You'll find Ultimate Fitness on a tree-lined street in one of the older parts of Sacramento, the part that resembles the fading main street area of your hometown more so than the bustling cities many old American towns eventually gave way to.
At first glance, it appears to be part warehouse and part abandoned Winn Dixie, or whatever ancient grocery store chain substitutes for Winn Dixie in California. It is gray and metal and not at all modern, but it fits in its surroundings and is part of the fabric of the neighborhood. It is part of Sacramento.
Inside this building with the metal front and the trees on every side, you'll discover another part of the Sacramento tapestry. For though the minuscule blue sign on the front of the building says Ultimate Fitness, it's what is not on the sign that's important.
This is Urijah Faber's Ultimate Fitness, better known as the home of Team Alpha Male, and they are as much Sacramento as the Kings or any other local heroes, sporting or otherwise.
Team Alpha Male has long been known as the most elite fighting force available for fighters who want to ply their trade at one of the lighter weight classes in mixed martial arts. The gym's reputation grew alongside Faber as he morphed from the Isla Vista child of two hippies who named him Urijah—they liked the sound of the name and the Biblical figure—to the sport's first true superstar below lightweight and a highly intelligent businessman who is in a constant state of creative thinking and motion.
Faber brought Joseph Benavidez to Ultimate Fitness. He brought Chad Mendes to Ultimate Fitness. These are two of the very best in the world in their division. On Saturday night down at the Sleep Train Arena—which will forever be known as the Arco Arena and the house where Team Alpha Male began to build their reputation—all three, plus lightweight Danny Castillo, will be in action. This time, it won't just be hardcore aficionados of fighting that tune in on an obscure cable network; this time, the Team Alpha Male boys will shine on network television.
"It's huge. We have the whole team fighting together. It's pretty awesome, and it's always like an added bonus," Faber told Bleacher Report in an exclusive interview. "Joseph is fighting for the world championship, so we'll get that first belt and we'll do it here in front of our home town."
Benavidez faces flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson in the main event. It is a rematch of their 2012 battle, one that Benavidez lost by a close split decision. Faber has been champion before—he was the WEC featherweight champion before Jose Aldo came onto the scene and rendered every other featherweight nearly useless—but his team hasn't been successful in securing control of a UFC championship belt despite multiple opportunities.
When things of this nature begin to happen—when men begin to lose fights—the public's nature is to label them underachievers, to say they can't win the big one. This is nonsense, of course, born out of an Internet dweller's instinctual need to make big, bold statements that resonate with their fellow big, bold statement makers. The very fact that Faber, Benavidez and Mendes are constantly in the title picture is a testament to the skill they posses and the drive and determination that brings them to the close of each day.
And besides, Faber said, they're still newcomers to this whole UFC thing.
"As far as our careers in the UFC, they're still pretty new. They just merged the lighter weights into it, you know? We've still got years and years to have second chances," he said. "To get a belt this early on in our UFC careers would be great, but I know that for years to come we'll be having multiple belts and multiple contenders. We'll probably even have a couple of contenders at the same weight."
Faber's statement may strike you as a bit of wishful thinking. That's until you consider the effect head coach Duane Ludwig—himself a grizzled veteran of the sport, and apparently a pretty good head coach—has had on the entire team. Team Alpha Male has always been known as great athletes and very good wrestlers, but Ludwig's addition to the team—and the pun that's coming up is very much intended—has been a striking one.
Mendes, who wrestled his way to a title shot against Aldo, has won four consecutive fights by knockout. Benavidez has flattened two consecutive opponents with variations of body strikes and punches to the face. T.J. Dillashaw had two consecutive knockouts before coming up just a tad short in a difficult matchup against Raphael Assuncao.
The team once known for being good wrestlers is now a team of good wrestlers who are also devastating strikers. And while that's a good side effect, Faber says it wasn't the main reason he hired Ludwig to come in as the new Alpha Male head coach. His career and various business efforts—he has a construction company and co-owns a MMA prospect scouting service with UFC light heavyweight Phil Davis—keep him out of the gym far more than outside influences used to.
Benavidez and Mendes are burgeoning stars in constant demand by the UFC's ever-growing public relations machine, and so they aren't able to spend as much time inside the walls of Ultimate Fitness as they'd like.
The result, Faber said, was a team filled with rising prospects who had no firm hand to help guide them.
"The team was lacking some leadership. Everyone has been on the road because our careers are taking off. And with that is a lack of leadership, not only for the fighters, but some of our coaches were not on point. So, in bringing Duane in, not only does he have an incredible style with his Bang Muay Thai system, but he's a great leader," he said. "He's been there and done that. He's been in the fight game, the kickboxing world, the mixed martial arts world. He's confident and he's a good leader, so it's been great for us.
"Things don't fall apart. But it's always motivating to see a bunch of the top guys in the world in the same room every day, keeping guys honest. The next generation is learning by our example, and if they think, 'Oh, these guys aren't in the gym as much, so I don't have to be in the gym as much.' But we're not in the gym as much because we're doing stuff for our careers."
Faber's career, as it often has, will take him back down to the Sleep Train/Arco Arena on Saturday night. He'll face Michael McDonald, a 22-year-old from just down the road in Modesto who, despite his young age, has already once challenged for the bantamweight championship and already finds himself on the verge of contendership not 12 months after losing to Renan Barao. He started training in kickboxing when he was 10 years old and picked up mixed martial arts eight years ago, when he was 14.
Eight years ago? That's just about the time Faber won his first WEC featherweight championship. Needless to say, "The California Kid" feels up to the challenges McDonald presents.
"I feel like this is a fight that's going to push me. He's a dangerous guy, and I always like that because it brings out the best in me. He's got a real dangerous skill set—especially when he's standing. He's pretty well-rounded," Faber says. "But when it comes to being well-rounded, I don't think he's up to par with a lot of the guys I've fought. There is definitely a bigger discrepancy with his wrestling. I don't feel like he's a talented wrestler."
It's no secret that Faber would like a third fight with bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz, who has been on the shelf for over two years but is (knock on wood) scheduled to return for a unification fight with interim champion Renan Barao in February. Faber doesn't hate Cruz. Truth be told, he doesn't even dislike him. But he does enjoy having a nemesis, someone who can drive him to be better, because Faber is one of the most well-liked fighters in the sport. He's friends with everyone, which means he's grateful that Cruz has given him a target to strive for.
But before he can think about a third fight with Cruz, he must first get past McDonald. And of that, Faber is quite confident.
"I feel like he's the most dangerous guy in the division right now. He starts fight and he finishes them, and he goes one hundred miles per hour while he's doing it," Faber said. "He's durable. He's picked off a good list of guys. Dangerous guys. But they're not as durable as I am.
"It's going to be one of those where he has his dangerous moments, but I'm going to win the fight. "
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