Urijah Faber vs. Michael McDonald -- Bantamweight bout
Faber, as the long reigning featherweight champion, was the virtual face of the WEC in its prime era. He snared the belt from Cole Escovedo in 2006 and went on to defend his title six times in the next two years until Mike Brown unseated him. Faber thrived as a contender and rose up again but fell short in a championship rematch against Brown, some of which could be attributed to a broken hand and dislocated thumb, and the cycle repeated again in a title bid after current champ Jose Aldo took over the division.
"The California Kid" has been a bantamweight ever since and seems to be in his ideal weight class, though he's found himself in the same position after twice vying for the bantamweight championship -- first against Dominick Cruz, the next against Renan Barao. The endless circle is not unlike MMA's version of the flick "Groundhog Day." Faber catches a lot of flak for that but it can't be entirely humiliating to consistently prove you're second to only the greatest fighter in the world in your respective weight class.
"Mayday" McDonald barged into the UFC surrounded by dual-pronged hype pertaining to his age (20 at the time of his debut) and for repping the proverbial "new breed" of fighter who's trained MMA as a while since day one. Even if that buzz had turned out to be all smoke and mirrors, McDonald would still have over a decade to get up to par. But it wasn't. It was obvious from the onset that the kid was seriously diverse with no known weaknesses, a fighter's mentality and an itchy trigger finger.
On the heels of his UFC premiere -- a fan-friendly decision win in a slobber-knocker against brawler Edwin Figueroa -- McDonald's stock continued to increase. Despite a retrospectively curious split-decision win over Chris Cariaso, consecutive 1st-round KO's (Alex Soto, Miguel Torres) left little doubt as to McDonald's legitimacy. The spike in momentum would lead to his second taste of defeat (the first was the aforementioned Escovedo by TKO in Tachi Palace Fights), as McDonald was aligned with Barao and his gaudy, mile-long win streak to appoint an interim bantamweight champion in Cruz's absence. It was not a poor performance but, personally, I never had the sense that McDonald was posing a serious threat to Barao in the 4th-round submission loss.
This match up makes for an interesting analysis. And by "interesting" I mean that I don't really have a ton to say about it. There is no one particular realm of combat in which either Faber or McDonald are notably vulnerable nor perceivably unstoppable. As thoroughly complete mixed martial artists, there is no tried and proven blueprint to follow for success. While specific skill vs. skill comparisons are typically prominent in fight breakdowns, the nuts and bolts of this match up seem to rest more on the mental side of things.
Neither fighter is successful just because of their striking, their wrestling, their submission savvy or the blistering pace they're able to maintain, even though they're both top-notch in all of those categories. Their true efficacy as fighters is being A-level across the board and, in live-time, having the innate ability to choose the most ideal weaponry from their extensive arsenals. Since their arsenals are already fully stocked, the resulting emphasis is placed on their in-fight instincts and selection -- both of which are mental qualities.
The term "phase shifting" is sometimes used to describe this process of rapidly cycling between different phases of combat, e.g. from striking to wrestling, submission grappling or clinching, in any imaginable sequence. Faber and McDonald not only excel at phase shifting but they do it intelligently, aggressively and at an obscene pace. And usually phase-shifting prowess is only on one side of the equation -- I honestly can't recall another match-up between two so gifted transition artists.
While there are no gaping advantages for Faber and McDonald skill-wise, they have subtle differences. Faber started out as a wrestler with excellent scrambling and didn't really flaunt elite striking until his fight with Jens Pulver in 2009. Faber has a unique style of boxing that is heavily laden with bent-arm strikes, and his punching delivery and defense are both unusually -- perhaps dangerously -- low and wide. It's not traditional technique but that means less and less as MMA grows and Faber makes it work for him.
Still ... there's a reason Faber's tendencies are not considered traditional, the biggest being the defensive liability that accompanies slinging a lot of hooks and uppercuts. And those concerns are heightened when faced with a technically bulletproof kickboxer like McDonald, who could wreak havoc on Faber's unorthodox striking style with straight punches and speed. Faber's gotten away with keeping his hands lower and wider because his timing and instincts are amazing, and those attributes are backed up by chin, athleticism, head movement and footwork. Additionally, that lower hand position is also more conducive to both offensive/defensive wrestling and the frenetic phase-shifting he's known for.
But nothing will change the fact that a guy who lets his hands drift down to shoulder or chest level is more likely to get punched in the face than one who keeps both hands glued to his chin, like McDonald does. And the fact that McDonald is arguably the quickest fighter and best phase-shifter that Faber's ever tackled only increases the chance that he could sneak a scorcher through Faber's semi-porous guard.
To clarify, I'm not saying Faber has horrendous defense or technique on the feet. I'm merely noting a difference between their striking habits and how McDonald's compact stance and tight, straight punches could be that "something little" that unfolds as "something big."
Unfortunately, that finite style disparity doesn't make up for some big-picture aspects on Faber's side, such as his fairly dramatic edge in top-flight competition, his utter mastery of the front headlock or his strangely prominent guillotine-based sweeps, submissions and transitions. This is highly subjective but I also feel that Faber is the more physically imposing wrestler and overall fighter, and I couldn't shake the sense that McDonald was just a tad over his head in the Barao fight, which was an enormous step up in competition for him.
I'm cool with the competitive but pro-Faber betting lines on this fight. These two are similar in style and skill, yet mental intangibles seem like the driver and what will ultimately dictate how effectively their style and skills are implemented.
My Prediction: Urijah Faber by decision or late submission.