UFC’s Ian Heinisch is relishing transformation from inmate to inspiration
Before he’d ever stepped foot in the UFC’s Octagon, Ian Heinisch was being courted by Hollywood. Heinisch was fighting Lucas Rota in LFA a little less than two years ago, and AXS TV did a special on him detailing in quick the extraordinary life that he had led. Among the many things in Heinisch’s rearview mirror were such sordid fascinations as these: Drugs. Muling. Life on the lam. Shivs. Rikers Island. Redemption.
You know, the kind of things Hollywood spills its Château Lafite Rothschild over.
“It was a main event and I went out there and finished the guy in the first round, and right after that fight I was contacted by CAA, the Creative Artists Agency,” Heinisch says. “They flew me out to LA, picked me up in a nice car, showed me the bright lights, took me down to Avenue of the Stars in Hollywood, and played for me this little video saying, ‘These are just some of the people we’ve worked with.’ It was basically every famous person I’ve ever known.”
Heinisch’s story was improbable because he had overcome his early life spirals and ended up fighting professionally. It wasn’t exactly a feel-good story, given that he wasn’t a victim in the process so much as the author of his own demise.
Heinisch sold ecstasy, got busted, fled the country, muled drugs between South America and Spain, got busted, served time in the Canary Islands at Lucha Canaria, began learning martial arts during his incarceration, had his cathartic moment, languished in dank quarters, returned to the States, got busted upon re-entry, ended up at Riker’s Island in New York, got on somebody’s death radar, was about to be exterminated via shank, but was pulled out just in time, moved back to Colorado and placed under probation, began doing mixed martial arts in earnest, and — presto — he turned everything around and became a professional prize fighter.
It wasn’t a trajectory that anybody would ever covet. But he’d righted the ship and had landed on his feet. And that story would make for a good movie.
“I talked to Matt DelPiano, who’s Al Pacino’s agent who made the movie Captain Phillips,” Heinisch says. “I spilled my heart out, told him my story, which took about two or three hours. He was like, this is great, let’s get a ghostwriter at our New York location. We’ll get a book, and we’ll get all-star producers for the movie. I was like, ‘oh my gosh!’”
Then the fantasy bubble burst.
“They basically wanted me to sign on the dot, and I was like, ‘no, let me have my lawyer look at it,’ and they said, ‘well, you need to fire your manager before your lawyer can look at it.’ I was like, how does that make sense? You want me to quit my job before I see the offer for my new job?
“There were just some weird things. I’m glad I didn’t in the long run. I’d have loved for them to manage the story of my career and making a movie, but they wanted to manage my fighting, too. I’m glad I didn’t go that direction — they basically tried to get me to sell my story. And I don’t want to sell my story. I want to be a part of it. I want to have ownership of that.”
Heinisch had turned the page on one of the craziest chapters in any fighter’s history, but the problem when Hollywood came knocking was this: It wasn’t over. In fact, his second life had just begun. He went on to win the LFA middleweight title shortly after his dalliance with Hollywood, which was the next round up for a dramatic career still unfolding. Then he won his fight on Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender’s Series, which gave him the bigger shot he’d been working toward.
“I do see this story becoming a book and then a movie down the line,” he says. “I think winning the UFC belt would be the cherry on top — the final touch of the story.”
Selling drugs was his first mistake. Selling his soul wouldn’t be the second.
Heinisch is off to a promising — if very different — start from your typical UFC fighter. Not many competitors in the UFC gain recognition for a thing they penned, rather than a thing they did in the cage. But Heinisch did. He took a fight against the far more recognizable Cezar “Mutante” Ferreira back in November on just six day’s notice out in Argentina (“I found out about the fight on Friday, I left on Monday,” he says). If that weren’t bold enough, his tell-all confessional was.
Heinisch released a fascinating recounting of his life story — in his own words — via The Players Tribune entitled, “Have You Ever Been To Rikers?” The piece, which he refers to as his “testimony,” was a harrowing tale of all the trouble he got in — and ultimately endured — in a straightforward, unapologetic way. At no point does he go in for sympathy, but his honesty and candidness end up endearing his reader. The piece touched on a series of bad calculations on his own behalf, and gave a very lived-in sense of the hopelessness one feels in prison. There were epiphanies in the details, and relief in slivers of light that he reveals.
If anything, that article opened a lot of people’s eyes to the man who calls himself “The Hurricane.” And on fight night, they saw the eye of the storm. Heinisch defeated “Mutante” via unanimous decision, in what turned into a pretty one-sided fight.
“I thought I did great,” he says now. “I’m always looking for the finish, I like to be a finisher and a super-entertaining fighter. But Ferreira’s style was a little bit just kind of complicated, how he backs up and wants to counter. He didn’t really want to engage too much. For me to take that fight on six day’s notice against the No. 16 guy in the world in a foreign country…I thought I did very well. I am really hard on myself, which is a blessing and a curse.”
The bout showed a little bit of Heinisch’s ability as a fighter, as he weathered some early damage before using his wrestling to dominate the fight in the second and third rounds. It also showed his resolve. It was clear he wanted the fight more. After having scraped rock bottom in his younger years and letting everyone know about it, he wasn’t going to lose.
Now at 30 years old and competing in the sport that gave him salvation, Heinisch presents himself as a free man. A man free of burdens, anyway, and free of an old self that he keeps nearby for reference. When he thinks back on his days incarcerated, there’s a sense of pride that comes over him that he found something within to make life better. Not many people can turn their lives around that drastically. Heinisch did.
“There’s certain areas that stir up some emotion [looking back], but, I mean, I made it through all that stuff,” he says. “There’s a reason I’m here, and what I’m doing, and on my rise to the top. It’s important that I get this story out and hopefully motivate people and kind of give back. Bring it full circle, for all the people that helped me and to right all the wrongs in my life. To be that inspiration, that you can be at rock bottom and bounce back to fulfill their dreams.”
Heinisch doesn’t speak emotionally when discussing his story. He talks with a certain kind of accountability, but also with the kind of gravitas that comes with self-discovery. That he’s found his own silver linings, through years of plumbing his own depths. In his Rikers piece, there’s a moment when he delves into that undertaking after being transferred to a prison in Leon, Spain, where he has a chance to reduce his sentence from two years to one if he agrees to not return to Europe for five years. He says he found God during this time. He took Spanish lessons, to acclimate better, and also kickboxing. He began to fight.
“The other inmates called me el huracán — The Hurricane,” he wrote. “I turned my body into a weapon. Every time I beat someone, I told them not to be upset.
“’You just lost to the future UFC champ.’”
Back then it was already more than a hope. That was him projecting himself a million miles from those four walls, and into the cage that had eight. He’s only had 13 pro fights, but he’s already won that UFC gold a million times. Each time he imagined it, he got a little closer.
He thought about those days in Buenos Aires in November as he got set to fight Ferreira, just as his story was published.
“For the most part it’s not really a big deal to me, but sometimes it hits me,” he says. “I was in Argentina sitting by the river cutting weight and I thought, man, look, I’m back in South America, only this time it’s legit…I’ve got all my friends and family out here supporting me. And I was like, wow, look where I came from. Just looking back. It sometimes gets me in my feels when I think about that, but for the most part I look at it like it’s kind of normal.”
Heinisch, who was a standout wrestler at Ponderosa High School, is training in Colorado, not far from where he grew up in South Denver. He has a “handful” of friends and family that he says stuck with him through thin. Now he wants to live out the thick. He wants to do that through fighting. He tried to compete on the Brooklyn card in January, but the proposed opponent — David Branch — opted not to take the fight. That fight would have out him close to Rikers, where this time he could have been on the outside looking in.
Instead he’s got a fight coming up that doubles as another marker of how far he’s come. Heinisch will fight Tom Breese in London on March 16, in what is his ultimate return to Europe — the continent he was temporarily banished from. Not only that, he arrives under the auspices as a big-time MMA prospect, rather than under the cover of night.
He’s come a long way, and in the last few months he has heard it all. He’s heard about the fight game being a refuge for the wayward, and has happily presented himself as proof. That is a major part of what he wants to get out of fighting. He has heard that he’s an inspiration to those stuck in situations without foreseeable hope. He wants to show them there’s a way. And yes, he’s heard from the haters who say that once a criminal, always a criminal.
“If you listen to the world, you’ll never be able to do it,” he says. “All those doubts and all that negativity, it’ll always be there. So I just looked at it as super-positive, that I’m making this happen no matter what, and to fulfill it is a pretty awesome feeling.
“But there’s a lot of love out there, and a lot of people can relate. My testimony was showed in my church. I’ve been feeling the love, and it’s been reaching a lot of people, and people have been reaching out asking for help and advice. There’s been so much positive feedback, and it’s just the tip of the iceberg.”
Will he one day be a UFC champion? It’s a long shot. Then again, so was him ever getting to the point where he’d come to make a positive impact on people. If nothing else he has already gained perspective. He knows what it’s like to be locked up and be stuck. He knows what it’s like to be locked in and be glorious. He knows he can write a book about his life, and that there’s a chance for a Hollywood ending.
And, just like he did to the film industry seeking to tell his story prematurely, he has the freedom to say no. He can write his own ending first, and perhaps turn his story into one of the unlikeliest redemption stories to ever be told.
“I don’t take for granted my freedom anymore,” he says, fixating on the operative word. “I appreciate waking up everyday being free, because I know what it’s like to not. When people complain about little things” — and here he laughs — “I’m like, at least your free to do what you want.”