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Making the most of his second life, Ian Heinisch breaks through at UFC Argentina

MMA: UFC Fight Night-Buenos Aires-Ferreira vs Heinisch Jason Silva-USA TODAY Sports

Of the six fights on Saturday night’s main card in Argentina, only one went the distance: Ian Heinisch’s unanimous decision victory over Cezar “Mutante” Ferreira. It wasn’t a thing of beauty, and nor was it a one-sided rout, but it seemed like a 15-minute metaphor for the life Heinisch has led. On several occasions early, when he found himself getting taken down all too easily, it looked like he might be in some deep shit. Yet in each instance, there he was trying to win from the bottom, clinging to Ferreira’s neck, his arm, whatever he could grab. He ended up spending more time in the cage than anyone else, but he made the most of it. 

Heinisch won going away. And afterwards he apologized that he didn’t do better. The subtext in such a basic sentiment was that there would indeed be a next time, a ray of light he no longer takes for granted.

If you didn’t see it, Heinisch wrote a harrowing, nearly unbelievable first-person account of his life for the Player’s Tribune ahead of his fight. To say that his presence in Buenos Aires was improbable would be a vast understatement. Heinisch is lucky to be alive. By his own account, he was perhaps hours away from taking a shiv at Rikers Island. Why was he an inmate at the infamous Rikers?

The Cliff Notes read like a synopsis to a Hollywood script about one man’s existential spiral: Young kid from Denver sells ecstasy, gets busted, goes on the lam, lives as a fugitive in Europe, ends up muling drugs back and forth between Spain to Colombia, gets busted again and sent to a prison in the Canary Islands, a venue in which he finds his identity and a million silver linings, kind of like an expat Andy in a Shawshank Redemption. While at Lucha Canaria he learns Spanish and to appreciate the small things in life, and — as in any good redemption story — nourish a growing loftiness of purpose. After serving over two years, he is arrested again upon re-entry into the United States at JFK, and is sent to Rikers.

It’s there that he nearly gets shanked, but is saved by an eleventh hour transfer back to his home state of Colorado. He ends up with a truncated sentence, and uses his probationary period to learn of the mixed techniques. Cut forward a year or so and he’s competing professionally in MMA. Cut forward a couple of more and he’s winning fights in the UFC. People like redemption stories in the fight game, yet Heinisch’s is straight out of Dumas’ mind (with a stopover in Aronofsky’s).

Heinisch’s story defies glorification and ends up in a place of wonder. How does such a wayward person turn end up making life dance to his music by age 30? It’s a marvel. And those kinds of marvels — the quiet 180s from some cellblock on an island in the East River to public stage — never go out of fashion. Not in prizefighting. The fight game has always been a refuge for the disenchanted and the follied, and it continues to embrace every beleaguered detail of a person’s past along the way. The key thing is that the corner is turned. Heinisch was a fuck-up? He was, but not anymore.

Fighting is tense.

Anyway, Heinisch — who broke through on Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series, which itself has become a platform for Second Chances — quietly told his own story before his fight in Argentina. Then he quietly refused to lose to “Mutante,” warding off any substantial ground-and-pound by trying for submissions off his back. It’s an old adage that you can dream from the gutter, but who thought to go for armbars from down there? Towards the end of the second he landed a big shot that dropped Ferreira where he stood. That was the true turning point. From there Heinisch had him. He couldn’t get the finish, but he finished strong. He won the third round convincingly, and got his arm raised.

It was the only fight to go the distance, and perhaps the least memorable on the main card. But it’s the small things for Heinisch that mattered, the former heathen who somehow figured it out. He made the most of his spotlight, and knows he can build on that for his next fight. That’s the great thing for him, that there will be a next fight.

And whoever the UFC books him against, it’ll be a less formidable foe than the one he fought to get there. (You know, the fight against self — the struggle at the heart of every fight the world has ever known).

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