Monday, February 26, 2007

Faber new face of featherweights

By Steve Sievert

Urijah Faber carries only 145 pounds into his fights, but that hasn't stopped him from becoming a heavyweight of a talent in the world of mixed martial arts.

The 27-year-old Sacramento fighter is unbeaten in his last 10 bouts and tore through six opponents during a busy 2006. It was a string that included a foursome of TKO victories and winning the World Extreme Cagefighting featherweight championship

Faber (17-1) opened up 2007 in similar winning fashion in his first title defense that ended in a hurry with an opening-round stoppage of Joe Pearson.

A full-throttle attack inside the cage and surfer-boy looks have made Faber one of the sport's most engaging athletes, and he relishes his emerging role as the face of the retooled WEC.

"I've been lucky in that my look is pretty marketable and my style is very marketable," Faber said. "I've been the face of every organization I've competed in. I'm going to be a big deal, and I'm looking forward to that."

Modesty isn't an issue for the "California Kid."

The WEC is remaking its brand of mixed martial arts under the umbrella of Zuffa, which also owns the Ultimate Fighting Championship. The six-year-old WEC is putting stock in Faber and other fighters in the lighter classes.

The bell-to-bell pace set by most featherweights and lightweights plays well with WEC shows, which feature a high-energy in-house production and soundtrack to appeal to a younger fan base at small to midsize venues.

"People are learning more about the sport and becoming true fans," Faber said. "With that, you recognize talent and appreciate the skill level of smaller fighters. It's like boxing now, where some of the biggest names in the sport are the smaller guys, like 'Pretty Boy' Floyd and (Oscar) De La Hoya. They're exciting and explosive and that's starting to come over in MMA."

But it's a work in progress. While the lower divisions are gaining in popularity, the dollar signs aren't keeping up. The UFC represents the pinnacle of the sport in the United States, but the organization doesn't field a featherweight division. Faber could move up to fight at 155 pounds, but the economics aren't enticing enough.

"A year ago, they offered me two and two to fight in the UFC," said Faber, speaking of a deal that would have paid him $2,000 to show and another two grand for a win. "That's why I never signed with the UFC at 155 pounds. The sport's growing too much now to fight for that. In the next three years, I see the money going through the roof."

In the meantime, Faber's satisfied with his big-dog status and bigger paychecks in the WEC. When he's not training and fighting, he's pouring his time into a new business venture — a 9,000-square-foot MMA and fitness gym in downtown Sacramento.

He's also helping his mother, Suzanne Tastad, get more comfortable with the idea of her son in the role of fighter. Faber has been on the wrestling mat since he was 8 years old, but the transition to MMA didn't go over well on the home front. Tastad found MMA a brutal departure from the comparatively sedate world of wrestling.

"She's definitely warming up more to the idea," Faber said. "She's just like the rest of America that's getting educated about the sport."

Faber will defend his WEC title for a second time next month, when he faces Dominic Cruz in Las Vegas.

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