It’s not every day that a world-class athlete is born. It could probably be argued that top athletes, on one level or another, are born every day, but, regardless of athletic ability and pedigree, there is a certain x-factor that really propels athletes into world-class status. Former WEC featherweight champion Urijah Faber has it figured out and it’s quite simple.

“Fighting means everything to me,” said Faber in an exclusive interview with The MMA Corner. “I’m all about having a fulfilled life, and fighting is something I do because I love it. Fighting excites me. It’s a small part of who I am, but a big part of what I enjoy.”

Enjoyment. That’s it. Several sportsmen exist with the athletic ability, skill and raw talent to compete at the highest level of their respective games, but all too often, they will drop out, retire or take on other careers because they’re not passionate about their craft. “The California Kid” does not share such a grim outlook when it comes to his game. He has a great time doing what he does, and that’s why he’s at the top in the world of pro MMA.

Faber’s business activity goes far beyond just fighting. He is a true businessman. Between his gym, Ultimate Fitness, the home of Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, Calif., his new website, Torque1.net, and all of his various sponsorships, commercials and so on, Faber is more than just a brand. He’s a very hardworking young man, who, at only 34 years old, still has a big future ahead. However, despite all of his outside ventures and his fighting career, he hasn’t lost sight of what’s important.

Faber (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting)

“You know, I’ve been focusing on having fun,” Faber elaborated. “I think it’s easy, when there’s a lot of pressure and big opportunities happening, to lose sight of the fact that you’ve got to be enjoying yourself. If you’re not enjoying yourself, then you’re in the wrong sport. You don’t want to go to work every day and not be having fun. It’s a rough sport, it’s an intense sport, and it takes a lot of commitment. All the business stuff runs side-by-side with my passion, and it’s all about enjoying myself.”

Faber’s dedication to his passion for fighting has never been in question. Following his NCAA Division I wrestling career at the University of California at Davis, he entered the world of mixed martial arts and has never looked back.

After making his pro debut in 2003, “The California Kid” went on a 16-1 tear in just under three years, which included holding three titles at once. When he won the Gladiator Challenge bantamweight title in July 2006, he already held the King of the Cage bantamweight and World Extreme Cagefighting featherweight straps.

After Zuffa LLC, parent company of the UFC, took over the WEC promotion in 2006, one of its first orders of business was to bring on Faber exclusively. He gladly accepted and vacated his other two titles. WEC would prove to be a life-changing move for the young Californian.

Including his pre-Zuffa WEC title win over Cole Escovedo in early 2006, Faber went on a 6-0 run in the promotion with five stoppages and one decision. Included in the mix was current UFC bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz, whom Faber defeated by first-round submission. This was just one of many historic fights in his storied career. All was going well until his sixth WEC title defense against American Top Team fighter Mike Brown.

In Faber’s first fight with the relatively under-the-radar Brown, at 2:54 of the first round, the two fighters were engaging in a stand-up battle, when Faber came off the cage with a blind elbow, only to fly right into Brown’s right hook, which sent the champ to the mat, where he was eventually finished by TKO. This was Faber’s first loss in over three years and would prove to be the ultimate separation from his long-held title.

Over the course of the next five years, which included four more title shots, the WEC being absorbed into the UFC, and a weight-class drop back to bantamweight, Faber went on an on-again, off-again 7-4 run at the highest levels of the sport. His story has basically been to submit non-title opponents for a win or go the distance in a title fight for a loss.

In his last title fight, Faber faced Brazilian Renan Barao for the UFC interim bantamweight strap while official champ Cruz remained sidelined due to a knee injury. Since then, Faber has submitted Ivan Menjivar and Scott Jorgensen to recapture his place in line for a title shot. With Barao facing fellow WEC vet Eddie Wineland next month and Cruz still on the bench, Faber’s next opponent will come in the form of Yuri Alcantara, who, regardless of his up-and-comer status in the Octagon, is no stranger to the sport.

“First thing was, I had to look him up,” admitted Faber. “I’d heard of him, of course, but it wasn’t like fresh on my mind going into this fight, so I had to look him up. Right after I saw him, my first instinct was like, ‘This guy’s tough.’ He’s 28-4, 24 finishes, and he’s fought at heavier weights, so I knew I had my hands full. I’m excited about that. The guy’s good.”

Alcantara, a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt who trains out of Marajo, Brazil, has 12 wins by knockout and 12 by submission in his nine-year career, but since entering Zuffa’s promotions, he’s 4-1-1 with three of those fights going to submission. In his UFC time, he has yet to fight someone even close to Faber’s level and has only fought outside Brazil one time, when he knocked out current UFC standout Ricardo Lamas at the WEC’s final show in Arizona.

Faber knows that his opponent has some strong aspects to his game, but nothing the former champ has yet to see.

“I feel like it’s a good match-up,” Faber said. “He’s got some real strengths and I’ve got some real strengths. We’re both really strong grapplers. I’ve got a stronger wresting game, for sure, and he’s more of a guard type of jiu-jitsu player. I feel like I’m going to be a little bit faster, but he may have a little more of a punching-power edge with his left hand. He’s got a heavy left hand, but I don’t think he’s faced anyone that has quite the skill set that I have. I feel like I’ve faced guys who are more dangerous than him and have bigger strengths than he has, but I don’t know if he’s faced someone as skilled as I am.”

Even though Faber knows that Alcantara has not faced anyone at that championship level yet, he is expecting his opponent to come out with his A-game. He expects nothing but a war from the one man potentially standing between him and another title shot.

“From what I see, this guy likes to get right in your face and make it a brawl,” explained Faber. “He comes out throwing heavy artillery. He’s pretty straightforward and doesn’t mind going anywhere in the fight game. He likes it standing [and] he likes to go to the ground, so I think this is going to be a fight that’s intense, wild and all over the place.

“We both get right in each others’ faces and start grinding it out. It’s one of those things where I just have to be a step ahead and be sure to implement my game plan and be ready for battle, because he’s going to bring it.”

Alcantara has earned more wins in the past than Faber through striking and the only time Faber has ever been stopped is through striking, so Alcantara could be another big bump in the road. However, Team Alpha Male has made a new addition that will look to greatly enhance Faber’s already solid striking game.

In December 2012, it was announced that UFC veteran and world champion kickboxer Duane “Bang” Ludwig would be making the move over to Team Alpha Male as the camp’s new head coach. Faber and his teammates Joseph Benavidez, Chad Mendes and T.J. Dillashaw, to name a few, have all experienced great success since Ludwig’s arrival. He has really kept on top of them and brought a certain level of coaching in the striking department that has reaped great rewards.

“Duane teaches classes two to three times a week, and I try to get in as many as I can,” said Faber. “He’s been really good at looking at tape and breaking down fighters, and so he’s been really instrumental, not only in getting me more comfortable with my stand-up, but also kind of peace of mind that the structure’s there for our team practices and things like that.”

On Saturday night, at the inaugural UFC on Fox Sports 1 card, live from TD Garden in Boston, Mass., Faber will be looking to take out Alcantara in the next step toward a bantamweight title shot. However, with some uncertainty still lingering about when Cruz will actually make his return, there is a chance that Faber may have to take another shot at the interim belt against the winner of Barao and Wineland, both of whom he has faced in the past.

Only 16 months prior to Faber’s bout with Barao, he faced Wineland at UFC 128. Although he won the bout , it was only the second time he had gone to decision for a win under the Zuffa banner. Between Barao and Wineland, Faber has yet to earn a finish, so it begs the question: Who would he rather face for the interim belt, should it come to that?

“I feel like I need a win back against Barao, so that would be the one I want more,” Faber admitted.

“The California Kid” may prefer a win over Barao, but anyone who’s been in the loop since The Ultimate Fighter: Live knows the true identity of Faber’s biggest target, and it’s not Barao.

Faber (L) delivers a knee (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting)

During the 15th installment of TUF, Faber was selected to coach against his nemesis, Dominick Cruz. Cruz and Faber have each won one and lost one against each other, and after the show was done airing in June 2012, they were to meet again for a rubber match and the UFC bantamweight title at UFC 148 in July. However, in May 2012, two months into the airing of the season, Cruz sustained a torn ACL and has been sitting ever since.

During the show, some of the bad blood that had already been shared between the two became more widely publicized, and things became a lot more personal. Now, over a year later, Faber would much rather fight Cruz than anyone else.

“I want the big fights,” Faber stated. “I want the fights that people want to see. Belt, no belt, whatever, I think that’s a fight that people want to see. I’d like to do it for a belt, of course—that’s my main focus, getting that strap—but, aside from that, that’s a fight that totally needs to happen.”

Faber’s life is quite full with all that he has going on in and out of the cage. To an average person, it could get to the breaking point very quickly. Between his gym, his new website, all of his endorsements and his fan base, there is a lot of pressure to perform on many different levels. Most would crack, especially upon entering the cage, but not Faber.

“Oh man, I’ve been at the top level in this sport for a long time, so the pressure thing, I don’t think it really applies to me like it could someone else. I’ve been in big fights. I’ve kind of been in the same position for a long time, one of the top guys in the world, on monumental fight cards, and things like that, so I’m going to go in there and approach it as, ‘this is a fight.’ That’s what it is. Who’s going to go in there and impose their will?”

Urijah would like to thank his sponsors Torque1.net, AMP Energy, Metro PCS, MMA Draft, VA Mortgage Leader, and The Patino Diet, as well as non-profit organizations The Grace Project and Youth Empowerment Society. Follow Faber on Twitter: @UrijahFaber

Top Photo: Urijah Faber (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting)