Urijah Faber was 24 and fresh out of college. Clean-cut in a surfer-dude sort of way, Faber had a job lined up as a substitute school teacher that paid something like $14 an hour.
But he wanted more out of life. That’s why on Nov. 12, 2003, Faber entered a mixed-martial arts cage for the first time – fighting in front of fewer than a thousand fans at a remote tribal casino. He would take home the princely sum of $480 as the reward for choking out his opponent in just 82 seconds.
Faber was smart enough not to tell his mother until weeks later because he knew she would have paid him not to fight. But that night, Faber left the cage convinced he was going to be a star in a sport that back then was still seen as an underground spectacle.
“It was super far-fetched and so comical when I look back on it now,” Faber said. “But I had massive visions for myself, as unrealistic as they were. I was thinking, ‘I’m going to blow up in this.’ I just believed in myself even though the road wasn’t there yet.”
Fast forward 13 years. Faber is reaching the end of a remarkable, improbable road. His MMA career did, in fact, blow up. It has spanned from those outlaw days when Arizona Sen. John McCain was calling it “human cockfighting” to the now mainstream cultural phenomenon that saw UFC play on the big stage of New York City’s Madison Square Garden last month.
Even though he never held a UFC title belt, Faber has been instrumental in that trajectory as one of MMA’s most popular fighters. Now, the former World Extreme Cagefighting featherweight champion is stepping into the Octagon one last time Saturday night in his hometown of Sacramento. Faber (33-10) will end his career against Brad “One Punch” Pickett (26-12) in the UFC on Fox 22 event headlined by his Team Alpha Male protege, Paige VanZant.
At 37, The California Kid is no longer a kid. He’s ready to leave the Octagon on his own terms.
“In my last couple of fights, I found myself looking for that emotional, hair-raising-on-your-neck high that I’ve ridden my whole career,” Faber said. “It’s just not as intense as it used to be.
“My body feels amazing and I have all my wits about me. But you can only do so much fighting before your body gets totaled. I don’t want to get to the point. I want to quit while I feel great.”
While he is continually asked to take a trip down memory lane and reflect on his fighting journey, Faber really doesn’t have the luxury of getting sentimental.
“It’s kind of hard to really enjoy the moment because this is a fistfight with another man who is trying to beat me up,” he said of the bantamweight bout against Pickett. “I’m preparing for a nasty battle. But I have been trying to enjoy the process and realize how lucky I’ve been to live this dream.”
For now it’s left up to others like Reed Harris, who founded the WEC, to put Faber’s career in perspective.
“He’s absolutely one of the pioneers who pushed the sport in the right direction,” said Harris, now the UFC’s Vice President of Athlete Development. “Every time he fought, we knew that we were going to see an exciting fight. He truly has a love for the sport.
“He’s a very charismatic, smart guy who walks the walk. I’ve always respected Urijah as a fighter, but I respect him more as a man.”
Faber was a good collegiate wrestler at UC Davis in Northern California, but he really found his calling in MMA. Inside the Octagon, he transformed into a Tasmanian devil – becoming a whirlwind of flying elbows, feet, knees and fists. He was willing to fight anyone, anywhere, any time.
In the early days, he regularly would fight for purses of only a few thousand dollars with no TV coverage. But he became the face of WEC -- which later was absorbed by the UFC -- in part because he innately understood the role of promotion and helping build the sport’s brand.
“I can remember Dana White and Lorenzo Fertitta sitting me down and saying, ‘You have a chance to be the man. Just keep winning fights,’” Faber recalled. “And I said, ‘All right, I can do that.’”
Still, it wasn’t easy making a name for himself because the smaller weight classes were seen more as a novelty act. Faber’s success, which helped make the sport a pay-per-view sensation, changed that thinking.
UFC discovered something that boxing had learned decades earlier: The size of fighters doesn’t matter on the small screen – even when those screens now are wall-sized HDTVs. What’s important is the action, and the skill.
“When I started fighting, the UFC only had the 170-pound weight class,” Faber said. “So the exposure for lightweight fighters just wasn’t there. But think about boxing -- Roberto Durán, Sugar Ray Leonard, Oscar de la Hoya, Floyd Mayweather, Manny Pacquiao.
“Those lightweight fighters are the stars who stood out. It was just a matter of time before that happened for MMA. We just needed the personalities. So I was pumped to be part of that first crew doing it.”
Along the way, Faber defied the athlete stereotype. He wrote a book with ESPN’s Tim Keown, “The Laws of the Ring,” that really isn’t a sports autobiography, but rather a treatise on the power of positive thinking. That’s because Faber always has been sort of like Tony Robbins, only with really good submission skills.
That can-do attitude came from his mother, who had a saying posted on their refrigerator while Faber was growing up that he never forgot: “Dream impossible dreams. When those dreams come true, make the next ones more impossible.”
That passion for striving has extended beyond the cage. He’s about to open a new gym in Sacramento to house Team Alpha Male, which he founded in 2004. He has a clothing brand, a health bar, a piece of a supplement laboratory, a management company, a construction firm, real estate interests . . . it goes on and on.
Retirement often can be a temporary state for fighters because they miss the cheers . . . and need the paycheck. But it’s hard to imagine that ever being the case for Faber.
“It’s not like I’ve made a massive pile of cash as a fighter because there wasn’t much money in the beginning,” Faber said. “But I’ve made a great living, and it’s given me a chance to make an even better living outside of fighting. So I want to focus on that before I get to the danger zone as a fighter.”
It hasn’t been all highs, of course. Despite consistently being among the sport’s best pound-for-pound fighters, Faber has lost his last seven title fights. The most recent defeat came on June 4 when he dropped a unanimous decision to bitter rival Dominick Cruz in UFC 199 for the bantamweight title. When he followed that with another unanimous decision loss to Jimmie Rivera in September at UFC 203, Faber knew it was time.
“I had a fair share at getting that strap,” he said of a UFC belt. “Now I’m ready to pass the torch.”
In a sometimes over-the-top sport, Faber departs with his image intact as a nice, down-to-earth guy who always put on a good show. His last order of business is ending with a bang, not a whimper.
On Saturday night, the lights will dim for one, final time. The unmistakable sound of “California Love,” his signature walkout song, will explode over the sound system. Then, Faber will strut into Sacramento’s new Golden 1 Arena toward the cage.
And the crowd will roar.
Mark Emmons is a freelance writer based in San Jose, Calif. Follow him on Twitter at @markedwinemmons.