Urijah Faber is rapidly becoming a man without a country.
After years spent comfortably ensconced as the best known and perhaps most talented fighter under 155 pounds, the going has gotten fairly tough as of late. Faber’s unanimous decision defeat at the hands of Renan Barao at UFC 149 on Saturday dropped the once-dominant champion to 0-5 in title fights across two different weight classes in two different Zuffa-owned promotions dating back to 2008.
Even a guy as charismatic and notoriously cool as “The California Kid” must be feeling the heat after this latest loss. At 33 years old, he’s not ancient by any stretch of the imagination, but he’s no spring chicken, either. Getting out-pointed by the 25-year-old Barao might not bounce Faber from the 135-pound title picture completely, but by now, even his staunchest supporters have to concede that he won’t get an unlimited number of chances to win a UFC championship.
That means the next decision Faber makes about his future may well be the most important one of his career: What now?
What’s next for a guy who was arguably as important to the popularization of featherweight and bantamweight as Tito Ortiz or Chuck Liddell were to the survival of the UFC itself during the early 2000s? What’s next for a guy who spent the best years of his career toiling in relative obscurity, before the Octagon finally deigned to allow entrance to some of the sport’s most exciting, albeit smallest athletes?
Does Faber stay at bantamweight, hoping nemesis Dominick Cruz defeats Barao and the UFC still sees fit to make Cruz-Faber III? Does he go back to featherweight, where Jose Aldo still rules with an iron fist? Could he, would he try to make flyweight, where teammate Joseph Benavidez is the obvious heir apparent?
Good questions all, and the answers might not come easily.
A pair of losses to Mike Brown in 2008-09 cost Faber not only his WEC featherweight title, but also the aura of invincibility he’d built while amassing a 21-1 record during the previous five years. A lopsided defeat by Aldo in April, 2010 chased him down to bantamweight, but the change of scenery has had little effect on the final results.
Make no mistake, Faber has looked good -- very good -- while trumping contenders like Eddie Wineland and Brian Bowles, but has yet to get over the hump when UFC gold is on the line. There should be no doubt over his status as a legitimate title threat, but his innate marketability has also afforded him opportunities that might not have been granted a less popular fighter.
After losing his first 135-pound title fight to Cruz by close but clear cut decision at UFC 132, Faber needed just a single, dominant win over Bowles before UFC brass gave him another crack. Better than that, they also cast him opposite Cruz as a coach on the first “live” season of “The Ultimate Fighter” reality show, giving both fighters and the weight class its best exposure to date.
Cruz’s knee injury robbed Faber of his chance to win the rubber match with his rival, but the company went forward with its plans to give him another chance at the belt anyway. For a fifth time, he came up just a bit shy.
The news here is certainly not all bad. Simply getting so many title opportunities in multiple weight classes is a testament to Faber’s skill and his overall importance to the sport. It’s hard to think of another fighter who’s gotten as many chances after so many losses and the guys who are even in the conversation are either already in the UFC’s hall of fame, or will be soon:
Randy Couture went 4-5 fighting for versions of the UFC light heavyweight and heavyweight titles between 2002-07. BJ Penn got six separate shots at UFC gold in the lightweight and welterweight divisions from 2002-10, while going 2-3-1. Kenny Florian lost a total of three title fights at lightweight and featherweight from 2006-11.
Marketability and a previous track record of success can only take a guy so far, however, and Faber is now just 5-5 in his last 10 fights.
In 2011, just before his statement win over Bowles at UFC 139, Faber seemed incredulous when asked if he thought he was running out of chances to win a UFC title, saying: “I’ll make as many [title] shots as opportunity allows ... There’s a reason I’ve been at the top of the weight class, any weight class, since I started in this sport and that’s because there aren’t that many guys out there that can beat me.”
If we had to guess, we'd say he probably still feels the same way, even after losing to Barao.
Still, while it’s not quite time for Faber to hit the panic button, he woudn’t be human if he wasn’t feeling some significant urgency right now. He likely won't get too many more chances before history adds his name to the list of the best fighters never to win a UFC title.
And that’s a list nobody wants to be on.