"I want to win, I want to have a lot of fun, I want to mix it up, and have this be a real mixed martial arts fight..." - Urijah Faber
Toughness isn’t measured in tattoo ink, hair dye, or vulgar language. It can’t even be gauged by muscle mass or mean scowls. Every fighter that steps into the UFC’s cage is physically tough, but the depths of their mental toughness can only be empirically equated when a fighter overcomes adversity inside the Octagon. The truly tough fighter is the one who continues to come forward and fight no matter how little time is left or how exhausted they are or how battered their body has become.
In that definition, not many will ever be able to hold a candle to Urijah Faber.
At UFC 149, “The California Kid” battled for 25 minutes with Renan Barao in a losing effort for the interim UFC bantamweight championship. It was a conscious striker’s duel, where Barao was able to stay just out of Faber’s reach and keep the fight out of the scrambles where the Californian thrives. The near decade younger Barao managed to shave a few miles per hour off the usually fleet-footed Faber with a knee to the body that broke a rib, which Faber didn’t reveal until the post-fight interview. While fight fans have become accustomed to seeing Faber in title bouts, strangely enough, they’ve become just as accustomed to seeing Faber wear his toughness on his sleeve by fighting tooth and nail despite broken hands, feet, ribs or a severely battered leg.
“It's what we've signed up for doing the toughest sport in the world: mixed martial arts,” reveals Faber. “It wasn't an accident that Barao caught me with a knee in the ribs. We bounced off the cage and he caught me with a short knee in my back ribs and it broke it. I thought I did a really good job. I watched the fight again. I don't think anyone can tell that I broke my rib. I didn't tell my corner, I didn't tell anyone that I knew something was up. You go into a fight with the mindset that you're not going to let anything stop you, and that was the mindset I was in. I've had worse injuries, so I just did my best. I don't attribute that to the loss at all. I still fought offensively, but Barao was very tough. It didn't help, especially on extending myself for takedowns. Having a broken rib doesn't help at all (laughs).”
At 33 years old with an overall record of 26-6, Faber is 2-2 inside the Octagon with both losses coming in five round decisions for the bantamweight crown. Unless someone blows the dust off a Youtube video shot on a handicam of Faber fighting Tyson Griffin, then MMA fans have only see Faber on the losing end of a bout with a championship belt on the line in either the WEC or UFC. Minus the first round loss to Mike Brown back in 2008, no one has been able to literally stop Faber, whether it was Jose Aldo with his devastating leg kicks or in the rematch with Brown where Faber broke both hands and a foot and still continued to throw elbows until the final bell. To best “The California Kid,” one will need to flawlessly keep him at bay for 25 minutes because there’s simply no quit switch in him.
“I think it's a mental game,” states Faber. “It's a head space you get in. Everybody that is a champion knows that there are a lot of things that go into it, but one of the most important things is the mental game, being a confident guy and preparing for worst case scenarios. I don't go into a fight thinking I hope everything goes my way and if it doesn't I'm going to turn down and cower. In practice you experience injuries and it's just a part of our life. I think about it as if I was on the street and someone was trying to beat me up and try to take my life or something that is important to me, would a broken rib stop me? Would a broken hand stop me? And there's no way it would.”
With or without a belt around his waist, the most prolific champion in WEC history, with five successful and consecutive title defenses, carries himself as the champ in and out of the cage. Incredibly, Faber has fought 16 times under the Zuffa banner of the UFC and the WEC, with 11 of those bouts with a title up for grabs. In the five scraps that weren’t for a belt, he has earned a Submission of the Night bonus in four of them, and won the other by unanimous decision. Faber’s unshakeable spot at the top of the food chain is solidified in his ability to take a loss, come back stronger, clobber his competition, and stand with his chin held high, ready to challenge the current champion again.
“My ability to separate wins and losses from who I am is the key component,” renders Faber. “I know who I am. I have a lot of positive attributes, I know where I come from, I know who my friends are, I'm secure. That allows me to put my best effort out every time to try to win. I love to win. I really don't like losing much obviously, but it doesn't change who I am. Life is good. Whenever I get caught up wanting to complain about monetary things or a fight not going my way or something else going on, I just remember why I started this sport. The fact that I get to live a life of passion where I'm doing only things that I love in this world and help people along the way. Life's good. I always remind myself of that.”
This message, and this mentality that has benefitted Faber as a professional fighter, as a gym owner, as an entrepreneur, and as a person isn’t a secret he just keeps to himself. The former NCAA Division I wrestler and graduate of University of California at Davis with a Bachelor’s degree in Human Development tries his damnedest to impart this positivity to all those that walk through the doors of his Ultimate Fitness gym in Sacramento, especially the members of his Team Alpha Male. With the help of Jim, a high school vice principal who specializes in behavior modification, and Renata Peterson, who has a masters in psychology, Faber diligently works on providing that mental edge that he has to his teammates.
“At our gym, at Team Alpha Male, we're always trying to work on the most important part of the game, which is the mental game,” says Faber. “There are a lot of people out there who want to have success, but there is an actual recipe for success. Jim and Renata Peterson are actually my neighbors, and we've developed together a system of life skills but related to sports. We have group sessions with our team that are about an hour and a half, where we talk about the subconscious, programming your future, visualizing, and things like that. We've been doing that for about five or six years with Jim and Renata.”
Team Alpha Male’s goal isn’t just to train kicking and punching, but it wants to shape minds for success in life once they hang up their sparring mitts. Faber has officially entered Mike Krzyzewski territory. For Duke University’s famed men’s basketball coach, it’s not about being a coach as much as a teacher and a leader; where he’s more concerned with making men more than athletes. If someone is going to be called the “Coach K of MMA” then Faber is ready to fill those shoes.
“It's not just about fighting in a cage - it's about life skills,” explains Faber. “I put forth the effort to do this for my team when I was coaching The Ultimate Fighter as well. Building them up. I think it's the worst thing when I see fighters who have gone through a career and have nothing to show for it. They're broken down and don't know what to do next. It's a sad thing. I want my fighters to know that this is all a building process for the next stages of your life. It's something you can be proud of and you can take it as far and have as much success as you want and that everything you do is commendable. I call it ‘feather in the cap’ mentality. Being a part of this team is something you can put down on your resume, winning a fight is something you can put down on your resume, being in a fight is something you can put down on your resume. It takes guts, it takes tenacity, it takes character. Our guys are learning about how to be successful fighters, but more importantly they are learning how to have success in life and teach their kids to have success.”
Besides this wealth of coaching for mental toughness, Team Alpha Male has their acclaimed roster of lighter weight fighters covered with great ground and standup specific coaches. For grappling, “The California Kid” has BJJ black belt Fabio Prado as well as Dustin Akbari. For striking, Faber’s ace-in-the-hole is every MMA fan’s favorite mitt holder Master Thong. But, recently, Team Alpha Male has felt they needed someone to run and create practices, to watch fight videos, to keep people accountable, and, in short, be the team’s “head honcho”. The vetting process for special position took more or less one phone call to UFC, Strikeforce, and K-1 veteran Duane “Bang” Ludwig.
“Duane is a guy who I've always respected,” affirms Faber. “Anytime I've met him I've always thought he had a good attitude. I think he is one of the best strikers in MMA, period. After that first conversation, he started doing breakdowns for the team. He was calling me and saying this is what I see with this guy and just started being a coach from a distance. He stepped into the role without any commitment or compensation. I was like, this is what we need. He came down to check out the area and the gym and we had a big barbecue and he met all the guys. It wasn't long after that that he made the move and moved all his stuff and his family out here. And he's been doing awesome. He's taken a lot of time to develop and watch video. He's got 40 something clips of my fights of things that he likes that I'm doing and things of Ivan Menjivar that he thinks we can exploit. Not only is he running team practices, but he's been going above and beyond working on individual things.”
The 34-year-old, well-traveled, and, basically self-taught kickboxer turned MMA fighter was entering a transitional period in his fight career and looking for a coaching opportunity when Faber fatefully called. While some have wrongly reported that Ludwig is replacing Master Thong, “Bang” is being brought in as a head coach and not as a new striking coach. Fight fans got a glimpse of this new union as Ludwig was a very vocal corner for Danny Castillo in his decision win over submission specialist Paul Sass at UFC on FUEL TV last Saturday. And not to worry, the enigmatic Thai kickboxing instructor with an ultra unique fashion sense will continue to hold mitts for Faber like he has for the past six years, ever since the two initially met several months prior to the first fight with Jens Pulver.
“Master Thong was really good at teaching body mechanics, which I was kind of missing,” remembers Faber. “I was learning all these different striking techniques, but I was missing the footwork, the body mechanics of striking, and defense. He implemented a lot more defensive tactics to help me be comfortable in getting hit. I had wrestled for years and years and years and been fighting for years, but I still wasn't comfortable as a straight up boxer. I think he helped quite a bit with my defense and footwork, which are the basics and really important.”
Up next for Faber is a Saturday rematch dating back to 2006 with “The Pride of El Salvador,” Ivan Menjivar. At UFC 157, the product of Tristar Gym in Montreal will look to continue his recent success, as Menjivar has gone 4-1 inside the Octagon since coming over through the WEC merger in 2010. The Salvadoran-Canadian brown belt in BJJ with 12 years of professional fighting experience is riding high off a first round SOTN armbar over Azamat Gashimov at UFC 154, which was Menjivar’s second SOTN bonus in 2012.
“I've got a lot of respect for Menjivar,” states Faber. “He's a real pioneer. People say I'm a pioneer in this sport and he is more so than I am. He was a guy who was extremely well-rounded back in 2002 when he fought Georges St-Pierre. He was taking Georges St-Pierre down. I thought it was an even fight and a really weird stoppage. He fought Matt Serra. He's fought at 155 pounds, he's fought at 170 pounds. He's always had a real high skill set. I know he's a force to be reckoned with.”
One can easily assume that both fighters have no doubt improved greatly since their featherweight fracas seven years ago. While Menjivar has gone 8-4 in the meantime and remained dangerous in all areas of the game, Faber has gone 15-5, including winning the WEC featherweight championship, defending it five times, establishing himself as the face of the WEC, and marking himself as an elite level fighter regardless of the weight class. When the two first tangled, Faber was the raw putty of potential, and now is the molded metal of a championship caliber competitor.
“I feel like he's a great style matchup for me because he is the type of guy who likes to fight everywhere and that's how I like to fight,” tells Faber. “He likes fighting on the ground, mixing it up, and he likes getting wild. My toughest fights have been against guys who are really athletic and are kind of avoiding a wild fight. Barao, he really slowed the pace down and kept distance. Jose Aldo, he picked me apart by kicking my leg and he's an incredible technician when it comes to that specifically. I've been developing and filling in those gaps and Ivan likes to fight everywhere. He's dangerous on the ground, but I'm very dangerous on the ground. I've got a lot of finishes against a lot of opponents who have never been submitted. I feel like this fight for me is a great fight because Ivan is not afraid and likes to go everywhere and I think I'm going to have a slight advantage in every aspect.”
This Saturday, two MMA veterans who only mature with age will rekindle the flame from a former fight for bantamweight fireworks. “You can tell this guy is a real mixed martial artist, he does this because he loves it, he goes out there to have fun and to perform, and I'm going out there with the same mentality,” says Faber, whose confidence and insatiable hunger to be at the top of this sport has never waned, even for an instant, thanks to his mental toughness. “I want to win, I want to have a lot of fun, I want to mix it up, and have this be a real mixed martial arts fight where you see a little bit of everything and I think that's going to happen. I'm going to come out on top, I'm going to get the finish, I'm going to get the W, and I'm going to move forward.”