Urijah Faber’s forces
Following a storied fighting career, The California Kid looks to develop the next UFC stars here in Sacramento
A month into his retirement, Urijah Faber still bore the marks of the profession that dominated nearly two decades of his life. A couple of fresh scratches on his face and neck were clearly visible, still red from not quite scabbed up blood. The slightly discolored skin between his nose and right eye was a bit harder to discern.
“I got head-butted by a 21-year-old kid shooting a double-leg [takedown],” the mixed-martial-arts legend said, recalling a practice session the previous day.
Still, Faber is instantly recognizable, even in an oversized sweat suit that engulfs the 5-foot-6, 135-pound frame that made him a compact, bantamweight threat through dozens of professional (and some underground) bouts. He may be retired from competition, but it’s clear Faber isn’t done with the $4 billion sport that turned a kid from Lincoln into an international icon, or the drudgery of long days and nights at the gym plying his brutal craft like the Obi Wan Kenobi of guillotine chokeholds.
“It would feel weird to just stop cold-turkey,” Faber, 37, said while sitting in a makeshift lounge area at what will soon be his new Ultimate Fitness gym near Sacramento State University. “This is what I do. I’m an athlete.”
In truth, Faber is hungry to be much more.
Almost a decade removed from his last championship title, the ex-fighter dubbed The California Kid is looking to pivot from respected warrior to business mogul—with those aspirations planted firmly in Sacramento. Now, as he prepares to open a 20,000-square-foot training facility, inside what used to be a historic appliance warehouse on Folsom Boulevard, Faber’s grand ambitions have a headquarters.
“The way this thing is set up, it’s going to be like a gladiator pit in here,” Faber gushed during a recent tour of the spartan complex, next to the University/65th light-rail station.
What will eventually be the central hub of Faber’s operations has yet to open. For now, he and his crew are hunkered down on a nondescript block off I Street, between 17th and 18th streets, just a short walk from Memorial Auditorium. But Faber’s alert, brown eyes see the future clearly.
“My baby and my heart is this gym and Team Alpha Male,” he said of his MMA team, which features more than 30 fighters, including men and women of various weights, races and backgrounds, who fight under the banners and in the rings of numerous MMA leagues, known as promotions.
But past turmoil has seen Faber’s stable lose some of its most promising stars. Now, as Faber looks to replenish that talent with the help of an ultramodern facility he’s bankrolling out of his own pocket, the ex-fighter and his partners see the gym as the incubator of an MMA army—trained in Sacramento and mentored under the brand of a man who isn’t quite done crafting his legend.Outgrowing the octagon
On a dank Friday night, about a dozen gymgoers grunted and groaned through various workouts in the 8,500-square-foot facility that is Faber’s old gym. The I Street location will host its clientele until Ultimate Fitness’ new home officially opens, a date that’s been delayed a few times now to mid-March.
That night, the gym was cramped, with a weathered boxing ring in the middle of the facility, a large matted area for wrestling and jiujitsu training in the back, and an area to the side for punching bags, speed bags, heavy bags and all the requisite equipment for punching and kicking. A small space in a corner was occupied by the typical equipment one would expect to see at a gym: a few treadmills, two weight benches, scattered weights and an elliptical machine.
Outside, cars jutted in every direction in the small parking lot, ignoring the lines painted on the concrete to organize the madness. Murals of Faber loomed by the front door, and a large panoramic photograph of the gym filled with various UFC stars hung on the wall between the two bathrooms.
Sacramento native Devin Yoshikawa has been coming to the gym for nearly four years, and chose the calm Friday night for his workout. He said familiarity with the sport and Faber is why he picked the gym, and the pro-style training he receives is why he stays.
“That’s a big perk, to kind of get to see their techniques and get to see what their pro coaching is like,” the 30-year-old database administrator said. “There’s a trickle-down effect as far as what [the professional fighters] learn in their pro classes and what they employ in their own professional fights and what we learn in our classes.”
The following Saturday morning, the gym felt livelier. The pristine, white Mercedes parked out front announced Faber’s presence. Inside, the unattended equipment from the night before was being subjected to vicious, booming kicks that echoed through the building. Most of the morning’s conversation was mumbled through mouthguards and in-between punches exchanged with each other.
The matted area was overcrowded with attendees participating in gloved boxing matches. The many participants bled into the boxing ring and other areas of the gym, and every so often the scuffles collided, causing the trainees to regroup and retreat back into their designated areas.
Among the participants was 13-year-old Ethan McAleenan from Ireland. He made the nearly 5,000-mile journey to Sacramento to train after Faber extended an invite via Instagram comment on his cousin’s account back in September.
The teenager said he got everything he bargained for as Faber stepped in front of him for one session. They circled each other—McAleenan on his toes and anxious, Faber flat-footed and calm—and exchanged light punches during a sparring match. Faber mouthed instructions and advice to the focused youngster throughout their 3-minute round, calmly deflecting McAleenan’s punches off his shoulders, hands and arms.
“It’s amazing,” the youth said about his time training with Faber and Team Alpha Male.
He and his cousin Decky planned to train for two weeks before returning to Ireland. “Hopefully I’ll be back next year in the new gym,” he said.
Not every member of the gym makes his or her way through the doors because of Faber’s reputation, though.
Ebba Josefson came to Sacramento from Sweden in January 2016 for an internship with a law firm. She chose the gym for the same reason many people choose their local gym: because Google told her it was the closest one to her house.
“Since I’m from Sweden, I didn’t really know about—well, I knew about MMA; I’ve just never tried it before—and I just saw this gym, and that it was the closest one, so I just walked in and thought I’d try it out,” the 31-year-old said.
Despite her lack of experience with the sport and with Faber, both quickly made an impression.
“I was not familiar with Urijah coming in, but I got aware of him my first day I was here, because he was basically coming right up and welcoming me to the gym,” Josefson recalled. “So instantly I’m like, ’OK, you’re the guy on the wall,’ so that’s cool.”
In just over a year, Josefson went from not knowing much about MMA to possibly competing as a fighter because “the gym is amazing,” she said. “The workout is great. All the trainers here are very inspiring.”
Atmosphere and inspiration were what convinced Cynthia Calvillo to move to Sacramento from San Jose to pursue a professional career in MMA, under the tutelage of Team Alpha Male.
She admits the team is in need of an upgrade. “We need [the new gym]. We don’t even have any more mat space,” said the 29-year-old, who has been in Sacramento for three years now. “It’s insane, we’re, like, bumping each other during class and falling all the time.”
As for the man himself, Faber doesn’t disagree. His nose has somehow eluded the typical misshaping reserved for men and women who get punched in the face for a living. After 44 professional fights, it still comes to a fine point. The deep cleft on his chin and the wavy, blond locks that spill out of his backward hat may as well be trademarks for one of the most recognizable mixed martial artists on the planet.
That sort of celebrity now demands an upgrade.
“We’ve outgrown that spot,” Faber admitted about the I Street facility. “The new gym is two-and-a-half times the size, almost three times the size, of my current gym.”
More mat space is on the way, but it’s unclear when.If he builds it, will they come?
The new Ultimate Fitness will be the result of a reported $700,000 investment by Faber. For now, it’s still just an empty building—a skeleton without flesh—but Faber’s passion was clear during a recent walking tour of the facility.
He pointed out the coed sauna that will sit between the two upstairs locker rooms and the 2,000-square-foot area outside that will be fit with turf for outdoor workouts. He walked across the awning above a future training space for professional fighters like UFC bantamweight champion Cody Garbrandt, an area where gym members can view private workouts.
He gestured to spaces that will soon be occupied by state-of-the-art equipment. Plastic tarp covered windows, suggesting new paint will be adorning the walls soon. Cutouts inhabited the gaps in the walls where doors would soon be hinged.
The materials that make up a UFC-quality octagon for MMA training were bagged and scattered around a corner in the humongous backroom, untouched while Faber’s brother Ryan and undefeated Team Alpha Male prospect Joseph Morales eyeballed the framework for what will eventually be a second story in the public area.
The gym is just one of many developments in the area, including a Hampton Inn on the other side of the light-rail tracks, a mixed-use property and apartment buildings across the street that will soon displace an old car wash and a Mexican restaurant.
“This little area right here is on a resurgence,” Faber observed. “I feel like it could be the town center for Sac State.”
And the gym could be just one part of Faber’s contribution to the revitalization of the area, as he has a lease-to-own deal with the current owner that gives him the option to purchase the building that will house the gym as well as the adjacent Dollar Tree. The son of a contractor, Faber pounced on an available fixer-upper real estate play in a developing area, just like he would counter a weak jab with a strong hook in the ring.
According to the county assessor’s office, the property has a net value of a little more than $2.5 million. The building itself was built in 1961, which may be why the renovation has taken longer than expected.
Faber’s Ultimate Fitness was originally supposed to open this past fall. That date was delayed to January, then mid-February and has now been pushed another month, according to CEO Josh Espley.Bad blood and ‘talking crap’
Within the walls of Faber’s gym, everybody is his friend, admirer, teammate or some sort of companion. But one doesn’t make fighting his occupation for nearly two decades without making some enemies, and Faber has his share.
Some of them even called Ultimate Fitness their home in the past.
Faber’s most publicized beef actually involves a former member of Team Alpha Male, T.J. Dillashaw, a former UFC bantamweight champion.
In fall 2015, Dillashaw announced his abrupt split from Team Alpha Male and his intention to begin training out of Colorado with the former Team Alpha Male coach Duane Ludwig.
This led to a war of words among all parties, during which Faber insinuated that Dillashaw had been on performance-enhancing drugs before the Ultimate Fighting Championship league instituted new testing policies, and would be adversely affected by the new standards. In an April 2016 interview on FS1’s The Herd, Faber told host Colin Cowherd that “[Dillashaw] looks like a prepubescent little teenager right now because the [U.S. Anti-Doping Agency] came in.”
Dillashaw accused Faber of using the split to push for a lucrative fight with him while he held the title. In a December 2015 media scrum, he told reporters, “I do believe it’s angling for a fight. I do believe he’s pumping something up that’s not really there.”
Dillashaw reiterated those claims in a June 2016 interview with The MMA Hour, saying, “I kind of feel like Urijah’s been building his name off of me the last couple of years, ever since I won the belt. It’s just been bad mouthing me to make him look more relevant. It was a little bit unfortunate because I thought we were friends.”
During the spat, another Team Alpha Male fighter, former UFC title-challenger Joseph Benavidez, also defected to join Ludwig in Colorado. That split was much more amicable, with Benavidez telling CBS Sports Radio in February 2016 that “there’s no tension” between him and his former team.
A deal was never struck to get Faber and Dillashaw in the ring, and their war of words petered out. Dillashaw even wished Faber well after his final fight, posting on Instagram, “All petty bullcrap aside congratulations to [Faber] on his win and great career. Paved the way for us lighter weights.”
Now, the feud looks to be reignited as Garbrandt and Dillashaw are set to square off for the UFC bantamweight title after taking a turn as trainers on the UFC’s reality series The Ultimate Fighter. The series’ 25th season pits Garbrandt and Dillashaw against each other as “coaches” of opposing teams of combatants competing in sectioned matches, all for the grand prize of a new UFC contract. The show has already begun filming in Las Vegas and will premiere April 19 on FS1.
“It’s exciting, I’m going to be out there as much as I can,” Faber told SN&R.
While he didn’t address his rivalry with Dillashaw directly, he did add, “We’re going to get that win.”
It may be the last feud he has left, as Faber settled his grudge with his biggest in-ring rival, Dominick Cruz, on the night of his final fight this past December.
“Dom’s fine, we’ve got a nice working relationship,” Faber said during his final UFC press conference, after the match in December. “A working relationship in our profession is beating the crap out of each other and talking crap.”
After claiming victory in their initial matchup by locking Cruz into that patented guillotine chokehold, Faber lost the final two fights between the two warriors, both for the UFC bantamweight title.
“I was 32 years old when I got a chance to fight for the UFC title and was just a smidgen off against Cruz,” Faber remembered. “I would have liked to have gotten that, but I left it all in the cage, so I’ve got no regrets.”
Cruz extended an olive branch on the FS1 post-fight show by giving Faber a signed poster of their first fight. Two weeks later, Cruz would lose that same UFC bantamweight championship to Garbrandt, giving Faber one last comeuppance, even if it was vicariously through his most prized pupil.‘The next generation of champions’
Faber’s career as a fighter ended on December 17, 2016, when he won a dominant decision over Brad Pickett in Sacramento’s new Golden 1 Center. It was the first UFC event in the new arena—and a homecoming of sorts for a man who never strayed too far from his Placer County roots.
Faber took home $320,000 for the bout, including $160,000 for the fight and $160,000 for the win. It was a long way from the $400 he netted for his debut—an illicit cage fight at Colusa Casino back in 2003.
“The coolest thing about this experience is how it started for me,” Faber reflected in the post-fight press conference, held in the bowels of the Golden 1 Center. “I was fighting at an Indian casino, in tennis shoes, when it was illegal in California. I got paid $200 to show up and $200 to win. I didn’t tell my mom because I knew she’d be pissed. That’s the start of my career, and it’s grown to this.”
Despite his success in the octagon—including 34 victories and a legendary run in the now-defunct UFC-offshoot promotion World Extreme Cagefighting, a promotion specializing in smaller fighters where he reigned as champion—Faber is banking on a different skill set in plotting his future.
“I’m an entrepreneur through and through, and I’ve got a lot of different projects,” he told SN&R at the new Ultimate Fitness gym.
Faber ran through the long list of operations and businesses he has his bare-knuckled hands in. There are the two Vibe Health Bar locations, in East Sacramento and Oak Park, which have partnered up with Liquidology, an organic juice company whose products will be served at the gym. Also diversifying Faber’s expanding portfolio are the clothing line Torque, a supplement company out of Texas, a pilot for a television series he’s pitching to FX and much more.
“It’s been busy,” Faber said about his post-fight life. “It’s been a different type of busy, but I’m enjoying it.”
On the final night of his career, Faber looked like he could fight five more years if he chose, putting on a vintage performance in front of a hometown crowd. Former Dancing with the Stars runner-up and Team Alpha Male fighter Paige VanZant was the event’s headliner, but Faber received the loudest ovations and heard his name boisterously chanted during his fast-paced victory.
In the one-sided first round, Faber flattened Pickett with a mammoth left hook, leading to the night’s most exciting moment: Pouncing on his grounded opponent, Faber spent the final two minutes of the frame jostling and shuffling to lock in one of the suffocating chokeholds that have become career trademarks. A storybook finish was not meant to be, as he never quite forced Pickett to submit, but The California Kid was victorious nonetheless.
Still, on a night that ended Faber’s legendary run with a 34-10 record, there was room for one final first.
“For the first time in my life after a workout, I threw up,” Faber divulged at the post-fight press conference. “I threw up like five times, so that was a first.”
Weeks later, Faber seemed content to close the final chapter as a combat athlete of some 20-odd years. Invitations to rehash a storied career were met with muted, almost exhausted tones, with Faber preferring to speak of what he saw ahead.
“This is a tough way to make a living,” he reflected. “Not having to go and have those hard rounds—I went and watched the guys fighting this morning, was helping coach, and these guys are taking each other’s heads off. … It’s a little bit of a relief. I’m sure I’ll miss the competition a bit, but I’m enjoying the focus on the new phase of things.”
And while Faber said the grand opening of the new gym has been held up by “the regular things you would do when you’re developing a piece of property and things take a little longer than you expected,” it’s still coming together just as he’d envisioned. According to Faber, all that’s left is “a little bit of construction and placement of the equipment” before the projected opening sometime next month.
“This spot is going to be cool, man,” he raved. “We’re going to have this little cafe. I want to eventually get a balcony on the front of this thing. I want to continue to add to this thing and make it more and more special as time goes on.”
And just as is the case with the I Street location, Faber will be a constant presence.
“I live about a mile and a half from here, so I could literally jog here daily,” he said. “I’m going to be mentoring the next generation of champions out of Sacramento. Putting Sacramento on the map, building the lineage and a team that’s going to last for a very long time.”