Isaac Vallie-Flagg was driving across the mesa outside Rio Rancho, New Mexico when the lights of a police cruiser started flickering in his rear-view mirror. The former UFC and Strikeforce fighter was pulled over for driving with tags that didn’t match his vehicle, and minutes later, was arrested for a number of far more serious charges.
That was on January 18, 2018. Now, just over a year removed from that fateful day on the mesa, Vallie-Flagg feels as though he might not be alive had he not been arrested, as it was this arrest that drove him to make his latest and hopefully final attempt to stop using heroin, meth, and pretty much anything else he could get his hands on.
“I got caught for theft of identity, possession of a controlled substance other than marijuana, which was the meth and the heroin, some different gun charges,” Vallie-Flagg told me, opening up on his struggles with addiction. “I had a short-barreled rifle that I wasn’t supposed to have. I made a silencer for it, which could have gone federal as a crime. I had another gun with me. The rifle and the handgun were mine, the thing that made it bad was that I had drugs with me also. You’re not allowed to have guns and drugs together — surprise, surprise. Then I also had charges for possession of burglary tools… commercial burglary.
“It was the saving grace,” he continued. “Most people would look at the arrest as bad, but it was the saving grace.
“There was a long time when I wanted to stop using heroin, but I just didn’t see an end to it. The arrest was the beginning of me trying to seek health and enlightenment.”
Vallie-Flagg’s January 2018 arrest followed a longstanding struggle with substance abuse dating back to his youth, when he started using drugs and alcohol to a soundtrack of punk rock in Michigan.
“I started drinking and was around drugs by the time I was 13 or 14,” he said. “Throughout the years I’ve kind of found any way I can to kind of numb myself, whether it be alcohol, cocaine…”
Over the course of our interviews, Vallie-Flagg spoke often of this urge to numb himself. He’s always found this much easier than facing the various traumas of his life — of which there have been many — head-on.
“My father was diagnosed with cancer a few years ago,” he said, discussing his late father Tom Flagg. “It’s funny. Everybody kind of goes through it, people dying, but there is something different in my brain as an addict than somebody who’s not an addict. I look for the quick fix to deal with the pain and hope that instead of going through a grieving process it kind of just numbs you.”
Although Vallie-Flagg has always had a difficult time coping with emotional pain, it was the literal, physical pain caused by his life as a fighter that first brought him into contact with the opioids to which he would develop an addiction. In fact, it was just after his UFC debut — a split decision victory over lightweight great Yves Edwards — that he first started using oxycodone. He was prescribed this powerful opioid medication after undergoing back surgery to repair an injury sustained in that fight.
“The oxys really became a problem after my fight with Yves Edwards,” he said. “I’d been using some pain pills before that, but I was given [some pills], not by the doctor who did my surgery, but by another doctor in town.”
Vallie-Flagg’s life was quickly swallowed up by an oxycodone addiction, but he ultimately found himself in a situation where he could no longer obtain a prescription for the drug. It was this situation that led him to start buying oxycodone illegally, and the price and scarcity of bootleg oxycodone, in turn, that led him to heroin.
“I was using quite a bit between the surgery and my fight with [Takanori] Gomi,” he said. “That was with the oxycodone.
“After I was not able to get any prescriptions from doctors, I was buying oxycodones,” he continued. “The rule of opiates is it kind of crosses over between oxycodone and heroin pretty easily. Oxycodones are basically harder for people to get at a street level and that kind of leads into the cheaper more readily available opiate. That’s heroin.”
Vallie-Flagg admits that, initially, he was hesitant to try heroin — though his main objection to this ominous street drug was injecting it, because he’s afraid of needles.
When he was told that he could smoke it, however, he went for it.
“There was a guy, he was the guy I got pills from,” he recounted, looking back on his first time using heroin. “He said, ‘try this, it’s the same thing as the oxys, it’s just way cheaper.’ Obviously, I was scared. I’m afraid of needles, I have huge needle fear. I was like ‘I’m not going to shoot it,’ and he was like ‘no, no you can just smoke it.’ So that’s when I learned about smoking heroin and tried smoking it for the first time.
“I always smoked it, and that was something that kind of saved my life,” he added, clarifying that he never injected heroin. “There was a reluctance to try it at first, but that went away real fast when it made me well and it was cheaper than the pills.
Before long, Vallie-Flagg was using almost constantly and in extremely dangerous quantities — largely because of the terrible withdrawal symptoms he would feel if he didn’t. He also started using meth to level out the effects of the heroin.
“Hook, line and sinker, that was it,” he said of his heroin use. “Anything I do, whether it’s the fighting — I kind of picked it up and pushed myself as far as I could on that — the painkillers were the same thing and the heroin was the same way too. When I pick things up I go as hard as I possibly can with them.
“I was a daily user,” he continued. “In order to just not get sick, I was having to use every few hours. I was doing three grams or more of heroin a day and at least a gram of meth a day. Three grams of heroin is a lot of heroin to consume in one day.
“I was also home a lot. I was at home and still using, but just being out in my garage using and not being really part of my home life.”
Even though he was using in his garage, oftentimes while his wife was inside the house, Vallie-Flagg did whatever he could to keep his addiction hidden from his loved ones, as he did not want anything to jeopardize his ability to use. That, he says, is the modus operandi of an addict. To protect one’s capacity to use.
“There was a lot of lying to my wife, and a lot of lying to everybody around me about what I was doing in order to kind of keep up the façade and keep up the use I wanted to do — not wanted to do, that I had to do,” he explained. “My wife thought I was smoking pot for anxiety or doing something like that. Now looking back at it, even she kind of admits there’s a certain amount of this that you don’t want to look directly at and be honest with yourselves about. Because who wants to admit their husband is using heroin?
“There was a certain amount of, I guess, naiveté, on my wife’s part… her wanting to believe that I’m telling her the truth about what I’m doing. And then there’s a lot of lying that I had to do.”
Vallie-Flagg also had to keep his heroin and meth use hidden from his employers at the UFC. This was not an easy task. Although the promotion had not yet partnered with the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) at the time, fighters were still subject to basic drug testing administered by state athletic commissions.
For Vallie-Flagg, this usually meant putting a complete stop to his drug use for the four days leading up to a fight, which was enough time to flush the opiates out of his system. Unfortunately, this caused him to endure brutal withdrawals — a sensation he and many other addicts call the ‘kick’ — all while jumping through other fight week hoops like media obligations and weight-cutting.
“I was four days into an oxy kick when I fought [Takanori] Gomi,” he recalled. “I had to stop in order to cut weight and so I wouldn’t piss dirty.
“It’s like having the worst flu you could possibly have; your muscles don’t work good,” he continued, detailing the terrible symptoms of an opioid kick. “You’ve got crazy anxiety.
“A fight camp is hard enough as it is just preparing yourself mentally for a fight. If you’re worried about trying to stop in time, making sure you can take dope and also not be sick for the fight, but then also still have a camp, or you’re worried about drug testing… Your focus isn’t on the fight. It’s on all this outside stuff instead of being 100% focused on the fight. There’s a physical part of the addiction that played into the fight, but then there’s also all the mental mind-fuckery that played into the last little bit leading up to a fight… being worried about being caught, being worried about not performing well. There’s a lot of anxiety. Things are just not good.”
Given what he was putting himself through, physically and mentally, it should come as no surprise that Vallie-Flagg’s performances in the Octagon began to suffer, and that the losses began to pile up.
“I was just not able to perform up to the level that I would expect of myself,” he said. “Especially seeing how I’ve been performing in my 40s, sober, I know for sure that I was not doing physically what I could do back then.
“I look back at my fights… from my speed, my learning ability, the ability to push through stuff… it kind of diminishes as you use. I wasn’t going to be focused on anything mentally, or physically. I think that played a big factor in my losses and kind of mental outlook on the sport.”
While Vallie-Flagg’s losses in the Octagon would eventually lead to his release from the UFC roster, he was able to find a grim silver lining in his defeats. Getting beat up meant that he’d be prescribed pain killers.
“The Gomi fight, I remember, after my face got broken, I was just happy I could get some pain pills so I wouldn’t be sick anymore,” he says. “That’s the last thing you want to have happen, right? Now, if I can go into a fight and not get hurt, I’m extremely happy. But back then, because I got hurt, I knew I was going to get some pain pills.
“That’s one of the shitty things about the deal. My whole focus was on how I was going to get high, how I was not going to get sick. That’s the energy that you should be putting into your fight.”
Once Vallie-Flagg had been released from the UFC in 2014, things only got worse. On the regional MMA circuit, he was subject to less stringent drug testing, which allowed him to use much more freely.
“After I got cut from the UFC, I’ve been high going into the ring,” he said. “In the UFC, because of the drug testing, there had to be a four-day window for the opiates to get out of my system. I would be dosing essentially, cutting weight, and feeling pretty awful both from the weight cut and the kick.
“I’ve been high while I fought, on both heroin and meth, after [I got cut from] the UFC.”
After his time in the UFC, Vallie-Flagg’s fight purses decreased in size and frequency. With less money to buy the drugs he was addicted to, desperation crept in and eventually drove him to crime.
Vallie-Flagg maintains that, on the day he was arrested on the mesa outside Rio Rancho, he was not planning on committing a burglary. He was only looking for a deserted patch of land to shoot his guns. That being said, he admits it was probably only a matter of time before he put the burglary tools in his Jeep to use.
“The amusing part about it was I was going out to shoot a gun, and I wasn’t breaking into anything,” he said. “But, again, [I’m] not saying that I wasn’t going to try to do something to get money to get drugs, but at that point, I was just out there shooting a gun. I had bad tags on my car and I got pulled over. They searched my vehicle and I had heroin and guns and all kinds of stuff. I actually got seven of the charges dropped because I actually wasn’t breaking into anything the way that they had charged me with, but again it’s one of those things, especially knowing addiction and stuff. If I wasn’t doing something illegal to get drugs then, I was going to in a little bit.
“I had the tools that I used for other shady shit on me, and I knew at some point I was going to have to get dope, and I knew I was going to have to get money.”
Luckily, Vallie-Flagg was arrested before he could break the law again. And once he was in handcuffs, his secrets were out. His struggle with addiction came screaming into the lives of his family and friends like a torpedo.
“Surprise…shock,” he said, looking back on his family’s reaction to his arrest. “They were upset. I think they were scared. I didn’t have a lot of hope left in my life, and I think it was showing more and more. The arrest kind of scared the shit out of them.
“My wife was ready to leave me for obvious reasons,” he said. “My father had passed away, but my mother was kind of sick of everything. She was kind of done with it. Obviously, she loves me because I’m her son, but she was kind of done with the addiction shit.”
Vallie-Flagg had made impact with his rock bottom. He was in legal trouble, his loved ones were losing faith in him, and he was still caught up in a vortex of destructive drug use. It was when he was confronted with this dour, new low that he first checked into rehab.
“I checked myself in just because I knew that I wanted to get some help,” he recounted. “I did that rehab for ten days, I found some reason to leave, and got high because I wasn’t ready to be sober. I think I was trying to deal with my wife, the court, and that kind of stuff… Then I checked into another rehab on February 26 of 2018.
“I did three months — a month as an inpatient and two months in a sober living facility,”
This second stint in rehab was the one that finally got Vallie-Flagg sober. It wasn’t easy — in fact it was downright miserable — but he feels that he needed to endure this hell to achieve his sobriety.
“One of the things that I really liked about the treatment center is they do a medical detox, which means that they check on your vitals, but they don’t give you any opiates like the methadone or the Suboxone,” he said. “They give you some things to make you a little bit more comfortable, then they kind of say good luck and put you in your room for a few days until the kick is over, which is good. Feeling that kick, and feeling the effects of the opiate withdrawal, it’s important to remember.
“It’s not pleasant, one bit,” he continued, describing the kick. “You’re puking, you’re shitting. You don’t know whether you’re going to puke or shit. There’s constant anxiety. You can’t sleep. You can’t sit still. You can’t eat, even though you want to try to get something down. It’s pretty much like the worst case of the flu that you could think of, just with a whole bunch of anxiety. There’s self-hate. You start to get some depression. It’s really not a pleasant thing. But I think it’s kind of necessary for people to feel that, because it’s something that you don’t want to feel again.”
Eventually, the clouds broke. With newfound understanding of both addiction and sobriety, Vallie-Flagg found himself in a position to start rebuilding his life from the rubble.
“I’ve struggled with alcoholism, and I’ve been sober before, but this time around I’ve learned different things about addiction and the addict’s mind and stuff,” he explained.
“After about a month, after being a daily heroin and meth user, that was the beginning of kind of rebuilding,” he continued. “It’s not pleasant. There’s a shame that I still carry, and that I was carrying then, about the people that I lied to. I pushed people at [JacksonWink MMA] away. They were hearing things about the use, because Albuquerque is a small town and I was lying to them because I was trying to protect everything so I could keep getting high.
“So, there was a lot of stuff that, sober, kind of comes back at you. Heroin is a great numbing agent. If stuff was happening before, I could always numb it out with heroin. When you’re sober, you can’t. You start to realize that getting high isn’t going to help the situation. So I, very early, had the hope that I was going to be able to beat this thing, but I knew it was going to be a long road back.”
Even a year later, that long road back stretches out before Isaac Vallie-Flagg, as he is still navigating the legal fallout of his January 2018 arrest.
“So, after treatment I started going through the legal stuff,” he said. “The PPD (Pre-Prosecution Deferral) Program is what it’s called. I’ve been sentenced to it. It’s essentially this program that, for a year, I have to show up to this place. It’s kind of like probation. I show up, if the guy thinks I’m high, I have to pee [for a urine sample]. I have to do a certain amount of community service.”
The good news is that, if Vallie-Flagg completes the PPD Program, he can begin anew with a clean slate. The keyword in that sentence, of course, is “if.”
“After I complete that program everything gets dismissed. I won’t have any felonies on my record. I’ve got nine months to go. If I violate, if they find me using again, I go to prison for eighteen months on the couple of charges that they kept. So, there’s still the possibility that I could go back. That being said, hopefully I never get high because that’s the ultimate thing saving my life.”
As he works through the PPD Program, Vallie-Flagg is working on rebuilding the relationships that were damaged by his addiction. One such relationship is his friendship with UFC featherweight contender Cub Swanson, whom he feels he pushed away at the height of his heroin use.
“Cub Swanson, who is a friend of mine, he knew about it. He was concerned about it. He talked to me about it, and I lied to him too. I told him I would stop or I was done with it. I think he could tell. It put a strain on our friendship because it was quite obvious by my actions and my attitude that I wasn’t off stuff.
“I don’t think he knew about the heroin, just the oxys. A lot of people didn’t know about the heroin. I tried to keep that hidden. I don’t know how much he knew. We’ve talked a little bit about it, but not a whole lot about that stuff.
“Our relationship is getting back to normal… It’s getting back to where we’re joking on the phone and talking like we used to. It’s very nice to be present in all my relationships again. Cub is a very good friend of mine. He was there for me a lot, and we’ve had a good friendship. So, it’s nice to be present in that friendship again.”
Vallie-Flagg has also started fighting again. In November, he picked up a TKO victory over Corey Simpson in the World Bareknuckle Fighting Federation (WBKFF) ring, and he’s now scheduled to compete on an upcoming Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship (BKFC) card, though the details of that bout are not yet finalized.
Vallie-Flagg has also re-opened his own gym in Albuquerque, Tier One MMA/Fitness, and he’s hoping his gym will help other people in recovery.
“We’re figuring out a direction for it,” he said of the gym. “Some of what we’re doing there is creating a community to help other people in recovery find some mental strength and create a sense of community outside of the recovery community. So, it’s been really cool doing that.
“I’ve actually been talking to a treatment center here in town and trying to figure out how to make the gym work with people either in early recovery or sober living or whatever, so it’s something we could segue one into the other with for sure. That’s kind of the last part of the whole process, is kind of giving away what you were so freely given in order to maintain your recovery. So helping people is kind of necessary to do, but I’ve also started to find some real joy in helping people. I’ve always believed in doing that, I could just never live up to my morals in the past. Now I’ve found a place that I can do that.”
Now almost a year into his sobriety, with fights on the horizon and his gym thriving, things are looking up for Isaac Vallie-Flagg. Yet he acknowledges his fight with addiction will never truly be over.
“I’m not sitting here thinking ‘I want to get high’ every day,” he said, describing the current state of his battle with addiction. “I love being sober. I really do. The struggle is learning how to cope with life sober when you really haven’t been good at that. So little things that would have been an excuse to get high before, like ‘it’s Tuesday so I’m going to get high,’ I can’t do.
“You learn how to deal with different things in your life,” he continued. “It’s a lifelong thing, fighting addiction. I’m always going to be a heroin addict. It’s kept at bay. It’s very much kept at bay by some actions that you do — the things that you do to make sure that you keep it at bay.”
While sobriety is a lifelong fight, Vallie-Flagg wants anybody who is currently struggling with addiction to know one thing: There is always hope.
“There’s always hope, man,” he said in a tone that conveyed the importance that his message carries for him. “No matter how hard the struggle is, no matter what you think is standing in the way of your sobriety, it’s just your brain telling you that you need to keep using. But it’s a bullshit excuse that we use in order to keep going, so put down the excuses that you make for yourself and get some help.”
If you are struggling with addiction, or know somebody who is, Isaac Vallie-Flagg recommends you familiarize yourself with the following resources:
- Endorphin Power Company (Transitional housing, fitness, counseling, support meetings) – 505-268-3372
- MATS (Bernalillo County Detox) – 505-468-1555
- Turquoise Lodge Hospital (In-patient treatment) – 505-841-8978
- Vista Taos (North New Mexico in-patient treatment) – 575-586-3102
- Tier One MMA/Fitness (Health/fitness and supportive environment) – 505-294-2630
This article first appeared on BJPENN.COM on 2/5/2019.