Ian McCall stood inside a Whole Foods last week and listened to some guy tell him he didn't matter. That's a lot to stomach -- no matter who you are.
"I just don't really like the lighter weight classes," McCall was informed. "You guys are just boring to me."
After thinking about the conversation, McCall, widely regarded as mixed martial arts' No. 1-ranked flyweight, took comfort in the idea that his division, which debuts in the UFC on Friday, is one fans "really have to really like" to watch.
There's truth to that. Until McCall meets Demetrious Johnson and Joseph Benavidez deals with Yasuhiro Urushitani on FX this Friday, live from Sydney, Australia, jockey-sized mixed martial artists didn't have a bright enough spotlight on what they were doing. Interested fans had to actually seek them out. Not anymore.
When UFC adopted the lightweight, featherweight and bantamweight classes, the selling point was simple: these guys don't get tired, they're technical and they come to fight. Flyweight, "the final frontier in terms of how small you can go," according to McCall, all 5-5, 125 pounds of him, isn't so different. But there are people, like the guy at the market, who just won't care; if they wanted to watch guys McCall's build scrap, they would check out a Breeders' Cup.
"I don't want to say someone who just wants to watch heavyweights is ignorant, but just not as educated," said the 27-year-old married father of one. "Now that people are becoming more educated, they're appreciating the tactical side of it, which means opportunities for smaller guys. Smaller isn't always better, but I think the fighters that are coming down from 135 are going to make it better. I think there's going to be a lot of depth to the weight class, a lot of personality, which is a huge part of a sport that's growing so much."
McCall alone offers enough personality for a division that, in its first year of existence under the UFC banner, will remain small, filled through roster spots co-opted from 135 and 145.
After McCall's last win, a submission of Darrel Montague in Lemoore, Calif., where he reigned as Tachi Palace Fights champion, the well quaffed "Uncle Creepy" proclaimed himself the man to spearhead flyweights into prominence. He playfully harassed Dana White and Sean Shelby, matchmaker for Strikeforce and lighter classes in the UFC, that it was time to allow guys his size in the Octagon.
Speculation was high that it would happen the first of the year, and it did. Later in 2012, one of the four fighters battling Saturday in Australia (Friday, 9 p.m. ET), will, barring unforeseen circumstances, be crowned the first UFC flyweight champion.
McCall enters the field at the top, but not without questions. Like Johnson and Benavidez, McCall fought for Zuffa at bantamweight prior the switch to 125. He left the promotion in 2009 after losing on points to Dominick Cruz. Then the craziness of his life took over. McCall fell victim to an old friend: drugs. He hit rock bottom. He found a good woman, married, and had a baby girl.
During that period, MMA was the light at the end of the tunnel.
Confidence from being in the gym, sparring and improving "was really what I owe it all to," he said. "And the way my life has changed with a family, wife, baby, it just adds on top of it. Fighting is what's taken me to where I'm at now, and has enabled me to live a life I wanted to live. Not financially, I don't make that much money right now. But spiritually, I've taken some different things from it."
McCall dropped weight because he said it felt natural to him. The harder he trained under the reins of Colin Oyama and Romie Aram, the smaller he got. Next came an opportunity, which is all he wanted, and "two years later I'm world champ. I'm kind of the torchbearer for this thing in the UFC," said McCall, who unabashedly predicts a "transition to superstar by winning the tournament."
Becoming the first UFC flyweight champion has a great ring to it and carries some historical significance, but for McCall to think he'll soon be the next George St. Pierre is a miscalculation. It takes time to develop a division, and Zuffa is playing it real tight at the start. Consider the tournament a "soft opening." Even bantamweight isn't a money-making venture for Zuffa quite yet -- perhaps that changes with Dominick Cruz and Urijah Faber coaching the first season of "The Ultimate Fighter" on FX starting March 9 -- so at this stage, Zuffa regards flyweights as more of an investment than anything else.
You could hear the hope in McCall's voice as he said this: "If we can create a really strong structure, like they can at 125, it can definitely build and create something people love, that they want to see and will pay to see."
The weight class carries depth, so that's not an issue. Curious to some were Zuffa's roster choices -- McCall, Johnson, Benavidez, Urushitani, Darren Uyenoyama, John Dodson, John Lineker, Louis Goudinot and Josh Ferguson -- left free some of the sport's best -- Jussier da Silva, currently ranked No. 2 after losing to McCall one year ago, fights March 18 at a 132.3-pound catchweight in Brazil -- providing Richard Goodman, matchmaker for Tachi Palace Fights, solid bouts to make at the regional level.
"Now that the UFC has adopted this weight class, we're going to see a lot more guys develop at that weight," said Goodman, who claimed no trouble finding top talent before this wider exposure. "A lot of good fighters like Benavidez, Johnson, McCall -- they all had to fight at 135 because they didn't have any weight classes in any shows that could afford the budget to pay them what they deserve and make a good living."
At flyweight, McCall said the new crew of fighters "aren't going to be the fastest guys on the court anymore. They're going to have to deal with guys that are just as fast and just as technical in every way. I think they're going to be shocked."
He likes to talk, there's no question about that. For McCall (11-2), to make good on his words -- he'll meet Benavidez in the finals and win, "people haven't experienced a fighter quite like me yet" -- this second shot with Zuffa needs to be much better. Losing to Cruz was one thing, Benavidez and Johnson did that too, but he can't afford performances like the one against Charlie Valencia that saw him subbed within a round.
"I have a lot to prove," McCall said. "I need to show that I screwed up last time. I wasn't for real. Now I'm serious. I'm really just a completely different person fighting wise. People will see.
"My dreams were finally answered and I can focus completely about this. Nothing else as far as work. I don't have to look for other work. It's a big part of it. This is my job. This is my calling. This can change my life, make my life pretty damn cool. I was getting by before, but now my wife doesn't have to work -- she can just be mommy."
And, just maybe, he and his fellow flyweights won't have to deal with critiques from the checkout line anymore.