In a lot of ways, Urijah Faber’s fight Sunday against Raphael Assuncao doesn’t make much sense. Faber is the WEC’s top star – that can’t be denied. His fights draw a significantly larger television audience than any other WEC competitor and he absolutely oozes charisma from every pore of his body. But this is the fight game. Stars can be built in an instant and come crashing down just as quickly, all predicated on the simple premise that winning and losing matter. Faber has lost two recent high profile fights to former WEC Featherweight Champion Mike Brown. To stay in the spotlight, to draw those ratings VERSUS needs so badly, he must come back strong with a big win. If there was ever a time to deploy a tomato can, or even a fighter stylistically ill suited for Faber’s skillset, it is now. But Urijah Faber is not that kind of fighter. And the WEC is not that kind of promotion.
“I don’t want to disrespect fighters at that level by giving them fights that fans can look at and say ‘Okay, they are just throwing him another cupcake.’ I won’t do that to them,” WEC matchmaker Sean Shelby said. “I think Urijah appreciates that. Truth be told, Urijah actually asked about Raphael first. I can’t take credit for that 100 percent. I have to give credit to Urijah for that. I think that’s a testament to what kind of fighter he is.”
Assuncao is an incredibly dangerous opponent for Faber, for anyone really. He’s unquestionably a top ten fighter, but one not well known by fight fans, even the rabid fans of the WEC. Faber is returning to the cage by walking directly into the lion’s den, but it is a feat of daring no one will recognize. The risk-reward ratio is askew here. If he beats Assuncao, Faber will have accomplished little in the minds of most fans; after all, it’s a fight he was supposed to win. If he loses, it will be devastating to his short term potential as a drawing card. In effect, the WEC will have to spend months rebuilding his image before he can realistically challenge for a title. The decision to book this very dangerous fight points clearly to what kind of promotion the WEC intends to be. They want to find the best fighters, regardless of mass appeal, nationality, or name brand.
“My job is to find the best fighters in the world. Not only the best fighter, but the second best and the third best and the fourth best. The chips fall where they fall. That’s my job. I’ll let marketing and PR worry about the other stuff. It’s pure sport,” Shelby said. But the matchmaker thinks that pure sport can also sell. “Take Lyoto Machida for example. He transcends language and cultures. He’s an incredible fighter. He’s a Brazilian who hardly speaks any English. But he’s connected with the American public like few fighters have. It’s a testament to what can be done.”
That leaves us with a great fight, and one more important than it appears on its face. If Faber loses, WEC officials may not have the freedom to test popular young stars this way much longer. There will be pressure from others in Zuffa, in the media, and from television partners like VERSUS to keep the fighters that draw ratings and box office strong. The WEC vision, the concept of matching the world’s best regardless of “Q” ratings or nationality is at stake. Faber is fighting not just to win, but for the soul of the WEC, the last bastion of pure sport left in MMA.