You could be excused if your reaction to the May announcement that Urijah Faber would be returning to mixed martial arts after a three-year hiatus was to bang your head against the nearest available solid object.
What was there to prove? What was there to gain? After all, Faber had gone out on such a high note — perhaps the highest of notes for a combat sports athlete. Fighting in front of his adoring hometown, Sacramento’s favorite son had steamrolled Brad Pickett for 15 straight minutes, basking in the spotlight glory one last time. From walkout to departure, the local crowd had showered him with praise and emotion, and Faber had responded in kind. As so many greats do, he had that one last burst in him, a final moment to say goodbye. It was storybook perfect.
While many fighter retirements eventually crumble, this one seemed to have a solid foundation. Even while he was an active and successful fighter, he’d had the foresight to create and expand his own flourishing fight team and to build several businesses in and out of his sport. He had a plan, one which would allow him to step away, fade into the background.
Yes, we thought, he did it. He left at the right time! This was something to be celebrated, if only because happy endings in high-level MMA are about as rare as the Pillory choke. They are so unexpected they sometimes defy belief, yet Faber had created his magical goodbye.
When he decided to return to the UFC, it came as a surprise due to how long he’d managed to stay away. Many fighters U-turn back to the cage after just a few months of sitting on the sidelines, unable to feed or ignore the competition addiction. But Faber had been away for an eternity, so long that only one of the 12 fighters currently holding a share of a UFC belt had begun their reign by that time. It was almost another era.
The UFC seemed to view it a similar way. While the promotion gave him an equitable matchup with a fellow long-toothed veteran in Pickett for his farewell fight in 2016, this time around, there were no favors. Ricky Simon was 26 years old and surging, the winner of eight consecutive fights. The oddsmakers and bettors saw it the same way, too. Faber opened as a slight underdog and the odds quickly moved away from him. By the time the cage door closed, Simon was the second biggest betting favorite on the card.
We should have known the California Kid would be nobody’s cautionary tale. It’s not like he walked away after getting crushed on the regular. He was mostly losing to studs, from Frankie Edgar and Dominick Cruz to Renan Barao during Barao’s prime. The criticism against him was not that his chin had gone or that he’d gone slow on the trigger but that his game had stagnated. His success had mostly come as the result of a powerful overhand right and a slickly opportunistic submission game. If you could survive those two things, you would have a chance to ride a broader offensive approach to success.
In defeating Simon, Faber didn’t exactly show us anything new, though in fairness, it’s hard to showcase any refinements in 46 seconds. It was, once again, a tracer overhand right as Simon stepped into no man’s land that pretty much closed the show. It was vintage and punctual and perfect.
Even at 40, Faber can still get the job done if you leave those kinds of openings, and that shouldn’t come as a shock. During the course of his career, he gained a reputation for his dedication to health and fitness, staying in top shape year round. He has claimed never to drink a full soda, shuns fast food and rarely has candy. He was never going to be the type to get slow and round overnight.
After beating a ranked opponent, Faber has open road ahead of him. No less than double-champion Henry Cejudo has called for a fight with him, and you wonder if Faber, already a UFC Hall of Famer, can possibly create one more magic moment. While it’s crazy to think he can go from retirement to title shot in little more than a blink while other contenders in two divisions have been painstakingly laboring for such opportunity, it’s hardly out of the realm of possibility. Faber is the biggest name the UFC can possibly match with Cejudo, so if the UFC is ever going to cash in on his return, this is the moment.
Against Cejudo, Faber would again face long odds. He struck out in four chances at UFC belts during his prime, and Cejudo is riding high. The flyweight and bantamweight champion has power and speed and an unshakable will to win. A Faber victory in the face of that seems incomprehensible. Before yesterday, so did a 46-second win, the fastest of his lengthy career. So did a knockout, his first in over a decade. So did a second Sactown curtain call. Yet here we are now, thinking that maybe we overreacted, that maybe this comeback wasn’t the worst idea we’ve ever heard, that maybe we should have known that even at 40, the Californian can still take out a few kids.