Stars in the fight game often come from the most unusual places. Seven years ago, who would ever have believed that an unemployed apprentice plumber surviving thanks in part to public assistance would become the biggest star in MMA?
Conor McGregor did just that, however.
McGregor’s story of his rise to superstardom is far more vanilla when compared to Ian Heinisch’s. Heinisch is out to prove that a convicted drug dealer/alcoholic who spent time on Riker’s Island and who signed a document promising not to return to Europe in exchange for a release from a Spanish prison can find success and stardom in the UFC’s middleweight division.
It’s a long shot, but the fact that Heinisch is even alive at 30 years old after what he’s endured in his young life suggests that nothing, not even a UFC title or MMA stardom, should be considered impossible for him.
On Saturday, Heinisch will meet Antonio Carlos Junior at Blue Cross Arena in Rochester, New York, in a middleweight bout that will be streamed on ESPN+.
Heinisch’s journey is one that would make even the most hardened person shudder. His life is like something out of a Bruce Willis action movie, but few would have wanted to be in his shoes along the way.
He began selling drugs near home, and eventually found himself living in Europe dealing cocaine. He would swallow bags of cocaine and was able to pass through airports undetected, until the one time he wasn’t.
The cocaine was discovered and he was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison. He began his sentence at a prison in the Canary Islands, where he taught MMA classes. He then was transferred to a prison in Spain, where he eventually was let out early when he agreed to sign a document stating he wouldn’t return to Europe for five years.
He happily returned to the U.S., but when he went through immigration in New York, his past caught up with him. In high school, he’d gotten hooked on the drugs he was taking to control his Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
He soon found himself selling drugs in Denver. In 2009, he was taken down in a Walmart parking lot by DEA agents with a gun to his head and 2,000 Ecstasy pills in his possession.
He was bailed out, but knew he was guilty and couldn’t face the jail time, so he fled the country. He flew to Amsterdam and moved all over Europe, while his problems spiraled more and more out of control. As bad as things got for him, though, when he returned to the U.S. after being paroled in Spain, his real troubles began.
The immigration agents saw that he was a fugitive.
It all could have been so different
Heinisch was an elite wrestler at Ponderosa (Colo.) High School. He finished second at 152 pounds in the Class 5A Division as a freshman, and then won the Class 5A state championship in 2005 as a 160-pound sophomore and in 2006 as a 189-pound junior.
“I could have been a four-timer, had things gone a little differently,” Heinisch says now.
His coach at Ponderosa, Tim Ottman, raved not only about Heinisch’s ability, but also noted he was a team leader. He was so good on technique that Heinisch would help the coaches teach his teammates.
“He was a very good technician and obviously extremely talented,” Ottman said. “ ... We relied on him to teach some of the things he used in wrestling matches and some of them were unique to him. He was a fun kid and always kind of the life of the party. Kids loved to be with him and be around him.”
Heinisch, though, developed a drinking problem. It is not unusual for high school students to drink, but it is unusual for a star athlete to drink to the level that Heinisch did from such a young age.
It never seemed to impact his performance, because he said he adopted an attitude that the harder he’d party, the harder he’d work.
“And I loved to party,” he said, laughing ruefully.
When he was a junior, he went out to party with friends. He drank two bottles of whiskey, and said he probably did some cocaine.
The next day, he was supposed to compete in a significant tournament.
“I told my buddies, ‘I’ve got to wrestle tomorrow,’ but I was extremely intoxicated and I was super blurry,” he said. “I drove home, which was very stupid, and I started to fall asleep. What I would do when that would happen because I’d be seeing double is I would close one eye and lean to the left. It had kind of worked for me before.”
Of course, it didn’t end well this time. He drove off the road and was lucky he missed plowing into a traffic sign as well as a large tree by inches.
“There was snow on the ground and I woke up and the wheels were spinning,” Heinisch said. “I’d gotten stuck in the snow. I got out and I ran home. I went to bed and I passed out and my parents couldn’t wake me up the next morning. My wrestling coach was waiting for me and he drove to my house. He walked in and said, ‘Ian!’ and I apparently just popped right up. I got in the car and slept the whole way. My teammates were mad because everyone was waiting on me.
“It was one of the big high school tournaments, but I forget which one. But I went in and I was still super drunk when I got there. I somehow made weight, which is probably from not eating, and I still reeked of alcohol. I’m sure my first couple of opponents smelled it. My first match, I gave up a takedown, which was unusual for me to do, but I sobered up throughout the tournament and pinned my way to the finals. I won the finals and that kind of reaffirmed to me that it didn’t matter, that I could keep on partying and still win.”
He went into rehabilitation at one point in high school and when he got back to school, Ottman had him sign a contract. It basically noted that he’d had issues in the past that the team couldn’t tolerate any more. If he got into trouble, he’d be cut from the team.
And sure enough, as a two-time state champion with a runner-up as a freshman, Heinisch didn’t get the opportunity to win the title as a senior. He relapsed and Ottman booted him from the team.
“We had a disciplined program, but we also considered ourselves to be family, and he was part of our family,” Ottman said. “In life, things aren’t always going to go perfectly and we recognized that, and we’d just accepted him back into the family.”
But when he finally had gone too far, he was dismissed from the team. That led to an international journey that led to his stints in jail in Spain and then at Riker’s Island. He found God while he was in prison, and also became sober. He met a woman he began to date and she made a huge change in his life.
‘Now, this is the fun part’
In 2014, he was paroled and hasn’t been back in jail since. He is 16-1 with a win in the UFC and eyes on the middleweight title.
He faced down killers in prison and escaped intact. At one point, he was in a high-security portion of Riker’s Island, and was the only white guy in the area. One gang designated him S.O.S., for stab on sight.
He survived, and came out with his health largely intact and a determination to turn his life around.
And when someone tells him it’s impossible to do what he’s done and then go on to win a UFC title, he just laughs.
He’s better, he said, for having been through the travails he’s endured. Had he been a choirboy, he’d have never made it, he believes.
“Anyone who has fought will tell you that a huge part of this sport is the mental game,” Heinisch said. “And I can tell you without a doubt that I wouldn’t have the strength and mental capacity to dig deep when you need to at points in a fight without everything I’ve been through. A guy like me, the way I was, coming into some money and fame, I believe that would have pushed me down the wrong path. But I’ve already been down that wrong path and I’ve come out on the other side.
“I found a relationship with God, and it’s changed me inside. I would never trade that for anything. I’m a better athlete than I would ever have been if I didn’t have all these experiences. I’m the best athlete I’ve ever been. I’m on a fast track. This is my second fight in the UFC and I’m fighting the 12th-ranked guy. It was a roundabout way to get to this point, but I feel I have great things in front of me.”
Ottman is now the principal at Ponderosa High School. He’s stayed in touch with Heinisch and said he’s had him speak to the students and tell them his story.
High school students can often feel hopeless when things don’t go their way, but Heinisch’s story is an example to them, Ottman said.
“High school is a snippet of life,” Ottman said. “With all the suicides and things of that nature among kids, his story is an example that says, ‘You can make mistakes, even big ones, and still come out of it. He’s been gracious and has come back to the school a number of times and told the kids his story.
“He’s been very inspirational to them. He’s really been helpful talking to our students. They learn that mistakes are going to happen, but it’s how you deal with them and that you can get through it and come out the other side. What Ian has gone through has been amazing, and his story has made a difference for our kids because he was one of them.”
And now he’s in the UFC and dreaming of a world title. Being successful in the UFC will enable him to pursue another goal simultaneously.
“I literally had to fight for my life so many times,” he said. “Now, this is the fun part and I hope my story can inspire other people and help them get through difficult spots in their lives. What I have been through will be worth it if my story helps other people to overcome their problems and succeed. I’m living proof of that, that it can be done. And you know what? The best is still to come.”
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