Former World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC) featherweight kingpin, Urijah Faber, once again looks to earn an Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) title, this time against current Bantamweight champion, Renan Barao. The rematch is set to take place Saturday, Feb. 1, 2014 (assuming weather doesn't interfere) at Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey.
Since his WEC title loss to Mike Brown, Faber has gone winless (0-4) in title fights, never losing a modern mixed martial arts (MMA) match that wasn't for a strap. Outside of fights for the gold, Faber has looked phenomenal, choking out a majority of his competition. During 2013, Faber defeated four top-ranked Bantamweight standouts dominantly, earning a shot against the winner of the unification bout between Dominick Cruz and Renan Barao.
However, Cruz's injured groin halted those plans, so Faber took his spot on about three weeks notice.
Can Faber capitalize on this quick turn around and capture UFC gold?
Let's find out:
Faber, despite primarily being a wrestler, has always been a very dangerous striker. In fact, many of his submission victories are the result of earlier knockdowns such as his most recent guillotine of Michael McDonald. In addition, Faber's low stance allows him to burst forward with either a takedown or powerful strikes.
Although he's starting to branch out (more on that later), Faber primarily relies on his right hand. Set up by frequent shoulder feints and movement, Faber explodes into an overhand, straight or hook. Regardless of which punch he chooses, Faber can cover a lot of distance with these strikes and often avoids his opponents' attempts to counter.
Similarly, Faber will also attack with a lunging uppercut. After faking a level change, Faber bursts forward with the uppercut, hoping to catch his opponent trying to stop a takedown that's never coming. If his opponent recognizes Faber's plan, he's in serious danger of getting countered, but it's difficult to ignore Faber's takedown feints.
Faber's ability to confound his opponent with level changes is vital to his success. He often forces his opponent's hands to come down to prevent the shot, allowing him a free punch to his opponent's jaw. The opposite also works, as Faber's punches can cause his opponents to shell up, leaving their hips open to a double leg. An excellent example of this is Faber's bout with Wineland, whose extraordinary takedown defense initially stopped Faber's grappling.
However, once Faber landed hard with his right hand a few times, opportunities began to open up.
Duane "Bang" Ludwig has had a clear influence on Team Alpha Male, including Faber. The Muay Thai striker has quickly cleaned up the team's striking and each fighter looks improved between fights.
The first noticeable improvement to Faber's striking is his more extensive arsenal of strikes and feints. Faber has always had a pretty strong left hook, but he didn't utilize it very often. Now, he's mixing in his left hook more often and in more situations. For example, McDonald was hit clean with the punch after a caught kick, as well as after Faber rocked him with an overhand.
Faber's kicking ability has improved pretty dramatically as well. His leg kicks, inside and out, are quick, and he's able to move out of range immediately after landing them. He also added the teep kick to his game, something he never used to attack with. After Faber pushes his opponent back, he'll try to land a punch as his foe tries to get back into range.
I noticed two other small additions, too.
Against Scott Jorgensen, Faber repeatedly hit "Young Guns" with a running knee strike after forcing him to cover up with the threat of punches. This worked rather well for the first two rounds until Faber slowed a bit, likely since the bout was short notice. Finally, Faber countered McDonald's low kicks with a gut-busting straight right more than once, which also put him in position to catch the leg.
One interesting thing Faber does is frequently test his opponents' reactions. Whether he feints with a takedown, his newly acquired teep kick, or a right handed bomb, Faber will immediately analyze his opponents' reactions. If they don't react, he'll attempt the maneuver. Against McDonald, he did this by extending his right hand forward. When "Mayday" had no reaction, Faber stepped into an overhand, cracking him cleanly. If they do react, he'll feint the same exact way and attempt something else, like a takedown feint into an overhand.
While Faber keeps his hands fairly low, his head movement and reaction time make his defense quite solid. The only major flaw in his defense is his defensive kickboxing, as Jose Aldo -- and to a lesser extend Renan Barao -- had a ton of success brutalizing Faber's thigh with leg kicks. For the most part, Faber has not had his leg kicked at very frequently since Ludwig's arrival, so we'll all find out if he's improved that aspect of his game on Saturday.
Faber, who wrestled at UC Davis, is one of the most successful wrestlers in the sport's history. Although he has a dangerous and ever-improving stand up game, Faber is at his best when he can takedown his opponent and carve him up with elbow strikes.
The Team Alpha Male-trained fighter is a well-rounded wrestler, capable of successfully grabbing a takedown from almost any position. Faber is exceptionally quick and almost always manages to get in deep on the takedown. Once he does, Faber will drive, lift, and trip his opponent until they are on the mat. In particular, Faber is excellent at blasting through his opponent and then slamming him to the mat.
A large part of what makes Faber such a successful wrestler is his ability to mask takedowns. Since his stance allows him to easily punch or wrestle, his opponent has an exceptionally difficult time distinguishing between the two before it's too late. Additionally, Faber does a very good job closing the distance with punches, often ending his combination in perfect takedown range.
Faber is an excellent scrambler, able to turn bad situations into positive ones often. He flows from position to position very well, while blending his wrestling experience and control with aggressive jiu-jitsu. Faber has the ability to force his opponent to move at a high pace until he finds a favorable position, in which case he will latch onto it and stop all movement.
Either due to personal preference or a history of broken hands, Faber almost always uses elbow strikes from top position. Unlike many fighters, Faber is content to work from guard, where he can muscle around his opponent and prevent them from standing up. A common attack Faber uses is to allow his opponent to control his arm in an overhook. Then, he'll rip his arm out of the grip and come back down with a furious elbow.
If Faber can create the space to posture up, he will. When this happens, his opponent's diet of elbows steadily increases. He'll also posture up and absolutely dive into an elbow strike. While it's possibly for his opponent to escape out the side and possibly find Faber's back when he strikes like this, it would also be incredibly risky to focus on a back take rather than the point of Faber's elbow.
Faber has very good takedown defense and is nearly impossible to hold down. The only people to have any consistent wrestling success against Faber were Cruz and Brown. Cruz and his incredible knee pick managed to land Faber on the mat a few times, but he failed to control him at all. Similarly, Brown capitalized on his immense strength and Faber's broken hands to hit a large amount of takedowns, but wasn't able to keep Faber down for long.
"The California Kid" has earned a brown belt under Fabio Prado and actually competed in the Abu Dhabi Combat Club (ADCC), an elite grappling competition, in 2005, where he won his first match before losing to a very accomplished black belt. With an incredible 17 submission victories, Faber is likely the best grappler, outside of his coaches, at Alpha Male.
All of Faber's submission victories come from either a guillotine choke or a rear-naked choke, and both chokes are greatly aided by Faber's immense upper body strength. The lack of variety among submissions is not a bad thing; the best grapplers in the world generally have a few bread and butter moves.
In fact, Faber is one of the most fluid submission grapplers to ever compete in MMA.
Although Faber's guillotine of McDonald was slightly different than usual, he generally uses the high elbow guillotine, also known as the Marcelotine. Here's the description of the Marcelotine I wrote in my "Ultimate Submissions" post about front chokes:
Two important notes about the basic Marcelotine (this variation of the guillotine has plenty of variations itself) is the angle of the choke and the guard. When done properly, the person doing the guillotine will do his best to push his inside elbow (the one doing the actual choking) down towards his hips while the outside elbow raises up towards his chin. This derives pressure from the oblique muscles as well as the arms twisting into the neck.
Instead of finishing from full guard, Faber sits on his hip, the same side that the choke is on. From there, he'll throw his outside leg over his opponent's shoulder, preventing him from hopping to side control, a defense to the choke. Faber's inside leg either hooks his opponent's hip or lays between his opponent's leg; it really doesn't do much. This is the proper position to finish the choke from, as it ensures the angle and adds core strength to the choking equation.
Of course, even if Faber doesn't get the perfect angle or grip, a finish is still likely thanks to his crushing squeeze.
It's not a problem for the Californian if his opponent tries to roll away from him, as he'll just follow them into the mount. From the mount position, Faber's choke is so tight that he can finish with a single hand, which he did in his first match with "The Dominator."
As I mentioned above, Faber's ability to scramble is very impressive. He often uses this talent to find his opponent's back, where he can finish with a rear-naked choke. To snatch his opponent's back, Faber allows his opponent enough space to attempt a stand up. After being mashed by elbows and controlled from the front head lock, most opponents immediately try to capitalize on this opportunity.
As they do, Faber hops on their back, where he's vicious with the choke.
In his bout with Ivan Menjivar, a talented grappler, Faber executed one of the smoothest back takes in the history of the UFC. While he was baiting Menjivar to stand up, Menjivar obliged, and Faber attempted to take his back. As he hopped around, all he was able to catch was one of Menjivar's arms. Essentially, he had a standing crucifix. A regular crucifix is a great position to grab a rear naked, but when suspended in mid-air, Faber can't devote both of his hands to the choke. It's also very difficult to get to the back mount without something to lean on, so it looked like Faber would have to release the position.
The way Faber took the back was brilliant. When Menjivar attempted to shake Faber off, Faber used the momentum to swing his leg around. From there, he locked up the body triangle, followed by the rear naked choke.
Faber is very brutal in his pursuit of the rear naked. Rather than hand fighting and attempts to maneuver an arm under the neck, Faber doesn't waste time and just goes after the choke. If him manages to get around the neck at first, great, but if not he'll get his arm around his opponent's jaw and immediately start squeezing.
Since Faber likely has the strength to break a jaw -- and is definitely strong enough to make it seriously hurt -- all of his opponents have eventually allowed the arm to slip under their neck.
Not being submitted in 36 professional fights is a seriously impressive accomplishment, especially for someone who primarily grapples with his foe. Faber's submission defense is iron, especially from the top position, where his control, posture, and strength completely shut down his opponent's offense. In his fight with Alcantara, Faber once again proved his defensive ability, surviving mount, back control, and multiple submission attempts.
Faber was just too crafty, even for such a talented veteran like "Marajo."
Best Chance For Success
Faber said it himself in a pre-fight interview: He has to make this fight ugly. He cannot afford to go tit-for-tat with the Brazilian, whose kicks and knees will eventually cause Faber's body to slow down. Instead, he has to push the pace with constant takedown attempts and big punches whenever the opportunities arise.
That said, simply rushing an opponent like Barao won't work -- he's much too talented at controlling distance for that. Faber has to work his way in with feints, mix kicks into his attack, and overall blend his talents together perfectly to force Barao to play his game.
If he can do that, Faber will have a very good chance against the talented Brazilian.
Finally, Faber has to do something about Barao's low kicks. Whether he checks them, catches them or goes back to his straight right to the body, Faber can't allow Barao to land freely. Leg kicks sap explosiveness, one of Faber's most valuable attributes and biggest advantages over Barao, so Faber cannot let that happen.
Will Faber finally earn a UFC belt or will Barao once again send "The California Kid" back to the bottom of the ladder?