Urijah Faber’s next move

Leaner, wiser, newly motivated—Sacramento mixed-martial-arts favorite Urijah Faber works toward his next title shot … with a little help from his friends

Local fighter Urijah Faber practices for a bout in March at his Midtown gym.

Local fighter Urijah Faber practices for a bout in March at his Midtown gym.

Photo By Devin Bruce

Urijah Faber fights again on March 19. Learn more about his gym at http://ultimatefitness.pro.

Grunts, exhortations, thumps on a wrestling mat—it’s the soundtrack to humanity’s oldest brand of combat.

Stuffed into the back room of Midtown gym Ultimate Fitness, 25 fighters clad in shorts and T-shirts take part in Team Alpha Male’s practice, a 90-minute session that today involves a dizzying series of wrestling and takedown drills. In the center of a circle is Urijah Faber, joined by teammate Joseph Benavidez, who, as the workout progresses, drill techniques with increasing tempo.

Faber, who turned pro in 2003, is the nucleus and founder of Team Alpha Male. Along with Benavidez, Chad Mendes and Danny Castillo, Faber and this foursome have now officially joined the Ultimate Fighting Championship “league,” the eminent mixed-martial-arts promotion.

As recent as last November, Faber has decimated opponents in bouts. In his bantamweight debut, he choked out Takeya Mizugaki so hard that the Japanese contender was left unconscious for several minutes, because he refused to tap and had to be rescued by the referee.

But he also knows agony. Faber battled for five painful rounds in front of a sold-out Arco Arena against Mike Brown in 2009, nursing a shattered hand. And last April, while challenging featherweight champion José Aldo for the title, Faber’s knee was punished brutally with an endless series of whipsaw kicks. He could barely walk during the bout, yet gutted it out to lose via decision. The next day, he posted pictures online of his mangled knee, hideously swollen, purplish black from Aldo’s relentless shots.

Now, as part of the UFC and in a lighter-weight class, Faber hopes to get a shot at the title again. The next step will be in a few weeks in New Jersey for UFC 128. But perhaps more importantly, as team leader and its lone superstar fighter, Faber’s hoping to see his team members elevate their careers as he has, capitalizing in ways never possible just a few years ago.

“I had just graduated from UC Davis, and in my classes I’d learned about the alpha male,” Faber said. “It’s the top dog, and it’s basically the one that leads by example by helping and encouraging people.”

With the UFC’s acquisition, and eventual absorption, of World Extreme Cagefighting late last year, there’s a huge opportunity now for Faber’s team to make an impact.

“All of us live and train together,” Castillo said. “Our girlfriends are friends with each other, and we know each other’s family members. Some guys are getting extremely good in just six months because of the lifestyle Urijah has created. We’re pretty much California, though. We wear jeans and sandals. It’s not like we’re wearing Gucci.”

The morning practice concludes with the team breaking into three-person groups, going full blast to either complete a takedown or submission. Bodies whirl and collapse in the dance.

Miesha Tate blends into the mix, grappling with one of the biggest guys, a beefy 220-pounder. A star of the nascent women’s MMA scene, Tate challenges for the Strikeforce 135-pound title on March 5, and is used to this male-heavy setting. She wrestled in high school and relocated to Sacramento nine months ago.

“I scouted out a bunch of schools, and this is by far the best,” said Tate. “None of the others even come close.”

The team faces its toughest competition in the UFC, along with the opportunity to leverage themselves into lucrative endorsement and sponsorship deals with impressive performances. And if there’s anything alluring to the life of a fighter, it’s getting paid well, considering the raft of sacrifices required to merely break even.

All in a day’s work with Team Alpha Male.

Photo By Devin Bruce

With one highlight-reel moment, massive exposure online can radically alter your fate, bringing exponentially increased fame and fortune (Google “Anthony Pettis kick” for the seminal example).

The fight schedule for upcoming UFC slots is a busy one: Faber takes on Eddie Wineland alongside Benavidez against Ian Loveland March 19, while Castillo takes on former lightweight title challenger Joe Stevenson March 3.

Mendes, meanwhile, scored the team’s first UFC win, decisioning Michihiro Omigawa on February 5.

Team Alpha Male and its current roster, some two dozen fighters, are the result of a seven-year journey for Faber, after he turned pro in virtual obscurity, competing in a sport where weight classes for featherweight and bantamweight fighters barely existed except in small show and overseas.

After winning the WEC featherweight title, he became its flagship attraction in 2007, and was featured prominently in an MSNBC documentary, while making four televised title defenses.

After losing three of five bouts between 2008 and 2010, Faber decided to drop down to the bantamweight division. Facing Wineland, Faber is a win away from UFC 135-pound champ Dominick Cruz, whom he beat in 2007.

“Wineland is tough. But I feel I’m a little bit faster and more elusive,” said Faber, sunning himself on a stool post-workout.

It’s a rare moment of leisure time, in a schedule with up to four daily appointments. Inside Ultimate Fitness, representatives from Pepsi and Amp set up photo equipment and lights on the mats, where Faber, Benavidez and Mendes will spend several hours on a promotional shoot.

“He’s always thinking about life after fighting,” said Jeff Meyer, attorney and CEO of Faber’s management company.

As Faber finishes a media interview, Meyer plunks down a stack of posters for him to autograph before he starts on the shoot. It’s not even noon, he’s bounced back and forth between the myriad spheres of an impossibly busy life, and there’s still so much more to do.

The next day, Faber’s 65,000 followers on Twitter are informed that red-hot light heavyweight title challenger Jon “Bones” Jones has joined his athletic apparel brand, with a link to the duo shaking hands.

It’s not quite MMA’s version of Nixon and Elvis at the White House, but it’s smart marketing. He Tweets constantly throughout the day, announcing appearances and various endeavors.

In the cage, Faber is known for improvisational moves, seemingly changing direction in midthought; the business side of him is precisely the opposite. His various business interests include the Sacramento gym, another in Rancho Cordova, and a clothing line, each with a website and social-media outlets; the cross-leveraging effects of this are, essentially, branding himself as a marketable entity along with the other top fighters Team Alpha Male produces. He currently owns three houses in Sacramento, where many team members live.

“That’s a lot of things that people want help with,” Faber said. “And I like to help these guys out the best I can.”

One fight at a time. With a team to remember.