Urijah Faber is one of the UFC’s more popular fighters. He’s a pioneer in the lower weight divisions.
In fact, fighters competing at 145 pounds and below in the Octagon these days owe him a debt of thanks; he was a large reason for Zuffa purchasing World Extreme Cagefighting in December 2006. Without that move, it may have taken quite a bit of time for the national spotlight to be focused on the lighter weight classes.
He had the best year of his career in 2013, winning four fights and earning a title shot against interim champion Renan Barao. He lost to Barao, but he’s still ranked No. 1 in the division behind the champ. He has beaten most of the Top 10, and despite going years without any success in title fights, he still seems primed for yet another run at a championship bout.
I expected him to return to the Octagon against Dominick Cruz, the former bantamweight champion who has been sidelined with various injuries since 2011. It just felt right. Sure, Faber is coming off a loss, and the UFC likes to match winners with winners and losers against losers. But with Cruz out of competition for three years, that booking philosophy goes out the window. They’ve split two previous bouts.
Plus, they don’t really like each other. That’s always a plus.
With all that in mind, you can imagine my surprise on Wednesday afternoon when ESPN.com's Brett Okamoto reported that Faber is set to face Alex “Bruce Leeroy” Caceres at UFC 175 in July.
Faber and Caceres discussed on Twitter the possibility of facing each other on Tuesday, but it didn’t feel like a serious thing. Fighters call each other out on Twitter all the time. Joe Silva and Sean Shelby enjoy when their athletes make their jobs easier, but the matchmakers do not make fights based solely on Twitter.
So Faber and Caceres said they’d be honored to fight each other, but I paid no attention. I figured Faber was earmarked for Cruz or another high-level opponent. And this is not to disparage Cacares in any way, because he is riding a four-fight winning streak (with a no-contest thrown in for good measure) and is clearly deserving of a step up in competition.
But there is a difference between a step up in competition and a giant, chasm-crossing leap up the ladder.
Caceres, No. 13 in the division, taking on Faber, No. 1. If Caceres wanted a highly ranked opponent, well, he got it.
On some level, it makes sense. Faber has beaten six of the Top 10 UFC bantamweights. One of them is his training partner, T.J. Dillashaw. Unless you start digging into rematches, there weren’t many compelling bouts available for Faber against top opponents. The only way to find new opponents for “The California Kid” was to travel further down the rankings.
I get it. Still, it seems weird and perhaps even something of a mismatch. Faber will be a massive favorite over Caceres, and rightly so. I would have preferred to see Faber wait for Cruz to return, if the former bantamweight champion is still on track to come back this summer.
I am not a matchmaker, of course, and booking fights is an intricate art that goes far beyond just pitting Fighter A against Fighter B. Faber may be contractually owed a certain amount of fights this year. Or perhaps he didn’t want to bet on Cruz coming back healthy, given that "The Dominator" has tried to return to the Octagon for three years and keeps getting injured.
And look: There is every chance that Faber vs. Caceres will be an off-the-charts exciting fight. Both men have a penchant for thrilling audiences, so it’s a safe bet the fight will make us forget all about our initial reservations.
That doesn’t make it any less strange. In a perfect world, Faber would wait for Cruz or another Top Five opponent. But this is not a perfect world, and so we are left scratching our heads at Faber vs. Caceres: a fight that came out of nowhere, a fight that makes almost no sense and a fight that could greatly harm Faber or give Caceres a shortcut up the divisional ladder.
I guess the old Gus Johnson adage is still true: These things happen in MMA.