One fighter paved the way for the lighter-weight competitors to have a future in mixed martial arts. The other is looking to cement his standing as the future of the sport.
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When former WEC featherweight champion Urijah Faber and current UFC bantamweight titleholder Dominick Cruz lock horns for the third time in the season finale of “The Ultimate Fighter 15,” neither fighter wants any questions to remain.
During Faber’s historic three-year run as WEC featherweight champion, he rolled off 13 consecutive victories. Back then, Cruz was just a name on the list, suffering his first career loss at the hands of Faber by submission in March 2007. But since then, Cruz has reconstructed his game, won the WEC bantamweight title and gone 10-0 (4-0 in title defenses) — every bit living up to his nickname of The Dominator.
In the sweetest form of revenge, Cruz was able to add Faber to his rolling list of victories when he defeated The California Kid via unanimous decision at UFC 132 in July of last year. It was a close-fought, back-and-forth battle in which Cruz was dropped on multiple occasions, but returned fire every time and scores with numerous takedowns and effective striking. When the judges’ scorecards were read, the belt remained with Cruz, while Faber’s opportunity to claim the UFC bantamweight title was thwarted.
Now, after Cruz (18-1-0) successfully defended against Demetrious Johnson in October and Faber (26-5-0) made short work of Brian Bowles a month later, the stage is once again set for the two rivals to square off. This go-around will have more at stake as Cruz and Faber have been selected as the coaches for the upcoming season of “The Ultimate Fighter.” While the tension between the two men was once extremely personal and combustible, now it has become a professional rivalry to be settled once and for all.
HeavyMMA caught up with both Cruz and Faber to discuss the upcoming third installment of their trilogy, as well as their coaching positions on “The Ultimate Fighter.”
“I was excited,” Cruz said. “That is the only way I can describe it. I was hoping we could get the third fight in earlier, but things came up and we couldn’t put the fight together. This came along and it has turned into a huge opportunity — not only for Faber and me, but for the division, as well. It’s going to be a fun ride.”
Faber also shared his thoughts on the opportunity and how it came about.
“Directly after my fight with Brian Bowles, Dana White came up to me and told me about what they were thinking of doing," Faber said. "He told me that they wanted me to be the coach and I was excited because it is a huge opportunity. Not only is it a coaching gig on ‘The Ultimate Fighter,’ but it is going to be the first time on FX and there will be a ton of promotion surrounding it. Plus this format will be twice as long as other seasons. The viewers are going to get a different look than they’ve had in the past and it will be great for the brand.
“Fans are going to get to see a lot of personality. I feel I’m pretty good at just being myself and not putting on. I’m going to open up to the folks and have fun with it. I’m going to fight my heart out and beat the crap out of Dominick Cruz.”
Prefight trash talking and grudges are a given in the world of combat sports. In the past, athletes have used different tactics and methods to get into the heads of their opponents, and while the large majority of banter is done in an effort to promote the forthcoming fight, rarely do the issues ever become truly personal. For Faber and Cruz, the tension is as real as it gets. While there is no love lost between the two, both see a third matchup as a new chapter in their story.
“I would say after this last fight, it has become more competitive between us,” Faber explained. “We still know how to get under each other’s skin, but now it’s more like probing instead of a ‘get the hell out of my face’ type of a situation. We won’t have an issue where we can’t be around each other without punching each other in the face, but it is definitely going to be intense. There is going to be a lot of quick quips and put-downs for sure. It should be great for TV.”
For his part, Cruz believes the more volatile aspects of their relationship have been put to rest. But that doesn’t mean the rivalry between them doesn’t burn hotter than ever.
“Faber and I had our issues in the past,” Cruz said. “We fought and settled who is the champion of the division right then and there. After we fought, more things have happened. I’ve defended my title and he defeated Brian Bowles. Now we are fighting again. I wouldn’t say things are the same as the last time we fought, but now the rivalry has increased.
“The old stuff between us is in the past. That has been settled, but now there are new things on the table. It’s a brand new rivalry and we both have new goals we want to achieve. I feel like the stakes are at an all-time high, we both know it, and I’m excited to kick him out of my division.”
When the announcement was made and it became official that Faber would be once again challenge Cruz for the title, there were grumblings and backlash throughout the MMA community. Facing Cruz for a third time will mark Faber’s fourth opportunity to claim gold in a little more than two years. While the decision may draw the ire of some, Faber believes it is a spot he has earned and invites anyone who thinks differently to step up and take it away from him.
“I’ve heard that stuff before, and it always comes from guys like Brian Bowles or Eddie Wineland," Faber said. "It comes from guys that I’ve already beaten up. Hey, if one of these guys beats me, they get a title shot. It’s that simple. The guys who are keyboard warriors need to stay at home, stay behind their keyboards, and let me worry about getting title shots.
“I’m going into my second year as a 135-pound fighter, and I feel like everything is coming together. I feel like I’ve found my weight class and it is where I always should have been, but I was a world champion at 145 pounds. In my time down here, I’ve already defeated two former champions and came within inches of winning the UFC belt against Cruz. I’m ready to get in there and get that belt this time.”
As the UFC bantamweight champion, Cruz is only concerned with the next opportunity to defend his title. At this moment, the fighter attempting to take away his belt is Faber — and while he acknowledges the amount of title shots Faber has found himself in over recent years, his sole focus is defeating Faber and holding onto his position as the top 135-pound fighter in the world.
“If you count the fight where I won the title, I’ve had five opportunities,” Cruz said. “Winning the championship and then defending it four times. Meanwhile, Faber is coming to fight me again for his fourth chance at the title — and he hasn’t won any of them over the past two years.
“That being said, he’s been given a lot of opportunities, but that doesn’t mean he can’t fight for another one. Is it wrong or right? That isn’t really my decision, and I don’t have much to say about that. I think people kind of have their own opinion of the situation. The bottom line is I’m fighting him. It has been set and I’m going to beat him.”
As the reality show prepares to begin taping, both Cruz and Faber have their minds set on ending their dispute once and for all. Setting their personal history aside, both revel in the fact their presence on the show and eventual matchup will put the spotlight on a division which is on its way to becoming one of the most competitive weight classes under the UFC banner.
While Faber once lead the charge for lighter-weight legitimacy, Cruz is now the perched atop the ladder and wants to do everything within his power to push the sport further.
“There is a lot of talent in the division right now and it’s great for the fans and the sport to have these guys who are all on rampages right now,” Cruz said. “They are beating people up and I love it. I’ll fight any of these guys, and I want them to bring it. I have respect for all of these guys, but when we fight for the title, respect goes out the door and it’s time to fight. Right now, in my brain, I need to hold down. I need to keep the flag.
“I feel I go out there, put it all on the line and give the fans something to get excited about. I’ve wrecked my body to put on a show for the fans, and I hope I can get the respect I’ve worked so hard for. That is what this thing is about. I’m not only it to accomplish what I am trying to do — I’m looking to build the sport.”
As Cruz looks to push mixed martial arts to new levels, Faber has spent the better part of his career doing exactly what his nemesis hopes to accomplish. His run as the WEC featherweight champion from 2005 through 2008 solidified his place in MMA history, but he believes with continued improvement and focus, the best is yet to come.
“It feels great to be known as one of the staples of the sport,” Faber said. “A lot of things have gone into making that possible. I’ve invested a lot of time to become one of the best fighters in the world. This sport is all about time and being persistent and consistent.
“MMA is growing so fast and becoming so popular these days, and I stuck it out when it didn’t appear there were going to be a lot of opportunities. I think it’s something that happens from being on the grind and keeping focused on your goals.”
The new season of "The Ultimate Fighter" premieres March 9 on FX with Cruz and Faber as opposing coaches.