Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2010 | 5:09 p.m.
It took seven years, but this week WEC superstar Urijah Faber finally will compete at his optimal weight.
Faber (23-4) is set to make his debut in the 135-pound bantamweight division Thursday, against a game opponent in Takeya Mizugaki (13-4-2) at The Pearl at The Palms.
The former featherweight champion is looking forward to the idea of starting a title run in a new division and clearly takes issue with anyone who suggests his back is against the wall after losing to current 145-pound champion Jose Aldo in April.
"It's funny because you have all the 'Internet warriors,' all these so-called experts in the sport who say I hit a roadblock so I'm dropping down," Faber said. "People don't understand I wrestled in college at 133 pounds.
"There was no 135-pound division when I started in the sport — this was before most people were even covering it."
Ironically, Faber is somewhat responsible for the fact there is a 135-pound weight class for him to drop to.
The 31-year-old fighter long has been the face of the WEC organization, which began focusing on lighter-weight fighters in 2006. The company is set to merge with the UFC at the end of 2010.
Before he was helping the WEC sell out shows in his hometown of Sacramento, Calif., Faber remembers he was the face of two other promotions and, despite his humble personality, acknowledges that he has played a major part in the growth of mixed martial arts.
"I wouldn't take all the credit, but I've been a great ambassador," Faber said. "I was on an MSNBC documentary that went out to a lot of homes. Before that, I was the poster boy for Gladiator Challenge and then for King of the Cage.
"I've been an asset to the sport. I can take credit for that. But I give most of the credit to the guys building the sport like Dana (White) and Lorenzo (Fertitta)."
When Faber started his professional career in 2003, he was forced to do so as a 155-pound lightweight.
Only after he began winning fights and building a fan base was he able to talk promoters into allowing him to compete as a featherweight, still 10 pounds over his natural fighting weight.
"I'm not a big guy," said Faber, who stands 5-foot-6. "When I started, there wasn't even a 155 class in the UFC. (Building smaller weight classes) is something that I really put my heart into.
"I took my first fight at 155 and eventually told my promoter, 'Hey. I'm selling tickets. I want to fight at 145.' I did that, and it just progressed since then."
Stringing together wins in the cage, which Faber certainly has done throughout his career, isn't the only way he's helped build the sport.
He clearly has a knack for marketing, as he's rarely seen in any clothing other than his sponsors' and has been noticed turning cans of Amp Energy drink just so that cameras can catch the label.
"When I met him, I knew he had charisma, but I didn't know he had a business savvy," said WEC General Manager Reed Harris. "He's always thinking about what he can do to promote the sport."
That includes being an athlete that fans can find approachable and down to earth, which is what Faber believes is behind his popularity.
"I feel like people want to root for someone they can relate to and I think I'm real," Faber said. "I feel like most fans think if they were in my hometown, we'd be buddies — and that's probably true."
But even with all the work Faber had done outside the cage in the last seven years, Harris says there's no question it's still what he's done inside the cage that's helped the sport most.
Historically in combat sports, the greatest amount of focus has been placed on heavier fighters. But, according to Harris, Faber helped the UFC become interested in adding lighter-weight fights to its shows.
"I think what Urijah did is help us show the public how exciting lightweight fighters can be," Harris said. "He opened doors that showed being a lightweight fighter can mean thing like faster, more dynamic, more exciting fights.
"The thing about Urijah was that you never knew what he was going to do. Every time he went into that cage you said, 'What am I going to see today?' He lived dangerously in there and I respect him for that."
Seven years after accepting a fight on a small show in a division 20 pounds heavier than he should have been in, Faber finally will be exactly where he deserves to be Thursday — fighting at 135 pounds, on the verge of joining the biggest MMA organization in the world.
"I'm excited," he said. "This is something that's been a long time waiting for me — to come to 135 and also the merger. It's time that the lightweight fighters get the notoriety from the fans behind the UFC."