Urijah Faber was in the middle of a meeting Sunday in Lodi, Calif., when his cellphone buzzed. Normally, he'd just silence the thing and continue talking business, because as much as Faber is a professional mixed martial artist, he's no less of a businessman. He operates his own fitness center, heads a team of fighters that has forged a spot among the sport's elite camps, has started and endorsed clothing lines and other ventures, and expounded on his philosophy of success in a book. Urijah is always looking out for the next opportunity. So he took a moment to glance down at his phone.
Faber saw who was on the line. He answered the call.
"As most fighters know, when Dana White calls, you pick up the phone," the 34-year-old bantamweight told SI.com on Monday evening, referring to the UFC president, also known as the gatekeeper of fistic opportunity. "Usually it's something exciting, something pretty positive when he calls you himself. Dana is not the type who relishes calling with bad news. Dana is a guy who likes to give good news."
White also is a guy who likes to get right to the point. "I know this is short notice," he said to Faber, "but can you be ready to fight for the title in three weeks?"
See? Good news. At least for Faber.
The news was not at all good for Dominick Cruz, whom Faber was being asked to replace in a Feb. 1 bantamweight championship bout against Renan Barão. Cruz, who has been out for over two years while rehabilitating his left knee from a couple of surgeries, is on the shelf again, this time with a groin tear. It's a sad setback for the 28-year-old who won the WEC title in March 2010 and, when that organization was absorbed by the UFC later in the year, was awarded the UFC belt. He defended it three times before tearing his ACL, an injury that initially was repaired by use of a ligament from a cadaver. The graft failed when he returned to training, however, prompting a different surgical procedure.
And a long, long wait for his next defense.
So how is it that a championship fight now is proceeding without the champ? Well, in light of this latest extension of Cruz's absence, the UFC has stripped "The Dominator" of his title and installed Barão, formerly the interim belt holder, as champion. That's more bad news for Cruz, and on the surface it's good news for the Brazilian. But is it really? To be a champion, the saying goes, you must beat the champion. And while Barão has a resume as sparkly as anyone's -- he's undefeated in 32 straight bouts, going all the way back to a split-decision loss in his 2005 professional debut at age 18 -- he's losing out on an opportunity to burst out from under the shadow of Cruz.
Barão apparently doesn't view the situation that way. "I saw myself as a champion before that fight [with Cruz] was scheduled for me," he told Fox Sports. "I consider myself the champion, and I don't think I need to fight Cruz to be the champion for the people. People understand that."
Some will, based on the reign of terror Barão has unloaded upon the bantamweight division. But in the view of others, until Renan and Dominick get locked in a cage together, questions will remain. These are questions that cannot be answered by a fight with Faber. It was Urijah, after all, whom Barão convincingly beat for the interim belt back in July 2012 after the UFC learned of the holdup in Cruz's knee recovery. The five-round bout went the distance, but the Brazilian was a clear winner against a fighter who always seemed one step behind.
Can Faber keep up this time? If not, what will we learn about Barão that we didn't already know?
Along the good news vs. bad news continuum, we can add the UFC to the list of those who come out on the losing end with this shift of main events. UFC 169 will take place at the Prudential Center in Newark the night before the Super Bowl is played just a few miles down the road in the Jersey Meadowlands. It's a high-profile fight card with two title bouts, the other featuring José Aldo -- Barão's teammate and mentor on Brazil's Nova União fight team -- in a defense of his featherweight belt against Ricardo Lamas. Typically, the heavier-weight fight will get top billing when there are two title bouts, but with Cruz vs. Barão being hyped as a champion vs. champion showdown, the 135-pounders were given the main event over the guys 10 pounds heavier. Now the superfight-ish sheen is gone, although on Monday evening the UFC confirmed that the bantamweights will remain at the top of the marquee. That's a break with convention, perhaps a nod to Faber's status as the promotion's best-known fighter among the smaller combatants.
No matter how you package the rejigged championship bout, however, this continues a difficult stretch for the UFC. Cruz is its second champion in a month to vacate his belt without a fight, after Georges St-Pierre walked away from his five-year welterweight supremacy to go on a hiatus that could very well be permanent. Anderson Silva might be finished as a fighter, too. The middleweight great fractured his leg in a grotesque ending to his loss to Chris Weidman less than two weeks ago, and while "The Spider" is said to be aiming for a return to the octagon, his status is open-ended at best. Add to those absences the slow-healing injuries to heavyweight champ Cain Velasquez and lightweight belt holder Anthony Pettis, and the UFC enters 2014 without five of its most notable names. Barão vs. Faber doesn't help a whole lot, other than filling a sudden opening.
Realistically, though, we were likely just a few months away from seeing Faber (30-6) challenge either Barão (31-1, 1 NC) or Cruz (19-1) for the belt anyway. "The California Kid," a former WEC champion whose only losses have come in title bouts, had a terrific 2013 to establish himself as the clear No. 3 man among the bantams. He fought and won four times during the year, finishing his opponents in three of those top-level bouts. Even though he'd already lost to both Barão and Cruz, what more did Urijah have to do to land a title shot? "Yeah, man, I'm an optimist," he said. "I thought for sure I'd be fighting for the title next. It just made sense."
Does it make sense, though, to take this fight on less than three weeks' notice, after having fought just three weeks ago, when he submitted fellow top contender Michael McDonald? When Dana White made the offer, Faber did pause to think about it for a moment. What made him say yes was a brief mental journey back to when he first started fighting. "The reason I got in this sport was not because I thought that if I prepared well enough I could be one of the best guys," said Faber. "I've always thought that no one could beat me up, period. That's why I'm in this sport, and that mentality is what made me take the fight. I believe in myself."
Faber also believes in seizing opportunity when it's within your grasp, because in MMA opportunities come and go in mystifying, sometimes inequitable ways. Urijah knows this because he lived it. Back in late 2011, he signed on to coach on The Ultimate Fighter against Cruz, his rival and nemesis. They'd split two fights, and the plan was for them to settle the score at the end of the reality show season. Then Cruz was injured, and Faber was moved from a title bout on a glamorous Las Vegas pay-per-view headlined by the Anderson Silva vs. Chael Sonnen rematch onto a later card in Calgary, Alberta, and into the interim matchup with Barão. Or, as Urijah characterizes it, "on a card that no one cared about against an opponent that no one had heard about."
Faber did not perform well in the Barão fight, and he's the first to acknowledge that. "I was lackluster," he said. "I lost a decision and broke my rib. And got paid a fraction of what I was going to get paid for the original fight. I just wasn't excited about that Barão fight at all. Well, I'm excited about this fight. That's the big difference."
Will that make a difference? We'll soon find out, but no matter how that plays out, the ghost that hovers above the bantamweight division will remain. This latest setback for Dominick Cruz is disheartening most of all for the fighter, of course, but all who follow MMA have reason to be interested in his future. We've recently seen GSP walk away, but only after taking a battering from Johny Hendricks that, even with no formal exchange of a title belt, felt a little like a passing of the guard. If Silva never comes back, we did at least get to see Weidman twice have his hand raised in victory against the fighter widely acclaimed as the greatest of all time. Cruz might not measure up to either Silva or St-Pierre, but wherever we place him in the hierarchy, he's not been displaced. If he still has fight left in him, it'd be great to see it unfold.
As Cruz moves forward, he has one unlikely supporter. "I feel for the guy, to be honest," said Faber. "We've actually exchanged some words in the last day, and we share the same general sentiment: We still want to beat each other up. I have faith that he's stubborn enough, works hard enough that he'll get back on the horse, hopefully heal up, and then we'll settle the score. And I'll get to beat him up."