BURBANK, Calif. -- As flyweights Demetrious Johnson and John Dodson headlined a live network television broadcast on Jan. 26 -- a five-round fight watched by an average audience of 5.2 million viewers -- Urijah Faber couldn't help but smile a little.
If it wasn't for the relentless efforts of the dynamic Sacramento native, who made his splash as World Extreme Cagefighting featherweight champion from 2006-08, the way might have never been paved for mainstream, main-event exposure for the likes of Johnson and Dodson.
The first superstar of mixed martial arts' lower weight classes is too modest to say "I built that," but, well, he built that.
"I definitely feel like I'm one of the pioneers," said Faber, who meets Ivan Menjivar in a bantamweight bout at UFC 157 on Feb. 23. "There's a lot of people who put time into building that, at the lower weights. Guys like Jens Pulver and guys like Ivan Menjivar, the guy I'm fighting, and some guys who have been fighting at heavier weight classes in recent years.
"But I know I brought some attention into it and I held out to make this is a career, which was not a very optimistic view from where I was standing back in the day. So I definitely have a lot of pride in the fact that it's come so far."
When Faber made the decision to make MMA his profession, it wasn't considered a viable career for people his size. Faber excelled as a college wrestler at Cal-Davis, where he still holds the school record for wins (92). But the 5-foot-6 Faber wrestled at 133 pounds, and at the time, the UFC's lowest championship weight was 170.
Faber persisted, then got his big break in 2006, when the UFC's parent company, Zuffa, purchased the WEC, which up until that point primarily ran events on California's Native American reservations. The WEC focused on smaller fighters, Faber was the promotion's featherweight champion, and all of a sudden, he found himself the focal point of nationally televised events on what was then called Versus (now NBC Sports Network).
The personable Faber took the ball and ran with it. His fights were eye-openers for those who believed only bigger man could draw money in the combat sports business. Faber's WEC title reign was filled with explosive fights loaded with inventive offense. Outside the cage, he had the charisma to make fans want to tune into his fights.
"I definitely know that I had a lot to do with it. I'm thankful for that," said Faber. "I'm just kind of lucky to have I guess whatever it is, the 'it factor' to make it kind of happen in addition to being a great athlete. It's hard to find people who have the array of different things, and I think I was lucky enough to be there at a time where people were empowered to help me take advantage of that, and I think it became something that was pretty awesome."
But Faber's story is far from complete. After losing his title to Mike Brown late in 2008, and subsequently coming up short in a rematch to Brown and then another title shot against the man who beat Brown for the title, Jose Aldo (who became the first UFC champion when the latter company added featherweight and bantamweight classes late in 2010), Faber dropped to bantamweight. His bout with Menjivar, which is on the main card underneath the much-heralded UFC debut of women's star Ronda Rousey at Anaheim's Honda Center, is critical to his path forward.
This is a rematch of one of the lesser-known matches of Faber's career. In Jan. 2006, Faber fought Menjivar, a native of El Salvador who relocated to Quebec, on Menjivar's adopted home turf in Laval, a suburb of Montreal. Faber won the fight on a disqualification after an odd sequence of events led to Menjivar cutting open Faber with an illegal kick to the head.
That's not the way a competitor like Faber wants to win a fight, so he hopes to take care of what he terms "unfinished business."
"The fight was really close," Faber said. "In the first round I won it but it was close. In the second round, he had my back standing in a standing switch, we hit heads and a big gash opened on my eye. As I landed, I popped back up and he threw a kick which just barely grazed me but because he threw an illegal kick and I had a gash in my eye and I couldn't continue, I got the win on a disqualification.
"This is a fight I feel good about because I know Ivan's put so much time into this sport," Faber continued. "I feel like I'm often put in a position to help build someone. But this is a fight where this guy's been in the UFC since the beginning. He fought Matt Serra at 155 pounds, he was George St-Pierre's first fight in 2002. He was actually doing really well in that fight, that shouldn't have been stopped either. This is a fight for the veterans."
Make no mistake about it, Faber's legacy in the sport is already secure. That was proven two weeks ago, when the little guys headlined on network television. But the way Faber sees it, a win over Menjivar could open the next chapter in his book.
"I want to be known as someone who was one of the best fighters in the world, one of the most influential, and helped a lot of other people get going and have careers in this sport as well," Faber said. "I'd like to be a two-weight champion. That's something that's unfinished for me as well. I'd like to be a guy who had the 135-pound title and the 145-pound title and continue to have some superfights here. As you know, I'm in the last few years of my career, I think I probably have anywhere from two to three years left. I really want to have fights that count."