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Faber paved way for lower weight fighters in MMA

Urijah Faber reacts after defeating Frankie Saenz in a bantamweight mixed martial arts bout at UFC 194, Saturday, Dec. 12, 2015, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
(AP Photo/John Locher)

Come Dec. 17 in Sacramento, Urijah Faber will make the walk to the UFC Octagon one last time. It will be the final fight in an illustrious career that has spanned nearly 15 years, championships in multiple promotions, and a stint in the WEC that saw him defend his bantamweight title on five separate occasions. Along the way there was an intense rivalry with arch-nemesis Dominick Cruz, a coaching gig on The Ultimate Fighter, and a long streak that saw Faber refuse to lose in non-title fights.

The footnote on Faber’s career, which should not be dwelled on long, is that he never won a championship in the UFC. This, despite four chances at capturing gold (three for the full bantamweight belt, one for an interim title). Yet timing is everything in MMA, and Faber’s was off. He arguably peaked in the WEC, which was the premiere MMA promotion for the smaller weight classes until the UFC finally absorbed it. He always put on a great show, always fought his heart out, but couldn’t quite beat names like Cruz (their career series went 2-1 in Cruz’s favor) or Renan Barao (who defeated Faber twice) when they were at their own peak. Then teammeate T.J. Dillashaw captured the 135-pound crown, and even through a falling out, Faber stepped aside.

What is impressive about Faber, however, isn’t just his record. Without question, his in-cage performances will be remembered. His pedigree was unquestionable, his skill nearly unrivaled. Alongside Dan Henderson, he will go down as one of the greatest fighters to never win UFC gold. He’s a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame. Faber was more than just action in the cage, however.

More important is what “The California Kid” did for the sport, and in particular the lower weight classes. At a time when anything under lightweight flew under the radar, Faber became a marketable star. He turned heads. He was bankable, promoted, put on exciting fights, and became arguably the biggest star the lower weight classes had seen until Conor McGregor came to town. His trilogy with Cruz was not only a classic, but the second bout (and first in the UFC) drew in the same range as dos Santos vs. Carwin, Evans vs. Ortiz, and shockingly, Silva vs. Okami. Even against the lesser known Barao, Faber outdrew the likes of Jose Aldo and Frankie Edgar.

That was, and still is, almost unthinkable. Faber’s name put butts in seats. When he fought on televised cards, eyeballs tuned to FOX.

Simply put, Faber paved the way for the lower weight classes to be respected. He set the template for fighters from 125 to 145 pounds to follow. And again, if that was all, it might not be as impressive. Being the first lighter weight star was not all Faber did for the UFC or the sport of MMA. His contributions outside the cage were equally impressive, and will not be forgotten either. Putting on his coach’s hat, Faber assembled arguably one of the finest camps in MMA, Team Alpha Male, which focused on the lighter weight classes. Any way you look at it, that’s Faber giving back to the sport that gave him both fame and fortune. The success that has come out of that camp can’t be denied: a title winner in Dillashaw (prior to departing the team), a title challenger in Joseph Benavidez, and the next bantamweight contender in Cody Garabrandt.

At 37 and on the first two-fight losing streak of his career, Faber is wise to call it a career now. His retirement announcement Monday caught many by surprise, but only because of the timing. Faber’s chances at another title shot in the UFC were slim to nil, and he simply has too much going for him on the business side of the sport to bother sticking around past his expiration date.

When it comes time to face off against Brad Pickett at UFC Sacramento — Faber’s home turf — in December, fans shouldn’t mourn his career, but rather celebrate. We’ll be saying goodbye to one of the best bantamweights (who also fought at featherweight) the sport has ever seen; but at the same time, the work Faber put in to the sport will be paying off for years to come. He paved the way, opened the door, and the sport owes him a debt of gratitude.

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