As the broken pieces of the UFC’s bantamweight ocean liner slowly descended into the Pacific, a rising tide came washing in on Tuesday, carrying Urijah Faber in a red cape on a surfboard with sounds of “California Love” blaring in the background.
“The California Kid” is returning to combat sports as a middle-aged man and adding a new page to the fighting chapter of one of the most storied careers in MMA history.
That news might be surprising for most considering Faber left the UFC with an ending fit for a king—a luxury afforded to few in the twilight of an MMA career. He left with his hand raised after defeating Brad Pickett by unanimous decision in the same year he competed with Dominick Cruz for the UFC title. There was no tearful moment of him being forced out of the business on his shield, which is typically the case for most that compete past their expiration point.
Faber closed the curtain on fighting simply because he wanted to step away, not because he had to.
“I don’t feel like I’ve skipped a beat, but that’s kind of where I’m at,” Faber said back in 2016. “I’m not stopping because I can’t do it. I obviously can do it. I love it, but I just feel like now’s the time. It’s the right time.”
Timing is everything.
Faber’s decision to leave the sport coincided with the rise of his star pupil, Cody Garbrandt, along with his second loss to Cruz. The division had taken on the face of a trio of revolving champions between Cruz, Garbrandt and T.J. Dillashaw, which virtually left an old guard legend like Faber as nothing more than a perennial gatekeeper. It was a hollow existence for a fighter that had achieved everything in the sport except for winning a UFC title.
So a couple years passed, and the winds of change brought Urijah Faber right back to the UFC’s doorstep. It wasn’t boredom that picked the 40-year-old former WEC featherweight champion off the couch. He stays plenty busy training a slew of up-and-comers at Team Alpha Male. It wasn’t due to a mid-life crisis or a lack of excitement in his life, either. He recently welcomed a beautiful baby girl into the world, and along with overseeing a stable of fighters, he is nose-deep in fatherhood.
It was the same abstract concept that sent him away that was ultimately responsible for bringing him back: Time.
Dillashaw is serving out a two-year suspension handed down by USADA for a drug test violation, and Garbrandt is taking a much-needed break after three straight losses. Meanwhile, Cruz could be on ice for the rest of 2019 after undergoing an extensive shoulder surgery, which he compared to an ACL injury.
The three-headed monster is essentially absent from the bantamweight division, and Faber suddenly decided now was the right time for him to make his return. He could have made his comeback at featherweight if he was simply taking whatever interesting fights the UFC presented him, while avoiding strenuous weight cuts. However, the writing was already on the wall the moment news broke of his return to the bantamweight division.
He is resuming his quest of becoming a UFC champion.
Some might scoff at the notion of a fighter returning later in his career for a final title run without considering an iconic name like Randy Couture, who returned at age 43 to compete in a barren wasteland of a heavyweight division. It was a wise and calculated risk that ended up paying off for Couture. Whether it does the same for Faber remains to be seen.
Make no mistake, there is plenty of talent at 135 pounds, but the lack of household names puts Faber in a truly unique situation that could expedite his journey back to title contention. Couture actually returned to an immediate title opportunity against Tim Sylvia coming off a knockout loss to Chuck Liddell. So it isn’t outside the realm of possibility that Faber could be a great performance or two away from leapfrogging other contenders.
Hardcore fans might not like it, and deserving contenders waiting in line for the opportunity of a lifetime will like it even less. But there is no counter-argument for the fact that Faber would instantly be the UFC’s top draw at bantamweight with Cruz, Garbrandt and Dillashaw all on the shelf. Besides, who doesn’t like a good comeback story?
Urijah Faber will be watching the vacant UFC bantamweight title fight between Henry Cejudo and Marlon Moraes on June 8 with vested interest. The victor would hold the keys for his final opportunity to accomplish the goal of winning a UFC title—one last hurrah before plopping on a surfboard and swimming off for good towards the sunset in the unending oceanic beauty.
This article first appeared on BJPENN.COM on 5/29/2019.