The expression "must-win" in MMA is tossed around more than a Ronda Rousey opponent, but to Ian McCall, those two little words mean the Earth, moon, stars and the universe.
McCall is not one to toss you a generic answer. Too often we're told that every fight is a must-win, but "Uncle Creepy" is unfiltered, uncensored and real, and come UFC 163 on August 3 in Rio de Janeiro, McCall will be in the fight of his professional life. UFC fighter rankings list McCall (11-4-1 MMA, 0-2-1 UFC) as No. 3 in the flyweight division, but he has no choice than to defeat Iliarde Santos (27-7-1, 1 NC MMA, 0-1 UFC). This fight is win or go home, because the last thing McCall wants to do is return to the regional circuit.
“If I lost I would probably stop fighting. I’d probably find a new job,” McCall said. “Life loses its luster once you have reached the top and you fall. It’s good motivation. I got my [stuff] together mentally, physically, everything ... I won’t say I’m back to where I was when I became world champion, but I’m on my way there and I’ll be there soon.
“People have told me you should have a title shot after this. Why? No one knows who Iliarde Santos is. I gotta earn what I lost and I’m ready to earn it back. A lot of people don’t think they have to earn things. That’s not how it works.”
There was a time when McCall was 11-2, a Tachi Palace Fights champion, considered the world’s top flyweight and participated in a tournament to determine the UFC’s first 125-pound king. Six fun rounds against Demetrious Johnson resulted in a majority draw and a unanimous decision loss, followed by another defeat to Joseph Benavidez that went to the cards. Each fight featured moments of brilliance, but under performance, which sums up McCall’s UFC career to date.
Heading into enemy territory, McCall can’t just win. No, even a cherished but simple ‘W’ would grade ‘U’ for unacceptable. McCall has to look great and dominate. Then maybe people will start discussing him as a top contender again.
“I have to perform,” McCall said. “I can’t beat Santos. I have to beat him very decisively. I have to finish him because I’m not going to win a decision in Brazil. I’m not good at decisions. I have to put a stamp on it. I think technically I’m better everywhere. Jiu-jitsu wise, sure, I’m not a black belt, but I get to finish by punching him in the face. Maybe I can knock that black belt down to a white belt as soon as possible.”
Much of McCall’s life has been spent getting up from being knocked down by self-inflicted wounds. There was a 2008 arrest on possession of prescription drugs without a prescription and paraphernalia, and a charge of driving with a suspended license that earned him 16 days in jail. There were battles with drug addiction and depression, and a hospital stay due to an overdose.
He refuses to call the experiences rock bottom. After all, McCall is a UFC fighter with success, fame and recognition. But he’s a fighter still working his way back from the depths of despair.
“It was horrible,” McCall said. “I’m a party monster. I’m sure I could have turned that into an actual career. Partying is my craft. I’m party, party, party. I try to stay as far away from that as possible. People look up to me for some strange reason. I’m trying to take advantage of that the right way.
“I feel old. I’m too young to feel this old. I’ve been doing this for a long time and, granted, I got away with a lot of stuff because I’m just gifted at fighting. I have a lust for violence that’s hard to find. A fist fight is a rite of passage for a young man. It’s animal instinct. A man should be in at least one fist fight in his entire life. You have to protect your family, your wife, your girl, your friends and protect yourself.”
It’s been a strange time for McCall, who, following the Benavidez loss, took to Twitter to state he was overrated and pleaded for UFC president Dana White to give him another chance. One source of inspiration arrived from a friend McCall refers to as the little brother he never wanted. It was a motivational highlight video of 2012 U.S. Olympic wrestling gold medalist Jordan Burroughs.
“I watch it every [bleeping] day,” McCall said. “It makes me want to work my ass off. Before, I was in a negative space. I let fame get to me, which I’m sure was part of it. This world is pretty crazy once you get to a certain point and I didn’t deal with it well. I think it took me being on the verge of losing everything again to really get back in a positive way and get my act together.”
He credits trainer Colin Oyama as another key to keeping on the straight path. “Colin is a good motivator and he tells me when I’m being an idiot,” McCall said. “I like to think he’s an angry old man -- which, I guess he is, kind of -- but it’s what I need. I’ve been there a decade for a reason, because it works.” A unique breed throughout his 29 years on the planet, McCall does things differently from the average person. Perhaps it’s why he’s outlasted his demons, even though they still persist behind the rearview mirror. The one outlet he has is MMA, and Saturday night McCall will be fighting to save his occupation and himself.