Chad Mendes, a core member of Urijah Faber’s Team Alpha Male out of Sacramento California, will face Connor McGregor at UFC 189 for the UFC Featherweight Championship. A few years ago, just as the team was starting to make an impact in MMA, I visited Urijah, Chad and the rest of Team Alpha Male for this article which first appeared in FIGHT! Magazine in 2010.
Urijah Faber is the reason why there is a credible Featherweight division in the United States. Along with Stars like Miguel Torres, he’s building the WEC’s brand to be second only to that of its parent company, the mighty UFC. Blending speed, power, technique and energy, Urijah boasts a record of 22-2, with 18 wins by stoppage. Eleven of the later came in the very first round, including his last fight in which he choked out Jens Pulver in 94 seconds after breaking his rib with a body shot. Urijah overwhelmed the MMA legend with unrestrained energy, strength, speed and pure physicality.
As I watch him train today at his successful Ultimate Fitness Gym in downtown Sacramento, however, Urijah is anything but unrestrained. He’s slowly drilling takedowns with a class of twelve other fighters from Urijah’s MMA team: Team Alpha Male. They’re doing “structured drilling,” in which they practice their maneuvers at about 25 percent resistance. The purpose of this type of drilling is to allow the body to recognize the position it’s in and to respond with the correct counter or technique without the athlete having to think about it. I watch the class drill through countless maneuvers. Later, they will concentrate on conditioning.
Urijah is running the class and also taking part in it. It’s an impressive display. He’ll run seamlessly through several positions with his training partner, Dustin “The Persian Prince” Akbari, before breaking out to go over to another pair of fighters and instruct them on something he’s seen out of the corner of his eye. Although Urijah is famous for his great physical gifts and for the way he steam rolls his opponents, it’s clear from watching him in class that his brawn is backed up by an encyclopedic knowledge of wrestling. The class drills innumerable techniques, and then transitions smoothly into an equally broad array of counters. Urijah flows into a sweet sweep off an attempt at a single leg by Akbari. Once they get back up, he goes on the offensive, moving in behind three quick punches that he pulls inches from The Persian Prince’s face, then changing levels by dipping perfectly at the knees (what wrestling legend Darryl Gholar refers to as disappearing in front of your opponent). He then fakes a shot, but instead goes for an ankle pick. Akbari drops, but before he can compose himself on the ground, Urijah throws a sweeping right. This would have been a devastating fight-ending sequence had Urijah performed it at full speed.
The level of grappling expertise in the room is extremely high. If one of his fighters isn’t up to par, Urijah has no compunction about switching him to one of the school’s more basic grappling classes. Urijah knows that if one of his fighters is training with someone too far above him in technical skill, it does neither of them much good. “It makes you tougher, but it doesn’t make you better,” he tells me later.
Urijah has known most of the members of Team Alpha Male for a long time, some since before he had a career in MMA. After practice he rattles off the back-stories of some of his teammates. “I’ve been training with Akbari since he was 15 and 135 pounds. Today he’s 21 and 185,” says Urijah.
“I recruited Chad Mendez when I was a coach at UC Davis,” he continues. “Matt Sanchez and I actually competed against each other in college wrestling. He beat me in my last match.” Urijah points over his shoulder to Danny Castillo. “I’ve known Castillo since the ninth grade.” Urijah adds that Castillo gave up a desk job to pursue his dream of being a fighter. “Uscola and I used to fight on the Indian reservations back in the day,” he says, talking about Kyacey Uscola. Urijah has the habit common to many ex-college wrestlers of referring to everyone, even close friends, exclusively by their last names. “And Benavidez ,” he says, referring to Joseph Benavidez, “walked into the gym one day after his flight was delayed, and the rest is history.”
After practice, the members of team Alpha Male often hang out in the front of the gym. Today, Urijah and I grab stools and go outside. He eats a salad and some sort of vegetarian sandwich as we talk. During the conversation, I mention the unfortunate passing of Charles “Mask” Lewis, who died a week before in an auto accident. Having never met Mask in person, I ask Urijah what he was like.
“What he was, was consistent,” says Urijah. “He could be loud and over the top, and some people didn’t know how to take that, but he was always the same from when I knew him back in the day until a couple of weeks ago, when I last saw him. He was always the same guy, and you have to respect that,” he said. Watching Urijah around his friends, I think that the other members of Team Alpha Male would probably say the same thing about him.
Later that night eight of us are in one of Urijah’s favorite restaurants in Sacramento, a little Greek place called The Kabob House. He tells me he’s been coming here since he was in the first grade. In fact, he says he can remember eating here to celebrate the birth of his little sister, 16 years ago. He even usually has the same dish: marinated chicken and rice, which he insists I try. We’re here with several of his friends and, as always with Urijah, there’s a lot of exciting stuff going on. They’re planning a big party in a couple of days and they’re getting ready for a TV crew to come into the gym for a reality show Urijah is working on. Between ordering their dinners, they discuss how many kegs to get for the party.
“For a group where nobody really drinks, we sure go through a lot of alcohol,” comments Uscola dryly, who is sitting with his girlfriend across the table.
Urijah is a great storyteller. Sitting to my left, he keeps the table entertained with stories from his days at UC Davis. Among other things, I learn that he and his friends had a friendly rivalry with a university policeman of whom they perpetually ran afoul for the sort of silly infractions you do in college, like noisy parties and the like. Urijah tells the story of how, years after they had all graduated, he and his friends threw another big party (Urijah and his crew throw a lot of parties), and when their neighbors complained about their making too much noise. Who showed up but the same poor cop, who had by now been promoted to the Sacramento Police.
“Officer Steindorff,” Urijah recalls saying cheerily when he first recognized the beleaguered cop from years before. “Give me a hug!” He says the cop let them off with only a warning, for old time’s sake.
With us at the dinner is another of Urijah’s wrestling buddies from college, Bryan Bachar. Originally from Lebanon, Tennessee, Bachar was fresh off the farm when he fell in with Urijah and the rest of the wrestling crew at UC Davis.
“We introduced Bachar to partying, to girls, to life,” Urijah declares triumphantly. When they first knew him, Bachar would never curse, so Urijah and his friends made it their mission on road trips to get him so mad that he would slip up. They would cheat in games, pick stupid arguments, and otherwise slyly goad their friend. When Bachar would finally lose his temper, they would all laugh and confront him, pointing their fingers in made-up shock “Shame on you, Bachar. You said ‘Fuck.’”
Urijah imitates Bachar getting flustered and sputtering his usual lame rejoinder: “I-I-I did not. I said ‘Frick.’” The whole table laughs at the spot-on impression, and the good-natured Bachar takes it all in with equanimity worthy of Buddha.
The pinnacle of the group’s pranks on Bachar happened when he applied for a job with a local contractor. One of their friends called Bachar, impersonating his new supervisor, and told him that they had been hired to paint a sorority house and that as a publicity stunt they were all going to do it in drag. As Urijah tells the story, Bachar shakes his head. “I figured something might be up,” he says, but Urijah, who was with Bachar at the time he got the call, helped sell the deception.
“Bachar said,’ Man, I think somebody is trying to fool me,’” Urijah recounts, his face lighting up in devilish glee. “So I told him,’ Dude, this is a good job, and you need to show your boss that you are with the program. You need to be gung ho about this.’” Hearing Urijah tell it, I can understand how Bachar got taken in by such an unlikely story. With his infectious energy and trademark California deadpan, Urijah is one of those people who can make you believe anything he says. “So we helped him pick out his outfit and everything. It was perfect,” Urijah finishes. Needless to say, when Bachar showed up to work early the next morning and knocked on his boss’s door, the shocked look on the man’s face told Bachar that he’d been had.
Despite all the good-natured ribbing, it’s clear that Urijah really cares about all of his friends, and that the feeling goes both ways. I talk to Bachar some time later, and he tells me that, despite his ever increasing success and fame, Urijah really hasn’t changed that much since the days he knew him at college.
“Urijah’s always been the same,” he said. “He’s always been the center of attention, captain of the wrestling team, always going out with the prettiest girls,” he continues. “Urijah always wants to see everybody happy, and if you’re good to Urijah, he’s good to you. He knows the people who have got his back and he always keeps those people close.” And, in return, the friends who have known him since before he was fighting keep him grounded.
When I get back to my hotel after dinner, I turn on the TV and flip around to find the local news. I’m pleasantly surprised when the sportscaster excitedly announces that a rematch has been signed between Urijah Faber and Mike Brown, the man who upset Urijah several months ago. It’s one of the only times I can remember a “mainstream” news channel reporting on MMA. It’s a testament to MMA’s ever-growing acceptance, but also to Urijah’s celebrity in Sacramento. I flip a few channels over, and there’s Urijah again, doing commentary on a rerun of some old WEC matches, including Miguel Torres’s first breakout victory over Chase Beebe, when he won the title. As I watch Urijah on the screen, it’s hard to believe that I was just having dinner with him a few hours ago, but when I hear Urijah go from analyzing the fight to wryly complimenting Torres’s mullet hairstyle in the same tone of voice he used to hoodwink Bachar, I say to myself, “Yep that’s him.”
“I’m always looking to bring in the best people to learn from,” Urijah says the next day at the gym. He’s very proud of the instructors who teach at Ultimate Fitness. Fabio Prado is the Jiu-Jitsu teacher, and has helped Urijah and the rest of the team round out the base grappling expertise they bring from wrestling.
The Muay Thai classes at Team Alpha Male are run by a man they call Master Thong. One of Master Thong’s students was the dreaded K-1 fighter Buakaw Por Pramuk, the man said to have the most ferocious kicks in the world. When I take the Muay Thai class, Master Thong navigates around the mats carrying a thin yellow Wiffle ball bat, which he uses to pop people on the back of the leg or on top of the head to get their attention. The class has a little light sparring at the end, but it is mainly concerned with basic Muay Thai combinations and conditioning.
After the class, Urijah explains to me, “We all come from wrestling, so our bodies are used to drilling. Whether it’s drilling a takedown or a punch or kick, you just do it over and over until you get it.” They don’t have the same stratospheric level of expertise with Muay Thai that they do with grappling, but the members of Team Alpha Male are all such good athletes and have been inculcated with such discipline over the years, that I can see that they are picking up the basics very well.
Teaching Team Alpha Male the basics of boxing is the job of Juan Lazcano. Lazcano was once a top professional boxer, and once even took Ricky Hatton 12 hard rounds in a title fight. When we first meet, I tell him with a wink that I am always a little prejudiced in favor of fighters with good hands because of my background in boxing. He laughs a good-natured laugh and then says, “I’m teaching these guys the basics of boxing, but the basics as they pertain to MMA.”
I take his class later in the day. In the first drill, we all get in a big circle and Lazcano calls out instructions from a spiral notebook he has in his hands.
“Circle to the left,” he begins, and the whole class starts moving laterally the left. Lazcano calls out different combinations for us to execute. Each round lasts three minutes, and the complexity of the drills steadily increases. Initially, we are throwing easy three-punch combinations, but by the sixth and last round we’re changing directions, jabbing, dipping, feinting, moving in and out, etc. As usual, Urijah outworks everybody in the room. Even when he’s drilling, there’s a speed and explosiveness to his movements that the others don’t have. He’s just been blessed with a higher gear than everybody else. Next we each get a punching bag and work on specific punches or simple combinations. There are no Floyd Mayweatheresque nine-punch combinations with this crowd. Everything is simple and to the point. The reason is that, in MMA, you can’t just plant yourself in front of someone and “let your hands go” because your opponent always has the option of dropping down and taking out your legs. Simple two- and three-punch combinations work best.
There is one particular technique that I find interesting because I think it fits well with the core competencies of Urijah and the other members of the team. It’s a deceptively simple maneuver in which we throw a stiff left jab while dipping at the knees. This takes advantage of a wrestler’s ability to change levels and to mislead his opponent by always threatening a shot. In MMA, most of the feints are up and down, as opposed to side-to-side like in boxing and I am reminded of some of the techniques I saw Urijah drilling the day before.
We finish the class with exercises designed to increase explosiveness and punching power. In one of them, we pair up and hurl huge medicine balls back and forth to each other between push-ups. It is as much an exercise in dexterity and timing as it is in strength. Urijah, who never seems to get tired, throws a medicine ball that looks about as big as he is.
After about an hour of the class, I’m drained, and I’m relieved when Lazcano signifies that the class is at an end by going around and high-fiving everyone for making it through. We’ll all come back in four hours for sparring.
When we do, Urijah goes several rounds with fighters who are all much bigger than he is, chasing them around the ring while throwing bombs and loading up on his hooks. He can get away with being this aggressive with his punching because he is such a good wrestler nobody is going to take him down unless he lets it happen. Therefore he can come forward and commit more to his punches and kicks than the average fighter. This is why I think that wrestlers who learn the basics of boxing are becoming so successful in MMA. There is Urijah, of course, but Gray Maynard from Xtreme Couture also springs to mind. Rising star Joseph Benavidez, who is training for his upcoming fight against Jeff Curran at the WEC show in Chicago, is another one of these wrestling-based fighters who are using boxing to round out their skill sets. Urijah is very high on Benavidez, whose hyper-aggressive style and penchant for swinging for the fences is reminiscent of Urijah himself.
After watching Benavidez go several rounds, I take my own chances and spar a few rounds with a couple of the fighters. One of them is a talented young lightweight named Danny Castillo. We are straight-up boxing, so I am able to “cheat” because of the big 16-ounce sparring gloves and the fact that we are in a ring instead of a cage. Instead of working my lateral movement and feints, which would require more energy than I have, I try to bully the smaller fighter into the ropes or corners, standing in front of him and trying-not always successfully-to block his quick, peppering punches with my arms and gloves. Occasionally, I’m able to pen him in and work on the inside a little. I feel comfortable doing this kind of work but it would be disastrous in an actual MMA fight because if I planted myself in front of a good wrestler like Castillo, it would take him about two seconds to drop levels and take me down. But he’s quick and skilled, and we go for a few spirited rounds while Urijah watches from the outside and shouts us instructions.
After we finish and get out of the ring, Urijah comes over and a group of us start talking about the niceties of striking. I sport a bloody nose thanks to Castillo’s peppering shots. Danny tells me that I left my jab out too long and that’s why he was able to catch me. I mention my pet theory to Urijah that one of these days a mixed martial artist is going to really learn how to punch to the body, revolutionizing the sport the way ground-and-pound, the sprawl, and Thai clinch have already done. He agrees, and we talk about whether the secret to a good body punch is power or placement. This goes on for about twenty minutes as the sparring winds down. I have such a good time shooting the breeze, and everybody is so laid-back and friendly, that I feel like one of the boys, even if it’s just for a few hours.
“If I was going to design my ideal lifestyle,” Urijah tells me later at one of his houses, “it would be doing exactly what I do now: work out, hang out with my friends, and watch fights.” “I always said that if I could find a way to work out for a living, that’s what I’d do.” He talks about what he calls “the fighting lifestyle,” and what it takes to be successful.
“If you’re going to be a fighter, you have to make it your life,” he says. “Training becomes your life. No drinking, watching your diet, living in the gym.” Urijah knows what he’s talking about. After all, this is exactly the life he lives. He tells me that, when he’s in the run-up to a fight, he will pick up the intensity and then tone it down to let his body recover afterwards. But he’s basically always training, and has been since he was a kid.
Urijah owns four houses that are grouped together along a couple of blocks in a Sacramento neighborhood that I jokingly named “Faberville.” These houses are inhabited by several of his friends and Team Alpha Male teammates. Even Master Thong lives in a bungalow behind one of them. The night before I leave, Urijah invites me over and gives me a tour of the block, pointing out not only the houses he owns but the ones he has his eye on. “You keep it up, and eventually you’re going to own the whole neighborhood,” I tell him.
“That’s right,” he says proudly. When we go inside Urijah’s main house, we find a group of people working on a new clothing line that Urijah is starting called, fittingly, “Alpha Male.” He shows me one of the tee shirts and explains the intricate symbolism on the shirt. It’s very cool, and I’m sure it will be a big success. Characteristically, he decided to start his own company with friends he has known for years instead of going with one of the larger apparel companies, which would fall all over themselves to work with a star of Urijah’s caliber. Urijah’s penchant for working with a close circle of trusted friends has carried over from the gym into the business world. Urijah has a surfer’s lackadaisical attitude towards money, but he nevertheless sits today at the center of a budding capitalist empire. With his houses, two successful gyms, endorsements, new clothing line, and a reality TV series in the works, it’s easy to see a day when wealth will rain down on Urijah Faber, and the California Kid could become a very wealthy man in spite of himself.
It’s also a certainty that everyone within his orbit will have a blast while it’s happening. But all of the fun and the cool projects that revolve around Urijah are driven by that “fighting lifestyle,” Urijah told me about. It all goes back to his commitment to training and to the sport of mixed martial arts. And while he’s obviously on top of the world now, he had just as good a time when he was a wrestling coach at UC Davis or during his early fighting days before he made it. In fact, I suspect that, as long as Urijah could somehow work with fighting and training, he would be happy; and he would still be the at center of the same circle of friends he has now. Will it always be this way? Who knows? Money and success attract hangers-on and grifters like flies to honey, but here’s hoping that Urijah’s original Team Alpha Male posse, the guys who have been with him since the beginning and who train and live with him still, will help him keep it real. And for his part of the deal, the California Kid will keep the party going as long as it will last.