"Nicknames are fucking stupid," says UFC flyweight Ian McCall. "If you gave yourself a nickname, that's fucking stupid. I say that with all due respect, but you're a douche."
This is the part in the story—way up here—in which we must disclose that McCall has a nickname, one of the most notorious in MMA: "Uncle Creepy."
But McCall won't budge. As he points out between sips of a chai latte at Costa Mesa's Portola Coffee Lab, fighters such as Chuck "The Iceman" Liddell or "The Huntington Beach Bad Boy" Tito Ortiz created their nicknames, self-manufacturing hype and intimidation. "Uncle Creepy" wasn't McCall's idea, has nothing to do with fighting, came from the mouth of a kid and is, therefore, legit. It has everything to do with the fighter's rise from San Clemente fuck-up to one of the world's most feared little men.
After a long night out with friends in San Luis Obispo, McCall—the sober driver for the evening—was playing with his friend's 3-year-old son in the wee hours of the morning. In his excitement, the toddler began calling McCall "Uncle Creepy" instead of "Uncle Ian," and some nicknames are simply too good to let go. And when McCall joined the UFC for its inaugural 125-pound tournament in 2012, entering as the consensus top-ranked flyweight in the world, he also had a perfectly twirled handlebar mustache that drew immediate attention—and cemented the Uncle Creepy legend before he'd ever fought on an international stage.
"It got to the point where I was having a different girl over every night, and my roommates were just like, 'What are you doing? I don't get it,'" McCall says, explaining his mustache's birth. "Getting women into bed was basically becoming a full-time job. I wanted to focus on other things, so I figured I'd grow out this big, bushy beard and it would cockblock me. Then I grew the mustache out, and it just stuck.
"People realize I'm not creepy in a weirdo kind of way," McCall adds. "Well, I'm a weirdo, but not like that kind of a weirdo."
The Uncle Creepy persona lets him channel his past into the Octagon, a past that includes him lying in a coma for two days after a drug overdose, taking multiple trips to jail for drugs and brawls, and undergoing plenty of rehab, plus an ugly divorce that took years and a 2012 arrest in Irvine (for which he served 17 days of a 30-day sentence).
McCall is in a frustrating period right now. Injuries have hampered his once-promising career, making him spend most of his days rehabbing rather than training.
In the past, McCall might've gone down a path of self-destruction, but he has found peace for the first time in years. He has moved back into his father's San Clemente home, focusing on a new relationship and raising his daughter with the help of his pops while prepping for his return to fighting. "He's matured a lot since his daughter was born," says his father, Greg McCall. "He was a wild kid who used to party too much, but he's a man with a kid of his own now. I always told him any man who doesn't take care of his own kids is a piece of shit. He's a good dad, and he takes care of business."
* * * * *
"My sponsors want me to Snapchat more," says McCall, who's wearing only a towel in a small, freezing room with three other people. He grabs his iPhone to capture the human-sized steaming metal tube in front of him. "Have you ever done cryo before?"
For most people, getting naked and willingly stepping into subzero temperatures at 10:30 on a Thursday morning means their life took a horribly wrong turn somewhere. For an injury-prone fighter older than 30, it's how to get back a lost championship.
Less than 15 minutes later, McCall is bundled up in logo-emblazoned sweats; he gets them from sponsors such as RVCA, Publish and ourCaste. The fighter throws back a handful of vitamins as he pulls his black Prius out of the parking lot of Icelab Cryotherapy in Costa Mesa while explaining his penchant for talking shit.
"I always watch fights and comment on them on Twitter, and sometimes I'll talk shit or whatever," he says, pulling into Team Oyama MMA & Fitness in Irvine for his daily 11 a.m. training session. "Any time Ronda [Rousey, former UFC women's bantamweight champ] fights, I'd get some backlash, but I've never seen anything like the shit I got after [UFC featherweight champion] Conor McGregor fought. All I said was [UFC featherweight contender and former lightweight champion] Frankie Edgar is coming for him, and you wouldn't believe the hate I got."
That's the Uncle Creepy in him. Whether he's cracking jokes on fighters, showing off the luxury cars he borrows through his sponsors or simply posting updates on his daughter's new horses, McCall knows what he's doing with the Internet and how to appeal to his tens of thousands of followers. The online presence makes him one of the most marketable fighters in MMA today, an advantage that can green-light a fighter toward a title shot with a couple of wins. He's an old pro, having interacted with fans (and detractors) on the MMA online forum known as the Underground before his rise to UFC fame. And it's that social-media presence, coupled with his results in the cage, that led to the creation of his fan club Underground Creepy Top Team.
"People enjoy me for whatever reason," says McCall. "People think I'm cool for having friends who are celebrities or for fucking famous chicks. It's kind of douchey, but whatever. It's cool having fans, but it's also weird. It's a weird level of fame I have."
But once at Team Oyama, Uncle Creepy steps back, and the newly responsible McCall takes over. He has enlisted an army to get him back to the top: a strength-and-conditioning coach; a hand-eye-coordination trainer; a dietician who prepares 15 meals each week for his "vegan-centric" diet; and Colin Oyama, a legendary MMA trainer. In his off time, McCall coaches the gym's amateur fighters and his training partners.
"In the gym, he has taken on more of a leadership role," says Oyama. "In the past, he was always the young guy coming up, but now time has passed, and he's one of the older ones, as far as the fight game is concerned.
"When he trains, he's all in," Oyama continues. "He doesn't half-ass things. The biggest problem at times has been getting him in the gym and away from the distractions."
Those distractions are what have cut McCall down seemingly every time he's about to reach the next level. And true to his new form, the fighter puts all the blame on himself.
"I had a perfect childhood," McCall says, "but me and my brothers [15 and 3 years older] were little shits. We were all bad kids."
McCall was born in Newport Beach on July 5, 1984. His wealthy family—dad ran a Toyota dealership and mom was a personal chef—moved to San Clemente when Ian was small. "He was a very active child—it was crazy," says Greg McCall. "He was always doing something. He did every sport you can think of and some you can't. He'd go to the beach at 6 a.m. with his friends, and then when they'd come home to sleep, he'd be rollerblading around the neighborhood right after."
Greg got Ian into martial arts around the first grade, transitioning into wrestling by the time he entered Dana Hills High School. Three private schools had already kicked him out after he got into scrapes with schoolmates. He also rolled with the Lords of South County, the notorious rich-white-boy gang that counted Bellator MMA fighter Rob Emerson as a member. But wrestling was the first activity to keep him in check.
Although McCall jokes that he was always better at fighting than wrestling, he was good enough to wrestle briefly at Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo before dropping out to pursue fighting. By then, one of his brothers had amassed a 3-1 professional record before retiring a year later.
"There was no amateur circuit back then," McCall says. "It was 'Oh, you're fucking 18 now—you want to go fight a man?'"
While in San Luis Obispo, McCall got to know Chuck Liddell, who became a mentor. McCall moved back to OC a year later, and under Oyama's tutelage, he began his professional fighting career at 5-0 in smaller promotions before jumping to the national stage and winning his debut for World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC) at 135 pounds. But he dropped two of his next three matches, including one with future bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz.
In 2009, McCall went to Sutra in Costa Mesa with his then-girlriend and friends to party just before the start of training camp. On the way home, his girlfriend got a DUI, so McCall and another friend decided to take a cab back to his home at the Village in Irvine. McCall doesn't clearly remember what happened next, but he knows he got into a fight with the taxi driver and woke up in jail. "I was like 'How did I get here?' and that whole kind of thing," McCall says. He had been a fuck-up for so long that even his closest friends and family had all but given up on him. "I was sitting around for a while like, 'Yeah, I deserve to be here,' and I was just kind of bummed. Then I just remember coming to one day, like, 'I gotta get the fuck out of here and get my shit together.'"
He was clean for about a year, but then in celebration of his win in November 2010, he decided to get a tattoo. He says he took the mega-cocktail to calm down before getting inked. But he instead suffered an overdose of a variety of drugs including OxyContin, GHB, marijuana and Xanax. Three EpiPens and two days later, McCall awoke in a hospital, attached to tubes, and found out his heart and breathing had stopped. "The overdose was a small slip-up," McCall says. "The doctors were shocked [at] how fast I recovered in the hospital and was able to start working out again."
* * * * *
"I think the spinning elbow is the safest spinning move there is," McCall tells a young man to his left before moving to his other side to help another fighter work on her kicking form.
They're training under the watchful eye of Oyama. McCall continues like this for 20 minutes before Team Oyama's other resident superstar walks through the door.
"Starla!" McCall yells with a smile at former UFC strawweight champion Carla Esparza. "Sorry we started without you. Hey, guys, look who's here!"
McCall jokes Esparza has gotten too famous to show up to practice on time. "Ever since she won that first championship fight, she's gotten too cool for us. She's become Starla."
"I've always called him my best training partner because he's always picking up on little things I could be doing better," Esparza says. "He's so good with his technique, and he knows so much from being around for so long. He can always push me and make me better."
During their nine years of training together, she's seen the young partier as well as the mature sage, but some things haven't changed. "I think he's one of the best storytellers I know because he can make anything entertaining," Esparza says. "He's the life of the party in and out of the gym, and it's really endearing to see him as a father figure now. He gets so excited when he talks about his daughter; I think maybe that's what's made him take on a leadership role in the gym."
As soon as practice is over, the fighters change to head to House of Shabu Shabu for a team lunch. They stare at their phones while waiting for the stragglers to get ready, but no one has more notifications than McCall. Between his social-media concerns, upcoming business ventures and family life, McCall's iPhone hosts a stream of messages and updates.
"I hate talking on the phone sometimes," McCall explains while checking messages from several different apps—including one he owns a piece of, Sweeble. "My girlfriend wants to talk for hours, but I don't want to talk to anyone. She wants to talk whenever I'm driving by myself, but that's the only time I don't really have to talk to anyone. Sometimes it's okay, but a lot of times, I'd rather just text."
Fighting as Uncle Creepy proved to be McCall's ultimate therapy. He went to some drug-rehab meetings, but then stopped, dismissing them as "a place to pick up chicks," he says. "I have my own problems; I don't want to hear about yours. I'm not being helped by hearing about other people doing drugs." Instead, McCall went on a three-fight tear in Tachi Palace Fights in 2011, dethroning the best 125-pound fighters in the world and earning the Tachi Palace Fights Flyweight Championship that August. He emerged as Sherdog.com's Comeback Fighter of the Year. Then, in December, the UFC signed him.
In the week leading up to his debut in March 2012 in Sydney, Australia, McCall and three competitors were followed by camera crews and given private drivers, each receiving the megastar treatment. The hubbub wasn't just from the UFC; every Australian and international MMA outlet wanted a piece of the first flyweight contests in UFC history. McCall played the part perfectly, mugging and tweeting and giving great quotes to the cameras. But it was all a mask. The night before the fight, McCall's then-wife asked him for a divorce and got in a fight with his sister-in-law during dinner.
He set his personal problems aside as he climbed into the Octagon against Demetrious "Mighty Mouse" Johnson in a semifinal match. It was back-and-forth through the first two rounds, but it ended with McCall mounted on the back of a helpless Johnson, raining down fists and clearly in control of the action.
"That first fight was rad," McCall says. "I remember [UFC president] Dana White telling me the day before, 'Put on a good performance. Don't be a flash in the pan,' and I think I did put on a good performance."
As the two battered fighters awaited the judges' decision, the crowd and many watching at home believed McCall had won. When the scorecards were read, Johnson was announced the winner by split decision—but it was actually a draw, with the athletic commission committing a Steve Harvey-esque error by getting the math wrong on the scorecards. Because both fighters had already exited the cage before the commission caught their mistake, the sudden-death fourth round the UFC had implemented specifically for the tournament couldn't happen, leading to a rematch a few months later. McCall's inner turmoil finally caught up to him, and he lost to Johnson by unanimous decision.
While the old McCall would've sunk into a cycle of self-destruction, the new McCall soldiered on. Over the next three years, McCall went 2-2 among some of the top contenders in the division, even as he battled injuries. The only drug he now uses is medicinal marijuana, which he says he needs to manage the pain he suffers after injuries to his shoulder, hand, hip, groin and more.
"Even Child Protective Services—who is in my daughter's life because of someone else—I told them that I'm having surgery on my shoulder and was going to ingest marijuana," McCall says. "They said, 'No, you're not,' and I showed them my license and everything and told them, 'You can treat me like a criminal and drug test me eight times a month, but you have a choice: I can use this, or I can use OxyContin.'"
* * * * *
"I want more bread!" demands the only voice capable of making McCall appear timid.
"I know she doesn't get to have any bread like this at home because my dad's a real Nazi about her eating healthy, so I let her have it when we go out," McCall says, cutting off a piece of bread for the 4-year-old sitting next to him. He offers his daughter, London, some of the seared tuna that both he and his petite, blonde, "awesome mellow chick" of a girlfriend, Samantha, ordered. She declines in favor of bread and twirls in the booth to show off her leather "rock star jacket" to everyone who can see her in the White House, McCall's favorite Laguna Beach restaurant.
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"The one good thing about all of these injuries is that it means I've gotten to spend almost every single day with my daughter," says McCall, mentioning that her juvenile rheumatoid arthritis has given McCall a new cause to learn about and support. "People say, 'Oh, you deserve an award for raising her on your own,' and I'm like, 'Fuck you. No, I don't.' I had a kid, so I raised the kid—that's what you're supposed to do. Just because there are a bunch of shitty parents out there who are too fucked up on drugs or whatever to want to be around their kid, that doesn't mean what I'm doing is something special.
"Maybe it's because I've gotten older, or maybe I'm just old-school, but I'm a man, and I want a wife and kids and a proper family life," he continues. "I've never been able to give that to my daughter, but now I can. This year, I was in bed before midnight on New Year's Eve. I'm just not partying anymore like I used to. I'm over a lot of that shit. It was exhausting."
It's thoughts like those that make McCall believe he's in the right place for a final run at a UFC championship. There's still a way to go—he lost his last match in January, dropping a catchweight bout against John Lineker after his opponent missed his weight (at 130, he was over the requirement by 5 pounds). And he's already making plans for a post-MMA future—with ideas for a cryotherapy spot in Lake Forest and San Clemente, even thoughts of getting into the medicinal-marijuana world. But with a truly stable support system for the first time in his UFC career, McCall wants to show the world why he was once the top-ranked 125-pounder and win that elusive flyweight title.
"I did promise my mother that one more big injury and I'd retire," McCall says. "I'll always be fighting somewhere, but it might be in a gym instead of in front of a bunch of people. Demetrious [Johnson] is a great champion; he's, pound for pound, one of the best. But I know I can beat him; I know I can prove that I'm, pound for pound, one of the best. And I know I can be an even better champion. Otherwise, there's no point in me doing this."