Leaner, meaner Faber dominates Mizugaki, seizes WEC 52 spotlight
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One down, one more to go. World Extreme Cagefighting is set to cease operations next month as it gets absorbed into the UFC; but before that happens, there are bouts that require closure. Thursday evening in Las Vegas, featherweights and bantamweights collided with an eye toward 2011.
Here are five things that stand out after yet another evening of excellent mixed martial arts.
1. Urijah Faber looks right at 135 pounds. With the possibility of losing for the fourth time in six fights hanging over his head, Faber found new life at a new weight and choked Takeya Mizugaki (13-5-2) stiff. All in a day's work for Zuffa's newest bantamweight.
The former WEC featherweight champion made the decision to drop 10 pounds following his unflattering and painful decision-loss against Jose Aldo in April, and months of dieting after years of eating were rewarded at The Pearl of The Palms in less than a round.
Could Faber, a powerful, speedy grappler, maintain the qualities that made him dangerous at 145 pounds? The answer is resounding yes. With the weight cut coming easier than even he expected, Faber (24-4) hovered around 150 on fight night, only three to four less pounds than his spring bout with Aldo.
"My grappling has just been on a different level because I'm stronger and leaner and faster," he said. "Things are just making sense. It's kind of a drag to be stuffed all the time, and that's what I was doing. There was a time coming into the second Mike Thomas Brown fight that was drinking these shakes, and I felt like crap. I feel great at the lighter weight."
After wrestling in college at 133, Faber made the move to 145 because that was his only option. With bantamweight growing in popularity and because of his struggles against a bigger group of fighters, Faber's decision to drop looks more smart than desperate.
Taking into account his marketability, it won't take long for Faber to enter the title picture. Dominick Cruz and Scott Jorgensen will battle it out for the UFC belt on Dec. 16, and Faber said -- no matter which man wins -- he'd like the next shot. Is it deserved? If you want to make the determination based on accomplishments in the division, probably not. But with the UFC that's never the only justification for putting someone in line for a championship.
Faber, who defeated Cruz at 145 when he was champion, said a rematch would be his first choice.
"I'd rather fight Dominick but I'm rooting for Scott," said Faber, who sometimes trains with the current No. 1 contender. "For him and I to fight in a UFC bout for a title would be amazing. We'd beat the crap out of each other, shake hands before and hang out after."
If Miguel Torres manages to defeat Antonio Banuelos in February, a fight between Torres and Faber, whether a title was up for grabs or not, could be sold as a co-main event on a UFC pay-per-view. For my money, this is the best option, as it creates a fight people have long wished to see, and it establishes a clear-cut top contender at 135 pounds.
Said Faber: "I wanted to come out and finish and make a statement [Thursday]."
2. UFC events will be well served by WEC's intensity. There's something great about WEC events. Whether it's the weight classes involved or the attitude that comes with feeling as if there's something to prove, or just good old-fashioned competitiveness, WEC fight nights seemingly never fail to deliver.
Thursday was no different. Four of the five live televised fights ended before the bell, with three submissions, all chokes, and a nifty technical knockout thanks to a high kick from featherweight Erik Koch (11-1). On the undercard, Cub Swanson nabbed a split decision over Mackens Semerzier in the fight of the night.
"I think they're going to bring a whole new level of excitement to the UFC, and for that I'm very proud," said Reed Harris, who built the WEC from scratch before selling to Dana White and Lorenzo Fertitta in 2006.
Here's hoping that pattern, trend, feel -- whatever you want to call it -- which makes WEC awesome to watch gets mainlined directly into the UFC.
3. Team Alpha Male owns the night. There isn't a mixed martial artist out there who's been better about cultivating a brand than Faber. Part of that process was the establishment of his fight camp, Team Alpha Male, which certainly gets the point across.
Joining Faber on Thursday's card was his heir apparent at featherweight, Chad Mendes, and Joseph Benavidez (13-2) -- a would-be competitor at 135, if not for their close relationship.
While Faber capped the night against Mizugaki, Mendes' decision over Javier Vazquez and Benavidez' submission of black belt Wagnney Fabiano highlighted the camp's final WEC experience.
"Clean sweep," said Mendes, 9-0. "Good night for Team Alpha Male."
That it was.
No fighter is more closely associated with the WEC than Faber. I sat cage-side in 2006 when, in a tent outside the Tachi Palace Hotel and Casino in middle-of-nowhere Lemoore, Calif., "The California Kid" beat up Cole Escovedo to capture the featherweight title for the first time. Then, Zuffa bought the show and got behind Faber and helped make him a star. All the while he built up his clothing lines and developed relationships with energy drinks and managed to work his way into a national advertising campaign with "Kenny Powers" of Eastbound And Down fame. Faber's passion remains his gym in Sacramento, Ultimate Fitness, which houses fighters like Benavidez and Mendes.
"I love watching these guys," Faber said. "When Joseph first came he was vacuuming the floor and cleaning the mats. I remember him complaining about the tiny little cash he's making fighting for the casino. I told him it would come. Chad, I remember talking to him about fighting the day he finished the national college wrestling tournament.
"It was great to come in and fight with my two brothers."
4. Flyweight fantasies. Don't expect the UFC to propose a flyweight championship between Benavidez and Demetrious Johnson anytime soon. The limitations of roster size make it unlikely the UFC can build up another division over the next 24 months, even if some fighters currently under contract would appreciate the option. So for now it's the thing of fantasies.
"I think flyweight is a necessity for me," Johnson (8-1) said in the wake of his third-round guillotine sub on Damacio Page (12-5). "I walk at 141 and when I eat I make it to 145. I'll keep fighting at 135 if the WEC wants me to. I'd go to flyweight if that option was there."
The way in which he physically turned the tables on Page suggests Johnson, all 5-foot-3 of him, isn't a lost cause at 135. "Remember Frankie Edgar," he should tell himself if he's not already. Being undersized isn't necessarily a harbinger of bad things, especially in a weight class that favors speed, athleticism and skill over anything else.
Benavidez, who in his words was a hair of becoming WEC champion, resides in a holding pattern with Faber's arrival, which would make the option to move to 125 very appealing. Luckily for Benavidez, whose only two losses came against Dominick Cruz, he's just 26.
5. Michael McDonald's hit parade continues. It took all of 15 seconds after posting on Twitter that the 19-year-old bantamweight won his Zuffa promotional debut by armbar for the "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" and "Takin it to the Streets" references to come in. If you've watched McDonald fight, you know either option could fit. McDonald's victory over Clint Godfrey (11-3), which came at 2:42 of Round 1, moved the young Californian's record to 11-1 and set him on a positive trajectory on his trek in the soon-to-be UFC bantamweight class. Watch out for this kid, he might very well be in position soon to become the youngest champion in UFC history.