"I like the kind of challenge a guy like Gomi is." -Isaac Vallie-Flagg
It's not that often that a fighter coming off a loss gets a fight that he couldn't have picked much better if he had picked it himself, but that's more or less what happened to lightweight Isaac Vallie-Flagg - albeit in a roundabout way. Originally slated to fight Danny Castillo at UFC 172, Vallie-Flagg will instead be fighting UFC and PRIDE legend Takanori Gomi on the same card on April 26 in Baltimore.
Vallie-Flagg lost his last bout with undefeated up-and-comer Elias Silverio. It was something Ike hadn't had to face in quite a while as he was heading into the bout undefeated in his last dozen fights with only one draw keeping it from being a proper winning streak. Throughout the fight Silverio kept constant pressure on him - something that is usually Ike's bread and butter. Having to face the unpleasant feeling of a loss again was a revelation, and it forced him to look at some of the deficiencies in his game and past mistakes more urgently.
"I've been lucky in that I made mistakes in fights in the past but I still won. But that time I didn't and with that comes being uncomfortable and the motivation to have to really focus," he says. As to what specifically he did wrong, he first addresses the technical mistakes: "I rushed a lot of stuff and didn't set things up the way I should and I got sloppy. My head got over my feet too much. That kid wasn't better than me. I fought like crap and that's why I lost. I don't want to take anything away from Elias; he's a tough kid but I did feel off and I made mistakes. But it's something that I assessed and that's part of the reason I went out to California to work with [teammate] Cub [Swanson] on my footwork so that wouldn't happen again."
Vallie-Flagg also acknowledges that perhaps he got a little comfortable mentally heading into the fight and underestimated his opponent. "I was coming off fights against JZ [Cavalcante] and Yves Edwards and was kinda like 'who's this kid?' I prepared for him, but I did underestimate him, mentally. If you can't admit mistakes like that, then you're really taking a loss because you're not learning anything from it."
Getting the call to fight Gomi was a pleasant surprise for Ike, who was already preparing for Castillo.
"I was hitting golf balls with Cub and he got a call and he started smiling. I thought he got a call about his fight and then he said 'it's Gomi' and I thought he was fighting Gomi but then he said 'They changed your fight to Gomi' and I couldn't stop smiling for days. I get to fight another guy that I looked up to and who is a legend."
But make no mistake, Ike has no plans of being overwhelmed or distracted by the legend. "At the end of the day, it's a fight. Whether it's Gomi, Yves or Elias, and to win I just have to compete better than the guy in front of me and compete up to my level - no matter who it is."
Knowing Gomi and his style well is something that Ike feels will help in that there's no need to extensively study a known element like Takanori Gomi. Plus, his Jackson's teammates Clay Guida and Diego Sanchez have both fought Gomi before and Ike has helped them train for those matches.
"I've studied Gomi because I've had to be him for other guys in camp and I'm a fan of his, so when I got the call, I knew the game plan right away," he says. "Diego was Gomi's last fight and I think Diego was more excited than me at first. He came into the gym all fired up, yelling at me about how excited he was."
As for how a fight with Gomi compares to one with Castillo, Ike couldn't be happier. "I like Danny and he seems like a really good guy, so I'm kind of glad I don't have to fight him. And stylistically, I think Gomi is a better fight - for me and for Gomi and for the fans. A lot of people have said it's gonna be a slugfest."
All the fun of a good, old-fashioned slugfest aside, Ike realizes that it's not an easy fight. A winnable one, yes, but he knows he's got to be on point and stay on point throughout the fight. "I think Gomi will be dangerous the whole time and he'll be in shape, but I also think he doesn't like pressure and with the pressure and pace I can set, I think I can break him."
And if he can get past Gomi, Vallie-Flagg knows it's a healthy step up in the lightweight ranks.
"Gomi's no slouch. He's only lost to the toughest guys in the division. So, if I win and do it decisively, I think that puts me into the mix of being talked about. I like those kind of fights and I think I perform better when it's a fight like that."
Being friendly enough with Ike, I suggest the potentially offensive and insulting idea that perhaps without definitive stakes, he 'phones it in'. Luckily, he doesn't hang up or threaten bodily harm but rather agrees - to a point.
"Yeah, I know I have done that - where I don't work as hard if there's nothing on the line. I mean, there's always something on the line, but I worked my ass off for Yves and JZ and I worked hard for this kid (Silverio) too, but yeah, it's not the same mentally. I like the kind of challenge a guy like Gomi is."
So, motivation: check. Slugfest: check...
Before I let Ike get back to what sounds like putting dishes away, I have to ask him what he makes of Joe Rogan's assessment of his fighting style during the Edwards fight as "awkward on purpose"?
"I am very awkward on purpose," Ike says with a chuckle. "I do like that, actually. I dig my fighting style. I think it's fun to watch. I throw a lot of punches in volume and sometimes I'm technical, but mostly I'm just trying to hit people really hard - and I think the fans appreciate it."
While the outcome of the fight is not guaranteed, the fans appreciating it is a fairly safe bet.