How fighting in the UFC and a faith in God changed Ian Heinisch, who was twice convicted for drug trafficking, forever

Ian Heinisch.
  • Ian Heinisch returns to the Octagon for the biggest UFC bout of his life Saturday.
  • The next day he celebrates seven years of freedom as he's twice been sent to jail for drug offenses.
  • Heinisch told Insider his story ahead of his UFC 258 middleweight bout against Kelvin Gastelum.
  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories .

One of the last things Ian Heinisch heard as he left the infamous Rikers Island prison for the last time in 2014 were threats from other inmates. "Wherever you go, white boy, we gon' get you," they shouted .

The American MMA fighter celebrates seven years of freedom Sunday and, coincidentally, competes in the toughest match of his life the night before, engaging a middleweight war with Kelvin Gastelum in Saturday's UFC 258 event in Las Vegas.

Insider asked Heinisch if, looking back, he's ever been concerned if his past could catch up with him now that he's making a name for himself as a professional athlete in the UFC.

He had been talking to us openly via Zoom from his hotel room but that one question made him pause momentarily.

Heinisch looked away from the screen as he considered his answer before saying yes. "It's prison stuff. That happens. But the odds of those guys seeing me … it's why I don't mention any gang, or boast of that story. But it happened, man."

One of the most notorious prisons in America, New York's Rikers is known for its "culture of abuse" where new convicts are told to "get ready for Gladiator school" as the gates slam shut behind them.

Rikers will close in the coming years, after becoming - in the words of politician Corey Johnson - "a symbol of brutality and inhumanity." It is regarded as a symbol of how mass incarceration has failed in the city of New York.

Even Heinisch, who was collared for drug trafficking offenses, said everyone who serves time there will say they're treated like animals.

These days, Heinisch leads a different life. He's found love and is getting married in the summer. He wore a hoodie for our interview but kept a cross dangling from a necklace on the outside of his sweater. He regularly talks about his relationship with God.

"I do think about [the past catching up] but I doubt it, highly, because I'm sure those people have moved on," he told us.

"I'm protected by God, so I'm not fearful, but anything is possible."

'My life has been a movie'
Heinisch on his way to Rikers.

In a first-person story on The Players Tribune , Heinisch said he was dealing "serious amounts of ecstasy" in Denver, Colorado - up to 2,000 pills a week.

Before long, he said an armed drug task force shoved him face-down in the concrete parking lot of a Walmart, and took him to jail.

His mother bailed him out the next day, he said his goodbyes to his friends and family, and then left America to go "on a backpacking trip" to Europe.

"I fled the country when I was a 19-year-old kid … a fugitive," he told us.

Every day on the run he said he'd wake up with bed sweats, fearing he'd be found, he told The Players Tribune.

He found money hard to come by so when another drug trafficking job presented itself on the Spanish island of Tenerife, he took it - even though it meant swallowing 10-gram bags of cocaine to traffic out of Colombia and into Spain.

Two years later he failed to get through airport security and was sent to a prison in the Canary Islands, the chain home to Tenerife. Unlike his later experience at Rikers, Heinisch felt like he retained his humanity there.

He found God, learned Spanish, and trained in a specific type of wrestling called Lucha Canaria. It spawned a love for mixed martial arts.

"[Prison in Spain] rekindled everything that used to drive me, my passions came alive. I kicked my addictions, cured of it from God," he said.

Heinisch had prison fights, won, and according to The Players Tribune article he'd tell his opponents that they had just lost to a future king in the UFC.

He eventually cut a deal with Spanish authorities where he agreed to not return to Europe for five years in exchange for a reduction in his sentence from three and a half years to two and a half.

But within minutes of landing back on American soil, in New York, he was sent to Rikers to serve back-to-back prison sentences in two different countries. The drug charge he avoided in Denver caught up with him.

"My life has been a movie," Heinisch told Insider.

"This Sunday will mark seven years of freedom after I was locked up for two and a half years abroad in Tenerife, Spain, on the run at that time for felony charges of drug trafficking in the States."

The time he served in Spain was the best thing to happen to him, Heinisch told us.

"I got to wear my street schools, I got my dignity, and I got visits with my girl at the time.

"I was able to go to school, go to classes, wrestling practise … I basically made a training camp in prison," he said. "At the time it was the worst thing to happen but looking back it was the best thing to happen."

It was a stark contrast to his subsequent sentence at Rikers. "I never got treated so bad. And all the guys in Rikers would agree, you get treated like an animal.

"There's some good men in there, for sure. It is a business, there's nothing to reform you, nothing to do, it's a revolving door. No weights, no sports."

Heinisch trained his body to become a weapon to use in MMA

"I trained my body to be a weapon," Heinisch told Insider.

"And after I got out from Rikers prison [in 2014], I started fighting on Dana White's Contender Series [in 2018], got into the UFC [the same year], and now seven years later almost to the day, I'm fighting on the main card on a pay-per-view against a guy who's arguably a pioneer, who has been fighting the toughest guys since he's 21.

"It's been a movie, surreal, and I thank God every day I get to do what I do [now]."

The juxtaposition between prayer and punching somebody in the face for a living may jar for some, but not Heinisch.

"Fighting is kind of a dark industry," he told us. "And I'm called to be the light.

"I've been in that bad business, I've been a drug addict, and I've been the guy doing evil things to people. I've had evil thoughts, I've been plagued by demons, and the dreams I used to have were insane.

"But I've been cured of all that," said Heinisch, noting that he thinks that his faith is what got him through his most difficult moments.

"It's so great and it's a freaking blessing that I just want to share with the world because I truly believe God put me through all those troubles I went through, for it to be a testimony now.

"And I use that testimony now to inspire, mentor people, and change lives. People hear this, my story, and it's powerful because there's a lot of people out there who are at rock bottom and they think life can never get better.

"My story, my life, is proof that it can and it will."

Heinisch targets ranked contenders as he chases UFC gold
Heinisch is a practicing Christian.

Fighters frequently look at the next fight as their biggest.

Often, it is true. For athletes entering the match on a win, the next fight can provide a springboard up the UFC rankings. This can mean a higher profile and a bigger payday.

For those entering on a loss, like Gastelum - who has lost three in a row - there is potentially a fear that they're fighting for their UFC careers.

"I truly believe that your next fight is always you're biggest," Heinisch said.

"At the same time, the magnitude of this fight is huge. Gastelum is the guy who's fought everyone, beaten mostly everyone, almost beat the champ [Israel Adesanya in 2019]. And he's the guy in my way.

"He's a tough opponent, a vet, but at the same time I feel I've grown so much since losing to Derek Brunson and Omari Akhmedov.

"I'm physically, mentally, and spiritually on a different level," Heinisch said.

"I believe I belong in the top-five and top-10 right now and I just want to show I'm a threat to be reckoned with in the middleweight division."

To beat Gastelum, Heinisch said he'll need to be versatile.

"I'll need to mix things up, be super unpredictable for him. Make him clinch, make him strike, make him wrestle … do everything and keep a pace on him that wears him down. And lets me implement my game.

"My nickname is the hurricane so I put people in the storm. I come out, it's action-packed. I swing. I wrestle. I strike a lot. It's high-paced, exciting, not a bunch of holding or just stalling.

"Not much going backward at all, but if it is, it's just to reload and go harder. I'm an exciting fighter. Gastelum is an exciting fighter. The hype is unreal in this fight."

Heinisch expects to beat Gastelum this weekend

Heinisch wants to stay active this year, fight and beat ranked contenders and is targeting a title fight in the 185-pound division against Israel Adesanya - one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the entire sport .

"We'll have to see what the division has to offer," Heinisch told us. "There's a lot of people booked for fights right now. But my goal is to fight four times this year.

"I really want Israel to stay undefeated and I feel like cementing my legacy would be beating the undefeated champ.

"He's doing a lot of good things, he's the guy to beat, but I've got the skills and weapons. I feel like he'll keep winning, and I'm rooting for him, as that is the fight that will just cement my legacy [in the years to come]."

Heinisch added: "I've also got a wedding this year as well. I'm planning God-willing, to get out of this fight healthy, get the finish, and then get another fight booked in a few months, before June before my wedding, and then fight again and again later in the year.

"God-willing it all works out. But that's the vision, the goal, and what I'm working towards."

Between his upcoming wedding, his freedom, and his peak years as a professional fighter, these are surely the happiest days of Heinisch's life - a life far removed from his days as a fugitive, or a prisoner.

"Absolutely," he agreed.

"When I met my wife - that's the happiest I've been.

"There's a lot going on and it's such a blessing when I wake up in the morning that I give God all the glory for it.

"I definitely am living the happiest times of my life, but there's many more to come."

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