LAS VEGAS – Prior to his rematch victory over Ivan Menjivar at UFC 157 in February, the tide seemed to be turning against Urijah Faber.
The former World Extreme Cagefighting featherweight champion, once the unquestioned star of mixed martial arts' lighter weight classes, seemed to have lost his appeal. He wasn't in the same kind of furious demand from the media that he regularly had been.
He went into the bout having lost two of his last three, and had lost his last five title bouts. There was speculation he'd be cut if he were beaten by Menjivar.
But during a five-minute interview with Kenny Florian and Dominick Cruz on Tuesday on Fuel TV's UFC Tonight show, Faber proved why he's still a key part of the organization.
Faber fights his friend, Scott Jorgensen, on Saturday in the main event of The Ultimate Fighter Finale at the Mandalay Bay Events Center.
He appeared on Fuel to hype the bout, where he was interviewed by Cruz, his long-time nemesis and archrival.
Cruz is the UFC's bantamweight champion, but hasn't fought since Oct. 1, 2011, as a result of two severe knee injuries. He's split a pair of fights with Faber, and the two definitely don't care for each other.
Cruz could barely contain his contempt for Faber as he did the interview live via Skype. Florian, perhaps sensing he might be able to get an explosive comment, jumped in and asked Faber if he thought Cruz deserved to continue to hold the belt despite his lengthy absence.
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Faber, though, handled the situation with class and gave a master class on how to handle a difficult media moment. He didn't take the opportunity to take a cheap shot at his foe and gave a thoughtful, passionate answer.
"I do, man," Faber said. "Now, Dominick and I don't necessarily get along, but I can respect the guy has earned what he has. The bottom line is, you can take the belt away, but everybody's still going to want to see him come back and fight the top guys. You don't want see guys at the top of the food chain fighting guys at the bottom.
"That's called a mismatch and they do that in boxing. They don't do that in MMA. Dom, keep the belt. Shine it. Take care of it. Put it next to your pillow. You have to get through [interim champ Renan] Barao first, who's very tough. That's going to be a good matchup. But then I'm looking to get back in there [with you] and have a go at it myself."
The easy answer would have been to say Cruz deserved to be stripped. That would have given Faber a more direct path to the title than if Cruz keeps it, especially considering it's still unclear when Cruz will be healthy enough to return. It's not inconceivable that he could miss most of 2013.
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Faber, though, showed why he became one of the most popular fighters in the world. He was gracious, humble and funny, all at the same time.
Cruz, though, upped the ante when, through gritted teeth, he asked Faber who was a better fighter, himself or Barao. Faber split two fights with Cruz and was routed by Barao.
Again, Faber's answer, plus his follow-up to Cruz's response, was almost perfect.
"I got to say that's a tough one to call," Faber said, smiling, as Cruz listened with a stern look on his face. "The more dangerous fighter, obviously, is Barao, with deadly finishes and stuff like that. You have a real elusivity that's pretty rare. I would say it's going to come down to matchups.
"Who's going to win the fight? You guys are both really good. He's more dangerous. You're better at getting decisions, so if it goes to a decision, I give you the edge. If it's a finish, I give him the edge."
That answer didn't sit well with Cruz, who took it very personally.
"OK," Cruz began, "Let's just say I'm not fast, I'm not strong, I'm not athletic. I can't fight well at all. So I've been out-thinking people to win four world titles I guess is what you're trying to tell me."
Faber's response was to laugh and he gave another perfect response. He got that the public would eat up the repartee between them, so he didn't back away from it.
But he also noted that Cruz's dislike of him colored the way Cruz responded to his answer.
"Dominick, it sounds like that chip is still on your shoulder," Faber said. "I didn't say any of that stuff."
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Watching it made one wonder how it was less than two months ago that there were more than a few who speculated that Faber had reached the end of the line.
Though he's 0-5 in his last five title fights, he's routinely been in excellent matchups and only his loss to Barao was not compelling. He is engaging and accessible and knows how to push his bouts.
He's closing in on his 34th birthday and his time at the top or near the top of the bantamweight heap may be winding down.
That time, though, is definitely not here yet. Expect Faber to put on one of the night's most entertaining bouts when he meets Jorgensen on Saturday, and look for him to give the hard sell to his next one immediately afterward.
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