Imagine a hyperactive, eight-year-old who’s just been let loose in an amusement park after downing a case of Red Bull. Then imagine that the kid is in fact a 46-year-old, 200-lb., 6’1,” bald, wisecracking Dutch fi ghting prodigy with as much natural athletic talent as Anderson Silva or Georges St. Pierre. And imagine that he’s a man who walked away from the ring unbeaten in his last 22 fi ghts, who trains as if he were still a full-time pro, still looks as if he were chiseled out of granite, and successfully holds down ten jobs. Welcome to the world of Bas “El Guapo” Rutten, the resident wild man ambassador of mixed martial arts.
It’s 9 A.M. on a hot October morning in Studio City, California, and the morning rush has ground to a standstill on Ventura Boulevard. But inside TVA Productions, a small but well-equipped soundstage located just off the on-ramp to the 101 Freeway, Bas Rutten is already moving at warp speed. This is not making his pretty make-up artist’s job easy. The process, which should take about fi ve minutes, ends up lasting close to 20. At one point towards the end of the session, Rutten pops out of the fold-out chair, busts a couple of ’80s-era dance moves, sings some notes of what might be considered opera, then bear hugs the girl, spins her around, and gently puts her down. Then he bites his own hand and growls in mock frustration because, as a devoted husband to his wife Karin, he knows that a little harmless fl irtation is as far as he was willing to take it. The make-up girl is used to his shenanigans— for the past yearand- a-half and more than 60 previous episodes, she’s been responsible for getting “El Guapo” cameraready for his co-hosting duties (along with Kenny Rice) on “Inside MMA,” the hour-long highlight-and-analysis show that airs every Friday night on HDNet.
Rutten turns to me. “I know what you’re thinking: ‘This guy’s high on something,’ right? But I don’t drink and I don’t do drugs. If I do coke, it has the opposite effect. I become a plant. I have too much energy. I wake up, and I’m on. My mind is always racing, all day long. I need a pill at night to stop me from thinking. Just ask my wife. My house is a nut house. There’s always dancing, singing, action. She asks me three times a week, ‘Can you just turn it off?’ But I feel good like this. I gotta be me, right?”
And Bas being Bas has been working out pretty well for him lately. It wasn’t always like this. Not when he was a social outcast growing up in the forests of Valkenswaard, Holland. Not when he was kickboxing for chump-change around Europe. Not when he was partying his ass off and scraping by as a bar enforcer through most of his twenties. Not when he was the King of Pancrase or the UFC Heavyweight Champion at a time when MMA was still a fringe sport. And not when he was living month-to-month off freelance commentator gigs and running a small gym in the Valley. But now, thanks to a combination of hard work, hard knocks, and more than a little bit of luck, Bas Rutten has managed to turn his particular combination of talents into a diverse and lucrative career, and he is enjoying every minute of it.
FOURTEEN-YEAR-OLD SEBASTIAN Rutten was sick of taking the high road. Literally. For months, there was only one way home from school: through the trees. “I had this really bad skin disease, and I was a loner, always getting bullied,” he recalls. “I used to escape by running into the forest and climbing trees, then jumping from one to the next until I got home.”
Those days were about to end. After two years of constant pressure, his conservative, vehemently anti-violence parents fi nally let him go where he knew he belonged: in a dojo. It all started when Bas sneaked into a screening of Enter the Dragon while on vacation in France, and left the theater convinced he was destined to become the next Bruce Lee. At last, he got his chance to prove it. “I started doing Tae Kwon Do, and after three weeks I was so good I was beating up the brown belts,” he says. “My self-esteem just shot through the roof.” One afternoon, he stopped running, stood his ground, and challenged the leader of the local gang to a fi ght. A few minutes later, the kid was on the ground, blood streaming from a broken nose, and the police were on the scene. “That was the end of my Tae Kwon Do experience for a while,” says Rutten. “But my confi dence, it just kept getting higher after that.”
Six years later, Rutten, now a 20-yearold physical specimen, fi nally moved out of Valkenswaard. His fi rst order of business: get back in the gym and fulfi ll his self-imposed destiny. He worked quickly, earning black belts in both Tae Kwon Do and Karate, and then decided to try Thai boxing, which had already begun to take Holland by storm.
“My fi rst day in the gym, I got my ass kicked,” says Rutten. “I had never been dropped before, but that day I went down hard, and it came from a liver punch.” Rutten went home and shadow-boxed in front of his mirror for four straight hours. “My wife at the time, she said I was crazy, but I came back the next day and just cleaned the place out. I beat the shit out of everybody. Six weeks later, the guys who ran the place got me my fi rst fi ght.” Rutten won that bout 43 seconds into the fi rst round, courtesy of a spinning back kick to his opponent’s liver. He went on to win his fi rst 13 fi ghts by knockout, all but one coming in the fi rst round.
Rutten’s career as a Thai boxer was shortlived, partly because there wasn’t enough money in it, and partly because Rutten had yet to fi nd a way to channel his constant need for action. He started working as a bouncer at Amsterdam clubs, teaming up with his old Tae Kwon Do teacher to form a freelance clean-up squad for bars that had gotten out of hand. It was Roadhouse, Rutten-style. “If there was a group of guys who were coming into a certain bar and fucking it up, we’d take care of it,” says Rutten. “And it always resulted in fi ghting. You’d have to do it hardcore, to make a statement. I once slammed a guy’s head through the front of a slot machine, he dropped on the ground, and I threw the slot machine on top of him. We’d stay around for the next couple of weeks and the guys would never, ever come back; and then we’d move to on the next place that needed us. I was always going for that thrill-seeking moment.”
By the time Bas got into the ring again, against an undefeated fi ghter who had recently gotten out of prison, he had been partying so hard that he had forgotten about the bout until the posters arrived at his house three weeks before the scheduled date. He arrived out of shape, his legs numbed from Lidocaine because of a nasty cut on his shin, and he got knocked out. Humiliated, Rutten decided to quit fi ghting for good.
“Inside MMA” is not taped live, but Rutten and Rice manage to get through the entire episode without any retakes. Despite his constant antics, Rutten is seasoned pro, with hundreds of live broadcasts under his belt, and he deftly plays off Rice’s straight man. The topic for today’s panel—which includes MMA royalty Renzo Gracie, up-and-coming light-heavyweight Mo Lawal, and trainer/ author Martin Rooney—is EliteXC boxing guru Gary Shaw’s purported rival for UFC dominance. Two days earlier, EliteXC had collapsed amidst rumors of fi nancial mismanagement and corruption, and along with it went the career of Bas Rutten’s highest-profi le student: Kimbo Slice. The Miami street-fi ghting Internet standout was tagged, quite unfairly, as the promotion’s biggest star. Just two weeks earlier, Slice had been brutally KO’d by journeyman Seth Petruzelli on EliteXC’s fi nal card, in a bout tha
t aired live on CBS.
If Rutten is upset about Slice’s sudden fall , he’s not showing it. Perhaps it’s because Slice needed Rutten more than Rutten needed Slice. “‘With Kimbo, a lot of people said, ‘Oh, he’s just doing it for the money,’” Rutten tells me in the studio’s parking lot right after the taping. “But with the exception of his last fi ght, I lost money when I trained Kimbo because I had to turn down so many other commentator jobs. I trained him because everybody said it couldn’t be done, that he was just a simple brawler, a street fi ghter. And he was. But at the beginning, he really put in the time and effort to become better. Later on, he should have been training harder, but that fl ash knockout by Petruzelli didn’t say shit about him as a fi ghter. He had been hit harder before in the streets. It was simply an example of him getting caught at the wrong time.”
RUTTEN’S FIRST FIGHT AS A MIXED MARTIAL ARTIST came at the absurdly advanced age—at least by today’s standards—of 28. Like nearly every other positive event in Rutten’s adult life, it was foretold by his second wife, Karin. “When I met her, I hadn’t competed for three years,” he says. “Then, about six months into our relationship, she told me, ‘You’re gonna be a famous fi ghter in Japan.’ And a week later, I got a phone call. There was a tryout in Amsterdam for Pancrase, so I went. One of the champions from Rings was there, and we were just supposed to spar so they could see my skills. But the guy was being an asshole, so I kicked him in the head and he went down. Two months later, I was in Japan, fi ghting my fi rst MMA fi ght.”
Rutten began his MMA career with no experience whatsoever in wrestling or Jiu-Jitsu. His striking, on the other hand, was off the chain. To watch clips of those early Pancrase bouts is to watch a guy with a stand-up game so devastating that even kickboxers like Maurice Smith felt compelled to take him down. Rutten’s identity in the ring was no different from his identity out of it: He threw every blow with extreme prejudice, especially his body shots; and when he hit his mark, it was a thing of beauty. Men would crumple like marionettes whose strings had been carelessly dropped by their puppeteers.
Rutten eventually picked up enough basic knowledge about the ground game to pull off a few tap-outs early in his career. His submission defense, however, still needed work. In Rutten’s eleventh pro fi ght, he lost to Ken Shamrock for the second time, via submission. “After that loss to Ken, I just got really mad, and started training two or three times a day solely on the ground game. I never believed in Jiu-Jitsu as a good base for MMA because they wore Gis, and without a Gi it’s a totally different ballgame. So I decided to teach myself, to come up with my own techniques.”
The result: Rutten never lost another fi ght. The injuries, however, began to pile up, especially tendonitis, which he blames on the countless cortisone injections he received to treat his skin disease as a child. After fi ve years of fi ghting in Pancrase (whose modifi ed MMA rules did not allow punches to the head), Rutten moved to Southern California so he could get his start in entertainment— bit parts, stunts, whatever it would take to get his foot in the door. The results weren’t immediate, so Rutten signed up with the UFC as a heavyweight to help raise his profi le in Hollywood.
After knocking out Tsuyoshi Kohsaka in a title eliminator on January 8, 1999, Rutten returned to the Octagon four months later and beat Kevin Randleman via split decision to capture the title. Rutten then retired, and eventually focused on broadcasting. His major break came with the formation of the Pride Fighting Championships in Japan. Rutten was the color man for nearly every English-speaking broadcast, and when MMA started to hit the mainstream in the States, the phone started to ring non-stop. Rutten even managed to get back in the ring for a comeback bout in 2006, stopping Ruben Villareal with a series of brutal leg kicks in the fi rst round.
ZIPPING 25 MILES UP THE 101 after “Inside MMA” fi nished taping, Rutten arrives at Elita MMA, in Westlake, where Karin is waiting to say hello. She’s beautiful, blond, and with a calmness that clearly helps to offset Bas’s manic energy. As Karin gets in car, Bas looks at me. “I owe pretty much everything to her,” he says. “She deserves more than half of what I got. She’s always making sure I eat the right food. If I told her I was gonna go three days partying, she’d make sure I had food with a lot of vitamins so that I’d be ok. All my fi ghter friends ask me, all the time, ‘Does she have a sister?’ That’s because in every other fi ghter’s house, the wife’s got him by the balls. With us, it goes both ways.”
After Karin leaves, Rutten more or less sprints into the gym’s locker room and emerges about 30 seconds later, in workout gear. He runs into the exercise room, puts the latest, unreleased version of “Bas Rutten Workout” on the stereo, and gets going. No warm-up, no-stretching. And just as he did in the ring, he throws every punch for the next fi ve three-minute rounds with full, bone-crunching power. “Even in training, I cannot hit soft, I cannot just throw light,” Rutten says later. “It’s a defect. So I just go full balls out, all the time.”
Also in the gym that day is Hector Peña, the most decorated Mexican kickboxer of all time and a friend of Rutten’s for nearly 20 years. I ask Peña what he makes of Rutten’s supercharged shadowboxing technique, and Pena replies simply and directly: “Nobody’s like Bas because he’s a master, he’s Picasso. He has no weaknesses as a fi ghter. In my opinion, Bas is the best martial artist of all time. And I’ve fought everyone.” By the time Peña is done singing his old buddy’s praises, Rutten is already out the door, late for a meeting about his reality TV show.
Rutten is one of the few fi ghters from earlier times who had the heart, instinct, athletic ability, and skill set to compete against the current generation of top pros. But exactly how good he could have been can never be answered. Was his game comparable to BJ Penn’s or GSP’s? Of course not, but it didn’t have to be. “I’m happy with my record,” says Rutten. “There aren’t a lot of people who won their last 22 fi ghts, or who had about the same number of submissions and knockouts. Of my 28 wins, only three went the distance, so I was a fi nisher. I’m at peace with what I did in the ring, so I don’t feel the need to go back and fi ght. But if I had to, I think I’d still match up well against anybody.”
Rutten has also cleaned up in his act. His M.O. used to be: work hard, play hard, and do some Rutten-style fast-action set pieces, the most infamous of which was a one-on-fi ve brawl with a group of bouncers at a Stockholm nightclub that sent three of the men to the hospital. Rutten spent three days in jail and landed on the front pages of a few Swedish newspapers. While Rutten doesn’t want to get into details, it’s clear that alcohol has been, at the very least, a major distraction since he was a teenager. But for the past year and a half, he’s been clean, and loving it. “The twodays- straight partying is a thing of the past,” Rutten says with a laugh. “After the fi rst couple of months with no drinking, I felt, ‘Man, I’m so in control, my mind is so much sharper.’ See, it’s very easy for me not to drink, but it’s impossible for me to drink only one drink. I don’t think I’ll drink ever again.”
HIS SOBRIETY with more job opportunities. “I think people used to think of me as a liability, but then I stopped drinking and everything became solid,” he says. “All those years, I had to really work for my money, do every job I could fi nd. Pride never paid a lot, and I still had to do this and that all the time, just to survive. Now, everything is getting good. I see myself doing something big on TV. I’m really working hard on it. And because I don’t drink anymore, or do any other crazy shit, I don’t see myself messing up. In the past, I could have messed up. But I’m not doing anything stupid now. I know my limitations and I know what I want. I learn real fast from my mistakes. I might hit my head once. But two times? That’s very rare for me.”
Neither success nor clean living, however, has done anything to calm Rutten down. If anything, he’s got even more pep than he had as a clop-hopping, ass-kicking 30-year-old. “When he wakes up, his energy is everywhere,” says Karin. “I am the opposite, so that helps. Many years ago, when I would drive him to the airport I would cry. I couldn’t let go. Today, it’s more like, ‘Bye bye Honey, thanks for the break.’”