He used to wear a target on his back. Now the target is off in the distance in front of him, almost within reach but not quite. Part of its elusiveness is that it's a moving target.
Urijah Faber was 21-1 and the author of a 13-fight winning streak when he had his hand raised after earning a unanimous decision over former UFC lightweight champion Jens Pulver back in the summer of 2008. It was Faber's fifth defense of the WEC featherweight belt he'd won a little over two years earlier, with one of those defenses being a quick finish of current UFC bantamweight titlist Dominick Cruz. Faber reigned supreme among mixed martial artists in lower weight classes. "The California Kid" was The Man.
Then Faber lost his belt to Mike Brown in his next fight, shockingly stopped in the first round. And that defeat set off this checkerboard of results that takes us to the present day: loss, win, loss, win, loss, win, win, loss, win, loss, win. You can't call it a roller coaster ride, really, because neither the climbs nor plunges have played out over extended periods. The most telling way to characterize Faber's recent history is to simply say he's lost to the best -- Brown a second time; then the buzzsaw who beat Brown for the WEC belt, José Aldo; then Cruz, who by then had the UFC title; then Renan Barão for the interim bantam championship -- and has beaten all the rest.
On Saturday night, in the main event of a UFC fight card in Las Vegas built around the finale of The Ultimate Fighter (9 p.m. ET, FX), Faber takes on longtime friend and former training partner Scott Jorgensen. The two have avoided this fight for a long time, but a collision of two of the top 135-pound fighters in the world was inevitable. "I have to save deciding that I'm not going to fight someone for people who are on my team," said Faber. "I have friends, like Scott, and I have guys who are like my brothers. There's a difference."
Jorgensen would seem to belong in the elite category of fighters who give Faber trouble. His 14-6 record isn't so glittery and he's lost two of his last three bouts, but the losses were to Barão and the man who'll challenge the Brazilian for the interim belt in June, ex-champ Eddie Wineland. The 30-year-old's only other defeat since 2009 came at the hands of Cruz. Clearly, this is just a notch below a bantamweight summit meeting.
The path beyond? Unclear. Will the winner get another shot at Barão? Will he just get in line behind Renan for Cruz, who's still rehabbing from two knee surgeries that have kept him inactive since the fall of 2011? Which of those champions does one need to conquer to reach the pinnacle of the division?
Faber isn't putting much thought toward questions about the top of the mountain. These days, he's thinking of a different type of peak experience. "My focus as of late has been less about the title run -- that's what the goal is, but I'm not sitting at home thinking about that," the 33-year-old said the other day. "I'm all about having fun."
Fun. In a fight. "That's my mentality," Faber continued. "I train to be the best, and I go out and compete to have fun."
This would be a refreshing new approach for the former champ if it weren't the opposite of new. "This is the attitude I started with," he said. "Having fun is what drew me to the sport. It certainly wasn't money. 200 bucks to show and 200 bucks to win. Fighting in a casino, no insurance. I didn't get into this sport because I wanted to get filthy rich, you know?"
Faber has earned a good living over the years, though, as the victories and accolades piled up. And he isn't about to give any of it back. But Urijah saw a gradual shift in his approach to this sport he loves. "With the growth and progression of your career, and all the pressure and stuff like that, you tend to lose focus on why you're there," he said. "There have been a couple of times in my career when I've dwelled on things like the opportunity that just was out of reach or the money I could have got or the money I should have got. Sometimes things happen that are out of your control."
What's in his control, Faber eventually recognized, is the attitude he takes into the cage and the gym. "You can't always control whether you win or lose, unfortunately," he said. "But you can control your mentality going into a fight. You can control the way you prepare for it. You can have a great time doing it. And that's what I'm now focusing on. Everything else will follow."
Also out of Faber's control is the target he needs to be setting his sights on. Dana White recently let it be known that he wants to speak with Cruz about his status as champion, and some inferred from the UFC president's statement that the promotion was about to strip "The Dominator" of his belt. Should that happen, it would put the crosshairs on Barão.
Faber, while no fan of Cruz's, hopes the belt stays where it is. "I don't think you strip Cruz of anything," said Urijah. "He's earned it. It's out of his control that he can't fight, and he's doing his best to come back. Does it really make sense to strip him of the belt when as soon as he comes back, we're going to want to see him and Barão fight for it, anyway? It would just be a weird thing to do."
The more Faber talked, though, the more his dislike for Cruz came forth. "Let him keep the belt and heal himself," said Urijah. "Hopefully he won't be jumping around and stuff, not be dumb about the way he recuperates. And then we can all beat him up at the end of it. Because we know he's not going to beat anyone else up. He might win, but he's not going to beat anyone up."
As for his own place in the pecking order, Faber cedes nothing. "In my weight class, I'm the top guy in the sport," he said. "I'm not saying I won the fights against Barão and Cruz, although I do think I beat Dominick. But regardless, I'm the guy who, if other guys fight me, they get the most notoriety. I've been here for a long time, I've made a name for myself, and I'm not going anywhere."