The Rising Tide: On the Grind with Ike Vallie-Flagg
In a rapidly growing sport like mixed martial arts, overnight success stories receive the quick grab in the headlines of MMA media.
Talented young phenoms such as light heavyweight king Jon Jones and Brazilian pound-for-pound great Jose Aldo are heralded as the future of the sport, and their ascensions to great heights become captivating.
While the skills possessed by dominant champions like Jones and Aldo are a rare commodity—and should be treated as such—that fact can evoke a strange perspective in the minds of the MMA faithful. Just because a handful of fighters make their work inside the cage look easy doesn't mean it is.
In fact, what makes those fighters great is their ability to make great performances look effortless while turning back the best competition in the world.
Such success also can create the illusion that success comes easily. Nothing could be further from the truth, especially in the unpredictable environment of mixed martial arts. Just because the saying "Anything can happen in a fight" is cliche, this doesn't make it any less true. Natural talent is great to have, but talent alone isn't a guarantee the job is getting done.
There are many variables that can lead to a misstep in the fires of live competition.
Talent, speed and strength can go far in overcoming most obstacles, but they cannot ensure consistency in competition.
While a collection of his peers have gone on to achieve stardom under the UFC banner, a level he is yet to reach, the one category lightweight Isaac Vallie-Flagg can absolutely cement his position within is the consistency department.
The 35-year-old Michigan-born fighter may have gotten a late start in mixed martial arts, but over the course of the nine years he's invested in the professional ranks, the Jackson's/Winkeljohn-trained fighter has been on a constant grind towards the sport's biggest stage.
"Ike" parlayed a nine-fight unbeaten streak on the regional circuit in the southwest into an invitation to compete under the Strikeforce banner. Following two solid wins over Brian Melancon and heralded veteran Gesias "JZ" Cavalcante, the Albuquerque transplant found his stock rising in the San Jose promotion's 155-pound fold and inching closer to getting an official offer from the UFC.
"I would say I was fighting for respect," Vallie-Flagg told Bleacher Report. "I think a lot of people saw Strikeforce as a lesser promotion and as the little bastard stepchild of the UFC. I don't think we got the same respect fighter-wise as even the WEC did. Even though the two guys I fought were really tough, at least in my opinion, I still felt like I was fighting for respect in that organization."
The fate of Strikeforce would ultimately expedite the process. The sports' second-largest promotion officially closed its doors in January of this year.
Following the dissolution of Strikeforce, Vallie-Flagg was brought over to compete inside the Octagon and was immediately put to work the following month when he faced seasoned veteran Yves Edwards at UFC 156.
It was a gritty, hard-fought performance in his official debut. Vallie-Flagg edged out the "Thugjitsu Master" via split decision on the judge's cards. Getting his hand raised for the first time under the UFC banner was a dream years in the making.
While he may have taken the long road to the best promotion in mixed martial arts, Vallie-Flagg believes his personal journey is just getting started.
"I was super excited about the opportunity to fight Yves [Edwards] and the name he carries," Vallie-Flagg said. "Yves is a guy who I have been a fan of in this sport for a long time and someone I respect as a fighter. He is a super-tough vet, and when I got the call, I thought it was a great fight for me stylistically.
"Getting that call and getting that matchup was awesome for me. Having a close fight with Yves wasn't something I look negatively upon. He is a top-notch guy and at one point was considered one of the best guys in the 155-pound division. Of course I would have liked to get the finish, but getting a decision against him was cool too.
"It was a close fight, but I felt like I beat him."
"In my first fight in the UFC, I wanted to establish who I was," he added. "I really think fighting a guy like Yves, and really doing what I like to do in there and just push forward on guys, I feel like I showed who I was. I got really sick the week of the fight and doing that while I was sick gave me a lot of confidence that I can mentally push through a tough fight."
Vallie-Flagg may have traveled the long and winding path to the UFC, but his daily grind inside one of the most revered mixed martial arts gyms in the sport has kept him front and center with a collection of the top talent in the sport.
In addition to current and former champions, Vallie-Flagg has traded leather on a daily basis with a wide range of fighters who have all experienced success competing inside the Octagon.
Of his teammates, the person Vallie-Flagg has developed the closest relationship with is featherweight wrecking machine Cub Swanson.
Competing just one weight class apart has allowed the two fighters to consistently push one another to become better. And where Swanson's rise to prominence in the 145-pound ranks is a testament to hard work and dedication, it also provides Vallie-Flagg with a clear view of what the end result can look like when his time to shine arrives.
"It's a huge motivator," Vallie-Flagg said. "I've been watching all these guys come up around me and I know what I do with them when we are in the gym together. Especially with Cub, who is a good friend of mine. I always feel like I'm a few steps behind him as far as our careers go. It feels like we are both starting to do bigger and bigger things.
"Just watching him succeed, and knowing I'm working just as hard as he is, gives me the hope that those things are going to be coming along soon for me as well. It is already starting to pay off with getting into the UFC and all of the things that have come from that."
Competing in the shark tank of the UFC lightweight division, Vallie-Flagg understands the progression up the ranks not only needs to come in rapid fashion, but it's one where setbacks can ill be afforded. Following his victory over Edwards at UFC 156, he was slated to face veteran Sam Stout at UFC 161 before a back injury suffered in training forced him out of the matchup.
Nevertheless, the well-traveled vet has not lost his focus.
He wants to lock down a position in the 155-pound division's top 10, and once his injury is cleared up and a return to health is made, Vallie-Flagg has every intention of resuming that climb at full force.
"That's what I want to do," Vallie-Flagg answered when asked about making a run to the top 10. "I felt the Stout fight would have put me on the map, but I can't dwell on that. As soon as I'm back from this injury, I want to get another tough fight, and I want to make a big statement with whoever I get.
"The end of 2013 could be really great for me, and 2014 could be even better. There are a lot of tough guys in the division but the division is at an interesting place right now.
"I think I have some advantages competing in the lightweight division. No. 1, I think I'm a sizable 55er and I can also push a pace. The things I worked on leading up to the Stout fight I had to pull out from was being more explosive because I hit hard, but when I cut down to 55 that is something I lack.
"Conditioning is always a factor I'm going to have in my favor. I know I'm going to push harder than anyone I face. Even in the gym, where I'm facing top-notch guys, conditioning is something I always know I'm going to have over them."
Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.
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