My flight landed at JFK, and I was ready to sprint through that whole damn airport. I just wanted to get the hell out of there. I wanted to go home.
I wanted to be free.
Not after 9/11, Ian. They’re going to get you if you run.
So I calmly walked toward immigration. I was coming from Spain. But what I had left behind me … what I had been through … I knew it was going to catch up to me. And it was probably going to happen right here, right now.
I handed the agent my passport.
“How long have you been out of the country for, sir?”
“How long is a while?”
She looked me up and down.
“Yeah, you’re coming with us.”
I sat in a small room in the JFK immigration area for 24 hours. Nobody told me much. I knew I was being held as a fugitive. I knew I was in a lot of trouble.I knew I was being held as a fugitive. I knew I was in a lot of trouble.
“We’ll get to you, Mr. Heinisch.”
I heard that plenty of times.
The next day, the immigration officers handed me over to the NYPD and I was taken to a federal detention facility in Jamaica, Queens. They tossed me in a cell. It was cold, gray, smelled like total s***. There was puke on the floors, blood on the walls. People crying, screaming — it was hell.
At this point, I figured the feds — or whoever — knew about the charges that I had run from over five years ago. Again, I asked for some information on what was going on. The guards just told me to shut up. People came and went from the cell over the next few hours. I stayed.
Then, finally, a guard called my name. And I was off to court. At this point — and I’m dead serious — I had very little idea what was happening. It wasn’t good for me, I knew that. So I got to court, met my state-assigned lawyer and waited for the judge to look up from his papers and tell me what the f*** was going on.
“Mr. Heinisch, you’re a special case. There’s no bail for you. You’re a fugitive.”
I kind of glared at him.
He kind of smiled at me.
“You’re going to Rikers.”
You ever been to Rikers?
The security guards at the prison are big boys. Big boys.
They don’t take s*** from anyone. And this guard, the one guiding me down the hall, he was one of the biggest. Where he was taking me … the specific wing, I thought we might need him.
I was going to the high-security area.
We were about halfway through the building, getting closer to my cell, when he looked at me.
“Man, you must be a tough white boy.”
I said, “Why’s that?”
“I ain’t never seen one of you in this wing.”
And, man, let me tell you … I’ve heard and seen a lot of s*** in my life. It’s hard to scare me anymore.
But those words … they hit me right in the chest. Chilled me straight to the bone.
On the outside I played it cool. I knew what was coming. I’m not showing any weakness — not here, not if I’m getting out alive.
“F*** yeah, I’m tough.” I said back to him.
I don’t know how much I convinced him, but I believed what I was saying. I really did. Because, you see, I’ve been through some things — some things you wouldn’t believe, some things you won’t believe. And I want to tell you about them, because there’s a lesson in my journey.
Today, I’m a 16–1 MMA fighter. I’m 11–1 as a professional. And I just got signed by the UFC three months ago.
But 10 years ago … my name was more likely to end up on a tombstone than an undercard.
Let me explain.
At the age of 19 I started dealing serious amounts of ecstasy in my hometown of Denver. The year before, when I was working up in Vancouver, B.C., going door-to-door selling natural gas to homeowners, I’d met a Guatemalan guy who had a connection and he’d started shipping me the stuff when I returned to the States. Back in Denver, I was getting 2,000 pills a week. I had some consistent clientele. We would meet at raves, clubs, you name it.
I was dealing because … well, it was all I could do. My high school wrestling career hadn’t taken me anywhere when colleges found out I had been expelled as a senior for all sorts of s***. I had ADHD and I had gotten hooked on the amphetamines that I was taking to control it. It was around the same time that my parents had run into money trouble, and when the global financial crisis hit in 2008 things got worse. All those influences were part of the reason I moved to Vancouver. But things were just as bad there, and a year later I was back in Denver and digging myself an even deeper hole.
Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post via Getty Images
I was a mess. I had failed myself. I had failed my family. And the medical system had failed me. My ADHD and my addiction just took control of me. I was partying all the time while I was dealing, trying to avoid thinking about the mess I had made of my life
And then, one night in a Walmart parking lot in Denver, life got me.
By life … I mean a drug task force.
I had a gun to my temple. Face pushed against the cold-a** pavement. Stupid giant Walmart sign, bright as hell, stinging my eyes. Busted.
I got bailed out of jail the next day by my mom. I went back home to the condo where I was staying. The police had taken everything. Pills. Money. That was everything to me. That was it. Game over. Tap out. I knew I was looking at four to six years in prison. I was f****** 19 years old. I wasn’t doing that. So I grabbed my passport and hopped on a Greyhound to go say goodbye to my mom’s side of the family, who was from there.
I told her, when I said bye to her in Denver, that I was going to Europe on a backpacking trip. She knew some about situation, but not everything. I felt I had burdened so many people with my issues — my demons — for so long that … this journey was now mine, and mine alone.
Back on the Greyhound. New York next to say goodbye to my dad’s side of the family.
Amsterdam after that.
Fight or flight, right?
For me, it was just a flight.Fight or flight, right? For me, it was just a flight.
I was flying to Europe to save my life. I had heard what prison was like. I knew I wouldn’t last four-to-six in there. Not with my mind. Not with my temperament.
And today, as an adult, I know that dealing drugs was bad. I know that what I was doing was wrong. Back then, though — and maybe it was just me being naive … but I didn’t think that what I was doing was so bad. I mean, I wasn’t dealing heroin or coke, I was just giving people pills to make them happy. If they weren’t getting them from me, it would just be from someone else.
I get it, it’s terrible logic. I was selling things that were illegal for a reason. I was, even if I didn’t understand it, hurting people. But 19-year-old me believed that what I was doing was OK. Because I needed to believe, somewhere deep down, that I was really good.
And so I bounced around Europe for a few months. Holland. Belgium. England. A few places in between. There were very few constants in my life. In fact, there was just one: the fear.
I had the same dream over and over again.
It would start with me running. The setting would always be different. Sometimes it was an open field, sometimes it was my high school gym. But I would be running. And then sirens … louder and louder … chasing me. I’d run and run and run. But it was like my legs were stuck in molasses. And then, in every variation of the dream, I’d reach a cliff. I’d look back at the police, see the guns, the red and blue flashing lights — and then jump.
I’d wake up before I hit the ground, every time. My heart would be racing, sheets drenched in sweat … but not arrested. Yet.
Emily Johnson/The Players' Tribune
That dream was my reminder to stay on my toes — to keep moving. A year or so into my “backpacking” trip, I ended up in Tenerife, a resort destination off the coast of Morocco. I needed sun. And I needed cash. Tenerife is full of Brits. More bars and clubs and beaches than you can count. It’s a lot different from Denver. I liked it. I got a job working at a club doing small tasks. They paid me in drinks. Eight drinks during the shift, four when you were off. In a few months I became a full-blown alcoholic. Any extra cash I got in tips or anything went to more booze and more pills. I couldn’t afford the 30-euro-a-month rent for the bed I was using in a hostel. So I slept on the beach. On cold nights, I’d dig a hole to hide from the wind.
I didn’t live day-to-day, I lived hour-to-hour.
And during one of those hours, one of the bleaker ones, I met an American. He was kind. He picked me out, from my accent, as a fellow yank right away. He saw I was in good shape. I still, when I could, tried to train and stay somewhat fit in Tenerife. I’d run the beach when I was sober. I’d lift weights in the park after a good meal.
He’d come by the club from time to time. We got to know each other a bit.
“You’re alright, Ian. Come live with me. Americans stick together.”
We trained for a few months. He and his father, who lived with him, helped me get sober. His dad was Cuban — a real character. He called me gringo. They had a lot of money. I didn’t ask questions. I was just so happy to be eating good and sleeping in my own room. The father and I would eat a lot of meals together and chat from time to time. After dinner one day, he pulled me outside for a talk.
“Gringo … you ever … you ever think about making some real money?”
He pulled out a handful of grapes from his pocket.
I did it. No problem. And they were big grapes. I knew what was happening. It was a test to see if I could transport drugs in my stomach. If I could swallow the grapes, I could swallow a baggie of coke.
I said, “What now?”
He looked out over the water, paused, and then turned back at me.
“Colombia, gringo. Colombia.”
You ever swallow 10 grams of coke?You ever swallow 10 grams of coke?
S*** hurts. Bad. Like tryin’ to eat marbles. Brutal.
But I got real good at it. Two years later, and after a dozen or so trips to Bogota I became a pro. Sometimes I’d get pulled in for an X-ray at an airport — to see if I had anything questionable in my stomach that security wouldn’t like. But our system, the way we wrapped our coke balls, was so good that they could never catch me. I’d just laugh and move on. I was making cash, in great shape … life was good.
And this was all I had. Because there were no other options for me in my life. I was a recovering alcoholic who had about two friends in life. This was it. Fight or flight.
I thought it would last long enough for me to get some money and figure out the next part of my life. But …. yeah, I should’ve known what was coming. It wasn’t a Walmart parking lot this time, though — it was a small room in the back of the airport in Tenerife where they got me. The X-rays improved, or we got sloppy, I don’t know … but they saw the coke in my stomach.
“It’s Chinese food.” I said.
The police laughed as they put cuffs on me. Or at least that’s how I remember it. This was 2011, and I sat in a cell in Tenerife for a year just waiting to get a court date. Not much to do in prison in the Canary Islands besides train, I’ll tell you that.
Eventually I was sentenced: Three and a half years.
I had felt like a criminal for so long that the sentence didn’t really register in my mind. This is life now. And that dream … the one with the cliff and the police and the running … I didn’t have it anymore in prison.
The thing I feared so much, in the end, became the relief I needed.
Prison in the Canary Islands isn’t like prison in the U.S. They want you to get out and not come back. They want to fix you. I took Spanish lessons, learned about religion, philosophy and took whatever other classes I could. But the best thing about that prison was Lucha Canaria — Canarian wrestling. It’s a bit like MMA. The place I was in had a great program. The coach of the program was the father of the best Lucha Canaria fighter the island’s ever had. Coach was doing time for being caught with 50 kilos of coke.
Over the next year or so, I committed myself to Lucha Canaria. We trained in this old sand pit in the middle of the prison. It was some Gladiator-type setup. Stone seats circled the pit. All that. And the fighting is great. No weight classes. Just takedowns. If the opponent’s hand or knee touches, you win. Best-out-of-three. A few us were really, really good. So after a couple of months the prison brought in a local team. I beat every single one of them. I was in the paper the next morning.
But somebody in charge of the prison didn’t like that, apparently. He didn’t like Americans. He hated Americans. And having me dominating at his country’s sport? In his prison? He wasn’t going to have it.
I was sent to a new prison in Leon, Spain. When I got there Spanish authorities told me that if I agreed to not return to Europe for five years they would cut my sentence by a year. That ain’t no problem. I signed that deal quick. So I had one year left instead of two. I took kickboxing and more Spanish lessons. I discovered God, too. I learned the Bible in Spanish. I was finding myself, because I was given an opportunity to do so.
I’m not going to sit here and tell you it was all roses … but, man, the prison system over there makes so much more sense. I can’t speak for all European countries, but at least in Spain and in the Canary Islands they want you to earn your second chance — they want to better you.
I ended up running an MMA class. The other inmates called me el huracán. The Hurricane.
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.”
A year later, in 2013, I was out. Shoved on a flight to New York. Stopped at immigration. Sent to Rikers. Adjusting to life as the only white boy in high-security wing. Awaiting news on my future.
So let me tell you how s*** goes down at Rikers: Basically the guard just tosses you to the sharks. I was in the middle of the wing, everyone staring at me. Fresh meat. I spoke Spanish pretty well, so a few Puerto Rican guys came up to me. We chatted for a bit.
“Eres un lobo fuerte, Ian. Pero acá, a los lobos solitarios se los comen.”
They’d always say that to me.
“You’re a strong wolf, Ian. But a lone wolf in here gets eaten.”
And yeah, I was in some serious danger. No doubt. Certain groups would come up to me, ask to use my phone (don’t ask how I got it). Nobody was touching my s***. Nobody. A day in, one guy cornered me telling me to give him the phone or else, so I popped him in the nose. His boys ran over, shanks in their hands. My Puerto Rican guys ran over:
“You mess with the white boy, you mess with us, ese.”
Not eaten. Yet.
There was a hit out for me after that. An S.O.S — stab-on-sight. I was told by a few guys I was going to die the next morning. And there was nothing anyone could do about it. People talk a lot of crap in prison … but there was no exaggeration in their voices. I was going to die the next morning. That was just the business of this place.
I stayed up all night, preparing to die.
Seth Wenig/AP Photo
I made weapons. I prepped armor. I shadow boxed.
I remember it was about 4 a.m., two hours before the cell doors opened — two hours before I was going to be killed — when I heard my name.
“Heinisch, grab your stuff. Let’s go.”
I looked through the bars. Two huge guys with badges were staring at me.
“Who … are you guys?”
“U.S. Marshals. Let’s go.”
I heard people yellin’ at me as I walked down the wing on my way out.
“Wherever you go, white boy, we gon’ get you.”
I got to Jefferson County jailhouse in Golden, Colorado, on Valentine’s Day 2014. I was bailed out by my mom. Bless her soul. I spoke to her and my dad quite often when I was in Spain a few years back. They knew everything. They still had my back. I was allowed to leave on bail before I went to court again.
I was a free man for the first time in two years and seven months. My parents took me straight to a yoga class in downtown Denver. For real. I remember it so clearly. Halfway through a pose, I just sort of slouched to my knees and started laughing. I heard a few girls whispering. What’s wrong with him?
They had no idea. No idea.
A few months later I was in court. I did everything I was supposed to do leading up to my date. I worked in a gym. I passed all the drug tests. I got a character reference from a friend who had gone on to become a Navy SEAL and from my old wrestling coach. I had a new fight team, too, that was helping me train. They, and my family and friends, were there in court with me. A lot of them spoke up on my behalf.
The judge listened.
“Mr. Heinisch, we’re not going to give you any more jail time. You’ll receive two years of probation and no extra fines.”
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It has been four years since I heard those words in that Denver courthouse. I’ve served my probation, paid my fines, and found sobriety. I’ve had to start from the bottom in my MMA career, and all that I’ve gone through in the octagon is another story, too. But I’m here now — a professional UFC fighter.
And I’d like to tell you that I chased my demons down and beat them, but, the truth is, there was a lot of running from them involved — a lot of navigation and survival.
It was a journey-and-a-half.
I don’t want to glorify being a criminal. This wasn’t about that. Or telling you how tough I was. It wasn’t about that either. The thing about large parts of my story is … it’s not that unique. There are so many young men and women like me stuck in the criminal system in the U.S. They go to jail for a crime, everything in their life gets flipped upside down and when they get out, they go right back in.
Because that’s what the prisons want. It’s a revolving door — an endless money-machine. The for-profit prison system is completely unacceptable. The corporations who use prison labor, the politicians who shape their policies around the wants of big-money donors who run prisons … it’s all backwards. It’s not about human rehabilitation, it’s about exploitation and money.
One of my dreams now is to open a halfway house, where kids under a specific age, who get limited prison sentences, can come to rehabilitate. Where they can be healed, both physically and mentally. Where they can be taught by teachers and coaches how to find purpose in their lives.
Prison means you don’t deserve to be part of society. But it doesn’t mean you don’t get to be human.
I’ve seen rock bottom. And what happens at Rikers, and all over country should not happen — under any circumstance. I want, as much as anything, to be a small part of a massive issue in our country. I’ve fought for my life for long enough. I want to fight for others now.
Look, I know how fortunate I am now. There’s a very small group of people who have believed in me since Day One. My parents, my sister, a close group of friends and God. That’s it. I understand what I owe them. And I’m going to do everything I can to take advantage of the position I’m in.
And you best believe I want that UFC belt, too. I’m going for it. Dana White knows it’s #HurricaneSZN. He knows I’m coming for it.
In the meantime, if somebody thinks they’re going to step into the octagon and intimidate me … I mean … just send them this link, alright?