Fighters with Class

Whoever said ultimate fighting is a sport for brutes didn’t meet the two guys squaring off in Sunday night’s main event at Arco Arena. After spending some time with them on Friday, I’m almost convinced this sport has some of the most well-rounded athletes available.

Urijah Faber, a Sacramento-area native and current Featherweight Champion in the WEC, showcased his ability to be civil, respectful and eloquent at the WEC’s press conference in Arco Arena on May 30, sharing his thoughts on his upcoming fight with Jens Pulver.

“It’s two guys that are just gonna go out there and do what they do best, and that’s go down with passion and heart,” he said. “I look forward to putting on a show for the home crowd, but also going to the primal side of this thing and matching up with someone that I’ve watched, cheered for and respected for a long time in Jens Pulver, to find out who the better man is and who deserves this belt.”

Faber, who has been unstoppable for years and only lost one fight in his impressive career, didn’t hype up the fight with trash talk or arrogance. In fact, he sounded like the challenger facing a champ half the time, instead of the guy with the belt. Talk about modesty…

“Thanks to Jens for his interest again in being the man,” Faber laughed. “I’m fighting a very tough guy. I don’t just say I respect this person because it’s the thing to do. It’s heartfelt. If someone is pissing me off and I’m thinking something bad, I’ll say it. But it means a lot to the sport to have guys at this level saying how it is. Here are two guys that are of champion pedigree and we’re doing our thing. I can’t wait for a great fight. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Although Faber naturally exudes charm and charisma any time he’s in front of a camera, it was Pulver who took the stage with a performance, giving the day’s longest speech, with nothing prepared but plenty to say.

“The first press conference I did had two people holding up a little video recorder,” Pulver remembered. “(MMA) was only legal in three states back then. But this right here, right now, is the biggest moment, the biggest opportunity, not just for myself, but for all of us.”

The “Legend” – as he’s been amply named throughout the prefight announcements, despite a moniker of “Lil Evil” – sounded more like a guest motivational speaker than a Mixed Martial Arts fighter. Getting slugged with 4-ounce gloves over the years hasn’t slowed his thought process or the smooth-speaking standard he’s created to become one of the most entertaining fighters out there.

“Let’s get this ‘Legend’ thing out of the way,” he said sarcastically. “The ‘Legend’ is just happy to see lighter weights fight like this. I’m looking forward to getting out there. I’ve had a world title before, but this time is the biggest because of where we are right now with the mass media and a lot of things that were never here before.

“I’m gonna come out hard. I wouldn’t disrespect Urijah Faber any other way. People always say bring your A-game. We’ll I’m definitely not going to bring that JV game. I don’t need bad blood. I don’t need animosity. I’ve got no hated words for this man.”

Pulver even took a second to do all of our jobs for us, quoting Faber during his speech like a broadcaster during a pregame show.

“He said it best, ‘We’re gonna have to get out there on Sunday and we’re gonna do it,'” Pulver said. “Let your actions do the talking. It’s gonna be an amazing fight.”

It’s tough to root against Pulver. The guy’s got a storied career behind him, done everything with class and proven himself an unbeatable force at 145 pounds. Yet, when time came to talk trash, he instead spoke with praise about Faber, and thanked the Sacramento fighter for making the 145-pound class come to life in America.

“Urijah is a phenomenal champion,” Pulver said. “Because of this man right here, really, the little guys have a home. He went out there, he didn’t go up (a weight class and into the UFC) to (1)55 (pounds). I’m sure they all asked him to, but he stayed at 45 and he pushed, and that’s one of the reasons I have nothing but respect and admiration for this man as a champion and what he’s done. If it wasn’t for him, we would not have a 145 division, and I believe that.”

It doesn’t hurt Pulver’s cause that he was born in the same Sunnyside, Wash. hospital I was, in an emergency building so small even he remembers it “only having like three rooms.” Not many professional athletes blossomed from where I grew up. In fact, Pulver’s it. There were other guys from nearby cities, like NFL’s Drew Bledsoe, but they all came from bigger areas. Pulver was born in the same farm area a former dairy boy like me was, and that’s something to connect to.

But Urijah’s my boy. Always will be. He’s our current Hometown Hero, our Sacramento Stud. He’s the most approachable and likeable pro athlete I’ve ever interviewed, and goes out of his way to help others achieve success, sometimes at the risk of his own career. He’s singlehandedly kept the lightweights afloat in a sport dominated commercially by heavyweights, and he’s done so not for the money or fame, but because he loves what he does for a living. (Don’t believe me? Read for yourself in both the May 16 and May 30 issues of the Sacramento Union.)

I’m now a Jens Pulver fan-if he’s in the ring with someone else. But come Sunday, I’m gonna enjoy watching him get beat down. Jens will recover; he’s got the heart of a lion and the right attitude to rebuild. But it’s Urijah’s time, and he deserves every good thing he gets.

Para mi gente

The co-main event features a relatively unheard-of fighter in Miguel Torres. The Latin athlete fighting from Indiana holds the Bantamweight belt at 135 pounds, is 33-1, and is looking to keep steamrolling with a win over Japan’s Yoshiro Maeda on Sunday.

What makes Torres so interesting isn’t his record or even his abilities, but his background. Being half-Mexican myself, I always take an interest in up-and-coming Mexican athletes in any sport, and to hear one sharing a similar background to mine was a champion was refreshing. But what made it even better was to hear what Torres had to say about it all. Unlike most fighters talking about their goals of winning a belt and making a name for themselves, Torres spoke mainly about setting an example for “mi gente” (my people).

“That’s one of the most important things in my career right now,” he told me. “I’ve had different goals since I’ve been coming up in this sport, but the main reason I want to stay the champ is so I can get worldwide attention, so a lot of Latinos can see that we can be good in other sports. Where I grew up, they didn’t think we could do this kind of stuff. Now, with all the attention I’m getting, hopefully more Latinos will want to do this. It’s in our blood; we are natural fighters.”

Torres’ father came over to the U.S. from Mexico to work in a mill at 17 years old, and when he earned enough money, he brought the rest of his family over, much like many of my father’s side of the family still does today. Torres grew to love this country and its sports, and wanted to prove to his culture that Latinos could “make it in more than just boxing and soccer.”

“I hope they get that no matter where you come from, no matter what your background is, no matter what your upbringing was, you can be a champion,” Torres said. “I endured a lot of hardships to get where I am now. I just want to be able to be on a stage where I can tell that story to everybody.”

Now that he’s proven that, he wants not to get rich and live a worry-free life, but be a positive role model that encourages others to follow his path, and to do so, he lives in “a bad neighborhood” back home and works with the very community that helped make him who he is.

“It’s one of those towns where there are a lot of gangs and drugs,” Torres said. “But I don’t wanna leave, man. That’s where I’m from. Kids grow up and they don’t have anyone to look up to. I think if I stick around, I’m gonna show that there’s something outside of doing those kinds of things.”

Although fights can end in only seconds, each matchup has its own incredible back story for both fighters stepping into the ring. Somehow, their struggles and success have led them face-to-face, with one on his way to glory and the other in his way. Whether it be two red-blooded Americans who are legends in the sport, or a Mexican-born champ and a Japanese fighter vying for a title in America, Sunday’s showdown at Arco Arena looks to be explosive, and hopefully, just as entertaining as the press conference.

“What makes this so important is that it’s a lightweight showcase, a featherweight showcase, a bantamweight showcase, and people are showing up,” Pulver said. “It’s our job to go out there and make them not regret it.”


2 comments, add yours!
  1. June 20th, 2008 at 7:08 pm by showcase showdown

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