Next Thursday night, long-time WEC poster boy Urijah Faber will make his bantamweight debut against Takeya Mizugaki.
If “The California Kid” comes away with a win, he’ll make an even more important debut in early 2011.
By beating Mizugaki, Faber would set up a second meeting current bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz. The two met a handful of years ago when Cruz challenged for Faber’s featherweight title; the loss remains the sole blemish on the current champion’s resume. With all due respect to Cruz, Faber is the 135-pound fighter who holds the key to solidifying the WEC divisions as viable pieces of the puzzle.
Faber is one of the few stars to crossover from the WEC who have the pre-established stardom to help deliver the lighter weight-classes to the new audience in the UFC. The leader of Team Alpha Male is already a known quantity in the business, and while he’s lost three of his last five fights, the move down to the 135-pound division could be the kind of career renaissance that return Faber to the pound-for-pound rankings he called home for quite some time.
Now, he’ll get the chance to do that with the marketing and promotional backing of the UFC, and that cannot be underestimated.
There is no denying Faber’s charisma and connection with fans. His first bout with Jens Pulver put the WEC on the map for a lot of people, and despite competing on the smaller Zuffa brand, the 31-year-old was the feature of national ad campaigns for Amp energy drinks and launched the successful Form Athletics line that was recently purchased by K-Swiss.
Faber’s obvious marketability made him an easy choice as one of the main event competitors for the WEC’s first and only pay-per-view effort back in April. Though he came in as the underdog and limped out as another victim of Jose Aldo’s incredible all-around game, Faber remains one of the lone competitors from the organization who carries the name recognition that will play an important role in introducing the division to long-time UFC fans.
That’s why a return engagement with Cruz is a safe bet, provided Faber gets through Mizugaki. While the bantamweight champion has established himself as one of the top pound-for-pound competitors in the sport, fans that have been focused solely on the UFC in recent years have no connection to Cruz. The same can’t be said of Faber.
In addition to his co-starring role with Aldo in the April pay-per-view that went without organizational branding, Faber has been highlighted at cageside on numerous UFC events over the years. Though it may seem simple, those repeated appearances on camera engrain the face and name of the former UC-Davis standout into the memories of fans. Should the opportunity arise next year for a Cruz – Faber main event, fans will remember the oft-mentioned Faber from his front-row appearance past.
It’s the same changing of the guard, passing of the torch scenario that we’ve seen countless times over the years. Talented veterans on the downside of their careers, but still carrying a great deal of popularity and name value stand opposite their emerging opponent, helping to expose them to a new audience, establishing them for future opportunities in the process. While the pairing is more than just a mission to introduce the lesser-known fighter to the crowd, stars like Faber understand that it is part of their responsibility as a bona fide star.
Before earning a chance at championship gold in the bantamweight division, Faber has to get through the durable and talented Mizugaki. After earning Fight of the Night honors in a spirited debut loss to then-champion Miguel Torres, the Japanese fighter has gone 2-1, his lone loss coming to current #1 contender Scott Jorgensen in another Fight of the Night effort.
Despite his history of success in the featherweight division, many observers believe that the 135-pound division is an even better fit for Faber. He was able to dominate earlier in his career as the most complete athlete in the division. Now that the competition has caught up and perhaps passed Faber, the former 145-pound champion is able to drop down closer to the weight he wrestled at in college and begin the next stage of his career.
After becoming a star on the smaller stage of the WEC, Faber will finally get the chance to showcase his skills to the largest audiences imaginable as a member of the UFC.
Though someone else carries the championship gold, it is Faber’s surfer-boy looks, charismatic personality and explosive talents in the cage that will help bring the newly-added bantamweight division to the ravenous UFC fans in 2011. Step one in that process comes on Thursday, the final WEC appearance in the career of the greatest fighter in the organization’s history.