structure into a destination gym for some of the more talented young, lighter-weight fighters in the industry.
Three other members of Team Alpha Male – otherwise known as Urijah’s guys – will also fight Saturday, with No. 1 flyweight contender Joseph Benavidez taking on UFC champion Demetrious Johnson in the featured bout.
“We just have tons of young talent in our gym these days,” Faber said Thursday, seated in a lounge area inside the arena. “A lot of guys in the 20-22-year-old range. I don’t go out and recruit as much as they sort of find us, and they keep finding us. The gym is right downtown, in the capital of California, high density, where all the action is.“
In his spare time – which is little given the traveling and training – Faber helped his father, Theo, restore an old Victorian a few blocks from the gym. He also continues presiding over the neighborhood compound just east of Sacramento where several of his friends and some of the fighters maintain their homes, which suggests a future in real estate, or perhaps something in sports and entertainment, or maybe another clothing line, or maybe a total career makeover.
Forever the free spirit, Faber is open to anything. Just not yet. Until he experiences another epiphany, similar to the one that nudged him toward mixed martial arts when he was wrestling at Davis, he plans to keep fighting the good fight. He wins with class and loses with grace, but beware. Those warm blue eyes can be deceiving.
At 5-foot-6 and tightly muscled, Faber is a stubborn, famously committed athlete who, only a few years back, was the class of the lightest weight classes. If his loss to Aldo here in April, 2010, was the most punishing, subsequent defeats to Renan Barao and Dominick Cruz were shots to his ranking, if not his reputation.
Now, with three straight wins to his credit, including decisions over top contenders Eddie Wineland and Scott Jorgensen, Faber believes a victory against McDonald would earn him another chance at a title bout.
“This is a big fight for me,” he added, quietly. “(McDonald is) gifted and dangerous. We’re ranked No. 2 and No. 3. But I feel good. I still love what I’m doing. Get up in the morning. Work out with my buddies. My dad lives in one of the houses nearby. ... Seeing my community all come together and help keep the Kings here. I don’t know what the future will bring, but I’m sure when the time comes, some time before I’m in my 40s, something else will come up.”
Then, he laughs.
“It’s all good.”