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Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.
Ian McCall announced his retirement from mixed martial arts on Monday during an interview with “The MMA Hour.” The announcement was not entirely unexpected in light of the 33-year-old’s competitive slide and health issues in recent years. The timing was sensible: It was two weeks removed from his depressing nine-second loss to Kyogi Horiguchi at Rizin Fighting Federation 10, enough to avoid the appearance of a rash, emotion-driven decision. Announcing it on a Monday gave the opinion scribblers of the MMA sphere all week to write appropriate elegies to the roller-coaster career of “Uncle Creepy.”
It should all have been copacetic -- except it wasn’t. The news was promptly buried in an avalanche of breaking stories, including the revelation of more details on the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s new broadcast deal with ESPN and a positive drug test by possibly MMA’s most accomplished heavyweight fighter ever -- the day after he was announced as one-half of the headline fight for the UFC’s first-ever event in Russia. One of the brightest prospects in the sport fired shots at the organization that fired him over alleged refusal to accept bookings, and one of those refused bookings fired back. Plus, the most feared left leg in combat sports history made an appearance of the kind we had hoped never to see.
In short, the universe wouldn’t even let McCall retire without messing with him one last time. It’s no less than you would expect of perhaps the most extravagantly star-crossed high-level fighter in the history of mixed martial arts. This particular opinion scribbler, however, decided to write about McCall the moment the announcement went out, and I will not be diverted from that goal, though I can’t imagine this will be anything approaching an appropriate elegy. First, a personal note: I’ve been a McCall fan for a decade. He was a vital part of my introduction to the idea that the sub-sub-lightweight divisions could be awesome, and he was the subject of what is still my favorite piece of writing ever published on this website.
McCall was an undefeated bantamweight prospect who whooped all over Coty Wheeler in the WEC 30 curtain-jerker. If you only know the 125-pound “Uncle Creepy,” picture 100 percent fewer visible tattoos and 85 percent less visible cheekbone. At WEC 31 -- once again in the opening bout -- he was splattered in highlight-reel manner by the burly, more experienced Charlie Valencia. The next time I saw McCall, he was getting blanked by the much classier, much niftier Dominick Cruz at WEC 38, but to be fair, Cruz ended up being classier and niftier than just about anyone ever to put on the four-ounce gloves. Based on those three fights, I had become a McCall fan, but especially because of the Cruz fight. In that bout, McCall was incredibly game in the purest, most honorable sense of the word. Not in the sense of walking bravely to his own funeral like [insert name of Cristiane Justino opponent here], nor in the sense of acting out in frustration at an opponent who outclassed him, pointing at his own chin like a fool. McCall was taking his lumps and taking his lessons while still trying to win the fight up to the final horn. I’ve always loved seeing those moments.
After the Cruz fight, I expected Ian McCall to settle in as a solid bantamweight contender, albeit one I would always go out of my way to watch. Instead, he cropped up next as a flyweight monster. Here’s where it gets a little weird. While I believe McCall is one of the most accomplished flyweights of all-time, I think he gets too much credit for some things and not enough credit for others.
In the “too much credit” department, McCall’s coming-out party as a top-level fighter was his victory over Jussier da Silva at Tachi Palace Fights 8. On the surface, it seems to make sense: “Formiga” had been the No. 1 flyweight in the world, and McCall beat him in uncontroversial fashion. That made McCall No 1. The king is dead, long live the king, right? Except that the mythical crown of “best 125-pounder in the world” was less of a crown and more of a best guess at the time. Remember that in 2009, flyweight was such a nascent and underdeveloped division that Sherdog’s official rankings only went to No. 5. Da Silva had come, more or less out of nowhere, to beat previous top flyweight Shinichi Kojima. The latter had been the consensus No. 1 up until that point on the strength of being the lead man in the divisional round-robin in Shooto, which was pretty much the only promotion actively booking such small fighters at the time. History would tell. Kojima never again seriously entered the discussion of top flyweights in the world, and while da Silva remains a top-10 flyweight to this day, he is firmly lodged in the Hall of Very Good.
If the da Silva win is overrated as a career-defining moment, it pales in comparison to the extent to which McCall’s performance at UFC on FX 2 is underrated. On that night in March 2012, McCall was subjected to what is still to this day, in my opinion, the most unjust outcome in mixed martial arts history. The chicanery of that night merits an article all its own, but the short version is that McCall was denied a draw that would have sent his bout with Demetrious Johnson to a fourth, tie-breaking round, because of an arithmetic error on the part of the judging staff. The mistake awarded Johnson a split decision, something that could not simply be overturned. The fight had been a semifinal in the UFC’s inaugural flyweight tournament and thus needed a winner. By the time the error was noticed, it was far too late to bring Johnson and McCall back to the cage. Worst of all, while nobody can say with certainty how a fourth round would have gone, McCall had absolutely walloped Johnson in the third, spending significant time boxing his ears from a humiliating back mount. McCall had all the momentum.
McCall and Johnson met in a rematch a few months later. Johnson won a unanimous decision in a fight that was competitive but offered little suspense. The sharpest pupil of the game offered “Uncle Creepy” no chance to repeat his performance. Here’s the thing, though. Even if McCall had gotten his fourth round at UFC on FX 2, and even if he had beaten “Mighty Mouse” that night, I still think Johnson would have won the rematch. Johnson is a historically better and greater fighter than McCall. What is heartbreaking, though, is that such banal stupidity robbed McCall of the crowning achievement of his career, the night he took it to the greatest fighter of all-time. Picture Evan Tanner escaping from the guillotine of David Terrell, winding up to start whaling away on him, the crowd going berserk -- and then the fire sprinklers in the arena go off, ending the fight in a no-contest, to be rebooked at a future date.
What followed is a matter of common knowledge. McCall spent the next five years as a high-level fighter and magnetic personality even as his health -- and that of his opponents -- betrayed him with a frequency that would be funny if it weren’t so pitiful. He set the kinds of records nobody wants to set, in such categories as “Most Career Bouts Canceled after Arriving in the City Where the Event is Being Held.” On the occasions he and his foe both managed to make it to the scale and the cage without mishap, he looked less and less like his old fiery self. Moments of fleeting brilliance were interspersed with grim displays of heart and grit. On the one hand, it was better than nothing from a guy who freely admits he should have died in his early 20s, but on the other hand, it was sad.
It is always a challenge for me to refrain from the urge to retire fighters. As someone who loves this sport for the human narratives and is here to write stories, it’s tempting to force an ending. McCall owes me nothing, least of all a clean ending to the story of his own fight career. I wish him all the best in the ventures that come next, and I thank him for all of the memories, the bitter as well as the sweet. All I have to offer him in exchange for calling it a career is certain induction into the Hall of [email protected]#$%&g Awesome, exactly two years from the day that he announced his retirement.