How big has mixed martial arts gotten over the last several years? Enough that UFC 66, which pitted Chuck “The Ice Man” Liddell versus “The Huntington Beach Bad Boy” Tito Ortiz, fetched over a million pay-per-view purchases and Zuffa (which owns the UFC and the WEC promotions) now stages about ten PPV events per year. Dozens of sports bars in the Inland Empire now air the big PPV shows, and people are learning the fine art of Muay Thai boxing in local gyms that have sprouted like pox all over the landscape. Young girls know who Stephan Bonnar is, young boys have learned to submit friends via anaconda chokes on the playground, and bros are rapping dukes in garages and churning out bootlegs. People say “dude, don’t be a Kalib” at the first sign of cowardice. But have you thought about what our newfound fascination with MMA is saying about who we are, about what our true identity is?
It’s saying what we already know to be brutally true.
Urijah Faber is a dynamo in the MMA world, a slippery five-foot-six, 145-pound featherweight champion that, if you were to hook him up to the power lines could keep Riverside in electricity for a year. He’s thrilling to watch, a true spectacle. In 21 professional bouts, mostly fought in King of the Cage-type tournaments on gaming reservations like San Manuel Indian Casino and Soboba right here in the IE, the California Kid has lost only once, and that was to the UFC’s highly-touted Tyson Griffin in 2005. Everybody loses sometimes in MMA (except, apparently, Lyoto Machida), and only losing once in that many fights is barely fathomable. He is set to fight MMA legend Jens Pulver this Sunday.
One of the reasons that Faber wins 96% of the time is that he’s relentless; he doesn’t have any quit, and as a prerequisite for fighting in an organization like the World Extreme Cagefighting, he doesn’t have any remorse. It’s easy to see why a guy like the 29-year-old Urijah Faber is a posterboy for the WEC—his iron will and boyish good looks make him marketable; his never-back-down enthusiasm for a brawl and respect for opposition makes him likeable; and his ability to win (and win spectacularly) makes him enviable.
All of this matters, of course—only it’s not what matters to you, and, ultimately, it’s not what matters to Faber. The secret is the template. What makes Urijah Faber vital is the nature of the sport itself. And it’s that the cage is a symbol for vitality that you watch. It’s the fact that one fighter can say “fuck you” to another fighter without fear of breaching any PC protocols that ventilates a bottled-up society. UFC president Dana White himself tells half the world to fuck off daily, and that’s refreshing. In fact, one of the reasons MMA is the fastest growing sport on the planet is that the nature of this particular sport is closer than any other to the nature of man: Violence, religion and the ceaseless pursuit of absolute control (i.e. destruction).
Boxing expert Max Kellerman once told me that boxing was literal, as in it was one man is literally imposing his will on another man, whereas in basketball the ball is a metaphor for that will. He further made his point by asking, if you were in a park where you stumbled on a basketball game being played on one corner, and two guys fighting on the other, which would you stop and watch? “The fight, every time,” he said. And he’s right. Urijah Faber says the same thing (see interview).
The UFC, for instance—with so few rules, but the rules that are in place enormous for adapting civilized audiences—makes boxing seem structurally finite by comparison. MMA is more like a street fight, only guys are black belts and practitioners of holistic health and speak a perfect polyglot. They are educated. The differences between boxing and MMA are greater than the similarities. Tod McDonald, the owner of Harley’s in San Bernardino and one of the first to show UFC fights in the area at his former bar Schooner’s, says, “MMA makes boxing seem tame by comparison.” Which isn’t a knock on boxing so much as a comment on the viability of MMA.
McDonald gladly pays the $850 pay-per-view fees for a UFC show because he knows he can charge a $7 cover and fill the bar to its 180-person capacity. In fact, the Inland Empire is one of the country’s hotbeds for MMA action, with bars like Angel’s in Corona and Fantasy in Colton showing every event. Ever count the Tapout stickers on the 91 Freeway? Or the number of Affliction and Clinch Gear shirts? It’s MMA Babylon out here. People really have grown comfortable with the idea of kicking ass.
And it’s not only a spectator sport, people are learning Muay Thai, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and kickboxing throughout the IE. Women in the office are trying to get side control on the IT guy, and graphic designers are working best these days from the mount. Gyms like the world famous Team Quest gym in Murrieta now have approximately 350 students learning under greats like Dan Henderson and Sokoudjou, while Champion’s Gym in Rancho Cucamonga (average 100 students) and the ASG Facility (Academy of Striking and Grappling) in Moreno Valley and many others are thriving. In other words, people are learning how to apply gogoplatas and manipulate joints almost as rapidly as they’re crowding the local establishments to watch expert applications.
Which brings us back to Faber.
Faber is a civilized human being. So is Jens “Lil Evil” Pulver, his opponent this Sunday. So are you (probably). But Faber’s drive is preternatural, he’s trying for something that drives the competitive spirit in all of us, but instead of fantasizing about crushing a nemesis he does it literally. For Faber this is a fight to prove his legitimacy against a world-class opponent, and for Pulver it’s a legacy that screams come and take it if you can. This clash is inherently compelling by those parameters alone.
But let’s say it weren’t; let’s say you’ve never heard of Faber or Pulver, and it’s just two guys squaring off in a park like Kellerman’s example. If you’re squeamish, you might wince at first; feel sickened at the sharp-end of an elbow cutting open a brow. That’s a natural reaction. Blood is really interesting when it forms a web on a man’s face. But, a few repetitions, and soon enough even the squeamish are watching through their hands . . . and it’s not long before he/she’s talking defense, and hammerfists, and shoulder shrugs and footstomps and saying things like “man, he’s got fast hands.” It’s a sport, after all. A primal sport. And what you realize as you keep watching, a civilized sport.
Is it bloodthirst that makes such a fight compelling theater? Well, yes, and maybe that’s more reasonable than we like to think. Maybe that’s not so controversial. After all, survival is still in our essence, and this is a sport that teeters on the tension that one man will survive and one man will (figuratively) die. We watch Gladiator for the same reason, and that it’s Russell Crowe in a fictive setting is great for our sense of fantasy. But in MMA, with all the spilled blood, those guts, the force of will, the brutality—and your innate connection to those things—to use the UFC slogan, well, that’s “as real as it gets.”
Urijah Faber versus Jens Pulver for the WEC featherweight championship, live from Sacramento, Sunday, June 1, on Versus Network, 6PM
Fifteen Minutes With Urijah Faber
IEW: How are you feeling heading into your fight with Jens Pulver?
Faber: I feel good, man. I’ve been training hard. It’s been almost a six months layoff so I’m ready to fight, I’m itching for it. I can’t wait. It’s going to be in my hometown [Sacramento]. It’s against Jens Pulver . . . it’s for the belt. So I’m really excited.
IEW: Talk about fighting in your hometown of Sacramento.
Faber: It means a lot. I was basically brought up in the surrounding area and I went to school in Sacramento, growing up in elementary school and I moved to Lincoln for high school which is about 25 minutes away and then went to college at UC Davis so I’ve spent a lot of time there and I’ve got thousands of friends and a lot of family there as well. It’s going to be pretty cool. It’s the first time being in a venue that large and knowing that everyone’s going to be behind me, it’s going to be incredible.
IEW: What specific things have you worked on in training?
Faber: I’m just continuing my regular training, which is continuing to grow in all the different categories of mixed martial arts. One big thing just working with lefties because Jens is a southpaw. So getting used to going against southpaws is a big thing.
IEW: Did you look up to Pulver coming up?
Faber: You know, I wouldn’t say looked up, necessarily, as much as rooted for. I was a fan of his. I’ve seen since I can remember watching ultimate fighting and when I started in college Pulver was really getting on the scene and I was always rooting for him. I really loved watching his fights. I think his mentality and my mentality are both the same. We’re not trying to play a game out there, we’re both trying to finish the fight from the get go. So I respected him in that for a long time. It’s been a lot of exposure to him and a lot of respect to him as well.
IEW: Have you always wanted to get in the octagon with him?
Faber: Even before I started fighting, when you think about doing the sport, you put yourself in that situation. So even before I knew I was going to be a fighter I was questioning, how would I do against one of those guys and being a confident kid, I always thought I’d do fine. It’s pretty cool that this is materializing and that he’s actually challenging me and I’ve put in my time and done my training and my fighting and it’s going to be great.
IEW: Talk a little about MMA’s popularity—where do you see it in 10 years?
Faber: The position I’m in right now is just, of course, it’s hard work but I’m extremely lucky. I’m right at the heart of MMA and it’s at its peak and it’s only growing. I can only imagine what it’s going to be like in ten years. I think if I’m smart and I take care of my body I can be in the sport for a long time to come. I think it’s going to keep growing and become the world’s most popular sport.
IEW: So, what happened in Bali?
Faber: Bali, Indonesia. (Laughs) My friends and I were vacationing, it was right after I fought Charlie Valencia in King of the Cage. I was in a bar, my friend left early because he was trying to be sober. I stayed by myself and was just having a good time and some guy started a fight with me. He came up and bumped me and shoved me and I actually let it go and he proceeded to stand over on the side of the bar and he stared at me. So finally I was like, what the hell is your problem, but he didn’t speak any English. So I turned around and started walking out and he followed me. And we fought. Right when I threw the first punch out in the alley, he called a bunch of guys over. Basically they let us fight and I kicked the crap out the guy, and about four minutes afterward I was trying to gather up my sandals and my shirt and my hat and stuff, and someone hit me in the back of the head with brass knuckles. It escalated from there. I was fighting three guys and I ran into the club and was fighting twelve guys and I ran again and got away down the street. Fought three or four guys again. Made it into a taxi and they jumped the taxi and I finally got away. I went to the hospital . . . I actually went to two different hospitals because I thought I had a fractured skull. It ended up being $35 bucks . . . I just had some stitches on six spots on my head and a little hematoma on my leg and I was fine. (Check out this YouTube clip to hear Urijah describe the Bali incident in detail:)
IEW: Does that experience in any way shape the way you fight now?
Faber: It was interesting because it was a drawn out ordeal. It was probably about a half an hour, maybe longer and there were times when you were dead tired, but you realized you were going to die. I really had to push past that and it taught me some lessons in waling away, especially in a third world country. But, you know how to just like an everything’s going to be alright feeling in the end of it. It was scary.
IEW: Who are the toughest guys you’ve fought?
Faber: I faced a lot of tough guys. Tyson Griffin and Ivan Menjivar were both pretty tough guys. The Griffin fight was in Conockti Gladiator Challenge. I’d like a rematch [with Griffin]. I think that’s something that will happen in the future. We gotta see what happens with everything. I’ll be around for awhile so I can’t see it not happening and he’s younger than I am.
IEW: Can you foresee moving up to 155, fighting the guys at that weight in the UFC?
Faber: I think so. I’d really have to focus on putting on some weight, but I’d be down to do some superfights for sure.
IEW: Do you have a gameplan for Jens Pulver?
Faber: With Jens, not necessarily. I feel like he’s well rounded enough to where you don’t really need to have a gameplan with him. He’s got some dangerous striking power. There’s a lot of guys he’s knocked out, there’s a lot of guys he hasn’t knocked out, there’s a copule of guys who’ve knocked him out. That being said, it’s like, if you’re going up against a Jiu-Jitsu guy and your Jiu-Jitsu is pretty good and his Jiu-Jitsu’s really good, you’d maybe be like, oh, I’m not going to use my Jiu-Jitsu. We’re looking to fight. I’m looking to land the bigger punches and control the fight. I got to train with BJ Penn before this fight. I went out to Hilo for a couple of weeks and stayed with him.
IEW: Why do you think MMA has become such a fascination for people?
Faber: I think there’s just something innate in people that likes to see battles. There’ve been wars throughout history, you go to any playground if a fight breaks out people run to go watch. I think it’s just something that’s innate in people. Now you’ve got . . . a number of different backgrounds with established fan bases and you’ve got wrestling, Jiu -Jitsu, wrestling, judo, boxing . . . with established fanbases and now they’re all coming together because they all have the same base which is combat and people are starting to understand it more and realize that being tough has nothing to do with how tough you think you are, it’s all about hard work and what you know.
IEW: Is it all about skills, or is it more primal?
Faber: I think it’s very primal. Very primal. That’s my style. I don’t think of it as a game. I’m going to win. That’s why people always talk about how I get in dangerous positions, I take chances . . . it’s because I’m not looking at the long term, I’m looking at finishing this fight somehow, making it happen. I’m not like do they have a point here, a point there—it’s like a fight. That being said, when I say primal and instinctive . . . the end, the culmination of it all is over years and days and hours of technical training, where you’re using the game side of it to learn and then when you fight, that stuff just comes out. I don’t really remember my fights very well. I remember them after I watch them on tape, but I don’t even remember what happened a lot of times.
IEW: Who were your MMA icons?
Faber: I kinda started rooting for a lot of the wrestlers when I first started. One guy in particular that I really liked watching in Japan was Sakuraba. I felt like he was really creative and had fun with the sport and was really technical at the same time and just was an entertainer and that needed to happen. He’s a superstar over there [in Japan] now. Just all the guys that fight with passion are my favorite guys and guys I look up to. Randy Couture is a guy that I liked a lot growing up and I remember the first time Tito Ortiz made it on there. I liked his attitude and the way he was like saying . . . bring it on. Mark Coleman . . . I looked up to all those guys.
IEW: Talk a little bit about your gym.
Faber: Ultimate Fitness has been open for about a year and a half now. It’s a 9,000 square foot facility right in downtown Sacramento. Just the heart of Sacramento, a couple of blocks from the capitol. It’s cool. We have a great team of fighters out of there but more than that we have great trainers and a lot of general public who are learning about the sport and getting in shape and having fun and just being a part of it. We have 500 students.