MMA: Urijah Faber

Five fantasy, non-title "superfights"

July, 31, 2014
Jul 31
7:20
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Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
ESPN.com
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The Anderson Silva-Nick Diaz "superfight" is 185 days away.

That should be enough time to determine whether we’re actually going to call it a "superfight" to begin with. We’ve spent years talking about potential superfights in the UFC, but did we ever actually define what they were? We didn't, did we?

Whatever: Superfight status or not, Silva versus Diaz is something you want to watch if you’re a fight fan. Their personalities go a long way in that, but it’s also a fight that just feels different.

At a time when the UFC sometimes airs two cards in one day, different is welcomed.

It's definitely not your average UFC pay-per-view main event. There is no title involved, nor are there any recent wins involved. Both are 0-2 in their respective last two fights.

But this is a matchup that doesn't really care. The stakes feel high, although they’re hard to define. Maybe superfights don’t need UFC titles involved.

In the spirit of this matchup, here are five non-title "superfights" we could all get into. Will any actually happen? Probably not. But that's actually fitting. If there is one attribute about a "superfight" we know of, it's that they rarely come together.

No. 5 -- Nate Diaz versus Matt Brown, welterweight
Right? I mean, right? What if the UFC had announced, "Diaz versus Brown," and when you got to the fight poster it was a picture of Nate? How many pieces would your mind blow into? After Brown lost to Lawler, there was no better opponent for him than Diaz, but he was destined for Silva. How about his younger brother fight Brown instead? We already admitted none of these fights are likely going to happen, but now that this one is out there, I really want it.

No. 4 -- Glover Teixeira versus Junior dos Santos, heavyweight
So many bungalows would be thrown. Both guys don’t go down easy, but they put guys down easily. The exchanges would be nuts. If one of them switched gears and went for a takedown, it would be Teixeira -- but him taking dos Santos down is doubtful. So, what we’re looking at here is a guaranteed stand-up between JdS and Teixeira. Let that marinate for a minute.

No. 3 -- Urijah Faber versus Frankie Edgar, featherweight
Bump Faber back up to featherweight (although a teammate fight between him and Dillashaw would be a good time, too). This one writes itself. The prefight barbs would be as cordial as it gets, but the skill level in the cage would be off the charts. I’d rather see this fight over Faber vs. Masanori Kanehara.

No. 2 -- Anthony Johnson versus Alistair Overeem, heavyweight
Former teammates -- sort of. No one at the Blackzilians camp seems too broken up about Overeem’s decision to bail earlier this year. Johnson said he has no “beef” with Overeem but claims he was never part of the team. This all sounds like something we could exploit and magnify by placing the two in the same room with cameras and microphones for several weeks.

No. 1 -- Conor McGregor versus Donald Cerrone, lightweight
In Dublin. Cerrone would somehow commandeer a Bud Light party submarine for him and his buddies so he could still make a “road trip” out of it. Would Cerrone smile at the weigh-in and carry that carefree aura we’ve seen lately? Or might this kind of moment bring out the Cerrone that screamed expletives after knocking out Charles Oliveira in 2011 or who ran over Jamie Varner in a grudge match in 2010? Both of these guys are down to fight whomever, whenever. McGregor is a big 145.

Dillashaw on title win, Assuncao, Faber

May, 30, 2014
May 30
6:40
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Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
ESPN.com
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Newly crowned UFC bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw couldn’t talk long Thursday. He had an afternoon meeting scheduled with Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson.

A Sacramento resident, Dillashaw (10-2) is still riding the wave of his stunning TKO win over Renan Barao for the UFC bantamweight title in Las Vegas on Saturday.

In addition to a summons from the mayor of Sacramento, Dillashaw has blown up on social media since the performance. The Red Hot Chili Peppers' bassist, Flea, contacted the fighter on Twitter and mentioned his walk-out to the band’s song “Can’t Stop.”

Cleveland Browns rookie quarterback Jonny Manziel, who attended the fight in Las Vegas (which became big news itself) also sent a congratulatory post.

“It’s crazy how many people watched the fight,” Dillashaw told ESPN.com. “I’ve been fighting on the undercards. It’s nothing like a PPV. People I’ve looked up to hit me up on Twitter.

“Flea from Red Hot Chili Peppers -- I’ve been watching that guy since forever.”
[+] EnlargeDillashaw-Assuncao
Jeff Bottari/Getty ImagesTJ Dillashaw, right, is eyeing a rematch with old nemesis Raphael Assuncao.


Tied to the celebration, however, is a nonstop line of questioning regarding whom Dillashaw will fight next. This is, after all, still mixed martial arts.

“It’s the same as all my other fights,” Dillashaw said. “Seriously, as soon as you get done with a fight and you’re walking through the tunnel, you talk to reporters about who you want to fight next.

“It’s like, ‘Man. I’ve been thinking about the guy I just fought for the last 10 weeks.’ Especially Renan Barao. I had been thinking about him for a long time. Obviously, my goal is to defend the belt and there are a couple of guys on a win streak.”

One of the options Dillashaw refers to is Raphael Assuncao, who outpointed Dillashaw in a controversial split decision in October in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Assuncao (22-4) is still on the mend from a rib injury but should be ready to go by autumn of this year.
"

I definitely wouldn't mind that fight. I feel like I beat the guy anyway, so I might as well get that victory on my record. I felt like I got cheated on that one. It wouldn't be a bad idea to finish him up.

"

-- TJ Dillashaw, on a possible rematch with Raphael Assuncao


That’s a fight Dillashaw wants, although this time he’d like it in the U.S.

“I traveled to Brazil and fought him,” Dillashaw said. “Let’s have him travel up here. If that fight happens, the fact that I’m the champion, let him come here.

“I definitely wouldn’t mind that fight. I feel like I beat the guy anyway, so I might as well get that victory on my record. I felt like I got cheated on that one. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to finish him up.”

An immediate rematch with Barao (32-2) remains a possibility, although Dillashaw isn’t in favor of it since the first fight wasn’t close. Takeya Mizugaki (20-7-2) is also on a five-fight win streak.

Of course, one option that will likely continue to pop up is Dillashaw's teammate and close friend Urijah Faber, who is scheduled to fight Alex Caceres at UFC 175 in July.

Faber (30-7) is coming off a first-round TKO loss to Barao in a UFC title fight earlier this year, but that didn’t prevent the topic of an all Team Alpha Male title fight from being broached last weekend.

Dillashaw says that’s obviously not a fight he wants, but if the UFC eventually wants to make it, the organization would have to provide extra incentive.

“I’ve had that conversation with him way before I was in title contention,” Dillashaw said. “I’ve always said I don’t want to fight the guy. He’s one of my best friends. [UFC president] Dana White likes that kind of stuff. It adds drama.

“I feel like if they want us to do that, we should get paid more. If they were to throw an option on the table I can’t pass up, all right. Urijah, let’s do this.

“It has to be, ‘I can see myself fighting Urijah for that. That motivates me enough to want to fight him.' You’ve got to give me a reason to want to fight him.”

Despite loss, Montague pleased with debut

May, 8, 2014
May 8
6:35
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Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
ESPN.com
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If the UFC had asked him to, Darrell Montague just might have paid for a ticket to his own Octagon debut.

In 2012, Montague’s invitation to the UFC flyweight party must have gotten lost in the mail. He was not a member of the inaugural class of flyweights the UFC signed that year, even though he was widely considered to be a top-level talent.

Nineteen months after the first-ever UFC flyweight fight, Montague (13-3) made his Octagon debut at UFC 166. The event was incredible: six knockouts, one submission, a fight of the year candidate and a heavyweight title fight.
[+] EnlargeDodson/Montague
Josh Hedges/Getty ImagesDarrell Montague's UFC tenure got off to a rocky start, but he hopes to turn things around against Kyoji Horiguchi.

Unfortunately for Montague, he was on the receiving end of one of the six knockouts. Former title contender John Dodson viciously put him down in the very first round.

Still, all things considered, Montague says, it was a pretty awesome night.

“I’ve always been a fan of this sport and to be able to be on a card that big was huge,” Montague told ESPN.com. “Diego Sanchez versus Gilbert Melendez has to be one of the top-10 fights ever in the UFC. The whole card top to bottom was just good fights.

“When I look back on it, it will be awesome to be a part of that card.”

Montague’s positive feelings toward a night in which he was unwillingly removed from consciousness aren’t surprising once you learn more about him.

The Southern California-based flyweight started watching the UFC during childhood alongside his father -- a man Montague guesses would be less proud of him today if he were a practicing surgeon instead of a professional fighter.

In middle school, Montague and his best friend would rent VHS tapes of UFC events and fight one another in the backyard. He began training Muay Thai at age 15 and started competing in “smokers” -- unsanctioned amateur fights -- at 17 years old.

He’s spent so many nights watching live UFC events on television, it actually kind of rattled him to do so on the night of his debut.

“It was weird when I was in the locker room watching the UFC,” Montague said. “Then it clicked, ‘Oh f---. I’m about to walk out there. I’m part of this.’”

Montague, 26, clearly isn’t concerned over the outcome of his first UFC fight -- but that doesn’t mean he’s content with losing.

From the moment he started training, Montague says a UFC title has been the goal. He’ll look to start moving in that direction this weekend when he makes his second UFC appearance against Kyoji Horiguchi at a UFC Fight Night event in Cincinnati.

“Pretty much the first day I walked into a gym was because I wanted to fight and be a champion,” Montague said. “The only thing holding me back mentally was I didn’t know if they would ever have my weight class. I was 100 pounds when I started.

“I always thought I might have to fight on just local shows. All of a sudden the sport started to blow up and now the UFC has my natural weight class.”
"

Pretty much the first day I walked into a gym was because I wanted to fight and be a champion. The only thing holding me back mentally was I didn't know if [the UFC] would ever have my weight class -- I was 100 pounds when I started.

"

-- Darrell Montague


Ahead of this fight, Montague signed a representation contract with MMA Inc., which opened a door to train at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento. Many members of the gym -- Urijah Faber, Joseph Benavidez, Chad Mendes -- are affiliated with MMA Inc.

In addition to the two weeks he spent in Sacramento, Montague trained at Nick and Nate Diaz’s facility in Lodi, California and expects to pursue more training opportunities at different gyms as his career progresses.

Interest was high in Montague for his UFC debut in October. He and Dodson helped kick off the pay-per-view portion of the card. For his encore performance, he says he has given one interview. You’re reading the results of it.

That suits him fine, though. He waited his turn to join the UFC's 125-pound roster and he’s not especially anxious to break into its rankings. It will take care of itself.

“It would have been nice to win that fight because it would have put me close to the top of the division,” Montague said. “But I’m pretty much in the same spot as before. I’ll have more fights to prove myself.

“I just want to take my time and I don’t care where I stand. I’ll let [the media] decide that kind of stuff. I’ll do my best and see where the rankings fall.”

Team Alpha Male gunning for first title

January, 30, 2014
Jan 30
8:00
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Huang By Michael Huang
ESPN.com
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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.

Consider what Team Alpha Male’s core of Faber, featherweight Chad Mendes and flyweight Joseph Benavidez accomplished in 2013:

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.

Faber went 4-0 in 2013, with impressive wins against Ivan Menjivar, Scott Jorgensen, Iuri Alcantara and culminating in his submission of highly rated Michael McDonald at UFC on Fox 9.

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.

[+] EnlargeDemetrious Johnson and Joseph Benavidez
Al Powers for ESPNJoseph Benavidez, right, is one of the three Team Alpha Male fighters who could win a title in 2014.
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.

Help wanted

[+] EnlargeJoseph Benavidez
Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty ImagesCoach Duane Ludwig, right, has been a great addition to Team Alpha Male.
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.


[+] EnlargeChad Mendes
Ross Dettman for ESPNChad Mendes went 3-0 last year and would love to avenge in 2014 the only loss of his career against Jose Aldo.
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.

Faber not sweating title pressure

January, 7, 2014
Jan 7
7:25
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Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
ESPN.com
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I’m not calling it Urijah Faber's last chance at a UFC title -- but I get it if you do.

Let's just get this out in the open, right? We're all OK with Faber getting first crack at newly minted UFC bantamweight champion Renan Barao because "The California Kid" had a monster year in 2013. A crazy, monster year. Way to go, Urijah.

If he doesn’t get it done this time, though -- stop. No more. That would be six failed title bids in a little more than five years. Enough is enough.

This is not my opinion. Whoever is the best in the world should fight for the belt. There is an element of entertainment involved, yes, but should Faber lose early next month to Barao, I won’t campaign to forever ban him from UFC title shots.

But as I said, I know many of you would (or will). So considering that, you think he might hesitate a little when the UFC asked him to fight Barao on three weeks' notice? Wouldn't he want a full training camp for title shot No. 6?

The answer is apparently "no" and it's part of the reason Faber has earned more opportunities at a world title than most fighters dream about.

"I'm not going to learn any secret trick in a six-week camp," Faber told ESPN.com. "I'm not into that. I'm going to go out and fight this guy.

"I didn't get into this sport because I thought if I was prepared, I might be pretty good or hang with the best. I got into this sport because I was like, 'Dude, nobody in the world is going to beat me up.'"

This rematch between Barao and Faber is already different from the first. As much as Faber is seemingly immune to the different circumstances from fight to fight, he wasn't up to face Barao when they met in July 2012.

That summer, Faber (30-6) held what UFC president Dana White has constantly referred to as a "winning lottery ticket," in that he was scheduled to fight Dominick Cruz at UFC 148 and take a piece of the revenue pie from the event.

When Cruz went down with a torn ACL, Faber went from the Anderson Silva-Chael Sonnen II card in Las Vegas to a Calgary-based UFC 149 later that month, which had been decimated by injury.

By the time Faber and Barao walked out, the Canadian crowd was delirious over what was unquestionably the worst UFC card top to bottom I’ve ever witnessed in person. To this day, White, sometimes unprompted, apologizes for that event.

"

I pride myself on always being mentally prepared, but just my moral -- my excitement -- wasnt there. It was actually the opposite. I think there were more people at the weigh-ins for [UFC 148] than there were at my fight.

" -- Urijah Faber, on his first bout against Renan Barao

"I pride myself on always being mentally prepared, but just my morale -- my excitement -- wasn’t there," Faber said. "It was actually the opposite. I think there were more people at the weigh-ins for [UFC 148] than there were at my fight.

"I was supposed to be a big part of that and instead I felt like the red-headed stepchild in Calgary. Then I had a crappy performance. The fight was boring, in my opinion. It wasn’t an exciting fight."

None of this talk about mentality, of course, changes the stylistic challenges Faber will have to overcome to achieve a different result from that first fight.

Barao (31-1) is still incredibly difficult to take down or move inside on. He's not highly responsive to feints, which Faber's stand-up relies heavily on. He's a strong counterpuncher and he's never been finished in his career.

He's young and (technically) attempting his first title defense, so you expect he'll be hungry -- although, he's likely in for an exhaustive three-plus weeks of answering 1,000 variations of the same question: What about Dominick Cruz?

Barao was thousands of miles away and speaking in another language when I interviewed him Monday night, but he sounded agitated when forced to talk about Cruz and whether he was disappointed about not fighting him.

"There is no need to face or beat Dominick Cruz," Barao said. "I don’t need to do that to be seen as the champion. I’m already the champion."

It's hard to imagine Barao coming out flat for his first title defense, but he better erase any remote possibility of it. Faber knows exactly what's at stake Feb. 1, but he's not desperate about it as you might expect him to be. That feels dangerous.

Weidman runs away with FOTY honors

January, 4, 2014
Jan 4
8:45
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Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
ESPN.com
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So yeah, ESPN Fighter of the Year is not a close race in 2013. It’s Chris Weidman by a landslide.
[+] EnlargeChris Weidman, Anderson Silva
Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty ImagesBack-to-back wins over Anderson Silva made Chris Weidman an easy choice for fighter of the year honors.

Even Weidman, who isn’t one to pat himself on the back or pause to admire his own work, knows a fighter of the year when he sees one. His year speaks for itself.

“I did beat the greatest of all time, twice,” Weidman told ESPN.com. “I think that’s pretty good. Other guys had more fights than me but I fought as much as I could and I only had big fights. They were some of the biggest fights of the year.”

It was acceptable to doubt Weidman after his first win over Silva in July. As it turned out, it was wrong to do so, but at least it made sense at the time. Silva did clown in their first fight. It was hard to put that fight in perspective.

To still doubt him now, after a repeat performance, is silly. He dominated Silva in the rematch -- more so than in the first. He knocked him down, landed elbows from the top and turned the champ’s greatest weapon against him when he checked that kick.

“He fought the greatest twice and beat him twice,” said Weidman’s coach and former UFC welterweight champion Matt Serra. “Dude can’t catch a break. He beats him the first time and it’s ‘Oh, Anderson was joking around.’

“This time, they’re calling it a freak thing. No. He checked the kick. He did the right move. I think he should get more credit. I think he’s being picked on.”

According to FightMetric, Weidman landed 36 significant strikes over the course of the two fights, compared to 22 by Silva. He scored 50 percent of his takedowns and attempted three submission attempts to Silva’s zero. He won all four rounds.

That’s not luck. That’s your new UFC middleweight champion and landslide winner for fighter of the year.

No 2: UFC middleweight Vitor Belfort, 3-0

When he’s not discussing his place in the jungle or carving figures into what’s become the best hair in MMA, Belfort proved he is still an elite fighter in 2013.

No. 3: UFC flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson, 3-0

Mighty Mouse defended his title three times and still found time to see the birth of his first child AND undergo shoulder surgery. That barely seems possible.

No. 4: UFC bantamweight Urijah Faber, 4-0

Faber doesn’t seem like a guy who takes fuel from doubters, but it can’t be all coincidence he put together a monster year at a time when so many counted him out.

No. 5: UFC welterweight Robbie Lawler, 3-0

Maybe Lawler would cherish a UFC title. Or maybe he could really care less about one. It’s hard to tell with ol’ Robbie. What we do know is he was one of the most entertaining fighters to watch in 2013, which he capped off with an upset win.

Urijah Faber: 'I'm ready to fight anyone'

December, 15, 2013
12/15/13
12:47
PM ET
Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
ESPN.com
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Urijah Faber vs. Michael McDonaldAl Powers for ESPNAfter destroying Michael McDonald on Saturday, Urijah Faber is back in the title conversation.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- In all likelihood, Urijah Faber won’t be a serious candidate for "Fighter of the year," but he’s done something incredible these past 12 months -- and I’m not solely referring to his destruction of Michael McDonald on Saturday -- although that was nothing short of awesome.

What’s really amazing about Faber right now is that within about a year, he not only built himself back into the undisputed No. 1 contender at 135 pounds -- he’s done it in such a way that we’re actually excited about it.

Dana has paid me a great compliment by saying I'm the type of guy who believes I can beat anyone. I'm ready to fight anyone, any time. I'll fight Godzilla, King Kong, I don't care.

-- Urijah Faber

When 2013 began, Faber was coming off a previous year's campaign that saw him fight only once: a lopsided, at-times tedious five-round loss to Renan Barao for the UFC interim belt. It was his fifth loss in a title fight in a span of less than four years.

The very thought of Faber (30-6) in another title fight made some mixed martial arts fans sick to the stomach. It had become clear he couldn’t win the big one anymore, having lost five consecutive title fights across two weight classes.

The craziness of this resurgence story starts right there, with the fact Faber didn’t care. After that many heartbreaking defeats, nobody would have blamed him had he come out flat his next couple fights -- in fact, we probably expected him to.

Instead, here we are in December 2013 and the idea of Faber fighting for a title doesn’t even feel all that repetitive. It doesn’t feel like an undeserved gift based on his popularity. The man has never looked better.

“A lot of people have said [the UFC] is just looking for excuses to give Urijah Faber a title shot,” said UFC president Dana White. “You can’t deny it now. You can hate. You can dislike. You can do whatever you want, but you can’t deny him.

“Faber is in like this Vitor [Belfort] zone. The older he gets, the better he gets.”

White didn’t officially call Faber the No. 1 contender on Saturday, but it’s hard to see a scenario unfold in which he wouldn’t be.

Dominick Cruz will return from injury for the first time since October 2011 against Barao at UFC 169 in February. Faber is a marketable next opponent for the winner, regardless of who it is.

He has no hesitation in raising his hand for that opportunity, either. It’s not as if he’s felt out of his league in these title losses. A cracked rib hindered him against Barao. He broke his hand against Mike Brown. He still thinks he did enough to beat Cruz.

“Dana has paid me a great compliment by saying I’m the type of guy who believes I can beat anyone,” Faber said. “I’m ready to fight anyone, any time. I’ll fight Godzilla, King Kong, I don’t care. I’m a little bit delusional about it, even.

“My losses have been to Jose Aldo, Barao, I lost to Cruz when I thought I beat him, Mike Brown with a broken hand -- what do you guys want from me?”

One sort-of-interesting part about this whole thing is that Faber doesn’t seem to see it. In his mind, he was just going out and winning fights. He expected to win all four of his fights this year, and in the manner in which he did it.

He dismisses talk about fans not wanting to see him fight for a title or his inability to win the big one as merely “people looking for stuff to talk about.” And in some respect he’s probably right: We do love our storylines in this sport.

Still, Faber’s insanely fast return to legitimate title contender was one of the most impressive things to happen in the UFC this year. For all the hate he’s taken along the way, it needed to be pointed out.

Stars aligning for Benavidez, Alpha Male

December, 13, 2013
12/13/13
11:36
PM ET
Gross By Josh Gross
ESPN.com
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Joseph Benavidez saw his first live UFC card inside what was then the ARCO Arena in Sacramento, Calif.

Two fights into his pro career, Benavidez was happy enough sitting in the nosebleeds at UFC 65, eating hotdogs and watching Georges St-Pierre take the welterweight title from Matt Hughes.

"If someone tapped me in the shoulder and said seven years later you'll be down there doing the same thing I would have been like 'Get out of here, you're nuts,'" Benavidez said this week.

He would also owe that person an apology, because that's exactly what will happen Saturday when Benavidez gets a second chance at winning the UFC flyweight title against Demetrious Johnson at UFC on Fox 9.

"Never in in my wildest dreams," Benavidez said, despite being a dreamer.

Sacramento is the flyweight's home, and has been since 2007, when he sought out Urijah Faber before making the move from New Mexico.

Faber's camp, Team Alpha Male, was in its early days. Training out of Ultimate Fitness in the heart of California's capital, the operation was designed to provide Faber the best training he could get.

Faber, a former WEC 145-pound champion, had proved himself to be one of the best fighters below the lightweight limit. "The California Kid" turned out to be a pioneer, as well as a brand that has mattered for the past 10 years.

It's no surprise that the mixed martial artists who found a home at Faber's gym fight mostly between 125 to 155 pounds. Leading up to a card that features a four-pack of Alpha Male teammates looking to finish 2013 with a combined 14-0 record, the storyline seems like something you'd respond to by telling a person they're nuts.

But that's right. Benavidez, Faber, Chad Mendes and Danny Castillo will step into the Octagon inside the newly dubbed Sleep Train Arena before family and friends this weekend, aiming to complete an astounding year for themselves and their gym.

Faber would probably add the city he lives in to that list. The 34-year-old bantamweight, who meets young Michael McDonald in the co-feature, said he feels like he has come to understand how important it is to represent Sacramento as a community. This town and his gym share an identity, and it's important enough to embrace.

"I see this as me and my guys doing our part," explained Faber.

The great run of 2013 has largely been credited to the arrival of the team's new head coach, retired Muay Thai fighter and mixed martial artist Duane "Bang" Ludwig.

Ludwig is a technician. He loves detail and structure. And though he didn't accomplish as much as Faber has as a pro, and he's just a year older than the head of the gym, Ludwig's presence has been portrayed as a big boost.

[+] EnlargeJoseph Benavidez, Jussier Formiga
Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty ImagesJoseph Benavidez's title shot against UFC flyweight champ Demetrious Johnson will close out a standout year for multiple members of Team Alpha Male.
"We've had great coaches throughout time, guys that were really strong in some places but not others," Faber said. "But having Duane in there with his system, the confidence of having someone in there orchestrating everything, helps a lot. You can definitely see improvement."

Ludwig had a vision when he was a kid that one day he would train great a fighter. Faber and Alpha Male gave him his chance, and thus far they're better off for it. A co-op atmosphere has emerged in the gym, which suits Faber and his hippy-parent roots just fine.

Fighters bow when they step on and off the mat. They wear color shirts that signify ranking, like a belt around a gi. A martial arts feel has taken over the crew, and that's all from Ludwig, who said his life was changed many years ago and he has grown as a person because of the experience.

"When I have the guys step on the mat I ask four things of the guys," said Ludwig, who moved his family from Colorado to Sacramento for the job. "I ask them to show up on time. Get better. Get tired. And take care of their partners.

"Don't waste my time or your money."

Ludwig's influence. Stars aligning. Whatever the case may be, 2013 has been tremendous for the group.

"As far as the team, it's been an amazing year," Benavidez concluded. "I've gone out and gotten three wins. Faber has three wins. Chad is on streak to get his fifth knockout in a row, which would actually be a UFC record. I think he'd beat Shane Carwin.

"It seems somehow when we all fight on the same card our games get elevated, and just the fact that it's in Sacramento is crazy. You can't really count on everything being meant to be, but everything is in place to really make the year put that exclamation point on it."

Harris: Top 10 moments in WEC history

August, 29, 2013
8/29/13
12:06
PM ET
Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
ESPN.com
Archive
Miguel TorresJosh Hedges/Zuffa/UFC/WECMiguel Torres defended his bantamweight title at WEC 40 in a 2009 thriller against Takeya Mizugaki.
From World Extreme Cagefighting's launch in 2001 to its eventual merger with UFC in 2010, the WEC produced a number of memorable bouts, typically in the lower weight classes.

With a number of former WEC fighters competing Saturday at UFC 164 and one of its most infamous fights set to headline the card in Milwaukee, we took a look back at the best fights from the WEC's 10-year history through the eyes of founder and current UFC vice president of community relations Reed Harris.

So where exactly does the "Showtime kick" from Anthony Pettis rank among his favorite moments? Let's take a look back at Harris' top 10, including his personal memories of each one:

10. WEC 9: Olaf Alfonso SD John Polakowski, Jan. 16, 2004

Harris: Both guys broke their noses in the first 45 seconds of the fight. It was a war. In fact, [UFC president] Dana White was at the fight and HDNet was at the fight. And HDNet reported back to [channel owner] Mark Cuban, "We have to get this on our network." Polakowski took the fight on like two days. Really good striker but not very good on the ground. But Olaf was such a stud back then, he was like, "You know what? I'll stand with him." He just stood there for three rounds and they threw bombs.

9. WEC 29: Carlos Condit SUB1 Brock Larson, Aug. 5, 2007

Harris: It wasn't a fantastic fight, but what happened was Brock Larson was one of the strongest dudes I have ever seen. Like when that guy shook your hand, you were like, "Holy s---." He threw a punch at Condit, and Condit armbarred him, and it was so fast that I've never forgotten that moment. Larson was throwing bombs at him, he timed it perfectly and put that armbar on him and it was just, "Wow."

Henderson/Cerrone
Dave Mandel for Sherdog.comBenson Henderson won the first of two battles against Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone by unanimous decision in an exciting 2009 tilt at WEC 43.
8. WEC 43: Ben Henderson UD Donald Cerrone, Oct. 10, 2009

Harris: A lot of my memories about "Cowboy" are tied to Charles ["Mask" Lewis, Tapout co-founder]. Charles had gone and seen Donald, and he came to me and begged me to sign him -- and Charles was a guy who if he asked you to do something, he would call you every day until you did it. I remember how proud Charles was of [Cerrone]. He loved him.

7. WEC 44: Jose Aldo TKO2 Mike Brown, Nov. 18, 2009

Harris: It was the kind of moment where I really knew how good [Aldo] was. I remember the first time he jumped out of the cage [after knocking out Rolando Perez at WEC 38], I ran him back and I had never yelled at a fighter before. Poor Andre [Pederneiras] was interpreting it and it was basically, "If you ever do that again, I'll cut you." His next fight he won, I walked into the cage and he was running towards the door. He looked at me and smiled, then sat down.

6. WEC 38 and WEC 51: Donald Cerrone vs. Jamie Varner, Jan. 25, 2009 and Sept. 30, 2010

Harris: The fights between Varner and Cowboy [a technical-decision win for Varner followed by a unanimous-decision win for Cerrone] were epic. Those guys hated each other. There was so much going on behind the scenes. Biggest rivalry the WEC saw, by far. When Varner was fighting a year ago [in the UFC], he got sick, and I got a text from Donald saying something like, "You tell Varner to pull up his bootstraps and fight." I thought, "This is still going on and they haven't fought in [almost] two years."

5. WEC 53: Anthony Pettis UD Ben Henderson, Dec. 16, 2010

Harris: The fight itself was great, even without the kick. I'll tell you, when Pettis did that, I literally said, "What the hell just happened?" I didn't process it. I was watching live, and the angle I had wasn't good. I saw what happened, but I didn't know what he had done -- how he had gotten from where he was standing to all of a sudden, Ben was down. It was the most amazing thing I've ever seen someone do in MMA.

4. WEC 34: Urijah Faber UD Jens Pulver, June 1, 2008

Harris: I think we did about 1.5 million viewers, which for a company like WEC -- it's hard to be in that UFC space and command viewers. It was kind of a passing of the torch for Jens. I saw a lot of respect between the two but also a determination with Faber, like he was going to get through this. And I remember him dominating.

[+] EnlargeJose Aldo and Urijah Faber
Jon Kopaloff/Getty ImagesJose Aldo's WEC featherweight title defense against Urijah Faber was an emotional ride for the future UFC champion.
3. WEC 48: Jose Aldo UD Urijah Faber, April 24, 2010

Harris: I remember [afterward] Faber being hurt. I gave him a hug and asked how he was. His leg was a mess. Aldo cried in the back. He was so emotional. It was like all the work he had done in his life -- that moment was life-changing to him. I remember when he was standing in that cage before the fight and "California Love" came on, Jose's look was like, "Wow. This guy's got a lot of fans."

2. WEC 40: Miguel Torres UD Takeya Mizugaki, April 5, 2009

Harris: It was such a war. I just remember how excited the crowd was and how brutal the fight was. There's nothing like seeing two guys in the dressing room who have given it everything they got. They had gone to battle. And when Miguel Torres was on, he really was like Anderson Silva. He had this aura about him.

1. WEC 48: Leonard Garcia SD Chan Sung Jung, April 24, 2010

Harris: To have those two guys step up and fight the way they did leading into our pay-per-view -- I know it completely bumped our numbers. Part of the story people don't know is after the fight, I went to the dressing rooms and "Korean Zombie" was crying because he really thought he had won the fight. I was able to tell him he won the fight of the night bonus, which was $65,000, and just the elation on his face was something I'll never forget.

Faber: My motivation to fight is still there

August, 15, 2013
8/15/13
8:30
AM ET
Gross By Josh Gross
ESPN.com
Archive
Urijah Faber is in line to win his third straight fight Saturday in Boston. Five years have lapsed since the 34-year-old "California Kid" stitched together more than two victories. Those were the heady days of Faber's World Extreme Cagefighting championship run, which ended when a 13-bout winning streak crumbled as Mike Thomas Brown stunned Faber in the opening round.

In November, Faber will hit the one-decade mark as a professional mixed martial artist. It's been quite a run for a man who is as well known as any fighter under 155 pounds in MMA.

Since 2008, Faber is just 8-5 in the cage. But because of the way his body has held up, and the manner in which he owned Ivan Menjivar and Scott Jorgensen earlier this year, Faber feels that his best days are in front of him. As such, he's pining for blockbuster matchups.

"I'd like to talk with Dana [White] and Lorenzo [Fertitta] about some meaningful fights here coming up," he said.

Any chance of having it happen is contingent upon a victory in the TD Garden against Yuri Alcantara (28-4), who is neither a pushover nor household name. This, Faber lamented, is the biggest professional disappointment he's currently dealing with.

"I just wish there were more names in my weight class," he said. "The only other name that people are talking about is Ronda Rousey, and we can't do that fight. I wish there was more steam behind some of the fighters. It's a little bit frustrating, but it is what it is."

A significant chunk of fighters, from their earliest days in the sport, focus on nothing but competing, improving and testing their fortitude. In their world, little else matters. Faber (28-6) was able to accomplish everything he wanted in the cage and added more outside the cage that satisfied his urges.

ESPN: Do you have a specific goal in mind before you're done? Get to 50 fights? A specific UFC record? Anything along those lines that you hope to accomplish?

Urijah Faber: Not particularly, no.

ESPN: Is there a reason for that? You've always been a goal-oriented guy.

Faber: I've always been a goal-oriented guy, but I've never been a great planner. I've never thought things out and planned things out.

I'm someone who follows his heart. So when I look at a career like that, it's about how I feel. And right now I feel great. I'm training hard. I feel as an athlete and as a mixed martial artist I'm coming up to the peak of my performances. My skill level is high. My body still feels great. And my motivation is there. I want to keep building on that, and when that starts to fade, then I'll begin to think about an exit strategy. But that's not the case right now.

ESPN: Is it hard for you to wrap your head around the fact that you're 34 now? You've been doing this for a while.

Faber: It is kind of crazy to think that it's been 10 years in the sport. It flew by. You know; you were there. It seems like yesterday we were fighting at Indian casinos and no one knew who the heck we were. And we were celebrating all these little victories in MMA along the way, like the legalization of MMA in California. Even the fact of when Zuffa bought the UFC. Getting on TV for the first time. All these little benchmarks that are now so far in the distance even though they're only a couple years ago. It has been a really cool process, and I'm glad to be a part of it.

ESPN: You've had a chance to fight during a stretch in which the sport has grown probably more than it will ever grow in its history. I've had a chance to cover it as a reporter. We're pretty fortunate to have been around during this period. Do you feel the same?

Faber: Yeah, 100 percent. This is all history. We're part of the history. That's part of wanting to do the superfights is just knowing that this is a monumental time and there will be historic names in the sport. And I've fought a lot of them, but there's more to fight. I want to fight the guys that people will look back on [and reminisce about]. I wish there were a couple more guys out there, but I feel like there's a couple within my reach. Not only going for titles, but outside of that as well.

ESPN: Having been in the sport for 10 years and having been a champion holding major titles and headlining pay-per-views, where do you think your name belongs among all-time great fighters in MMA?

Faber: I don't really have time to sit back and evaluate my situation at this point. I'm just moving forward. I'll do that in a couple years when I decide to hang 'em up. I'll see where I stand.

ESPN: So you're not there yet. But do you feel comfortable enough with the things you've accomplished that at the end of the day people will talk about you in those terms? Does that matter to you?

Faber: I'm sure that I'll be a guy that's talked about for years to come. I sit and think about myself as a fan of boxing when I was a kid and the guys I think about and talk about, and it's kind of cool to be in a reverse situation, where I'm a guy that would influence some people's lives and a piece of entertainment for kids growing up and had monumental fights that people will talk about. Remember the Jens Pulver fight? The Mike Brown fight? That kind of thing. I like that aspect of it, and that's another reason I want to do these superfights. I want these fights that matter.

ESPN: The fight this weekend against Yuri Alcantara -- he's a guy that people don't really know. But he's dangerous, and based on his record, it's obvious he knows how to win fights and stop opponents. What kind of test are you expecting?

Faber: I'm expecting a test of the utmost. This guy is as tough as anyone I've fought. His record is 28-4, and he's been fighting in big shows in higher weight classes for a long time. I'm expecting to be pushed to the utmost, have to bring my A-game, and everything has to go as planned to get my hand raised. That's what I'm going to do.

ESPN: So when you get offered a guy like Alcantara, with no name, and you want these big superfights, what's the thought process for you in terms of taking the fight or not taking the fight?

Faber: I didn't realize that people are out there not taking fights, because for me it's been, they offer you a fight, from the position [UFC matchmakers] Joe Silva and Sean Shelby have, and you take it. This is all new to me. I'm going to fight that guy; I'm not going to fight this guy. I didn't know guys have been doing this the whole time.

ESPN: You've never been offered an opponent and thought "This won't do anything for me. I don't want to take it"? That's never happened?

Faber: I've been in a pretty unique position where I've been one of the biggest names in my weight class, so it's always been like I'm the bigger name in the situation. For me, I'm the guy that people are going to be talking about. In my situation right now, I just want to make sure I go out there and perform. Make sure that I have an exciting fight and I get the win.

ESPN: If everything goes the way you expect it will on Saturday, is there anyone you're going to call out? Maybe one or two guys who match what you want to do in terms of superfights and the right kind of exposure?

Faber: We'll have to see. I just want to focus on this fight first, and we'll speak from the heart when the time comes.

UFC in Boston primer: Rua's last stand?

August, 14, 2013
8/14/13
1:33
PM ET
Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
ESPN.com
Archive
UFC Fight Night 26 suffers from the same ailment nearly every UFC card will suffer from the rest of the year: It's not UFC 168 … or 167 … or 166.

Chris Weidman versus Anderson Silva is a fighting fan's Christmas. Georges St-Pierre versus Johny Hendricks is Thanksgiving. And Cain Velasquez versus Junior dos Santos III will feel like a second birthday to us all this year.

Chael Sonnen versus Mauricio Rua this weekend at TD Garden in Boston sort of feels like Flag Day in comparison.

But that said, there's a lot to like about Flag Day. Top to bottom, this is one of the stronger UFC cards fans will witness this year. Some events are structured around one fight and one fight only. Boston, on the other hand, features plenty to watch for.

FIVE STORYLINES


The legend of Conor McGregor

We are all getting way too carried away about McGregor -- but it's impossible not to. Simplest way to put it: When McGregor fights, you want to watch, and when he talks, you want to listen. It's not just that he's entertaining; he has this contagious passion about what he does. During a recent visit to Las Vegas, McGregor said he was so excited he stayed up shadowboxing in his hotel room until 5 a.m. He's in a hurry to be at the top, and Max Holloway wants to slow him down.

The curious case of Uriah Hall

You hear all the time how important the mental aspect is in martial arts. Hall has shown he has the physical tools, and on the surface, nothing seems out of sorts for him mentally. But that loss to Kelvin Gastelum in The Ultimate Fighter Finale was awkward. His team said he liked Gastelum too much to hurt him. Many of those watching called it cockiness. Neither is really an acceptable excuse for a fighter as talented as Hall. Expectations are high for him against John Howard.

The resurgence of Mike Brown

Brown hasn't really been under the spotlight for years, but for longtime martial arts observers he'll always be a name that jumps off the page. Two wins over Urijah Faber in the WEC put him on the map, but truth is Brown was just one of those guys who was always fun to watch. Something went wrong along the way, and the now 37-year-old endured a 2-4 stretch amid rumors of distractions in his personal life. He's back on a two-fight win streak coming into this fight against Steve Siler.

[+] EnlargeUrijah Faber
Ed Mulholland for ESPN.comAny loss at this point for MMA veteran Urijah Faber would be considered a major setback.
The quiet contenders

Since 2011, Matt Brown and Mike Pyle are a combined 11-2 in the Octagon, yet you won't find them on any top 10 welterweight rankings. Neither is willing to make a big point of that publicly, but there's no question both are getting a little anxious. After his last win, Brown said, "Just because a bunch of media people don't believe I'm good enough for a title shot doesn't mean it's true." Pyle, winner of four in a row, is itching to sign a fight against a top-10 opponent.

That Faber guy is back again

You can almost see the bile form in Faber's throat when forced to answer the same questions over and over leading up to these nontitle fights. "How much you got left in the tank, champ?" "Getting close to another title shot, Urijah, what's that feel like?" "Is the belt still the goal, buddy?" We should all come to this understanding that Faber feels great, he's excited to fight, and he wants a title shot, but the UFC won't give him one yet so he needs to keep winning. This fight against Yuri Alcantara might not feel big, but it's big for Faber. Any loss is a major setback.

FIVE QUESTIONS


What does Alistair Overeem look like?

He was Superman against Brock Lesnar and Clark Kent against Antonio Silva. No stranger to performance-enhancing drug accusations, Overeem is in a critical spot. He didn't look the same in February, his first appearance since producing a high testosterone-to-epitestosterone ratio in Nevada last year. He told ESPN.com he would never apply for testosterone-replacement therapy, despite tests that showed low levels after his last fight. There are a lot of variables floating around. Can Overeem be Superman again in the midst of them?

[+] EnlargeTravis Browne
Al Powers for ESPNIf Travis Browne can pass a difficult test against Alistair Overeem, he could be the biggest winner of the night.
Is Travis Browne for real?

Browne passes the eye test. He moves. He has heavyweight knockout power. His grappling is underrated. He seems like he's in shape, and his only loss came after his hamstring busted in the opening minute of a fight. Overeem -- whether he's at his best or not -- is going to test him, though. If Browne is spectacular, he could be the biggest winner of the entire night.

Is 'Shogun' still elite?

Rua is slowing down. It never really felt as though he was going to lose to Brandon Vera last August, but we were sort of expecting a windmill dunk and got a weak layup instead. Then in December, it seemed like he was operating on fumes against a physical Alexander Gustafsson. Three of the last five men Shogun has defeated are now retired. How worried should we be about this?

Is the self-proclaimed 'Gangster' going to lose three in a row?

Whether you like Sonnen or not, this is a man who does not avoid tough fights. He has gone from Silva to Jon Jones to a light heavyweight contest against a former champion in Rua. Sonnen is undersized for this division -- a fact made obvious by his decision to return to middleweight regardless of what happens in Boston. Sonnen can survive a loss if it comes to it, but a proposed fight against Vitor Belfort can't.

Is Michael McDonald the third-best bantamweight in the world?

Both ESPN.com and UFC rankings still have McDonald trailing Faber. Both fight on this Boston card. No doubt, a certain contingent of MMA fans would rank McDonald ahead of Faber heading into this weekend, but it's close. If the 22-year-old runs through Brad Pickett, it will be difficult not to bump him up.

WHO'S ON THE HOT SEAT?


Michael Johnson

[+] EnlargeManny Gamburyan
Dave Mandel of Sherdog.comManny Gamburyan is in need of a victory just as bad as Saturday's opponent and former TUF teammate Cole Miller.
The once promising career of a TUF runner-up has hit a major crossroads. Johnson looked like a tough matchup after disposing of Shane Roller and Tony Ferguson, but he was nearly knocked out by Danny Castillo before suffering back-to-back losses. He's still not out of his league against Joe Lauzon -- at least we think.

Manny Gamburyan

Seems like a lifetime ago that Gamburyan fought his way to a WEC title shot against Jose Aldo. Fighting Gamburyan is like fighting an angry fire hydrant; he's compact and seemingly made of metal. He also has a long history with the UFC, although a 1-3 record in his last four fights is tough to look past.

Cole Miller

Might as well discuss Gamburyan's opponent as well. These two know each other well from their days on the TUF 5 reality set on Team Jens Pulver. Now, Miller needs a win just as badly as his former teammate, having gone 1-2 since his drop to featherweight last year.

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE


Because there's still more to 2013 than a middleweight rematch, even though it doesn't feel like it sometimes … because over the course of his career, Shogun is 6-for-6 when it comes to knocking out opponents following a loss … because two of the most explosive heavyweights are incredibly hungry going into the same fight … because Brown and Pyle are fighting each other with the exact same chip on their respective shoulders … because McGregor might be the most fun athlete the UFC has on its roster.

Cruz shows patience, progress in recovery

August, 9, 2013
8/09/13
9:45
AM ET
Gross By Josh Gross
ESPN.com
Archive
Dominick CruzDave Mandel for Sherdog.com After two knee operations, Dominick Cruz has been cleared by doctors to do some training.

An anniversary Dominick Cruz wouldn't wish to celebrate is fast approaching.

Oct. 1 will mark two years since the UFC bantamweight champion was healthy enough to defend his belt in the Octagon. That's 24 months of prime real estate for a world-class fighter, meaning rather than competing against the likes of Renan Barao, he has been forced to recuperate through two ACL surgeries.

Cruz has dealt well with various disappointments over these many months. A blown-out knee in May 2012 cost him a trilogy bout against his heated rival Urijah Faber. At the end of last year, he required a second surgery after his body rejected an anterior cruciate ligament pulled from a cadaver.

Less than three weeks after Cruz turns 28 on Sept. 3, Barao will attempt his second defense of the UFC interim bantamweight title against Eddie Wineland in Toronto. By then "The Dominator" is hoping to have progressed to the point that he won't need to nurse his knee and, instead, can spar hard as he's wont to do.

Cruz's life right now is a series of eight-week training camps, said his longtime trainer Eric Del Fierro. There isn't a timetable for a full recovery because Del Fierro is concerned if Cruz has a firm date planted in his head the 135-pounder will "start pushing too hard." Instead, the trainer has established specific goals that are met incrementally.

"He's a special kind of athlete," Del Fierro said, "so I have to control his mind sometimes."

Cruz told ESPN.com Thursday that he had just been cleared by doctors to drill grappling and Brazilian jiu-jitsu sequences. A far cry from full-on sparring, though that may not be so far away if everything falls into place as he and his team hope.

"If it were up to him he'd be going 100 percent," the trainer said. "We're just following doctors' orders."

In an interview with MMAFighting.com this week, Barao claimed Cruz told him February 2014 had been targeted for a unification fight. Cruz, however, said Barao "misunderstood due to the language barrier," and it's merely a goal at the moment.

"Right now I'm doing no weight-bearing training -- that's why I'm just getting cleared to grapple now because grappling would be considered weight-bearing exercises," Cruz said.

[+] EnlargeDominick Cruz vs Urijah Faber
Ed Mulholland for ESPN.comWhen he's back in the cage, don't expect Dominick Cruz to take any tuneup fights.
In an attempt to keep things fresh, and, more important, stop Cruz from overexerting and hurting himself, Del Fierro set up a series of mini training camps "to show progress with his rehab." Cruz, a famously hard worker in the gym, bought into the "step-by-step" recovery sessions and experienced steady progress.

Next on the list is returning to the mat at Alliance MMA in Chula Vista, Calif., even if it's just to drill technique and position. Once that hurdle is cleared, live sparring should follow.

"So now I begin that portion of the eight weeks," Cruz said. "Then I get cleared to kick and add things together until I can do everything."

Cruz's extended absence hasn't caused Del Fierro to believe his charge needs a tuneup when he's finally able to return. They're not expecting or wishing for anything less than the best possible opponent.

"I wouldn't put anyone in a fight that didn't have a good camp, or wasn't 100 percent focused in camp," Del Fierro said. "Literally you're going to face every single scenario in camp that you would in a fight. If Dominick's running through a camp at 100 percent, there's no reason he shouldn't be able to face anybody in competition in the cage."

NorCal continues takeover as MMA hotbed

April, 17, 2013
4/17/13
10:55
AM ET
Gross By Josh Gross
ESPN.com
Archive
videoCalifornia has long been inundated with mixed martial arts gyms, which isn't the sort of thing that just happens.

The Gracie family settled near Los Angeles in the 1980s, and therefore so did Brazilian jiu-jitsu. After several years, the UFC arose out of an idea centered on marketing and selling what the Gracie family embraced as a value system. This was so successful that competitors flocked to the West Coast with some looking for grappling expertise and others just seeking a fight, of which there were plenty.

Soon the Golden State, particularly its southern half, was regarded as the "Mecca for MMA," especially as events and fighters and camps were covered by a burgeoning press that proliferated on the Internet as the sport struggled to gain traction in more traditional settings.

California approved the first set of codified MMA rules 13 years ago this month. Many of the UFC's early top draws -- from Royce Gracie, Ken Shamrock and Tank Abbott to Tito Ortiz and Chuck Liddell -- made their homes there. Anyone who knew anything about MMA is aware of the cultural impact of TapouT, a Southern California-formed company. Most of the MMA fights that took place on Native American lands from 1993 to 2003 were sandwiched between Fresno and the U.S.-Mexico border.

Over the past decade, however, in the wake of regulation and the sport's movement away from underground events, there's been a shift to the North in terms of where the best fighters and camps are located in California.

In 2013, California's world-class training facilities feature some of MMA's best fighters, including seven Northern Californian residents set to enter the Octagon on Saturday in San Jose. And while Southern California continues to hum along, producing a massive amount of talent as it goes, the appearance of vibrant fight teams in the mold of Shamrock's San Diego-based Lion's Den, or Ortiz's crew in Huntington Beach, is more likely a northern phenomenon.

Three major groups have come to represent NorCal MMA: Cesar Gracie jiu-jitsu, American Kickboxing Academy and Urijah Faber's Ultimate Fitness. Their impact on Saturday's card is undeniable. At the same time, SoCal teams have seemingly fallen apart. Shamrock is almost all but forgotten. Ortiz's crew splintered many times over. There are pockets of consistency, including the Inland Empire which features Millennia jiu-jitsu and Dan Henderson's Team Quest affiliate in Temecula. But it's hard to argue against the reality that the North has taken over the South for the state's MMA supremacy, particularly when it comes to raising homegrown talent.

During Saturday's main event on Fox, Gilbert Melendez will attempt to bring home UFC gold to a group of guys who have been together for well over 10 years (a fourth title try in the Octagon for the Cesar Gracie crew in 24 months). The co-feature: AKA's unbeaten rising star Daniel Cormier against former UFC heavyweight champion Frank Mir. The next chapter in a competitive but mostly friendly rivalry between AKA and Cesar Gracie, camps situated about an hour drive apart, pits Josh Thomson and Nate Diaz. On the undercard, the Faber-influenced trio of Chad Mendes, Joseph Benavidez, and T.J. Dillashaw will get in some work.

Major Southern California promotions aren't happening like they used to -- a product of saturation, fan complacency and promotional indifference -- so events that mattered in terms of finding talent, say those put on by King of the Cage in the early 2000s, haven't been relevant in years. Meanwhile, NorCal gyms cultivated direct pipelines into Stikeforce or UFC.

The competitive shift from SoCal or NorCal can be traced to several factors, none more noteworthy than the emergence of Strikeforce as a platform for Bay Area fighters.

Big California fight camps once synonymous with Orange County or the Inland Empire haven't been for some time. This seems tied to opportunity more than anything else, yet NorCal fighters like to suggest it has as much to do with their grittiness and determination as it does with promotional platforms. SoCal fighters would disagree, but this is how the guys up North view what's happening in the state.

And results suggest they're on the correct side of things.

For Jorgensen, Faber friendship on hold

April, 10, 2013
4/10/13
1:25
PM ET
McNeil By Franklin McNeil
ESPN.com
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Scott Jorgensen Rod Mar for ESPNScott Jorgensen will check his friendship with Urijah Faber at the cage door on Saturday.

It finally comes to an end Saturday night. Scott Jorgensen won’t have to answer any more questions about his longtime friendship with upcoming opponent Urijah Faber.

When this fight was announced in February, Jorgensen knew he’d get bombarded with questions about the close relationship between Faber and himself. The former WEC featherweight champion played a key role in encouraging Jorgensen to become a mixed martial artist.

In the beginning Jorgensen was okay with the questioning and answered them without a hitch. It was easy, routine: Jorgensen just provided the same answers to the same questions. But the friendship questions never stopped, and soon Jorgensen started struggling to keep a straight face and his cool. Thus far, he has persevered. Just a few more days and Jorgensen can finally address the real issue surrounding this bout -- that this contest is potentially a fight-of-the-year candidate.

These are two highly skilled, highly aggressive bantamweights. And Jorgensen intends to give fight fans a performance they will not soon forget.

This TUF 17 Finale main event isn’t about friendship; it’s about a style matchup that likely will have every spectator inside Mandalay Bay Events Center on their feet.

“There are a lot more dynamics to this fight than the fact we are friends,” Jorgensen told ESPN.com. “We’re both very aggressive. We’re both very mentally tough.

“He has great submissions. I hit hard from the bottom, from guard. He’s got vicious elbows; I’ve got elbows. Our striking’s dynamic, and we don’t hesitate.

“These are the things that a lot of people are missing. This is a god matchup, style-wise, for excitement, for the fans. You have two guys who know what’s exactly at stake. I’m not going to back down and he’s not going to back down.”

It’s business as usual for two wrestlers who have stuffed their bank accounts with several "Fight of the night" and "Submission of the night" bonuses. Jorgensen and Faber rarely come up short in the excitement department.

This is the message Jorgensen has been trying to get across for weeks. But no one seemed to listen.

If he it was up to Jorgensen, he would have stopped answering those friendship-with-Faber questions a long time ago. But being the consummate professional, he continues to conduct himself appropriately and put on his best I-am-happy-to-answer-your-latest-friendship question.

Jorgensen’s patience, however, is wearing thin. But in a few days it will finally come to an end -- no more questions about his friendship with Faber.

[+] EnlargeScott Jorgensen
Dave Mandel/Sherdog.comJorgensen's hard-charging approach should make for great fight against Faber.
It doesn’t mean that Jorgensen will have rid himself of answering single-topic questions. A win over Faber and Jorgensen might have to address a slew of inquiries regarding his thoughts on possibly fighting for the title.

It’s a subject Jorgensen would prefer to avoid. He is a man who will take on anyone placed in front of him. If that opponent happens to hold the UFC bantamweight title, so be it.

Jorgensen just prefers not to talk much about potentially landing a title shot.

“It doesn’t matter,” Jorgensen said. “The title shots come when they come and the only way to get them is to continue putting up W’s. I just go out there to fight; it’s what I love to do.”

Jorgensen also would love to win his second fight in a row. He defeated John Albert by first-round submission on Dec. 8 to end a two-fight skid.

Getting past Faber, who is ranked No. 2 among 135-pound fighters by ESPN.com, won’t be easy. These two are very familiar with one another, having trained together in the past.

Each man will have a fight plan in place, but neither is likely to be married to it. There will be a lot of improvising in the cage Saturday night -- Jorgensen almost guarantees it.

“Come fight night he will bring his A game, I will bring my A game and we will put on a damn show and make ourselves proud,” said Jorgensen, who is the ESPN.com seventh-ranked bantamweight. “I’m going to go in there and through my fists around until one of them hits him.

“I’ve got my game plan; he’s got his game plan. I’m very bull-headed; he’s very bull-headed.”

Sounds like fight fans are in for a treat. This is a bout you might want to watch with a friend.

UFC offenders have little room to operate

February, 27, 2013
2/27/13
4:23
PM ET
Gross By Josh Gross
ESPN.com
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Matt RiddleRic Fogel for ESPN.comWelterweight Matt Riddle, right, saw his second failed drug test lead to his release from the UFC.
I'm not going to defend Matt Riddle, who seems intent on messing up a good thing after being popped a second time for pot in three fights.

The massive welterweight will likely lose another hard-earned win to marijuana, meaning rather than riding a four-fight win streak and a record of 9-3 into the upper echelon of the division, the 27-year-old is 7-3 (2 NC) and a free agent after having his contract terminated by the UFC.

We can argue all day whether or not testing for weed and classifying it a performance enhancer (or a Schedule 1 drug alongside the likes of heroin) makes sense. But forget that for now. Bottom line is Riddle, a self-described medical marijuana user who hasn't fought outside the Octagon as a pro, couldn't stay clean based on UFC's testing in London.

As a result, he fell prey to bad timing (with all of these cuts) and UFC's inconsistency in matters such as these. The timing issue, well, that's life. Arbitrary lines in the sand from UFC? Well, I guess that's life, too. But at least that's something that can be improved upon, and based on a statement the promotion put out Wednesday, it may have already.

"The UFC organization is exercising its right to terminate Riddle for breach of his obligations under his Promotional Agreement as well as the UFC Fighter Conduct Policy," according to a statement published on the UFC web site. "The UFC organization has a strict, consistent policy against the use of any illegal and/or performance-enhancing drugs, stimulants or masking agents."

I have long advocated for something similar when it comes to steroid users in the Octagon. Hey, even if a cut is sure to happen after two steroid-related episodes, it would send an urgently needed message: Use this stuff anywhere but here. Instead, UFC has selected who to stick by and who to dump, which basically makes it impossible for fighters to draw any conclusions.

Maybe that day is done. Maybe the takeaway from Zuffa's response to Riddle is that screw-ups, even screw-ups that might win -- dare I say screw-ups who are also great fighters -- don't have much room to operate in the UFC right now.

We'll see how the next one is handled. But heads up to Dave Herman (twice popped for pot offenses in the UFC), Nick Diaz (pot and press conferences), Jon Jones (the DWI), Chris Leben (steroids and drugs and DUIs), Jeremy Stephens (alleged to have participated in the beating of a man in a parking lot) and the rest.

Maybe your time has come.

Injury bug attacks flyweights, too

Urijah FaberRic Fogel for ESPNAn injury to Demetrious Johnson allowed Urijah Faber a chance to take over an April 13 main event.
If you were under the impression that flyweights were immune to the injury bug, it's best to just forget that.

Demetrious Johnson won't fight John Moraga at The Ultimate Fighter 17 Finale after it was learned the UFC 125-pound champ, Johnson, had been injured. With no reason to keep Moraga on the card, UFC churned out an interesting bantamweight contest that should pique some interest.

Urijah Faber, fresh off an impressive win over Ivan Menjivar, takes on his old pal Scott Jorgensen in the new main event on April 13 in Las Vegas.

"[Two] buds punching each other!" chimed in Faber on Twitter.

"Crazy, I wouldn't be fighting if he [hadn't] talked me into [it] in college!" tweeted Jorgensen.

With the recent roster trimming, the ability for friends and training partners to avoid fighting one another is likely to dwindle. It will be interesting to see how things play out if guys like Faber and Jorgensen aren't willing to step in the cage. More will be, but not all. Those that refuse could pay a heavy price.

As for the fight, give me Faber, but it won't be easy. Also, beating Jorgensen wouldn't be enough, I don't think, for fans to demand "The California Kid" receives yet another title shot. Though it would move him down that path.

Shamhalaev deserving of Bellator title shot

Shahbulat ShamhalaevKeith Mills/Sherdog.comShahbulat Shamhalev benefitted from an injury to Daniel Straus to gain a shot at Pat Curran's title.
Injuries, obviously, aren't restricted to the UFC. On Tuesday, Bellator lost its next featherweight title fight when it was revealed Daniel Straus injured a hand while training to fight 145-pound champion Pat Curran.

The tournament format that delivered Straus also produced Shahbulat Shamhalaev after the 29-year-old Russian knocked out Rad Martinez in the second round last Thursday. Shamhalaev appears to be a legit contender to Curran's title and I'm glad Bellator slotted him into the fight, which they did Wednesday.

Shamhalaev wrapped an especially grueling tournament thanks to two postponements. There was some concern he wouldn't have time to put in a proper camp, which he obviously deserves after bowling through last season's 145 field. But the heavy-handed featherweight agreed to take the bout. That's good news because another option for Bellator was a rematch between Curran and Patricio "Pitbull" Freire. While their five-round fight on Jan. 17 was good, it wasn't memorable enough for fans to clamor for an immediate rematch. Not from what I've seen, anyhow.

Curran-Shamhalaev should make for a high-paced, well-contested title contest, which despite Curran's ability, could result in another Russian staking his turf in Bellator. I wouldn't put it past Shamhalaev as featherweight ranks among Bellator's best weight classes.

If there's a debate to be had about that, the light heavyweight division would not find many supporters. Thursday at the Santa Ana Star Center in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, Christian M'Pumbu defends his light heavyweight belt against Atilla Vegh.

More interesting, perhaps, is the next leg of the 155-pound tournament, which includes top prospect Will Brooks. Saad Awad will try to rip his head off. Also, David Rickels appears to have gained an advantage on the field by fighting alternate Jason Fischer, whom "The Caveman" out-pointed in November.

Brooks is the guy to beat, especially after Alexander Sarnavskiy was injured.

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