Remember when Ian McCall was the best flyweight in the world? That was less than two years ago. “Uncle Creepy” was the Tachi Palace flyweight champion, which was pretty much the highest honor a 125-pound fighter could obtain before Zuffa put the division on the main stage. Before UFC President Dana White summoned McCall to Zuffa headquarters to become a secret participant in the yet-to-be-announced tournament for the UFC’s inaugural flyweight championship, McCall was almost undisputedly considered the best 125-pound fighter in the sport. Then he signed with the UFC and almost immediately he became the third-best flyweight in the sport.

It’s hard to fault MMA fans for immediately pushing McCall into the background of a division where he was considered the king just hours before, but other than his illustrious mustache, he wasn’t much more than a new name on the UFC roster to most MMA fans. And whereas the UFC-savvy fan base didn’t know enough about McCall, they definitely knew enough about longtime bantamweight contenders Demetrious Johnson and Joseph Benavidez to herald them the future of the flyweight division. McCall may have held a Tachi Palace belt, but Johnson and Benavidez had both challenged for UFC or WEC gold. It was easy for the MMA community to figure out which guys would be the favorites in the UFC’s flyweight tournament, and they weren’t going to be the two guys—McCall and Yasuhiro Urushitani—who had earned their flyweight cred on the regional scene.

In the cage, McCall has proven that he can hold his own against current flyweight champion Johnson and top contender Benavidez, but he’s been unable to get the job done against either fighter. McCall took Johnson to a draw in their initial flyweight tournament bout and dropped a close decision in a rematch a few months later. Eight months later, McCall returned from a long layoff and dropped a competitive decision to Benavidez, becoming one of only two men to survive 15 minutes with the Team Alpha Male fighter since Benavidez dropped down to 125, with the other being Johnson. “Uncle Creepy” has put on a game effort against the top guys in the division, but he’s been unable to defeat the fighters who have been mainstays on the Zuffa roster. As McCall was the king of the flyweights prior to the UFC adding the division in early 2012, it probably shouldn’t be a surprise that his fellow Tachi Palace veterans are having similar struggles.

Jussier “Formiga” da Silva, who was considered the top 125er before McCall defeated him, made his UFC debut not long after Johnson was named the promotion’s inaugural champion last September. John Dodson welcomed him with a violent TKO stoppage. Shortly after earning his first UFC win against Chris Cariaso a few months later, Formiga had a chance to jump into title contention when the UFC matched him up against Benavidez. It took Benavidez just over three minutes to send Formiga to the back of the line of contenders.

Things haven’t gone well inside the Octagon for any fighters who were considered top-tier flyweights before the division was added to the Zuffa roster. A look at The MMA Corner’s rankings from February 2012 (a month before the flyweight tournament kicked off) shows that outside of Johnson, Benavidez and Dodson, not a single fighter in the top 10 has a winning record inside the Octagon. Urushitani lasted a total of two fights in the UFC. Ulysses Gomez did the same. Darrell Montague made his UFC debut in October and was flattened by Dodson. Between the combination of UFC bantamweights dropping down to 125 and new prospects being added to the division, the old guard at flyweight was completely outgunned when it came time to perform inside the Octagon.

Outside of McCall making one last strong run at a belt, it’s doubtful that any of the Tachi Palace veterans will make any noise in the Octagon from this point forward. There’s no doubt that those fighters helped pave the way for the new crop of talent that has entered the Octagon over the past year, but a changing of the guard has clearly already taken place at 125. UFC fans already saw John Moraga come from flyweight obscurity and earn a title fight in 2013, and with former top-ranked contenders getting slashed from the roster at a steady rate, the number of young and hungry flyweight fighters is only increasing. To make matters worse for the Tachi Palace veterans, former bantamweight contenders Brad Pickett and Scott Jorgensen have both announced a move down to flyweight in the past few months, adding two more top-10-worthy fighters to the division.

As the old guard of contenders exit the title scene, a smorgasbord of fresh faces have already taken their places atop the division. I’ve already written about John Lineker’s weight-cutting issues, but if Mike Dolce can get Lineker on weight, he could easily be in line for a title shot. The Brazilian is only 23 years old, and if he keeps building on his four-fight winning streak while hitting the mark on the scale, a title fight by the end of 2014 isn’t out of the question.

Another interesting rising star is Ali Bagautinov, who recently defeated fellow up-and-comer Tim Elliott at UFC 167 earlier this month. It has only taken the 28-year-old Russian three months to earn his first two UFC victories, and his exciting fighting style is going to make him a fan-favorite in the flyweight division for at least the next few years. The Moscow native may have a bit of trouble dealing with some of the bigger flyweights, like Benavidez, but he should be very competitive against the majority of the roster.

Outside of Lineker and Bagautinov, the list of new contenders at flyweight is growing by the day, especially with the aforementioned drops in weight class by Pickett and Jorgensen. Between Johnson, Benavidez and Dodson, former UFC bantamweights to this point have dominated the division, and Pickett and Jorgensen have the talent to instantly jump into that mix. Throw in fringe contenders like McCall, Moraga and Elliott, and all of a sudden the flyweight title picture looks better than MMA fans have ever seen it.

As often as the flyweight division is called shallow, it should also be considered extremely top-heavy. There may not be a ton of fighters on the UFC roster at 125 pounds, but the quality of competition near the top is at an unbelievable level right now and it’s only getting better. 2012 was the birth of the flyweight division, and the past 12 months have had their fair share of growing pains, but it’s only a matter of time before the flyweight division is considered one of the absolute best in the sport. And in true flyweight fashion, expect that day to hit fast, hard and before we have a chance to blink.

Photo: Demetrious Johnson (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting)

About The Author

Vince Carey
Staff Writer

Vince Carey has been writing about the sport of mixed martial arts since 2010. Although he is just 21 years old, the Omaha-based writer is looking to provide readers with interesting content on all things related to MMA.