UFC 169 Factgrinder: The Wrestling Career of Urijah Faber.

Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

In the main event of UFC 169, Urijah Faber faces Renan Barao for the bantamweight strap. Bloody Elbow wrestling specialist Mike Riordan discusses Faber's career as a wrestler before he became a fighter.

Urijah Faber finished his career as the best wrestler in the history of University of Califonia-Davis (UCD). During his time wrestling for the Aggies, he won 91 matches, and finished in the top 12 at the 2002 NCAA Division I National Championship, one win away from All-American status.

Faber's experienced success, but it was not enough to save UCD's wrestling team. UCD is a big and academically prestigious California public university, and in an era with tight state budgets, circuit court approval of absurd Department of Education Title IX legislation enforcement and increasingly gaudy facilities, wrestling programs at places like UCD need more individual standout performances in order to make a case for their own existence.

Eventually, UCD did produce an All-American wrestler. Derek Moore, whom Faber mentored as an assistant coach, completed an undefeated season in 2007, improbably winning a national championship. Moore's triumph instantly became the high point for UCD wrestling, but his amazing performance was too little, too late. In 2010, the University shuttered the program.

UCD never fully harnessed its wrestling potential, but this did not stop Faber from excelling on the mat. Heading into his senior year in college, Faber enjoyed a top-ten national ranking in a couple of major polls. The early part of his final season went well, with high placings at a couple of major tournaments. However, once the conference season began in January, Faber started to fade. The Pac-10 possessed a rare wealth of talent at 133 pounds that year (yes, UCD competed in the Pac-10 for wrestling), and Faber lost enough that when the NCAA tournament came around, his record did not justify him a top-twelve seed, and protection from a difficult draw.

[To explain this in more detail: in each weight at the NCAA tournament, the top twelve wrestlers receive a seed. Those who receive seeds wrestle a randomly drawn unseeded wrestler in the first round, and never another seeded wrestler. The first through four seeds are guaranteed to not wrestle a seeded wrestler until their third match, the quarter-finals (assuming they win their first two matches). This makes gaining a top-four seed immensely valuable, as it provides a relatively easy path to the quarter-finals. Wrestlers who win in the quarters earn a spot in the semifinals and automatic All-American status (top eight in the country), those who lose drop to the round of 12, and only need to win one match to become All-Americans. In Faber's case in 2002, he won his first match against an unseeded wrestler, then bumped into the third seed in the second round and lost. When wrestlers lose in the second round of the NCAA tournament, they must then win three straight matches in the consolation bracket to achieve All-American status; Faber only won two.]

At the NCAA Division I level, nobody at nationals gets an easy draw; Faber's draw, in particular, did him no favors. Though he won more matches then he lost, he ran into two very tough wrestlers too early in the tournament, and they eliminated him before he could secure a spot on the podium. Faber may have beaten a couple of the guys who placed in front of him had he wrestled them; unfortunately, the cookie seems to crumble this way sometimes. Faber can still claim an impressive NCAA career with three trips to the national tournament, and wins over All-Americans like Matt Sanchez, Shawn Bunch and Mark Jayne.

Faber also dabbled in Olympic-style wrestling, where his most notable achievement came when he earned a silver medal in freestyle at the United States University National Championships. Making the finals at "Universities" can have varying levels of significance. In Faber's case, he had to beat a number of extremely good wrestlers, including future Senior World Team Member and two-time Olympic "alternate" Shawn Bunch. Faber would probably trade in his University silver medal for just one more win in the NCAA tournament. Nevertheless, he should feel proud of this accomplishment; it is a fairly big deal.

Factgrinder Final Analysis

Urijah Faber had the wrestling skills to stay competitive with the very best wrestlers in the nation, and on occasion, defeat them. Like so many other prominent UFC fighters, he made it to the NCAA's round of 12, and just couldn't put together the match he needed. However, based on his high national ranking and quality victories, we can accurately say that Faber had NCAA Division I All-American level wrestling.

Evidence suggests that Faber would have become a force as an international wrestler after college, had he pursued that route. While in college, he experienced a sharp rate of improvement, going from a walk-on who had never placed in California's high school state championship, to the best wrestler in the history of his university. Even then, it appears that at the end of his collegiate career, Faber the wrestler was far from a finished product. Before Faber's senior year at UCD, when he was already UCD's second all-time winningest wrestler, his coach Lennie Zalesky described him thusly

"He's got good strength, is aggressive and is tenacious," said Zalesky. "He's getting to be a better technical wrestler, too."

This sounds like a coach discussing a wrestler who has amazing athleticism and competitive drive, but who is only starting to figure out the intricacies of the sport. Zalesky's reserved technical assessment, and Faber's arc of improvement, point to the fact that at the end of his wrestling career, the California Kid had only just started tapping into his immense well of physical abilities. If he had kept going in Olympic-style wrestling after his time at UCD, he could have achieved top-ten status, or better, in the USA's elite Senior freestyle circuit.

Meanwhile, It's a damn shame about Cal-Davis's wrestling program, truly heart breaking. If only the program had more success sooner, maybe it wouldn't have been cut. Of course, in this day and age, a wrestling program can win a national championship and get axed the same day. Trev Alberts should be ashamed of himself.

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