When can their glory fade?
–Alfred Lord Tennyson
December 6th, 2014. “Ruthless” Robbie Lawler, a veteran of 14 years and 35 fights, wins a contentious split decision over Team Takedown’s Johny Hendricks to become the new UFC welterweight champion. It has been a long, hard, and often aimless journey for Lawler, and his rise from journeyman to titlist is easily one of the most rousing, inspirational stories in MMA history. More than just serendipitous, Lawler’s ascension to the throne in 2014 was just plain unlikely–but it happened.
Equally unlikely is the fact that Lawler is the very first athlete from Coconut Creek, Florida’s American Top Team to ever win a UFC belt. ATT has been cultivating killers since 2002, training fighters such as Din Thomas, Brad Pickett, Mark Hunt, Yves Edwards, and Thiago Alves. They’ve produced some of the best mixed martial artists on earth, competing and compiling impressive records in Pride, Dream, K-1, Bellator, and the UFC. And yet 2014 marks the first time that ATT has produced a fighter who can justifiably call himself the best in his class.
But that’s actually not true.
After Lawler’s win, fighters, trainers, and all manner of MMA pundits took to social media to offer congratulations, not only to the new champ, but to his team as well.
I think this is ATT’s first champ. LONG TIME COMING! SALUTE!
— B Lew (@Blew_the_Kake) December 8, 2014
— Dyah Davis (@DyahAliDavis) December 7, 2014
— Pat Miletich (@patmiletich) December 8, 2014
While most of the comments did correctly identify Lawler as the first UFC champion from ATT, there were many like the ones above. In fact, the Florida-based fighter-factory had its first divisional king over six years ago, but history has largely forgotten him. So too, it seems, have the fans.
November 5th, 2008. Urijah Faber raises his right hand, pinky and thumb extended, in a surfer salute. His eyes are fixed on the camera, which is fixed on him as announcer Joe Martinez introduces him to the crowd. He needs no introduction. Faber is the most popular little fighter in the world, and he knows it. He flashes his winning smile, looking from side to side to more fully absorb the adulation of his fans. He looks at everyone–including himself in the monitors to either side of the cage–and everything, except the man standing directly across from him.
For two and a half years now Faber has held the WEC featherweight title, the most prestigious of its kind in a time when the UFC only recognizes champions at 155 pounds and above. Faber is not only charismatic, but dominant, having amassed a 22-1 record against opposition with a combined record of 198-68-10.
It’s not that Faber is avoiding the eyes of his opponent; he simply isn’t concerned. This is his belt, his division, and like 22 others before, his night. Or so he thinks.
The man opposite is one Mike Thomas Brown, a 19-4 submission-wrestler coming off a decisive win over 22-9-1 Jeff Curran, himself a recent challenger to Faber’s throne. Brown has had some hiccups in his career–more than Faber to be certain–suffering submission losses to Hermes França, Genki Sudo, Joe Lauzon, and a particularly gruesome technical submission to leglock specialist Masakazu Imanari, who introduced Brown’s left knee to entirely new ranges of motion. Brown had returned to competition a mere eight months after that horrific injury, however, and now rides a seven-fight winning streak.
Faber’s beaten streaking fighters before, though, and he expects Brown to be no different. When the first round begins, Faber begins to put on a show. A leaping left hook drives Brown back. An overhand right follows, and then a straight right as Brown tries for a punch of his own. The fighters clinch and . . .
Brown pushes Faber around. This is not something the California Kid is used to feeling.
A series of right hands from Brown drives Faber into the fence, where once again the fighters clinch. This time Faber pushes back, but Brown clips him with short punches. Faber tries for a knee and Brown, like a grown man wrestling a child throws him to the ground.
Faber rises to his feet. Ordinarily the bigger, stronger, and more athletic specimen in the cage, he is visibly shaken. As if miming a confidence that isn’t there–or perhaps annoyed to be beaten at his own game, he hangs his hands by his hips, inviting Brown to attack. Slowly, calmly, Brown obliges. His assault is frustratingly patient, as he once again drives Faber into the fence before taking him down. The champion struggles to his feet, stumbles into the cage, and flings himself bodily into a desperate hail-mary elbow strike.
He also flings himself into Mike Brown’s right hook.
Faber crumples to the canvas, where Brown pounces on him with a barrage of uppercuts and hooks. The referee jumps in, and Mike Brown is the new champion. It has taken only two minutes and twenty three seconds.
Some two hours before Mike Brown becomes featherweight champ, another featherweight by the name of Jose Aldo wins his second WEC bout by knockout.
Brown was, in many ways, the antithesis to Faber. He was certainly less popular once he assumed the crown.
Where Faber possessed movie-star good looks, Brown could only be called ruggedly handsome, and even then only under the right light, his flame-orange hair and gawkish face standing in sharp contrast to Faber’s wavy blonde locks and chiseled jaw. Where Faber was animated and charismatic, Brown was shy and reserved in post-fight interviews. Where Faber stunned crowds with electrifying techniques and explosive movements, Brown plodded forward applying slow, steady pressure and eyeing his openings.
But Brown was talented, and very skilled. Lacking the lightning speed of Faber, he relied instead on crushing strength and airtight wrestling. His short punches and suffocating clinchwork ground opponents down until they either succumbed to his power or scrambled blindly into one of his lethal chokes. In short, Brown was a dangerous, complete fighter.
The new featherweight champ defended his belt once against Leonard Garcia, who was coming off a pair of KO wins over Hiroyuki Takaya and former UFC lightweight champ Jens Pulver, before settling in for the inevitable rematch with the California Kid.
June 7th, 2009. Urijah Faber once again finds himself across the cage from Mike Brown, only this time he’s being introduced first. He had to walk out first as well, something he hasn’t done in years. There’s no doubt who the A-side to this bout is, though. The fight is taking place in Sacramento, California, the home of Faber’s Team Alpha Male, and just a six hour drive from the Kid’s hometown of Isla Vista. Brown is the champion, but Faber is the main attraction, and he is fully expected to regain his belt. It is the biggest event to date in WEC history.
Faber’s attitude is different, however. The easy confidence is gone, or tainted somehow. He still smiles and waves to his fans, offering gestures of bravado to the cameraman that tracks his back-and-forth pacing in his corner of the cage, but there is a sense of unease about him. He looks as if he’s trying to convince himself of his confidence as much as the crowd that’s gathered to watch him perform. He’s not unaware of his opponent this time either: his smiles and heartening gestures are punctuated by brief, anxious glances in Brown’s direction.
If Sacramento doesn’t know who the champ is, Urijah Faber certainly does.
As the fighters meet in center-cage, Brown is all easy confidence. He lets out an excited “woo” as he comes face to face with his opponent. Faber, on the other hand, simply stares, the side of his face a-writhe with jaw muscles clenching, unclenching. His empty expression is a sharp contrast to the eager half-smile on Brown’s lips.
The fighters embrace and return to their corners. The bell sounds. The rematch is on.
Immediately this fight feels different from the first. Brown stalks forward, feinting and bouncing on the balls of his feet. Faber pot shots as before, but Brown brushes each and every attempt off. The challenger’s unorthodox explosions crash uselessly against the bulwark of Brown’s charmless fundamentals. In round one, Faber throws a counter right that bounces across Brown’s forehead as he tucks his chin and sinks down to absorb it. In round four, a left hook downstairs meets the point of Brown’s elbow. By round five, both of Faber’s hands are broken. So, too, is his confidence.
The fight ends with Brown standing over Faber, on his back on the canvas, his final desperate assault rebuffed like all the others. Brown raises his hand. Faber grimaces. Joe Martinez reads the judges scorecards.
“Judges Doc Hamilton and Marcos Rosales both score it 49 to 46. Judge Tony Weeks has it 48 to 47. All three for your winner by unanimous decision, and still . . .”
Once again, the Brazilian by the name of Jose Aldo precedes Brown, this time as the event’s co-feature. Aldo knocks out his opponent, Cub Swanson, in just eight seconds.
Ultimately, Brown’s time at the top would be brief. That is, almost certainly, why he is not celebrated for the great fighter he was. Like Rich Franklin by Anderson Silva, Brown was soon to be eclipsed by a fighter whose brand of violence was far more eye-catching.
November 18th, 2009. Brown is clinched up with the number one contender, Jose Aldo. It’s been nearly four years and eight fights since the Brazilian’s last loss, and now Brown is finding out why. As if being forced to experience the fate he inflicted on Urijah Faber in his first title fight, Brown discovers that he simply cannot get Aldo to the ground. Indeed, the challenger easily spins away from the cage and shucks Brown off in a matter of seconds.
Now Brown finds himself being pushed around the cage, not physically but by the impact of Aldo’s strikes. Rapid combination punches whistle by his head, some slamming into his arms or crashing into the head behind them. Bullwhip kicks crack into his ribcage before he can react. Each successful strike slows Brown down more, setting him up for the next one. A minute before the end of round one, Aldo skips gracefully into a left knee and Brown slides out of range, only for Aldo’s leg to unfold mid-strike and transform the attack into a vicious body kick.
Aldo is too good, and he is relentless.
One minute into round two, Aldo actually takes Brown down, and stands confidently over him as he shields his head from a strike that never comes. Instead, Aldo demonstrates the breadth of his ability, mounting Brown with ease and transitioning to his back as the champion tries desperately to escape punishment.
With Aldo glued to his back, it takes less than fifteen seconds before referee Steve Mazzagatti is forced to save Brown from further punishment. It is a mirror image of Brown’s first victory over Urijah Faber, just one year before.
Brown is 34 years old. Aldo is 23.
Since 2009, the MMA landscape has changed dramatically. The WEC is defunct, its fighters long since cut loose or absorbed into the roster of a bloated UFC. Featherweights, bantamweights, and now even flyweights duke it out under the UFC banner for better and more consistent paychecks than ever before. Though the arbitrary line of fan interest still rarely dips below 155 pounds, fans are becoming more and more invested in the little guys. Featherweight in particular is celebrated as a a division packed with talented, action-oriented fighters.
Still, there are some things that haven’t changed all that much. The consistencies, more than the changes, serve to underscore Mike Brown’s fleeting reign as champion. Jose Aldo is still the king of the featherweight division. He has defended his belt nine times since besting Brown, and is quite possibly the greatest pound-for-pound fighter on the planet. Urijah Faber, too, is still competing at the top of the sport. He has slipped somewhat since his prime, but makes up for in craft what he lacks in athletic ability.
Mike Brown is now more or less completely retired from fighting. It’s probably for the best. After losing his belt to Aldo, he compiled a record of 4-4, losing two of them by first round knockout. Had he entered the sport of MMA a few years sooner, or been born a few years later, it is possible that Brown would have ruled the featherweight division for more than a year. Had Jose Aldo given up fighting after his lone loss to Luciano Azevedo, he almost certainly would have. However things could have been, Brown’s two dominant victories over Urijah Faber, a shoe-in for all-time great, are proof of his potential.
Nowadays, Brown coaches fighters for the organization that brought him to gold, American Top Team. He is one of the preeminent instructors at one of the world’s most highly esteemed gyms. Five years removed from his loss to Aldo, Brown focuses his talents on training others to avoid a similar fate, helping men like Robbie Lawler to achieve the greatness that was once so briefly his.
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