Years ago, when the Drexel Dragon blue-and-gold meant the world to Zach Makovsky, the young wrestler was never far off from his singlet. Here was the quintessential underdog, a 5-foot-4 walk-on who implausibly rose to the rank of team captain, and yet the sport's greatest stage became his White Whale.
Makovsky got close once. One match away from qualifying for amateur wrestling's post-season in his junior year, a storybook run collapsed at the most untimely of moments, and Makovsky fell short. By the end of the following season, Makovsky had smashed any expectations set before him, racking up the a figure that totaled into the 17th most career wins in the university's 115-year history. But he never again got as close to his dream.
Makovsky graduated from Drexel in 2006 without making a single appearance in the NCAA Division I tournament.
Six years later, at the age of 30, the song remained the same. Makovsky had jumped straight from one set of mats to another, unleashing a torrid start to his mixed martial arts career which culminated in a three-fight, two-month run that saw him crowned Bellator's inaugural bantamweight champion. For a kid who grew up on the early VHS tapes of underground UFC tournaments, and always envisioned himself fighting on that very same Octagon canvas, the realization of another long-held dream was close enough to taste.
But then came the losses. Two in a row. The first was understandable, Makovsky bested by the young 5-foot-10 giant, Eduardo Dantas, an uber-athletic Brazilian who'd been christened the next big thing. But the other, not so much; a lethargic split decision against American journeyman Anthony Leone. Bellator released him shortly after, and those athletic goals, which once appeared so close, once more had slipped so far away.
"It felt almost like this was a déjà vu," Makovsky says. "Like it was happening again."
The rest, as they say, is history.
Months prior, the UFC became the first major North American mixed martial arts promotion to institute an official flyweight division. Makovsky, a naturally undersized 135'er accustomed to being the smaller man, figured he'd give it one last good shot. He cut down to 125 pounds with ease, waxed through two opponents in seven months to claim the vacant RFA flyweight strap, then got the phone call of his life.
22 days later he stunned former WEC title challenger Scott Jorgensen in an eleventh-hour UFC debut.
The run was as whirlwind as it gets. In the blink of an eye, Makovsky was not only employed by the organization that'd hounded his thoughts for all those years, he was also ranked among it's own list of top-10 contenders for the belt.
"(There was a moment where) I definitely doubted that I was going to get here," Makovsky now admits. "I got released from Bellator and decided to drop to 125 to try to get into the UFC and won a couple fights. But I'd had a lot of fights and I was getting a little bit older, and I saw a lot of guys getting signed who I thought I was better than and I thought I had more credentials than. It was just kind of in the back of my mind.
"They keep signing all these other guys and I didn't know if I was going to get my shot. But it happened, and I'm obviously super grateful for it. I'm trying to do my best to take advantage of the opportunity I have. I never doubted that my skill level wasn't high, wasn't amongst the best guys. Especially at 125."
To say Makovsky simply "took advantage" of his opportunity would be to sell his mid-career revival crookedly short. "Fun Size" doubled-down on the momentum from the Jorgensen fight with an impressive win over up-and-coming prospect Josh Sampo in February. Now he's slotted to collide against No. 6 ranked Jussier Formiga this Saturday at UFC Fight Night 47.
In a shallow flyweight division where title opportunities are open season for anyone ranked No. 4 to No. 10, the winner of the contest could conceivably be the next man in line to challenge Demetrious Johnson's belt. And it doesn't hurt that Johnson has already acknowledged Makovsky as one of his most readily available challenges.
Yet Makovsky has never been one to trumpet his own horn. To put himself out there with the brashness of a McGregor just isn't in his DNA, he says, although he acknowledges such antics would probably fast-track him where he'd like to be. It's just not him, though. If nothing else, he wouldn't want to come off as disingenuous to himself.
Still, Makovsky understands that the Formiga fight is a massive opportunity to make the very statement he's been craving to make: that he belongs among the upper-tier of the division. So he can't help but admit to being puzzled that a match-up between potential title contenders somehow landed on the undercard of an otherwise sparse Fight Night card.
"I think we're the only fight (except for the main event) where both guys are ranked in the top-10, and I think that it potentially has some implications towards a number-one contender fight or a title fight, so I feel like it maybe should be getting more attention," Makovsky says. "But that's not my decision.
"I know a lot of people are going to say they didn't know who Ali Bagautinov was when he fought Demetrious, and they don't really know much about Chris Cariaso. So I think it might stand that I were to get a shot, or if Formiga, whoever, that they won't know us that much. But if they don't give us a shot on the main card, then I don't think people are going to have that chance (to get to know us), and maybe flyweights will to continue to be a non-selling division."
Regardless of that small gripe, card placement is the least of Makovsky's current focus.
In college, the underdog wrestler finished one rung away from his athletic dream. In the second chapter of life, the upstart pro fighter nearly befell that very same fate, if not for the most clutch of performances in the most unexpected of Hail Mary opportunities. But now, at 32 years old, with that sunset inching closer every year, simply participating is no longer good enough.
"I think this is the best chance I'm going to have," Makovsky says. "This is how I think about it: I may be a little bit past my physical prime, but because of the experience and wisdom I picked up throughout my career, I'm probably in my athletic prime.
"I approach this sport, I approach every fight and every training session, not to be the loudest or the craziest or the most exciting. I approach everything to be the best. I want to be the best I can, and that's what it's about."