Drug trafficking, prison and MMA: The incredible story of Ian Heinisch

Ian Heinisch is 7-0 in his professional MMA career after several stints in prison. (Phil Lambert/VITAL Imagery)
Ian Heinisch is 7-0 in his professional MMA career after several stints in prison. (Phil Lambert/VITAL Imagery)

The gangbanger came at him with a homemade shank.

Ian Heinisch had just arrived at New York City’s notorious Rikers Island correctional facility, but he wasn’t new to life behind bars. The native of upper-middle class Parker, Colo., had just finished serving 3½ years on a cocaine smuggling charge at facilities in the Canary Islands and Northern Spain.

After being bounced from Spain upon his release, he was apprehended upon re-entry to the United States for skipping the country after his 2009 arrest in a DEA sting.

So as Heinisch found himself in holding at one of the county’s most notorious clinks while his case was sorted out, trouble immediately found him.

Heinisch had been around the block a few times by this point, so he greeted his would-be attacker cooly, getting him to drop his guard and popping him one.

“This dude had a rusty-looking knife, he was putting it close to my face and he was all, ‘I heard you know how to fight, this how we do it,’ Heinisch said. “I had learned a few tricks in Spain, so I put my hands up and said, ‘Hey man, no problems.’ Then when he relaxed, I caught him on the chin and rocked him.”

That solved the immediate problem, but Heinisch soon had bigger issues.

“Next day, the word was they had a hit out on me, this guy named Fingers from the Latin Kings warned me I was ‘SOS’ for ‘stab on sight’ wherever I go. I pretty much stayed up all night training, shadowboxing in my cell, trying to make weapons, anything I could do. I was ready to die the next morning.”

As fate had it, Heinisch was transferred to a facility in Colorado, where his original offense occurred, before anyone else could attempt to enact street justice.

After surviving such a scenario, you’ll have to forgive Heinisch for not getting too worked up about a sanctioned mixed martial arts fight. More than four years sober, three after regaining his freedom, and a year after successfully completing the terms of his probation, Heinisch has not only gotten his life back together, but he’s turned into a promising, up-and-coming mixed martial artist.

The undefeated middleweight will have his biggest career spotlight on Friday night, one he hopes will help propel him into the UFC, when he faces Brazil’s Lucas Rota in the main event of Legacy Fighting Alliance 10 in Puebla, Colo., which will be aired live on AXS-TV.

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It’s not like Heinisch intended to go down a bad path. As a child, he was diagnosed with attention-deficit disorder and struggled with the challenges that came with it.

“I had so much trouble just sitting and paying attention,” Heinisch said. “My parents ended up taking me out of school and homeschooling me for grade school.”

But Heinisch channeled his restless energy into wrestling and found he was a natural. He won a pair of Colorado state high school titles, competed at nationals and ultimately ended up at North Idaho College in Coeur D’Alene, which has a perennial nationally ranked junior college wrestling program.

“School just wasn’t my thing, man,” Heinisch said. “I loved wrestling, but I just couldn’t focus on class and I ended up dropping out of school and going up to Vancouver.”

Ian Heinisch is aiming to fight in the UFC one day. (Phil Lambert/VITAL Imagery)
Ian Heinisch is aiming to fight in the UFC one day. (Phil Lambert/VITAL Imagery)

Heinisch settled in with a high school flame and found success working as a door-to-door salesman, but did so without proper working permits. He was deported back to the U.S. for working illegally.

He returned to a changed hometown. As happened with countless members of the working class around the country, the 2008 economic meltdown hit his family hard. His parents ended up divorcing after losing their house.

“I came from a certain level of privilege and I kind of panicked when things fell apart with my family,” Heinisch said. “I wanted to live the same lifestyle I was used to living and one thing led to another.”

So Heinisch turned to peddling pills, and soon found himself making a lot of cash.

“It was one of those things that just kept escalating,” Heinisch said. “I was drinking and partying, I got caught up in it, making a lot of money, building up a clientele.”

Eventually, Heinisch was apprehended with 2,000 Ecstasy pills in a Walmart parking lot. When he made bail, he also made the decision to bolt town.

“I was like, I’m young, there’s no way I’m going to jail and wasting years of my life,” Heinisch said. “Screw this, I’m getting out of here and living my life.”

Heinisch took a cross-country bus to New York and managed to slip out of the U.S., catching a flight from JFK to Amsterdam. He then embarked on a backpacking journey to Belgium and England before ending up in Spain.

“I spent three months living on a beach,” Heinisch said. “I was pretty much homeless but I was working at a bar where they basically paid you in drinks, so I’d drink until 4 a.m. It wasn’t as fun as it sounds, almost every night I’d have nightmares about being caught. You’re always looking over your shoulder.”

From there, it was a matter of time before he found his way back into the drug trade. Heinisch began running from Spain to Venezuela and Colombia and back with bigger and bigger hauls.

“It finally caught up to me,” Heinisch said. “I was coming back from one of my trips, there were too many stamps on my passport, they started asking questions, they started searching and they found a kilo of coke. Game over.”

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One thing Heinisch wants you to know about prison life: He found far more opportunity to get his life back on track behind bars in Spain than in the United States.

“They had classes over there,” Heinisch said. “I learned how to speak Spanish. I’d take classes. I’d sit in my cell with a Spanish Bible and a Spanish-to-English dictionary and teach myself. There are gyms, there are outlets for people to try to make something of themselves. It’s not like you’re having fun, but it’s important to give people who can be rehabilitated something productive to do. Over here, lockup is just a hellhole, and we wonder why so many people end back up in jail.”

His first facility, in the Canary Islands, also featured something that seemed straight out of a movie: a fight club dubbed Lucha Carnaria, conducted in a pit of sand in the prison yard. His wrestling background came in handy.

“Trust me, everyone wanted to line up and take their shots at the white American,” Heinisch said. “I didn’t care. It was an outlet and it involved something I was good at. I’m not going to act like I won every fight. But between proving I could defend myself and making the effort to learn Spanish and going to Bible studies, I started earning respect. That’s really where the turnaround started.”

Ian Heinisch nearly participated in “The Ultimate Fighter 23.” (Phil Lambert/VITAL Imagery)
Ian Heinisch nearly participated in “The Ultimate Fighter 23.” (Phil Lambert/VITAL Imagery)

Heinisch was later transported to a facility in Northern Spain, where things took yet another fortuitous turn.

“There was a boxing program in there,” Heinisch said. “Guys with legit skills who were locked up a long time who wanted to share their knowledge and do something with their craft. Everything happens for a reason. It’s not like I was taking MMA lessons but I had the wrestling, I was learning to box, I was off drugs and alcohol, my head was getting clear, and it was coming together.”

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After Heinisch was released on Valentine’s Day 2014, it didn’t take long to realize life had changed.

“My very first day out, my Dad took me to a yoga class,” Heinisch said. “Hours earlier I was locked up and now all of a sudden it’s me and Dad and like 60 young women, and I’m like, ‘Yeah, I am not in prison anymore.’ ”

But Heinisch didn’t have time to waste chasing a relationship.

He has two main goals he wants to achieve in his new life. One is to open a halfway house with a gym for people who have had similar experiences to him.

“There’s got to be an option, there’s got to be something for kids in the American prison system to give them a future,” Heinisch said. “MMA brought discipline to my life and I want to be able to help others do the same.”

That goal might take awhile, but his other target of becoming a champion fighter is well within his reach. He trains at Englewood, Colo.’s Factory X, home of former UFC flyweight title challenger Chris Camozzi and former Bellator standout Brian Rogers, and has rung up a 7-0 record, which includes a victory in World Series of Fighting.

Heinisch nearly made it on to “The Ultimate Fighter 23” cast as a light heavyweight but paperwork issues related to his Spanish case ended up getting in the way.

“The producers said they liked everything,” Heinisch said “They liked my story, they liked my look, I had a lot going for me. But they needed my papers from Spain to legally clear me for the show, and everything moves slow over there. It’s all, ‘Mañana, amigo.’ ”

But Heinisch says he’s not going to be denied in his quest to get to the big show. There’s a casting call for the 26th season of TUF, which features middleweights, and he hopes to come off his LFA fight with another win under his belt and proper papers in hand.

And if he still has a couple hurdles to clear, hey, he’s been through worse.

“I know I’ve already lived several lifetimes,” Heinisch said. “I know I’m blessed to have a second chance. I can’t change my past, but I have the opportunity to have a platform to show everyone that you can turn it around. I want to be in the UFC, I want to be the middleweight champion, and I know I’ve already been through more to get here than anyone they can put in my path. I don’t have any hate for anyone I fight, we’re all trying to live our own story, but I want this more than you do.”

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