Urijah Faber has spent his life building. He’s been building his body, his wrestling and MMA skills and career, his Alpha Male fight team and residential houses in his hometown of Sacramento.
However, what Faber and Team Alpha Male really have built over the past year is momentum.
Mendes went 3-0 in 2013, with convincing knockout/TKO wins over Darren Elkins and Clay Guida, as well as a unanimous decision over a game Nik Lentz at UFC on Fox 9 in December while battling a sinus and upper respiratory infection.
Benavidez headed into his flyweight title bout with UFC champ Demetrious Johnson at UFC on Fox 9 also 3-0 in 2013. Though he was knocked out by Johnson, he had already defeated Ian McCall in a unanimous decision and knocked out Darren Uyenoyama and Jussier Formiga earlier in the year.
Add in the fact that 26-year-old bantamweight Chris Holdsworth emerged the winner of Season 18 of "The Ultimate Fighter," and it’s easy to see why the Team Alpha Male gym often has many unfamiliar faces training there these days -- the team’s popularity and success is drawing fans and wanna-be training partners from all over the world.
And yet, with all of the team’s success over the past year, a UFC title still eludes them. Indeed, between Benavidez, Faber and Mendes, the trio is 0-5 in UFC title bouts. However, that could change Feb. 1 at UFC 169 when Faber will battle interim bantamweight champion Renan Barao, to whom Faber lost at UFC 149 in 2012. Faber replaces former champ Dominick Cruz, who could not fight due to injury and vacated the title.
In fact, five of Faber’s six losses have been in championship bouts dating back to the WEC. One could look at that in a glass half-empty or half-full perspective. What Faber won’t stand is talk that he gets title shots because he’s marketable.
“It really irks me when I hear that,” Faber said. “What does that mean? Plenty of guys are marketable. But people forget I’ve been fighting a long time, when this sport was just getting started ... You last that long because you win.”
Now heading into 2014, Team Alpha Male’s best chances for that first UFC title rest on its leader and founder’s shoulders. But Faber and his teammates keep their feet firmly on the ground, and not just because they’re wrestlers.
“We obviously go into every fight thinking that it’s very winnable,” Benavidez said. “Sure, right now it’s our ‘best chance’ simply because we haven’t won one yet. We look at it as a brand-new opportunity every time one of us gets a shot. It says a lot about the team -- not many teams have that many guys going for titles.
“I don’t really believe in fate or anything like that,” Benavidez added. “But when you’re dealing with fighting the best in the world, it comes down to fractions of seconds and inches. And the fact of the matter is it can just be a difficult task. It’s just something we haven’t done yet. Any other given night we believe we’re the best fighters in the world, but those particular nights it just hasn’t happened for us.”
However, considering the roll Team Alpha Male is on, that time could come soon. And it all starts with a Bang.
No doubt Team Alpha Male’s success rests with its core group of pro fighters, but they’ve largely done it on their own, without a head coach-type figure. Enter longtime UFC welterweight Duane “Bang” Ludwig.
“When I first started the team, guys weren’t making much money and I wanted to keep as much of it in the fighters’ pockets [as possible], so we didn’t hire a coach,” Faber said. “But since we brought Duane in, I think all the guys can see a big difference in the way practices are run and the progress they’re making because of Duane’s influence.”
In 2012, Faber said he knew it had come time to install some sort of head coach. His short list included Ludwig and former UFC featherweight Mark Hominick. In the end, Faber chose Ludwig because he felt the 170-pound Ludwig could also help Team Alpha Male develop fighters beyond 155 pounds. By December 2012 he was named head coach and in 2013 the results have been obvious.
“It was basically what we needed,” Mendes said. “Before it was just all of us working together and helping each other out, and sharing techniques, searching for what was right. And we didn’t have it. But having Duane come in, who’s been in the UFC for a long time has been great. He came in and grabbed the team and said this is the Bang system and we’re going to implement it. But what was cool was he knew a lot of what we were doing was working well, but just some things needed to be added or switched up. Fine-tuned. And that’s what he did.
“That head coach figure is important for me as someone I can believe in and trust to tell me what I’m doing right or wrong, what’s working or not,” Mendes added.
However, Faber’s leadership is the focal point of Team Alpha Male. He’s shaped the team and its philosophy often at his own expense -- even allowing fighters to live at one of the several houses he owns in Sacramento. But he’s also aware enough to recognize that when his team grumbled for more structure and a head coach, he had to go get one. And he has tried to help equip members of his team with the same tools that made him successful.
Faber provides sports psychology and life coaching sessions for Alpha Male teammates, as well as marketing and career advice. It is a tight-knit team enjoying a pinnacle of success right now.
“I had the greatest support system a person could have in my family. But some guys never had that,” Faber said. “So I’m trying to give them those same tools and that same support that I got.”
With his latest title shot approaching this week, he will rely on that support. And like everything else he does with Team Alpha Male, if he wins the title, he’ll share it with them.