There’s always got to be a champion.
That was what Dana White was encouraging in 2012 when he instituted the UFC’s flyweight division, a level on which smaller, quicker fighters – no heavier than 125 lbs. - could compete, moving around the octagon and pecking away at their competition rather than the notable blunt force trauma of the sport’s larger species.
So UFC pitted four of its nimbler upstarts against each other: Joseph Benavidez, a fighter with his own holiday in Las Cruces, Mexico, TKO’d two-year Shooto Bantamweight champion Yasuhiro Urushitani in the semifinal. Benavidez would face the winner of a Demetrious "Mighty Mouse" Johnson/Ian McCall bout that took place prior, but after a scoring error, the bout was rescheduled months later. In the first ever UFC event headlined by Flyweights, Johnson defeated McCall, earning the bout with Benavidez, which Johnson dominated for a unanimous victory.
The flyweights had a champion.
That was two years ago. Today, Johnson remains the title holder, despite close matches with challengers such as John Dodson and Ali Bagautinov, both of whom he defeated through unanimous decisions. In a rematch with Benavidez, Johnson knocked him out in the first round.
There will always be challengers, however, and in the flyweight division, they move quickly.
This Saturday, the sixth- and ninth-ranked flyweight fighters will square off at UFC Fight Night in Bangor, Maine, both of whom are considered potential overthrowers of Johnson’s regime, but only one of whom boasts a Philadelphia training ground.
Zach Makovsky is 2-0 in UFC fights; his No. 9 ranking among flyweights comes after a struggle on the bantamweight level. He’ll fight No. 6 Jussier Formiga with the knowledge that many of the fighters ranked between them and Johnson have already fought the champ and lost.
Makovsky was born in Easton, Pa., but started wrestling at six years old after his family relocated to Bethlehem. He got his varsity letter for the sport in high school, and even captained the team his senior year. But when Makovsky walked into the first day of physical punishment with the Drexel wrestling team, it was because he didn’t feel like he’d accomplished enough.
“Nothing above average, anyway,” Makovsky said. “I got invited to walk on the team, and I started training with a bunch of Division I wrestlers. It was definitely an eye-opening experience. I didn’t even know people trained that hard. It was brutal.”
After a few sessions, Makovsky found himself paralyzed by the intensity of the workouts, his muscles sorer than they’d ever been. A standard daily training regimen for the Dragons’ squad would be a couple miles distance run, followed by an hour of sprints, and then finally, wrestling.
“Incredibly brutal,” he repeated. “I got beat up for a whole year.”
“When I went home that summer, I really was thinking about not coming back out for the team. But I thought, ‘If I want to do it, I better go back as prepared as possible.’ And then I was able to start to excel a little bit. I really learned how to train as a high level athlete and I really learned how to wrestle.”
He followed a similar formula to his high school experience in college: Walk on, letter as varsity, become senior captain. Repeat.
Makovsky credits Drexel’s assistant coach, Joe Melchiore, a three-time state wrestling champ, four-time All-American, and a former member of the world team who was once called “arguably the best wrestler in South Jersey history,” with shaping him during these years.
“The best wrestler I’ve ever trained with,” Makovsky said of Melchiore.
In between seasons, Makovsky was training for MMA at the Philadelphia Fight Factory, winning 65 of the 72 grappling tourneys he’d enter, and massing an arsenal that includes a purple belt in Brazilian jiu jitsu, after training under Marcelo Garcia and reaping the benefits of muay thai after becoming a pupil of legend Phil Nurse.
His experiences at Drexel stuck with him, enough that Makovsky has chosen not to leave Philadelphia, now 13 years removed from his arrival from Bethlehem. He lives in Fishtown and hangs out in Northern Liberties, like some kind of normal Philadelphian who happens to be able to dart efficiently around an octagon, convincing a panel of judges of his superiority to a competitor.
“It’s just a good city,” he said. “I love how every neighborhood has its own kind of flavor. I’m not planning to leave anytime soon.”
Like the city’s neighborhoods, UFC offers a distinct flavor at each level of competition.
Makovksy knows that better than some, having struggled as a bantamweight, despite his high skill level, versatile background, elite trainers, and intense speed. When Dana White announced the creation of the flyweight division, the light bulb went on.
“At the end of my career at 135 lbs., the last three guys I fought all walk around over 165 lbs.,” he recalled. “I was at a very distinct physical disadvantage.”
Makovky dropped 10 lbs. down to the 125 lb. threshold of the flyweight division and saw immediate results. Eleven of his 18 victories have ended in unanimous decisions in his favor.
“Wrestlers, what they’re good at is controlling people,” Makovsky explained. “When you come from that background, maybe most wrestlers don’t get many finishes. But they control the fight very well. I think that’s the advantage of being a wrestler.”
Makovsky works on a different level than most fighters. Not only does the flyweight division call for more frenzied fighting, but never does the 32-year-old engage in the pre-bout cattiness that can dominate the headlines.
“I definitely understand the entertainment aspect, but in the end, I’m an athlete,” Makovsky said, with over a decade of paralyzing runs, sprints, blood, sweat, and tears behind him. “I want to be the best in the world. That’s what my focus is on."
Should Makovsky emerge victorious vs. Formiga, he’ll be 3-0 as a UFC fighter, with a clean record against the skulking Demetrious Johnson, perched atop the division. It won’t be long until he gets his shot at the title, and likely, Johnson won’t even hear him coming.
“I don’t like being outspoken about my opponents,” he said. “I’d rather just do what matters and beat them in the fight. The rest of it just doesn’t mean much.”