In nature, the alpha within a group of animals is the one that ranks highest, whether through physical prowess or less brawny means. Among humans, particularly human men, the alpha often is thought to be the big, boisterous dude.
By that measure, the tight pack of mixed martial artists who train out of Sacramento, Calif., don't qualify. Their leader fights in the 145-pound division, and their next most prominent pugilists weigh in at 135 and 125 pounds respectively.
If you stood next to the leading lights from nearby American Kickboxing Academy, where heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez trains, or even Greg Jackson's renowned gym, home to light heavyweight belt holder Jon Jones, these northern California guys might seem more like the runts of the litter. But the camp founded by Urijah Faber back in 2004 is known as Team Alpha Male.
Last Saturday night at Sleep Train Arena in their Sacramento hometown, the Alphas had an opportunity to live up to their manly name. Faber, riding a three-fight winning streak, was facing the other top contender for a bantamweight title shot. Chad Mendes, winner of four in a row, all knockouts, was in with a tough guy against whom he could show why he's at the top of the heap among the featherweight elite. And in the main event, a flyweight championship bout, Joseph Benavidez entered the octagon riding the momentum of three straight wins, two of them KOs.
The night didn't end as a triumphantly as Team Alpha Male had hoped, but it wasn't a fiasco either.
The big downer was seeing Benavidez knocked out by Demetrious Johnson, not simply because of that stark, dark finish itself but because it echoed a stumbling block for this group. Joseph has now lost twice to "Mighty Mouse" within 15 months in 125-pound title fights, and the only two other losses in his career have been to bantamweight Dominick Cruz, one of them coming when Cruz was WEC champ.
Likewise, Faber has won every fight he's fought since 2005 other than UFC or WEC title bouts. Since dropping his WEC bantamweight belt to Mike Brown in 2008, "The California Kid" has tried and failed to wrest a belt away from Brown in a rematch, and then featherweight champ José Aldo, Cruz, and interim bantamweight belt holder Renan Barão. As for Mendes, he's lost only once in his career, and it was in his only title shot, when Aldo caught him with a knee and finished him with one second left in their fight last year.
Championship bout failures are what Team Alpha Male has been trying to live down. After all, you're not truly the alpha of the pack if you're never better than second best.
To rectify the situation, the team brought in its first full-time head coach, Duane "Bang" Ludwig, about a year ago. And the kickboxing whiz produced immediate results. Going into last Saturday night, the three top dogs on Team Alpha Male were a combined 8-0 in 2013, with six finishes. Add in their teammate who also was on the Sacramento card, lightweight Danny Castillo, and the record went to 10-0. That's called getting bang for your buck.
But Benavidez lost, as did Castillo, the latter via a close decision against Edson Barboza. And while Mendes had his arm raised, he was not his destructive self -- two prior wins this year, two knockouts -- against Nik Lentz. Chad's performance was hampered by a sinus infection that wrecked his cardio, but MMA at the UFC level is a harsh what-have-you-done-lately business. What you could have done if feeling better doesn't really matter. While Mendes doesn't necessarily fall in the pecking order, his position as No. 1 contender is not as sturdy as it was on Saturday morning.
So who among the Alpha Males is best positioned? It's the alpha of the Alphas, team founder/mentor Urijah Faber. He's 34 years old, and even though he's maintained a high level -- he's never, ever lost a fight that wasn't for a championship -- there was some sentiment going into the weekend that maybe it was time for Urijah to make room for the next generation. That would be embodied by 22-year-old Michael McDonald, who came in having won nine of 10 fights, including five KOs and two submissions. The lone loss? That had come against Barão, who beats everybody.
What McDonald learned on Saturday night was that Faber wasn't ready to step aside. Urijah took the young man to school, besting him standing for the entirety of the first round, then taking him to the ground in the second and quickly submitting him with a guillotine choke. McDonald looked outclassed, even if Faber was too classy to say so. "Michael McDonald is a tremendous opponent, and I really look forward to watching his career," he said. "He's got so much potential, but tonight was my night."
Indeed it was. Just as the evenings of each of his three most recent previous bouts had been his night. That makes four 2013 victories -- three finishes -- for a guy for whom, well into MMA middle age, it is still reasonable to refer to as "The California Kid." And after so many nights that he could call his, Faber now would seem to be in a position where he can just sit and wait.
Cruz, the bantamweight champion who hasn't fought in over two years, and Barão, the interim champ, face off Feb. 1 to settle who truly belongs at the top of the hill. They've both beaten Faber, but one of them -- the one who ends up with the belt -- likely will soon be seeing Urijah once again. And then we'll find out who among the 135-pounders the real alpha male is.