A lot can happen in a year.

After the last 12 months of his career, UFC lightweight Isaac Vallie-Flagg knows this as well as anyone.

The fighter’s 2013 began as well as he could’ve expected. He made his UFC debut at UFC 156 and bested 60-fight veteran Yves Edwards to run his unbeaten streak to 12 straight fights.

“[UFC writer] Thomas Gerbasi told me I was going to be nervous because I was going to be in front of so many people at Mandalay Bay,” explained Vallie-Flagg in an exclusive interview with The MMA Corner. “But I got there and I felt at home. The whole fight week, I loved the experience. I didn’t get the jitters. I just came there to fight.

Vallie-Flagg (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting)

Vallie-Flagg (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting)

“There wasn’t that much pressure on me because it was my first fight and I was fighting Yves. If I beat Yves, I just beat Yves Edwards. If I lost, shit, I just lost to Yves Edwards. Just to be in there with the dude was cool to me.”

Vallie-Flagg had a prior stint with Strikeforce that likely aided in his relaxed demeanor inside the Octagon. Yet, much like his previous two outings under the Strikeforce banner against Gesias “JZ” Cavalcante and Brian Melancon, his fight with Edwards saw the scorecards and resulted in a third straight split decision.

“I believe I won rounds one and three with Yves. It shouldn’t have been a split,” he proclaimed. “And I won rounds two and three with JZ. The Melancon fight definitely could’ve gone either way. It’s frustrating because I’ve had other fighters say shit about having split decisions.

“That has affected me; I push harder. If you talk shit to me and push me to get better, I will step up and get better. I’ve worked to improve things and start finishing fights.”

The judges’ inability to decisively score fights was hardly the biggest hurdle for Vallie-Flagg during the year. A nagging back injury forced the 35-year-old out of a planned UFC 161 bout with Sam Stout in June.

“There was a lot of stuff that I would’ve fought through, but it was an injury to the spine. I tried to push through it and it got to a point where I couldn’t use anything on the right side of my body anymore. I couldn’t throw kicks or punches, so I was forced out,” revealed the Jackson’s MMA product.

“I tried to do the non-invasive, less aggressive route, which was epidurals and physical therapy, but that didn’t work. I opted for surgery, and they removed some of the disc and moved some stuff around. It went really well. Knowing me, I was training two weeks later. They said it wasn’t ‘that invasive,’ so I took that as ‘you can train right away.’ I had some lingering pain, but I’ve gotten to a point now where everything feels solid.”

The lengthy layoff due to surgery has left Vallie-Flagg as the forgotten man at 155 pounds. Being that the division is one of the most crowded in the UFC, it comes as no surprise to the New Mexico-based fighter.

“It’s hard. The minute you lose momentum, you feel it. You have a setback and you’re at the back of the line again. Everybody’s hungry and everybody’s striving to get to the top,” he explained.

Vallie-Flagg (L) lands a knee (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting)

Vallie-Flagg (L) lands a knee (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting)

“You have a guy like Michael Johnson who was ranked right around me at one point and now he’s jumped way up there because he’s had several fights while I’ve been stagnant. It’s understandable.”

Back at full health, Vallie-Flagg will see his journey towards the lightweight belt kick off against undefeated Brazilian Elias Silverio at UFC Fight Night 35 on Jan. 15 in Duluth, Ga.

“He’s a tough kid, 9-0,” said Vallie-Flagg of his opponent. “[He was the] Jungle Fights champion. He’s similar to me in that he likes to come forward and bang. I see some things that I think I can expose.”

Although Silverio is hardly as well-known as Edwards or Cavalcante to most MMA fans, Vallie-Flagg is not underestimating the Brazilian.

“That’s the thing that’s hard. You go from fighting two veterans that have been around to now this hungry, up-and-coming kid who wants to shine in the UFC. Is it a step down? Not so much,” declared Vallie-Flagg. “He’s just as dangerous as anybody else. To me, he’s more dangerous than the guy who’s been around the block a few times.”

Fueling Vallie-Flagg’s motivation for this fight is something completely unrelated to the sport, and perhaps his biggest challenge of the last year: his father’s battle with cancer. While his recovery has gone well, it helped put things into perspective for Vallie-Flagg.

“My dad is a huge inspiration for me,” he revealed. “If he can go back and battle cancer and then go back to work, I have no excuse not to go out there and work hard and give my best performance. If somebody can go through cancer, I have no reason to piss and moan about anything, especially since I get to do what I love. It’s going to be a huge factor in this fight.”

If Vallie-Flagg can perform up to his own expectations on Jan. 15, he’ll be back in the mix at 155 pounds…and hopefully 2014 will be a much smoother ride for the fighter and his family.

Isaac would like to thank Venum Fight Wear and all of his teammates at Jackson’s MMA. Follow him on Twitter: @ikevallieflagg