On November 9, UFC veteran Isaac Vallie-Flagg stepped into the ring to battle Cory Simpson on the undercard of the debut event from World Bare Knuckle Fighting Federation (WBKFF). Vallie-Flagg won this fight by second-round TKO, and absolutely loved the experienced of fighting sans gloves.
Unfortunately, he still hasn’t been paid for his work.
Like many members of the combat sports community, Vallie-Flagg was very excited for this first WBKFF card, which was initially expected to feature names like former UFC welterweight champ Johny Hendricks, former Bellator contender Brennan Ward, former NFL player Shawne Merriman, and UFC veterans Chris Leben and Phil Baroni. Unfortunately, his excitement was gradually diluted by skepticism, as many red flags started to appear.
“There was a ton of red flags with [former WBKFF matchmaker] Paul Tyler, which [WBKFF President] Bas Rutten addressed,” Isaac Vallie-Flagg told BJPenn.com. “Just the way that the matchmaking was being done and the way they were handling the matchmaking and stuff like that.”
“One of the biggest red flags for me about the money was that, when we got there, we found out that Wyoming doesn’t require money to be in escrow for the fights like most states do, with the commission. But again, we were there, and Bas was saying he saw the money, you know?”
Another cause for concern, Vallie-Flagg explained, was the behaviour of WBKFF CEO Tom Stankiewicz. Stankiewicz had promised the fighters on the card a per diem during their visit to Wyoming, but once they’d arrived, he attempted to have them charge everything to their hotel rooms.
“We were all supposed to get per diem money,” he recounted. “Then, instead of giving us per diem money, he kept trying to get guys to just charge stuff to the room, which is kind of weird, right? And we’re like no, ‘we need stuff to go cut weight with,’ and stuff like that. And he just insisted on feeding us through the hotel room and paying things on credit cards. So I’m like ‘where’s the money on this?’
Despite this ever growing shadow of doubt, however, Isaac Vallie-Flagg tried to be understanding. He had heard about the promotion’s troubles with its former matchmaker Paul Tyler, and understood that things were not exactly running as planned.
“That was around the time when supposedly [former matchmaker] Paul Tyler has screwed over the organization, so I think everybody was trying to be understanding of that,” he said.
Vallie-Flagg was also reassured by Bas Rutten. He’s confident everything Rutten said was on the level, and that the former UFC heavyweight champ was not involved in the madness that was to follow — at least not knowingly.
“The big thing that got me to fight for them was Burt Watson was involved, and also Bas Rutten said that ‘this guy has money in his account.’ Bas is somebody that I respect and look up to. His word is as good as gold me,” Vallie-Flagg said.
“I don’t think he knew,” he added.
Furthermore, Vallie-Flagg really wanted to believe everything was fine. In MMA, fighters are chronically underpaid, but WBKFF was promising hefty paydays for all those involved. It was a welcome change.
“I know Merriman was offered quite a bit money, and I think there’s always a hope that there’s an organization coming along that’s finally going to take care of its fighters in the ways that it should,” he said. “I think a lot of guys, including myself, get sold on that idea.”
Despite his optimism, however, Isaac Vallie-Flagg was confronted with the grim reality of the situation when he attempted to cash his WBKFF check.
His initial reaction was to first approach the police, and then blow the whole situation wide open on BJPENN Radio. Yet when he received a small portion of his pay — a sum he now considers ‘hush money’ — he decided to keep quiet for the time being.
“When we got home, I went to go cash my check, and it came back as a fraudulent check,” he recounted. “So I called [Stankiewicz] up. That was the day before I was talking to the guys from BJPENN Radio about the fight. I said ‘look, I have an interview with BJPENN Radio tomorrow.’ I said, ‘I’m going to go to the police, number one, and then I’m going to go on BJPENN Radio and blast your organization.’ And he gave us what I look at now as kind of hush money. He gave us some of our purse, enough to kind of string us along, in the hopes of getting the rest of our money.”
Apparently, other fighters on the card have also received portions of their pay — very possibly for similar reasons.
“There’s some guys on there who were owed several thousand dollars who have received like four hundred dollars, or five hundred dollars, which to me is almost more of a slap in the face than it is any kind of real financial compensation for this work,” he said.
Vallie-Flagg says this whole situation is made worse by the fact that WBKFF CEO Tom Stankiewicz actually has money. Lots of it, he believes.
“What I think happened is this guy Tom, I believe he does have money, and I think he’s not wanting to pay his athletes,” he said. “I think he has his personal money, and he’s viewing that as personal money and trying to run things through [the WBKFF] business. At this point, that’s the [fighters’] money who you contracted to work for you through the night. So I think he’s really, really —in the worst way — fucking people over, because there’s money available that he refuses to come off of.”
“He also has assets, you know, he drafted these checks that are now coming up as bad out of a logistics company,” he continued. “He was bragging to everybody about having a bunch of trucks, and we met some of his employees from that [business]. There’s a legit company there. There’s assets that he could be getting rid of to compensate the fighters for this.”
Unfortunately, Isaac Vallie-Flagg is not expecting to ever see the money he’s owed by WBKFF.
“If it happens, it’d be nice, but I’m not expecting it at this point,” he said.
This pragmatic outlook on the situation, however, is not stopping him from pursuing legal action.
“I started talking to lawyer a couple weeks ago about what my options are,” he said. “Ideally, it’d be nice to see all the fighters come together and do a version of a class action suit against this guy. I’ve had people contact me about that. I don’t want to be the guy to [lead] it, but it would be cool if we could all kind of come together to do it.”
Vallie-Flagg’s patient and level-headed approach to this whole situation is product of his years of experience as a pro fighter. He’s unfortunately dealt with situations like this before, and believes that they’re an unfortunate reality in the oft seedy fight business.
“I was on that card in the Dominican Republic a few years ago that Keith Jardine was on, that nobody got paid for,” he said, referencing the infamous Nemesis Fighting event in 2010, which failed to pay its athletes. “I was on that card as well and never got paid, so it is what it is.”
“There’s bad guys in every business in every business that you’re going to deal with,” he said. “It’s the kind of thing where you don’t let one bad apple ruin the whole bunch, right?
Vallie-Flagg’s commendable outlook on this ugly WBKFF situation is also based on the fact that he’s dealt with far worse in the very recent past. It wasn’t all that long ago that he was struggling to conquer a heroin addiction and facing jail time for burglary.
“The whole thing is very negative, but when I look at my experience in January, I was looking at over 20 years in prison and I couldn’t stop using heroin,” he said. “So everything I have outside of that, everything beyond that is just a gift and a blessing kind of. I still got to fight. It was still an amazing thing. An other than that, things are good. I have a family, I have a gym, and I have friends around me. I’m not dead or in prison. It kind of gives you perspective as far as what’s important.”
Remarkably, Isaac Vallie-Flagg also assures that this ordeal has not soured his opinion of bare knuckle fighting. He loved the experience of gloveless combat and would leap at the chance to do so again for another more stable promotion.
“I’ve talked to the BKB guy over in England, so hopefully with them or the other one over in America [BKFC],” he said. “It’s something that physically is a lot easier for me to do than the grappling and everything [in MMA]. It’s something that I’m interested in, it’s something that’s exciting for me.”
Vallie-Flagg is even doing his part to get bareknuckle fighting legalized in the state of New Mexico.
“I think we saw with the amount of attention this card got from [Joe] Rogan and from Brendan Schaub, and from a lot of other media outlets that it’s a legit thing that could be big,” he said. “So much so that a few of us have gotten together here in New Mexico, guys that I work with, to go in front of the commission and get it sanctioned here in New Mexico.
“I love the bareknuckle boxing thing,” he concluded. “It’s another evolution of combat sports, and I dig it.”
This article first appeared on BJPENN.COM on 12/14/2018.