Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted before the death of former UFC heavyweight champion Kevin Randleman.
He is 50 now and has pretty much seen and done almost everything. His age and the wars he has been through do not show on his chiseled face and bald head. There are no remnants scratching at the edges of his eyebrows, like those tiny indentations from stitches that fighters accrue through time from the myriad of elbows and knuckles they absorb. There is a simple child’s joy that comes through in his high-pitched voice, and the brutal world he has been such a big part of has never been able to wrench away his wide-eyed wonderment.
Nothing breaks Bas Rutten. Nothing ever has, not a Hawaiian toilet seat, or Masakatsu Funaki’s iron chin, or the late Kevin Randleman’s flailing fists, or Ken Shamrock’s kneebar, or a Japanese cab or hanging 42 stories on the side of a skyscraper in Kobe, Japan.
Rutten is one of the rare pioneers of MMA. He was one of but a handful of fighters that reached out and took risks many of today’s martial artists probably would not. It is on the backs of fighters like Rutten that the MMA world has gained mainstream interest.
Now going on a decade since his last fight, “El Guapo” -- or the “Handsome One” -- has maintained a universal appeal as a broadcaster and as a face of the sport. He is glib, sincere, poignant, magnetic, tenacious, determined, intelligent, goofy, dangerous, frank, blunt and brave -- a guy with whom you never want to get into a bar fight. Above all else, Rutten is “still one handsome dude,” he says, laughing in perfect broken English.
The former Ultimate Fighting Championship heavyweight titleholder was inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame in 2015, becoming the first European to receive the honor. That he took his place in the Pioneer wing was doubly fitting. He has fought everywhere, it seems, from bars in the Netherlands and the streets of California to Tokyo.
“I always loved fighting and competing,” said Rutten, who cohosts “Inside MMA” on AXS-TV. “It’s just you and the guy you’re facing. That’s it. No one is in there to help you. You fight to protect yourself, but fighting requires a great amount of discipline. It’s helped shape my life and made me who I am. You can receive a great amount of respect, too. You have to respect the guy you’re fighting, and he better respect you, but it’s also led me on a great, fun journey that is still going on today. The MMA world has opened a lot of doors for me to meet many great people and has brought me to great places in the world that I would have never seen. Call me old-school, but I’m grateful. I’m grateful for the fans that have followed me through the years and grateful for the people that found something in me and my ability to allow me to show it.
“A thousand years from now, in the UFC Hall of Fame, that pioneer section is never going to change,” he added, “because it’s going to be only so big because there were only so few of us.”
A Most Uncomfortable Fight
Rutten may not call it the most challenging, but “El Guapo” certainly defines his battle with Kevin Randleman at UFC 20 on May 7, 1999 as his most uncomfortable fight. John McCarthy was the referee, and in those days, the rules were not unified as they are today. Rutten pulled out a split decision, which carried some debate, considering Randleman was in control for much of the fight.
What is interesting is that the day before the fight, McCarthy and Rutten had a discussion about the old fighting bromide that said if a hand is thrust upward into the nose, the nose bone would break back into the brain and cause death. Rutten told McCarthy he felt that was a myth. However, something else was broached: If a fighter’s nose is already broken and a hand or strike lands in that same area, there is a chance the bone could go back into the brain and cause death.
“I really had bad eyesight at the time,” Rutten said. “Now I have these fake lenses in my eye so it’s perfect, but at that time, I had almost minus-5.5, almost minus-6 eyesight. I’m fighting Randleman. I get my nose broke. I can’t see when I lost one contact lens and my other eye is filled up with blood. I was swallowing my own blood at the time because of the broken nose, and that was annoying. In the corner, I was putting my fingers down my throat to vomit out the blood, because I was swallowing blood the whole time. It was making me nauseous. I’m saying to myself, ‘This very annoying right now.’ I couldn’t see [and] I was swallowing my own blood, but you’re fighting and you try not to think about it. One side of your mind says, ‘Hey, this is kind of cool.’ The commonsense side says, ‘This kind of sucks.’ You get through it. I won the fight by split decision. It was a controversial decision. I always try to finish, and this was for the UFC heavyweight title.
“There is mutual respect between Kevin and myself,” he added. “I remember stepping into the hotel elevator and there was Kevin. He said, ‘How are you doing?’ I said, ‘I’m doing great. We’re going to meet each other tomorrow, right?’ Kevin is a good man. We’ve always had a good relationship. My family and I went to his wedding later on. He’s an awesome man from an awesome family, but Kevin knew what was going on and he was doing some serious damage in the opening of that fight. He was doing a really good job, and he knew it, believe me.
“I look back at fights like that, and it always looks worse than it is,” Rutten continued. “I always thought the pain was always something as a fighter you have to deal with. Now if it’s something that’s dislocated, that’s different because you can’t function. ‘Big’ John McCarthy stopped my fight against Randleman so the doctor could look at my nose. They told me it was broken and gave me the option to continue. I was going to keep fighting, but I remember having a laugh with Big John, asking him if he still believed that stuff about the nose going into the brain. He looked at me with a smirk, and I said, ‘OK, I’m fighting then.’”
Calling His Shot
In Rutten’s Ultimate Fighting Championship debut against Tsuyoshi Kosaka at UFC 18 on Jan 8, 1999 in Kenner, Louisiana, he admittedly was having problems. His training was lax because of a bad neck injury.
“So in the beginning of the fight, he takes me down, and I got up, and he takes me down again and I got back up,” Rutten said. “I started stopping his takedowns and I got in control of the fight. Big John McCarthy is the ref, and we got through regulation into a three-minute overtime round. I figured [Kosaka] out by this time. I told my corner, ‘Let me know when there’s a minute left in the round. I’m going to knock him out.’ I turn around and Big John is looking at me with a smirk on his face, because he overheard what I said.”
McCarthy walked away shaking his head. As they resumed, Rutten’s corner gave him his one-minute warning. Ten seconds later, Kosaka was knocked out.
“After the fight, Big John came in the dressing room and gave me the shirt off his back,” Rutten said. “I’ll never forget it. As a referee, Big John said, ‘That was the craziest thing. I mean, I heard you tell your corner you were going to knock him out, and you actually did it.’ I told him I was just waiting to pull the trigger.”
Bas and Cars Do Not Mix
Rutten laughs about it -- because it was the first time. No, he said, it was “one of the first times I walked out of a bar sober. I had to get up early the next day, and I was with [Sherdog.com founder] Jeff Sherwood and [former Sherdog.com editor] Josh Gross. We went to the after-party for one of the Pride [Fighting Championships] shows, and everyone was there. I remember [Quinton] ‘Rampage’ Jackson there and some of the fighters. I decided to leave early, which is one of the smarter things I ever did in a bar.”
It was then that Rutten was clipped by a cab minivan and thrown by the impact. Gross remembers.
“It’s still vivid,” Gross said. “This was on a Sunday [morning] after the show, and usually after the fights, all of the guys, American press and some of the guys in the show in Roppongi (a section of Tokyo) met at a place called Wall Street. We were leaving, and it was pretty late [in the night]. Bas walked up the stairs, and I literally saw him get run over by a minivan. I remember thinking Bas could have been dead. It was a wild image. I think it was somewhere around 2003-04, and I’m not sure of the fight. We were walking out to the street together from this bar, and Bas got hit.”
Initially, Rutten was prone, more stunned that he was hit than suffering from pent-up anxiety over whether or not he was hurt.
“I remember getting hit by the car, and I flew over the cab,” Rutten said. “You would think after all of these years in Japan that I would know that the traffic comes from the opposite side. No, not me, and that’s just it -- I was sober. I saw Josh and Jeff and told them where I was going, and I understood the subway stations there, so they came with me. I was talking and walking with them when I got hit by this van. I didn’t even see it. I’m walking and the next thing I know, I’m in the air. I flew over the van, they said, and I fell on my back. Everyone was panicking. I remember hearing Jeff saying I was dead. Everyone jumped on top of me to see if I was OK.
“I opened my eyes, and the first thing I asked was for everyone to back up,” he added. “I felt my body and I thought, ‘OK, no internal damage.’ I thought I was going to be fine. I felt around and everything was still in the right place, but when I got back to the hotel, I noticed a big piece of my pants was gone. I lost a big piece of meat from my hip. I got back sober, but I was missing a piece of my hip. The strange thing is, when you leave a bar drunk, you’re always protected by stupidity or something. This time, I was sober, and what happens? I get sideswiped by a minivan. I sent the driver home who hit me. I didn’t call the cops. Why do that to that poor man? I was OK. If I look back at some of the accidents I’ve been in, it’s crazy.”
As in the one time, years earlier, when Rutten and sparring partner Leon van Dijk crashed into the woods in Holland and rolled into a river, landing upside down.
“When the water came in, I had to kick out the window and drag my buddy, who was knocked out, from the car,” Rutten said. “If someone was watching it, it must have looked like a movie stunt. We crashed through a guard rail, the car went rolling over and somehow we never managed to hit a tree. We would have been dead if we had. I remember when we were rolling down seeing my friend bouncing from one end of the car to the other.”
Rutten’s injury: a small scratch on his head.
“My friend had a whole bunch of stitches and he saw his skull, but they rushed us to the hospital,” Rutten said. “We were just happy we were alive, but we got back to the hospital and it became kind of like a party, celebrating the fact that we were alive; and then we went out drinking, of course. We called it a celebration we were still alive. You should have seen the car. The wheels were all out of order. The left side was mangled. Imagine grabbing a car with two hands and stretching it diagonally. That’s what happened to that car. My focus through all of that was not seeing that little dot that goes out at the end of the ‘Terminator’ movie. I kept saying to myself, ‘Don’t show me that dot. Don’t show me that dot.’”
The next day, Rutten received a call from Pancrase, which had already signed him and was calling to check on his condition.
“I didn’t even know what the Internet was in 1993. It’s the first time I was introduced to it, because when they called, how did they find out about me?” Rutten said with a laugh. “They said they read about me on the Internet. I didn’t know.”
The story still resonates with Rutten 20 years later.
“It does because I could have been dead,” he said. “I smashed my wife’s car, almost died and killed my friend, and the next day I get one of the greatest phone calls of my life, because it showed Pancrase cared. Yeah, you do remember things like that.”
A Turn as a Skywalker
Japan was still digging out from the 7.3-magnitude earthquake that rocked Awaji Island and Kobe on January 17, 1995. Rutten went there for Pancrase Truth 2, where he was scheduled to fight Guy Mezger on March 2, 1996 at the Japan Kobe Fashion Mart.
“I’ll never forget that because their freeways were on the ground,” Rutten said. “They flew us in, and Frank Shamrock was on the show. I wanted to have some fun with him. I thought he was in the hotel room next to mine, so I decided to climb out of my room 42 stories up onto this six-inch ledge; but to get out of the room, I had to break this little plastic security latch to fully open the window and walk out. My heel, I remember, wasn’t fully on it, so I went back backwards so my toes were over the ledge.
“I walked maybe three yards when the guy opens the window next door and looks at me,” he added. “It wasn’t Frank Shamrock. This guy is looking at me like I’m nuts. I guess I am if I’m on a six-inch ledge 42 stories up. He didn’t know what to think. I started to laugh and went back. I was lucky. I just got back to the room when security called. They’re screaming at me. I acted like I just woke up when I answered the phone. They’re yelling that they’re coming up. I had to take my clothes off to convince them I just got out of bed, but I had to fix the plastic safety latch thing I broke. Think fast. Think fast. I was chewing gum, so I stuck the gum on the plastic latch and stuck it to the window.”
Security came running in. They did not even bother knocking, but when they came through the door, they noticed the plastic latch still attached to the window. It left them to wonder: If Rutten was indeed out on the ledge, how did he get there if the plastic safety latch was not broken?
“They apologized, and I felt like MacGyver with my bubblegum trick,” the mischievous Rutten said. “It was awesome.”
One Hard Head
Rutten got a chance to stay in the gigantic, luxurious Tokyo Dome Hotel. It gave him some perspective as to where he was and where he is now, since the first hotel he ever stayed at in Japan was the modest Tokyo Green Hotel across the street.
“Because of winning and being successful, you get to stay in better places and people take better care of you,” Rutten said. “It’s stupid, but that’s the way it is.”
Like the time he broke a porcelain toilet bowl with his head.
“Yep, I did it,” said Rutten, bellowing out his familiar laugh. “I was in Hawaii for a fitness expo around 2000, caught up with B.J. Penn and came back drunk. Regardless of whatever condition that I’m in, I have to shower before I go to bed. It’s a routine I have. I got back to my room and got a shower, though not before taking a sleeping pill. I didn’t know whether the sleeping pill hit me real fast or it was really slippery in the bathroom, but I fell backwards and I hit the toilet with my head. Two inches higher, and I would have broken my neck.
“I must have hit a weak spot in the toilet because it broke,” he added. “I’m serious. My head shattered the toilet bowl. It was the craziest thing. I got up and dressed for bed. I didn’t notice water was spilling out everywhere. I didn’t feel my head cut, either. The whole 38 floors started to fill with water. I pushed my two queen beds together and went to sleep.”
The water started to cascade down to the other floors.
“They came to fix the toilet in the middle of the night, and I thought it was a dream,” Rutten said. “I woke up and saw these bloody handprints all over the room. I was freaking out because I thought I may have killed someone and didn’t know it. I checked the closet for a body. I looked out over the balcony to see if someone fell. Where did the bloody handprints come from? That’s when I passed a mirror and saw my bloody head. Ah! When a security chief came up and told me I broke the toilet, I’m thinking, ‘I’ve had it. They’re going to boot me.’ The hotel manager walked in and says, ‘You’re Bas Rutten. I’m a big fan.’ Whew, I got a break. They fixed everything.
“So the next morning, I see all of these people in the breakfast line,” he added. “I asked them what was going on. They told me that the hotel gave them free breakfast because some idiot broke something on the 38th floor, and all of their luggage got wet. I told them that idiot was me.”
Rutten took a piece of toilet porcelain back home with him as a memento. No matter the moment, he seems to be the type of guy who can embrace a situation and live in that moment. Rutten is a true treasure.
“It’s almost dumb luck some of the stupid things that I’ve been involved with and I’m still here,” Rutten said. “I can laugh at things I’ve done four or five years later and still think they’re funny. My wife yells at me when I start laughing clear out of the blue at something I remembered years ago. I just enjoy life because I see it as a gift. I enjoy pumping gas, because I think about the times when I couldn’t fill up my car. I’ve had neck injuries, hurt my arms or my hands, and then I think about someone like Nick Newell, who [was] out there fighting with one arm. That’s amazing and courageous. People like to make something out of nothing a lot of times.”
Unlike the magical Bas Rutten, who seemingly can snap his fingers and transform an empty room into a party.
Joseph Santoliquito is the president of the Boxing Writer's Association of America and a frequent contributor to Sherdog.com's mixed martial arts and boxing coverage. His archive can be found here.