Isaac Vallie-Flagg returns to the Octagon this Saturday in Texas. | Photo: Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com
In order to produce optimal results, a fight camp should be a selfish endeavor.
Everyone involved -- coaches, training partners, nutritionists, doctors -- is geared toward ensuring the success of the athlete in the cage come fight night. Ideally, the fighter in question is free from the trappings of the outside world during this time, allowing a single-minded focus to take hold.
In reality, however, this is often not the case when human beings are involved. Life happens, regardless of the UFC’s or any other promotion’s schedule, and one’s attention must be divided between the combat sports world and the real world.
Isaac Vallie-Flagg spent the better part of the past year confronting one of life’s cruelest inevitabilities: the death of a parent. His father, Thomas Flagg, was diagnosed with bone-marrow cancer in late 2013. In the first half of 2014, Vallie-Flagg suffered back-to-back losses for the first time since his professional mixed martial arts career began in 2003.
The longtime Jackson-Wink MMA member will be the first to say he lost those fights fair and square. To suggest otherwise would discredit Elias Silverio, who defeated him at UFC Fight Night “Rockhold vs. Philippou,” and Takanori Gomi, who got the better of him at UFC 172.
However, Vallie-Flagg was not allowed the luxury of focusing solely on Silverio or Gomi. While he might have been physically present in Greg Jackson’s Albuquerque, N.M., gym ahead of those fights, his mind was often elsewhere.
Recently, however, Thomas Flagg’s cancer went into remission. The respite has allowed him to enjoy life again, and he is back to teaching a psychology course at a local community college. Instead of hospital trips and dark thoughts, Vallie-Flagg has been able to fully commit to the task at hand, a date with Matt Wiman at UFC Fight Night in Austin on Saturday night. With cancer, there is always a lingering hint of doubt, but overall, Vallie-Flagg’s mind is the most at ease it’s been in some time.
“It’s cancer -- you’re never out of the woods,” Vallie-Flagg recently told Sherdog.com. “But for right now it’s giving him and the whole family some breathing room. It still sucks; it’s cancer.”
Professional fighters will often proclaim the current camp as the best they’ve ever had, and one must often read between the lines to discern whether such statement is truth or comfortable cliché.
When Vallie-Flagg offers a similar sentiment this time, it rings true. The last time he felt this confident going into a fight, he was the upstart knocking off Gesias Cavalcante in his sophomore Strikeforce outing.
“It was weird, I told Greg [Jackson] this feels like the ‘JZ’ camp again. Everything is clicking and feeling good,” he said. “And then [assistant striking coach Brandon Gibson] was like, ‘Man I haven’t [seen] you feel like this since the JZ camp.’
“It’s reminiscent of that. Since then, I fought [Yves Edwards] on short notice, and I was sick when I fought. And the last two I haven’t had great camps just because of the cancer stuff. It’s stuff that was my own mental doing, but I still didn’t have a good camp.”
In addition to renewed focus, Vallie-Flagg has improved his diet by cutting out guilty pleasures like burgers and fries earlier than he has in the past. That, along with a focused strength and conditioning program, has resulted in a leaner and faster competitor, even at 36 years old.
The overall improvement in this camp hasn’t been lost on his teammates. Cub Swanson, who headlines the UFC Fight Night Austin card against Frankie Edgar, has noticed his friend and training partner owning up to his flaws in practice more than he had in the past.
“Sometimes you train and you train and you train, and you kind of want to be blind to certain things,” Swanson said. “I’ve been hard on him about things, just like I’ve always had people around me that called me out on things. You’re a little blind sometimes. For him to say, ‘Yeah you’re right, I messed up here and I’m gonna fix that,’ that just shows refocus.”
These days, Vallie-Flagg’s greatest concern at home is being able put the necessary work into keeping his 1971 Torino running consistently enough to get him to and from the gym. For now, the rest of his personal life requires far less maintenance.
“I do better when things are on an even keel. I don’t like a lot of drama…Things are nice and steady at home, which is an easier way to do stuff. It pays off for my camp,” he said.
Vallie-Flagg is aware that his employment status is tenuous within the promotion on the heels of two straight defeats. That said, there are more important things in life than simply winning fights. Vallie-Flagg recognizes his current situation but also seems to have put it in the proper perspective.
“My job is on the line, and I went into this camp with that urgency,” he said. “I don’t feel desperate in the sense that I’m freaking out, but there is an urgency to win this fight.”
Wiman might have a similar sense of urgency. It has been nearly two years since he suffered a first-round knockout loss to T.J. Grant at UFC on Fox 6. Sometimes a layoff like that can be a hindrance, other times it can be rejuvenating.
Vallie-Flagg expects the latter in this case.
“The dude’s a scrapper and he comes to fight every time. I’m expecting the best Matt Wiman we’ve seen in a while. I think the time off was probably good for his head, and now he’s ready to fight again,” he said.
While Vallie-Flagg hasn’t been sidelined, he hasn’t exactly been 100 percent present, either. While Wiman might be new and improved, Vallie-Flagg definitely expects to be a more complete version of himself on Saturday night.
“As long as my mind and my body click at the same time on fight night, I’m gonna have a great fight,” Vallie-Flagg said.
After a difficult year, the stage has been set for him to do exactly that.