The last time Urijah Faber competed for a UFC title, he had his mind on his money and his money on his mind.
And focusing on the green is no way to take home the gold.
Faber was scheduled for a co-main event slot against then-bantamweight champ Dominick Cruz at UFC 148, one of the biggest events in company history, which was headlined by the Anderson Silva-Chael Sonnen rematch.
Instead, after Cruz was injured, Faber was moved to UFC 149 to fight Renan Barao for an interim title at UFC 149, which is sort of like being shifted from the BCS championship game to the New Mexico Bowl. Faber went the distance against Barao, but was on the wrong end of a clear-cut unanimous decision.
"I did not have the right mindset going into that fight," Faber said. "I was supposed to make about eight times as much money at UFC 148 as I ended up making at this other show, and I let it get into my head. That's the first time that happened and the last time I'll ever let it happen."
At the time, it seemed like Faber, who has long been the biggest drawing card in MMA's lower weight classes, had reached the end of the road as a viable headliner. But after a remarkable turnaround, Faber finds himself with a title opportunity, as he'll meet Barao for the bantamweight championship at UFC 169 in Newark, N.J. on Feb. 1.
Faber ended up with the slot Monday after Cruz, who has not fought since Dec. 2011, tore his groin in training and had to both pull out of the fight and vacate the title. Barao was then promoted from interim champion to champion.
"Dana [White] called me on Sunday and said there might be an opportunity for me, they took Dom to the hospital and had to see if he'd be able to fight," Faber said. "I feel for him, he's a warrior and he's got a true champion's mentality. But I wasn't going to say no to the opportunity."
When Faber lost to Barao in the summer of 2012, it was the former WEC featherweight champion's fifth straight defeat in title fights spanning two weight classes. The idea he'd get another crack at a belt any time soon seemed far-fetched.
And he's the first to admit his mind was elsewhere at the time.
"It was a tough year," Faber said. "My sister was in a bad car crash, and I was hung up on losing that payday. I had been on The Ultimate Fighter with Dom (as opposing coaches) for three months and it was supposed to end up with this big payoff at the end. I ended up making more money in 2012 by selling my cars I won on The Ultimate Fighter than I did through fighting."
At that point, "The California Kid" checked his head and chose to control the things he could and let go of the things he couldn't. The results were spectacular. Faber (30-6) went 4-0 last year with three submission victories and all but cleaned out the competition at bantamweight underneath Cruz and Barao. He earned serious consideration for fighter of the year, and while he has that string of title fight losses hanging over him, he's still never lost a non-title fight in his career.
"I never lost belief in myself," Faber said. "That's just who I am, that's the way I was raised. Of course you hear people say you should never get another title shot, but you let it go in one ear and out the other. I know the only thing I could do was just keep fighting and winning and proving myself and hope the chips fell into place, and I mean, that's exactly what happened."
Faber's final fight of 2013, the one which left no doubt he was next in line after Cruz and Barao, was an impressive second-round finish over Michael McDonald in Faber's hometown of Sacramento last month. After the fact, Faber revealed he had been through a brutal training camp.
"I injured my neck, I basically had a stinger," Faber said. "I had a dozen stitches in my forehead, I had eight in my chin, I mean that's the business we're in. I've been doing this for 11 years and there's a difference between being injured and being hurt. So you learn to adapt."
Urijah Faber has won four straight fights since losing to Renan Barao on July 21, 2012. (USA Today)
Faber stayed active while taking a post-fight vacation in Puerto Vallarta and visiting family in North Carolina over the holidays, so he doesn't anticipate any problems in taking the fight on less than four weeks' notice.
"I never let myself get out of shape," Faber said. "I'm always in shape, I'm always working out. That's just who I am, that's the person I've been ever since I was a teenager and competing in wrestling. That's one of the things to maintaining your longevity, you have to be good to your body all the time."
While a Faber victory would cap a remarkable comeback tale, there is, of course, still the matter of Barao, who trains with featherweight champ Jose Aldo Jr. in Brazil. Minus a no-contest, Barao has won a ridiculous 31 consecutive fights since losing his first career bout, which includes an 8-0 record in the WEC and UFC.
But Faber isn't fazed.
"I want to pick up the tempo in this one," Faber said. "I want this fight to get down and dirty. I don't plan on just standing there and letting him do his thing. I'm going for the finish."