Urijah Faber will always be “The California Kid,” but that doesn’t change the fact that this weekend he will be the oldest athlete to compete at UFC 245 in Las Vegas.
Faber (35-10) is in the process of navigating the final chapter of his storied mixed martial arts career. The Sacramento native retired from the sport in late 2016 but elected to return to the Octagon earlier this year against an up-and-comer in Ricky Simon. Faber scored a shocking knockout in that fight, just 46 seconds in.
On Saturday, he will meet 26-year-old Russian Petr Yan, whom some have pegged as the bantamweight division’s future champion. Should Faber, who has been fighting professionally for more than 15 years, upset Yan at UFC 245, he could find his way into title contention. For all of Faber’s success in the sport, winning a UFC championship is the one thing he never accomplished, despite his challenging for one on four occasions.
In the UFC’s 25-year history, only one fighter has won a title fight after his 40th birthday: former heavyweight and light heavyweight champ Randy Couture. Faber is looking to become the second.
But as much as a UFC title would add to Faber’s legacy, it isn’t the reason he’s still fighting at age 40. Why is Faber still going? What is he hoping to accomplish, and how does he feel about what he already has? Here are those answers, in his own words.
My first fight was in 2003. Mixed martial arts was illegal in California, so all of my fights were on Native American reservations. The lightest weight class was 155 pounds. I had wrestled in college at 133 pounds.
I got paid $200 to show up and an extra $200 to win, and if I could sell some tickets, I’d get a little piece of the sales. I was bussing tables and coaching wrestling, making well below the poverty line — and I felt like I was living the dream, to be honest.
I was going to all the local gyms around Sacramento. I would coach wrestling at UC Davis during the day and then go to jiu-jitsu somewhere. I met this slick-talking guy in this hole-in-the-wall gym, who was like, “I can get you a fight.” So he called the promoter and lied about a bunch of stuff, said he was my trainer and this and that and got me a fight. I was like, “Damn, this is real.” I didn’t tell my mom.
I was hustling. I started selling “Team Alpha Male” T-shirts in 2004. The fight scene in Sacramento was kind of like the fight scene today but just on a very small scale — and even more characters. It was, like, toothless folks in the crowd, beer spilling over. Anybody who wanted to be a fighter could be. They’d pull guys out of the crowd. We’d get a guest fighter at some of the events: Randy Couture, Tito Ortiz, Rampage Jackson. That was a big deal. It was the Wild West. I was wearing shoes at the time in the cage. You could knee to the head on the ground. There was no weight class for me. I didn’t have insurance for the first nine or 10 fights of my career, which is crazy.
I realized I was special in this before I started doing it. Had I not thought that, I would not have fought. You had to have, like, an unrealistic belief in yourself. Before there was money, before there was fame, before there was a weight class for me, I remember me having these massive visions of what I could do and what it would be like. You know, it’s funny because I preach to the guys all the time — I mentor this team — and I talk about being almost delusional. I feel like my success has been a little bit of delusion and a bit of foresight.
It was not a smart path, you know? If you want to go to the NFL, you play little league, then you play junior high, then you play high school, then you go to college, then you get drafted. For us, there was nothing. You had to stand out. You had to beat up everybody. You had to have some good luck, and you had to not give up. Have you seen that cartoon where the guy’s got a chisel, and he’s eating away at the wall, and the gold’s right on the other side? I’ve seen so many people just pick up their shovel and leave — when the gold’s right there.
“I was bussing tables and coaching wrestling, making well below the poverty line — and I felt like I was living the dream, to be honest.”
Urijah Faber on the start of his MMA career in 2003
My career has been fun all the way through, but I would say the very beginning was the most fun, when things started to really pick up. It was a long, jagged road from me being the face of an organization at WEC, which meant I had to win, you know? And being a champion was something — that’s why I got into this sport. It was awesome being a WEC champion, but it’s still hard work. I was still working hard to get the media to follow us, and the pay wasn’t that good.
For me, the journey has been amazing. When you look at why you’re doing something, it’s to be the best, absolutely, and also because you love it. I look back at some of my favorite fighters, guys who had long careers, such as George Foreman or Muhammad Ali, and the people they fought at the beginning of their careers and the end of their careers can span 50 years of fighting, which is awesome, and it means a lot to me. Me, beating someone such as Jens Pulver, who was there for the first UFC events, and now fighting a guy such as Petr Yan, who’s probably going to be fighting until he’s 40 — I take pride in that because there are a lot of flashes in the pan in this sport.
I enjoyed being retired. I was busier than usual. I’ve accomplished more, monetarily, in my retired time than I have my whole fight career. But I still know there’s a real timetable on this profession, and there will be a time when I cannot do it. I started to get the itch to compete again for a number of reasons. My new baby being born, the new status of MMA in the world, how I’m stacking up with the younger guys at the gym and the lay of the land at 135 pounds. I don’t want to be the guy who says I’m retired and comes back, but I think I’m still a badass.
I’ve always been proud of what I’ve done, though there were times I felt like I should have won the belt. My goal is to be the best, and I will train for that, but I’m not defined by whether I’ve got the belt. I know me. I know how proud I am of what I’ve done. Now, would it be a great story to go out with the strap? And can I do it? Absolutely, especially a motivated me. My past seven fights, the preparation was on point, but the excitement level was just not there.
Fighting at 40, that’s part of my delusion still kicking in. It’s a blessing, that delusion. I don’t think about age. Since birth, I’ve been raised by, like, religious hippies who fed me the best stuff on the planet — bee pollen, wheatgrass juice, raw apple cider — all this crap to keep you young. And I think it worked. I feel young. Now, if you look at the most knowledgeable guys on the planet, they’re all old. They have this knowledge that has piled up over time, but their bodies give out. I just happened to be able to keep my faculties and body in tip-top shape.
This fight against Yan is the toughest fight out there, and that’s the ones I want. I talked to Dana White, and Dana is always fair with me. I said, “Look, I’ll fight whoever you want. Give me the toughest dudes.” He gave me a bunch of options, and he said, “This is the guy we think is the man. You beat him, you’re in title contention.” And I said, “All right, let’s do that.” Yan is my kind of guy. He doesn’t give up. He poses a lot of danger. He’s a guy who could be a champion in the future. I’m like, “You guys want me to fight this guy because he’s the guy, the young guy you want to give a chance to fight me? Let’s do it.”
I’ve been very lucky in the fact that I don’t have to fight. That was part of me retiring, was making sure I do not have to fight to make a living. I mean, I’m one fight away from retiring every fight. And it’s just a feeling with me. I could have retired after the last one. It would have been a nice way to go out, but if I look back at all the legends of the sport, the guys who stayed around too long or the guys who got out early, they’re still just celebrated. Some people were like, “Oh, you went out on a high note.” I’m like, “Not really.” I lost a world championship fight to Dominick Cruz, then I lost a lackluster fight to Jimmie Rivera. I had a big win before I retired, but it’s not like I went out a world champion.
I went out in 2016 because I wanted to, and I’m back because I want to. I’m like, “Man, I can go test myself, get paid a lot more money, and it could be a lot more fun. And I could also get in there and get that UFC title that’s eluded me, which would be a nice little icing on the cake. And if I wait any longer, it’s probably not gonna happen. So let’s jump in, and put the foot in the water.” And if I do win the title, that’s a movie. We’ll make the movie. Faber Films will be making that movie. It’d be pretty impressive, and it’s very, very, very possible. It’d be the pinnacle of my career, absolutely.