It feels a little like kicking a man while he's down, but unified rules of mixed martial arts be darned. After all, Urijah Faber just gave his all, fell short and was literally broken by a dangerous man in Calgary.
It was a devastating loss. Renan Barao splintered his ribs and shattered his myth, all in the course of 25 minutes. The aftermath felt more like a wake than a celebration of Barao, a time to consider Faber and all he's meant to the sport.
Is this really the right time to shine the spotlight on Faber's faults and foibles, all the things that will prevent us from remembering him as a great fighter, instead settling on the more nebulous term "important"?
There's never a right time to do something awful like that, to take a great guy—a pioneer and a leader who makes everyone around him better—and kick him (metaphorically) right in the jewels.
It's the hardest part of this work, taking someone you admire and running them through the gauntlet, doing with words the kind of psychological damage that a fighter can inflict physically with his hands and feet.
But somebody has to do the autopsy on Faber's career. I guess it falls on me. Thanks, world.
The most obvious question, when it comes to the career of Urijah Faber at least, is a simple one. Was he ever any good? Or was he simply the product of a carefully crafted mythology, a charismatic presence who appeared when the sport needed exactly that? Was he a marketing creation?
Like any good question, the answer this one elicits is complicated. You can watch Faber bounce around the cage, Tigger in cornrows, and know immediately that he's an athlete worth paying attention to. He's highly skilled and tougher than a hammer (what makes the nails so tough, anyway?)
He gritted his teeth and continued against Barao with broken ribs swimming around in his midsection. Against Mike Brown in 2009, he broke his right hand and dislocated his left thumb. Yet there he was until the bitter end, throwing kicks, elbows and taking his lumps.
It was the most awe-inspiring thing I've ever seen in my life, at least during the course of a sporting event. His chances were slim, and none was just around the corner. Brown had beaten him with his rock-hard head, and there was no one in the world who would have faulted Faber for throwing in the towel, for living to fight another day.
Instead, he fought. On one scorecard, he even took two of the five rounds. It was a decision that somehow managed to be controversial, despite one of the participants' complete inability to compete at his best. There was just one word for Faber that day—remarkable.
I keep that memory close to me when writing about The California Kid. He was no fraud. But there is the whiff of the contrived that hangs around any conversation of his historical significance in the sport.
Zuffa, the parent company of the UFC, pushed Faber hard in the media at every opportunity. He was at seemingly every UFC event, then-PR chief Jen Wenk encouraging media outlets to talk to him and help promote their WEC promotion, a showcase for smaller fighters that was as glorious an artistic achievement as it was a business debacle.
Faber has an easygoing charm, and that's exactly what he did with the media. The UFC told us he was the best lightweight fighter in the world, and like with his cohort Miguel Torres, even managed to convince many that Faber belonged on the short list of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the sport.
The truth was more complicated. Faber was a fighter with potential, a collection of tools that might have very well coalesced into something special. But legends aren't built on "mights," and Faber's actual accomplishments in the cage aren't commensurate with his standing in the sport.
It's a house of cards built on the reputation of Jens Pulver, a former UFC lightweight champion who remains Urijah's most important and profound win. It was an easy hook for the press, a way to easily place Faber in the scheme of things.
The fact that Pulver had recently failed miserably in a UFC return? The fact that Pulver would subsequently lose his next five fights, all in the first round, many around the first minute?
That narrative is a little more complicated.
There's that word again. Faber's legacy is not easy to parse. Pulver remains his most significant win, no matter how empty the shell. Every other time he stood across from a champion, he was beaten, often badly.
Dominick Cruz cruised. Jose Aldo brutalized his leg. Mike Brown knocked him silly. And Barao won four rounds going away.
Against the best fighters of his generation, Faber looked less than amazing. As much as we wanted him to be the poster boy for 145- and 135-pound fighters, reality is harsh. In the light of day, Faber fell short.
And so we are left with a legend, a pioneer who helped propel two weight classes into the UFC, making the future bright for talented young men for years to come.
An important fighter. But not a great one.
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