A flyweight fracas between top contenders Joseph Benavidez and Ian McCall will light off the main card of Saturday's UFC 156: Aldo vs. Edgar pay-per-view. Top billing for the show goes to featherweight annihilator Jose Aldo in his 6th title defense against former lightweight champion and new featherweight entry Frankie Edgar. The featured card begins on pay-per-view at 10:00 p.m. after the preliminary card plays out on the FX channel (8:00 p.m. ET) and Facebook (7:00 p.m. ET).
The best known commonality between Benavidez (16-3) and McCall (11-3-1) is that both are coming off unsuccessful title bids against flyweight champ Demetrious Johnson. After ratcheting himself up the bantamweight ladder to fall short against champion Dominick Cruz (who's responsible for 2 of his losses), Benavidez slaughtered Yasuhiro Urushitani in the opening round of the UFC's inaugural Flyweight Tournament to advance to the finals, where he awaited the winner of "Mighty Mouse" vs. McCall, who'd fought to a majority draw on the other side of the bracket.
In the first go-around, McCall made a statement in the 3rd round and earned a 10-8 nod for a 29-29 score from one judge, which evened out the opposing 29-28 scores from the other two judges. In the rematch, it was all Johnson, who earned a convincing unanimous decision over McCall (29-29 x 2, 30-27). With the stage set to crown the UFC's first flyweight champ, Benavidez was competitive with Johnson throughout but his dreams were thwarted by a split-decision loss.
Before the UFC opened the doors on the flyweight class, McCall and Jussier da Silva sat atop the world flyweight rankings and Tachi Palace Fights had a lock on the elite 125-pound talent. Now that the landscape has changed and the only other viable contender, John Dodson, is out of the title race, it would seem that McCall and Benavidez will cement the next #1 contender even though they're not far removed from Johnson's list of victims.
The beauty of the flyweight division is how thoroughly dynamic and complete the fighters are. They seamlessly transition from open-space striking to clinching or to grappling at a frenetic pace. We rarely see fights stuck in one phase of combat nor combatants who are noticeably weak or lacking in any one department. That holds true for McCall and Benavidez as, on paper, neither should enjoy a monumental advantage over the other. Benavidez still seems to be finding himself as a flyweight as well -- at bantamweight, he was a full level faster than his opponents and he typically hung back and wailed away with counters when his opponent came at him. At flyweight, and particularly against Johnson, he tried to switch up his style and rely on his boosted size and strength to bully the quicker Johnson.
Though both can throw hands, their foundation is built upon wrestling. Benavidez won the New Mexico state championship as a sophomore in high school and spent a year competing in college for William Penn University. McCall was also a standout wrestler in high school but a knee injury forced an abridged collegiate stint (Cuesta College). As far as MMA credentials, which is all that really matters, Benavidez and McCall are among the top dogs at flyweight. Their takedowns are explosive, effective, technical and set up well with footwork and striking. Both are proficient with singles or doubles from outside as well as a wide array of clinch takedowns.
Benavidez actually seems at his best when he's reactive and playing the countering game. Inviting his opponent in often resulted in off-centering his head to dodge the initial flurry and slamming a heavy overhand or hook through his opponent's guard, and their forward momentum did a lot of the dirty work for him in the takedown department, as he could bypass the clever entry and set up by fast-forwarding to the level drop and penetration. Against Johnson (and Cruz somewhat as well), he was actively leading the striking exchanges and pursuing takedowns as the aggressor, and being tasked to perform the aforementioned steps he was able to skip in the reactive role (entry and set up) bore much less fruit.
Controlling the tempo and dictating the action has its advantages, especially with fans and judges, but it can also put you a chess move behind. The initial attack makes your first intention quite clear and your opponent keys off that to form his counter-attack, and the proverbial back-and-forth volley of action and reaction ensues from there. Though Johnson is admittedly the most dynamically unpredictable 125er in the biz, Benavidez, who was widely assumed to have the size and wrestling advantage, produced a doughnut hole in 7 takedown attempts while Johnson went 50/50 by hitting a surprising 5 of 10.
That factor had a pivotal influence on the ebb and flow of the fight and, since wrestling will have a large voice in this match up as well, it's worth noting that the different styles of entry and set up in Johnson vs. Benavidez was behind their contrasting success rates. When he's leading, Benavidez can be rather primitive when pushing forward for takedowns. Whereas Johnson's elaborate footwork and nearly perfect set up has almost become the standard for takedowns in MMA, Benavidez tends to paw out -- not quite half-heartedly, but with less commitment than his free-standing combinations -- with a few step-in right hands before changing levels, which were not sufficient enough to distract Johnson nor capture his attention.
So the question of which role Benavidez will play -- the counter-man or the aggressor -- might have an impact on the key aspect of wrestling against McCall. Of course, Benavidez doesn't just wear one hat or the other -- he shifts through varying degrees of chase and pursuit, yet not as frequently as McCall does. "Uncle Creepy" typically keeps his foes guessing by staying in a middle-gear and punctuating that steady pace with intermittent sequences of blood-thirsty pressure. He'll still switch to a reactive/countering mode in spurts, but still manages to keep a high pace and never gets to the point of relaxation or complacency.
McCall's sample size is pretty small to analyze at the top level. In the first Johnson fight, McCall hit 4 of 9 takedowns and pitched a shutout on the current champion by staving off all 4 of his attempts; the rematch was a different story, as McCall fumbled on 10 of his 11 takedown attempts while allowing 2 of Johnson's 8 tries. Why? My opinion is that McCall, perhaps surging with confidence after his 3rd-round takedown led to the fight-saving domination that followed, pursued his takedowns more vigorously, and Johnson pulled the same act he did against Benavidez by countering brilliantly and stealing the momentum with reactive offense. Instead of injecting a duck-under double in the natural flow and rhythm of the fight, McCall was more intent on applying his wrestling game, which I believe made him more predictable.
In an effort to summarize how their wrestling compares: Benavidez seems to have the power and oomph to get the better of a head-on takedown battle, but he's generally more successful with counter-wrestling, and McCall's ideal mentality seems to be not forcing a particular facet of his game and making on-the-fly adjustments.
The striking specs are tied to their wrestling roots. McCall, who has basic but fundamentally sound and effective boxing, is not a laudable knockout artist. It still hurts when he punches you in the face, but his handiwork is an equal component to his wrestling; he's at his best when he's phase-shifting between both at a frenzied clip. McCall isn't the best striker or wrestler in the division, but he conjoins the two as well as anyone save the champ. Other than keeping his hands too low and being willing to stand in front of his adversary, McCall has crisp, straight punches, sharp power, decent accuracy and he's always on balance. He's also a pretty straight-forward fighter -- there's not a lot of flash or uniqueness in his style. McCall just fits the mold of a damn good wrestle-boxer and enforces a brutal tempo from bell to bell.
Benavidez has made his unorthodox striking style work. Amidst a few front snap kicks or low kicks, Benavidez usually fills the space with medium-range straight punches to open up his momentous, side-stepping haymakers. When he loads up the power, his punches are distinctly bent-armed and heaved with all of his might. This fuels his scary punching power but he's also susceptible to takedowns when he digs his feet in and plants to throw. Since many of his strikes are not straight or really even traditional, the ultra-wide trajectory of his punches makes his jaw easier to find, as his his hands stray too far from his jaw and his head is a little too centered in the pocket (especially when he's leading exchanges). He's billed as a southpaw but changes stances frequently, and loves to lead with a risky overhand left as soon as he switches to southpaw.
Even though McCall will sprinkle in the occasional spinning elbow or exciting offering, they're well calculated, intelligently unhinged and fully functional. The bulk of his boxing arsenal consists of simple and straight punches, and his rapidly released straight right is his best punch. I emphasized not forcing one aspect and cycling between his wrestling and striking constantly because McCall's not devoid of defensive flaws when charging into range either. And where Johnson was able to sting him with fast counters, Benavidez has the power to lay anyone out if he connects clean, and will thus be exponentially less forgiving of such lapses.
In addition to being vigilant in protecting his chin, McCall must do the same with his neck when attempting takedowns. Benavidez is a master of wrenching a nasty guillotine from the front headlock after sprawling, and his ground-and-pound is utterly devastating enough to open a yawning chasm across Miguel Torres' forehead. As is the theme of this whole fight, McCall is more even-keeled and sustains a steady, high pace of threatening offense, whereas Benavidez picks his spots to throw decapitating shots betwixt milder "feel-out" or prodding strikes.
Benavidez is enjoying a hefty push on the betting lines, which is perfectly understandable. While I agree he deserves to be the favorite, I think the odds are a little steep and that McCall is a worthwhile underdog bet. Since I pick for funsies rather than money, I'm taking a bit of a chance on McCall for the upset here. Benavidez might simply overpower McCall, and that will surely be his first intention and the early variable that sets the tone. I think he'll have his hands full there and that McCall's steady-Eddie pace will start to take its toll, especially if he protects himself during Benavidez' unruly outbursts of offense.
My Prediction: Ian McCall by decision.