BURBANK, Calif. - Urijah Faber has his hat pulled low, mashing his unruly blond hair outward and emphasizing the distinctively deep cleft in his chin. Nobody recognizes him in a coffee shop nestled among several film studios and television network offices in this nexus of the entertainment business.
The scene is slightly different later in the day in Rosemead, a hardscrabble suburb of Los Angeles where Faber makes a public appearance at a gym. Hundreds of boisterous fans show up, eager for a moment with the world’s most popular lighter-weight mixed martial artist.
Faber is a household name, albeit only in a certain kind of household, and his recognition is expanding along with his sport.
The California Kid’s winning personality and championship fighting resume have made him the public face of World Extreme Cagefighting, the lighter-weight MMA promotion owned by the UFC.
Sure, the 30-year-old Sacramento fighter enjoys the spoils of his success, from new cars to eager fans. Yet he’s still determined to grow, first by reclaiming his title and collecting the biggest paycheck of his career Saturday night at WEC 48, the first pay-per-view card in the league’s history.
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“I’m a very durable dude,” he said with a grin. “I’ve never been unconscious. I can get kind of primal when I fight, but I’m always focused on what I’ve got to do.”
That’s also true outside the cage, where Faber’s years on cable TV as a talkative, charismatic MMA star could turn into a burgeoning media career that will soon make him recognizable even in Burbank — although he says he won’t quit fighting to pursue it.
Faber has played a significant role in MMA’s rise from an outlaw sport to a television staple and a favorite of young men everywhere, but its growth even surprises him a bit.
“I definitely dreamed about it,” Faber said. “I remember telling all my friends, ’This sport is about to blow up.’ It’s really been night and day over the last few years. I used to be a skeptic of (UFC executives) Dana (White) and Lorenzo (Fertitta), but they’re turning MMA into an NFL-type sport. They’re creating opportunities for people to put themselves on another level, and that’s what I want to do.”
When he meets champion Jose Aldo for the WEC’s lightweight belt on Saturday night at Arco Arena, Faber will have an arena full of his hometown fans hoping he can reclaim the title he held for two years, though most experts see him as a big underdog. Yet even Aldo, the vaunted Brazilian champion, knows Faber is the main event on what’s almost certain to be the WEC’s richest card, which is stacked with the league’s best fighters.
“That shows what kind of a fighter (Aldo) is,” said White, who’s taking an active role in promoting the pay-per-view card. “To want to go into a guy’s hometown, especially — listen, it’s not just like walking into any hometown. You’re walking into Faber’s hometown. Faber is huge there. He knows that he’s going to get the support of the people, and Aldo wanted that fight there. I love it.”
Before Faber takes on Aldo, Arco Arena will see a rematch between lightweight champion Ben Henderson and Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone. Mike Brown, the fighter who took Faber’s title before losing it to Aldo, also fights Manny Gamburyan as the WEC gambles it can entice MMA fans to spend the same cash required to see a UFC show.
It’s all remarkable to Faber, who got into MMA after a college wrestling career at UC Davis, fighting for various minor-league promotions at Indian casinos and makeshift arenas across California and Nevada. He finally noticed his fame growing in his hometown after his first few WEC fights, with fans greeting him at the convenience store or the gym.
Then he won the WEC’s featherweight title in 2006 and defended it five times in 17 months, including a thrilling decision over fellow fan favorite Jens Pulver in June 2008. That bout made him one of Sacramento’s most prominent athletes — practically a second major-league franchise next to the NBA’s Kings.
But Faber wasn’t just famous in California’s capital. Thanks to the WEC’s television deal with Versus, he was a constant presence in MMA fans’ living rooms around the country, and the network immediately seized on his telegenic presence.
“For a while, I felt like I had my own network,” Faber said.
Faber’s personality is a natural for television jobs outside of fighting: He has been a guest WEC commentator, and he has a growing roster of showbiz friends. But he acknowledges being addicted to the growth of training and the thrill of fighting, and he doesn’t plan to give it up soon.
Faber has thought about slimming down to 135 pounds to go after the bantamweight title, but he’s also considering bulking up to 155 to fight at lightweight, particularly if White follows through on his long-term plan to incorporate the WEC’s lightweights into the UFC, with the attendant boosts in visibility and popularity. Faber envisions himself fighting BJ Penn or Frankie Edgar, who snatched the UFC’s lightweight title away from Penn earlier this month at UFC 112.
“I’m the type of guy that’s really busy, and that’s the way I like it,” Faber said. “I have a loyal fan base that will follow me whatever I decide to do, so it’s going to be great.”