When he’s not on a flight, working out or monitoring the progress at a nearby Victorian house his father is renovating, Urijah Faber usually can be found pacing the narrow parking lot outside his Ultimate Fitness gym at 17th and I streets in midtown Sacramento.
His shirt will be off, his baseball cap angling sideways on his thick, untamed mass of hair. Fans will drive past and honk. Faber will smile and wave. And then he will lean into his cellphone and return to the two-fold business of prolonging his mixed martial arts career and capitalizing on the opportunities.
A clothing line. A reality television show. Acres of real estate. A martial arts training center. Faber, known as “The California Kid” and enormously popular in the MMA business, is an old hand at this. But how old is too old? At 34, does he have the physical goods – the instincts, quickness, brute strength – to reclaim the title he relinquished more than five years ago?
Faber, who fights champion Renan Barao for the UFC bantanweight title Saturday at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J, is unfazed by conventional wisdom. To the skeptics, who ask repeatedly if this is his last legitimate chance at a title, he responds consistently, repeatedly, resistantly: “I don’t think so. Do you think the 49ers are going to retire because they didn’t win the Super Bowl? I’m not a last-chance type of guy. I would like to go out as a champion, but not after this fight. I want to defend the title a few times.”
A Faber-Barao rematch – sold out and conveniently squeezed into Super Bowl weekend – happened only because bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz suffered a groin injury and withdrew from his fight against Barao. Faber, who is 4-0 since losing to Barao on July 21, 2012, barely exhaled when UFC president Dana White called and asked him to step in as a replacement.
“I thought right away, ‘Let’s do this,’ ” he blurted.
It wasn’t a difficult call for White, either. For what seems like forever – how many years has it been since he starred for the UC Davis wrestling team? – he’s like a virtual UFC franchisee.
“Urijah has that huge personality,” White said. “You can’t turn on the television and see Urijah Faber and not like Urijah Faber. And he has never looked better. I actually think that by staying active, your conditioning, your timing, is better.”
Yet there are two things contributing to the normal pre-fight jitters in Faber’s camp. Faber, who normally trains eight weeks for a fight, received the call just three weeks ago. And he fought Michael McDonald on Dec. 14, leaving him less than two months of recovery.
Asked about his conditioning, Faber shrugged. Unlike his bruising losses to Jose Aldo and Mike Brown, he absorbed very little punishment against McDonald. He also has trained differently, cautiously, and spent considerably less time sparring.
“It’s not that much of a concern,” he said, “and after the fight, I went to Mexico, spent a lot of time in the ocean, swimming, relaxing, resting. I just feel like I have a lot of momentum.”
Faber is respectful of his opponent, but not intimidated, their career arcs and personal history notwithstanding. Barao has not lost in more than eight years. In their previous match, the talented Brazilian, known for his spin kicks and all-around skills, broke one of Faber’s ribs in the first round.
“He was able to slow the pace,” Faber recalled. “I didn’t get to the ground very much. I have to be hitting without getting hit, be offensively on top if we go to the ground. I watched the fight again (recently). It was really close.”
And there is something more here, something personal at play. Their previous meeting was only months after Faber’s sister, Michaella, one of his roommates at the time, was critically injured in a six-car pileup on Interstate 80. She suffered severe brain damage and was in a coma for eight days.
Faber rarely left her side. He rearranged or canceled his business meetings and curbed his training to be present for her subsequent surgeries, and he even shaved his head as a symbolic gesture of support.
“She could have died,” Faber said softly. “She was in the hospital for a couple of months, had to have part of her skull removed. It was brutal. That whole time was such a blur for me. And then came the fight against Barao.”
Faber, who suspects his concentration lapsed, lost a unanimous decision. But he later moved back up the ranks with victories over Ivan Menjivar, Scott Jorgensen, Iuri Alcantara and, most recently, McDonald. He hired a new trainer, Duane Ludwig, and believes he is in better shape, and therefore a superior fighter. He also embraces his family even more tightly than usual.
His father, Theo, and his brother, Ryan, are renovating the Victorian. His mother, Suzanne, is living at his house and decorating the other property. Michaella is healing and never out of touch.
“Urijah takes care of everybody,” Suzanne Faber said with a soft laugh. “These last few weeks, at least I’ve been here to take care of him, making juices and hot cereal for breakfast, doing his laundry. He likes that. He likes having Mom around. Of course, I’ll be worried until I see him (next week). I’ll be waiting right here.”