Perhaps, the most telling statement that Urijah Faber ever made about his own position in life came at WEC 26, as he prepared to fight a little known 21-year-old named Dominick Cruz.
“I’m not the type of person who’s ever been beat up or picked on or—you know—the underdog,” Faber said during pre-fight interviews. “I’ve been the man since I was a little kid, and I’m still going to be the man.”
That confidence was well-earned. At the time, Faber was the undisputed king of MMA's lightest weight classes. He was the WEC’s featherweight champion who was undefeated for more than two years and was consistently capable of making the rest of the best fighters in his division appear decidedly less than.
For lack of better terminology, he was indeed the man.
Fast-forward six-and-a-half rocky years, and Faber can still lay claim to being among the best and most popular fighters under 155 pounds. That said, if he’s going to carry on being the man at 34 years old, this Saturday’s fight against Michael McDonald shapes up as an absolute must-win.
Since Nov. 2008, Faber has posted a middling 8-5 overall record in the WEC and UFC. The astounding fact that all five of those losses came in title fights stands as kind of a backhanded compliment to his own diminishing status.
If not for all those years spent being the man, Faber never would’ve been granted so many championship opportunities. Still, after losses to Mike Brown, Jose Aldo, Renan Barao and (most bitterly of all) Cruz, it’s getting tougher and tougher to tell where he stands among the little guy elite.
After each one of those defeats, he’s had to do some backtracking. He’s put together character-rehabilitating wins against a host of also-rans (Jens Pulver, Takeya Mizugaki, Iuri Alcantara) and a couple of top contenders (Eddie Wineland, Scott Jorgensen).
Right now, he’s riding a three-fight win streak, but “The California Kid” obviously isn’t a kid anymore. It’s unclear how many more times he can hike back up the same mountain before his perennial No. 1 contender status eludes him for good.
That’s why this weekend’s fight is so important.
At 22 years old and 16-2 overall, McDonald is more than an upstart. He’s already fought for the interim bantamweight title, losing to Barao via fourth-round submission 10 months ago.
He’s young and insanely talented, but he still doesn’t have much of a profile among UFC fans. In short, he’s exactly the kind of guy whom Faber used to slay on the regular, back when the business of being the man was still being good to him.
If he’s able to do what he’s always done and top McDonald, then he stands a very good chance of meeting the winner of February’s scheduled bantamweight title unification bout between Barao and Cruz.
If not—if McDonald becomes the first non-champion ever to defeat Faber—then it could amount to Faber's most significant and unfortunate loss since Brown knocked him into his current flat spin five years ago.
Faber, after all, has nowhere to go now. He’s already been run out of the featherweight division and has already lost once to both Barao and Cruz. The idea of him trying to make flyweight seems ridiculous, and a guy can only get so many shots at the featherweight and bantamweight belts before he gets permanently crossed off the list, no matter who he was in the past.
In large part, Faber’s legacy is already secure. If his career ended today, he’d already be a Hall of Famer.
The thing at stake for him in this bout may well be the difference between being a contender and being a pioneer.
The former means he can still be the man.
The latter means he merely once was, until the new men got here.