Mixed martial arts is probably the worst place to keep a secret. Whether it’s a fight announcement, a fight withdrawal or a key injury, if something is happening, someone will know and will talk about it soon enough. So when the UFC and the Inside MMA crew at AXS TV was able to keep the news about Bas Rutten’s impending UFC Hall of Fame induction away from “El Guapo” for two weeks until UFC President Dana White could tell him on the air, that was a hall of fame worthy feat in itself.
“I knew that they planned this for two weeks, but we didn’t have a show, so that’s why it was going to take longer,” Rutten said. “And (Inside MMA co-host) Kenny (Rice) normally calls me, and he said ‘the reason I didn’t call you was that I was so afraid I would give it away.’ So yeah, it came as a total surprise.”
Yet it was a welcome one for the Tilburg, Netherlands native, who is appreciative of the honor he will be receiving at the UFC Fan Expo in Las Vegas on July 11.
“It’s a really amazing feeling,” he said. “You think the icing on your cake is the belt you get. Then many years later, when you get this, this is truly the icing on the cake. Because you don’t expect it.”
Maybe Rutten should have, because his body of work and influence in the sport of mixed martial arts is quite significant. A former UFC heavyweight champion, Rutten may have only had two fights in the Octagon (both wins), but before and after his time in the promotion, he was first one of the best fighters in the game, pound-for-pound, while competing in Japan’s Pancrase organization, before becoming a gifted analyst and ambassador for the sport, with his commentary work for the PRIDE promotion making him an icon to a generation that never saw him fight. And he’s fine with the idea that some newer fans see him as the PRIDE or Inside MMA guy and not as an influential force inside the ropes or cage.
“People ask me what I do and I say I’m a TV host,” the 50-year-old said. “I know eventually these things (his fighting career) are coming up anyway, so I don’t really mind. It goes back to the fighters. If I have respect from those guys, that’s what really counts.”
Rutten certainly had – and has - that respect. When he entered the UFC for the first time in January of 1999, he had already built a 26-4-1 record fighting in Japan in the prestigious Pancrase promotion that also launched the careers of Ken and Frank Shamrock, Maurice Smith and Guy Mezger, just to name a few of the fighters who went on to excel in the UFC.
“If you look at the fighters of my time that came from Pancrase, a lot of guys became UFC champions,” Rutten said. “Frank Shamrock and Maurice Smith, there was also Guy Mezger, Ken Shamrock. (Kazuo) Takahashi went there and beat Wallid Ismail, who at that time had beat all these Gracies in Jiu-Jitsu. And we knew that they were focusing on the ground there in the UFC and of course it started with Royce (Gracie).”
Pancrase held many similarities to the UFC, but the big exception was the rule of no closed fist strikes to the head. For a former Muay Thai star who also held black belts in Kyokushin Karate and Taekwondo, you might assume that Rutten would have had a problem with this, but any look at his Pancrase fights displays the type of open hand strikes that landed with the speed and force of a traditional punch, and when that didn’t do the job, his lethal liver shots came in quite handy. Still, he wouldn’t have had a problem with some different rules, like closed fist punches.
“It would be much better,” he laughs. “Still, the hooks I like to do with open hands many times because it creates more space for a straight punch. Plus, I hit behind the ear, and I don’t hit with my hand, I hit with my wrist bone. But with a closed fist, for some reason you’re even faster, so I would loved that. The craziest thing is that when I left Pancrase, I think three or four months later, they changed all the rules to the UFC rules. Are you kidding me? (Laughs) Now suddenly you can hit with a closed fist and no more shin protection? It was crazy.”
The announcement of Rutten’s arrival in the UFC caused a stir, and in the days of no social media, that’s saying a lot. And immediately, Rutten was thrust into the title picture.
“The setup was (Mark) Coleman vs. Pete Williams, and the winner of that was going to face (Tsuyoshi) Kohsaka and the winner of that was going to face me,” Rutten recalls of the tournament of sorts set up to fill the title vacated by Randy Couture. “On the other side, the bracket was Kevin Randleman and Maurice Smith. I actually thought Maurice was going to pull that one out, so I figured I would fight him a third time, but then Kevin pulled it off, and Kevin was the first real good wrestler that I fought. I knew with Kohsaka I was going to be in for something, and I had this crazy chest injury so I couldn’t really train my takedown defense and my ground. But once I started feeling him out and I could stop his takedowns, I knew I could pick my shots and go for the knockout.”
Rutten won his debut over the highly-underrated Kohsaka by TKO in a little over 14 minutes, and four months later, at UFC 20 in May of 1999, he took a split decision over Randleman to win the UFC heavyweight title. Rutten, at 6-foot-1, was better suited for light heavyweight, so he vacated the title to chase after another divisional belt, but when fights with Tito Ortiz and old rival Frank Shamrock (who he went 2-1 against in Pancrase) didn’t pan out and injuries began to pile up, Rutten retired.
“I would have loved it,” he said of a fourth bout with Shamrock. “And I was going to fight Frank. I was in line to fight Tito, and Frank left the UFC, but when he found out Tito and I were going to compete for the title, he said ‘no, no, I’m the champion; I will fight Tito and then when I beat Tito I’m going to face Bas.’ So then when he beat Tito we thought it was going to happen, but then he started stacking up injuries here and there, so that was probably the reason for him also to hang it up.”
Rutten would come back in 2006 for one last fight, stopping Ruben Villareal in the first round of a WFA bout, and going 21-0-1 in your last 22 bouts isn’t a bad way to leave the sport as an active participant. And though he stopped competing, Rutten has remained around MMA as a commentator, coach and analyst, and for all his jokes and one-liners, when told how his peers see him after all these years, he is clearly humbled by that well-deserved respect he gets.
“I never see those things,” he said. “I hear later and then I go ‘wow.’ Everybody who comes on the show, they always go ‘Bas, I started watching you early on and I wanted to be like that,’ and every time, you go ‘man, that is so cool.’ But it never really goes through to me. It’s weird and I don’t know why it is like that with me. But when you find out now and hear all the fighters commenting on it (the Hall of Fame induction), it’s the coolest thing. I wanted to fight for the people, but if you’re cool in the eyes of the fighters, that is the coolest thing ever.”