The Faith of a Fighter: An Interview with MMA Legend Bas Rutten

For MMA fans, Bas Rutten needs no introduction. But for those who may not be familiar with the sport, suffice it to say that he is one of the most legendary fighters in the game, known for his devastating strikes, aggressive and versatile style, and long string of victories—not to mention his showmanship and charisma. Recently inducted into the UFC hall of fame, Bas is recognized around the world as one of the founding fathers of Mixed Martial Arts.

What many may not realize, however, is that Bas Rutten is a devout, daily rosary praying, Mass-attending Catholic who brings all the intensity of a fighter to his spiritual life. He prays in Latin just because it makes the demons squirm, quotes St. Thomas Aquinas, studies the faith constantly, and can’t wait to tell anyone who will listen about the riches the Catholic faith has to offer.

I recently sat down with Bas for an extended interview to ask him about his storied career and how the faith has changed his life.

1. Let’s start by talking about your fight career. You are a legend in fight circles: a three-time King of Pancrase world champion, a kickboxer, UFC heavyweight champion, and a UFC hall of famer. You were unbeaten in a 22 fight streak, which is seriously impressive in the fight world. You even have some famous bar brawls under your belt. I remember watching videos of your bare knuckle fighting in Pancrase and dropping people with your famed liver shot (ouch). How did you get started fighting?

I was a very sick kid, had a bad skin disease, eczema, on my hands, arms, face, neck, legs and was bullied a lot because of it since kids didn’t understand it and thought it was contagious

After seeing the Bruce Lee movie Enter the Dragon, when I was 12 or 13 years old, I realized that when I could be “like Bruce”, I didn’t need to worry about bullies anymore. Long story short, I started training for about 3 months, got into a fight with the biggest bully in town, knocked him out with one shot and the bullying pretty much stopped. My parents weren’t happy though because the police showed up since the bully had a broken nose and went to the hospital, so they took me off Martial Arts (Tae Kwon Do at the time). At 19 or 20 I left the house and started training immediately (I also trained myself learning from books in between). Started doing Tae Kwon Do, Shin Tai Karate, then Thai boxing and started competing in Thai boxing.

Years later somebody asked me if I was interested in: “Free fighting in Japan.” That same person, Chris Dolman (from Holland), called me moths later and told me to come to his gym in Amsterdam, that there were two Japanese guys there who started a new organization called Pancrase, they wanted to see me “try out” for them.

I got into a brawl with one of the Champions from that gym, he kept sparring hard, I told him it wasn’t necessary, that they only needed to see us move around but he kept doing it. So I told him that if he wouldn’t stop, I would simply do it back, and BOOM, I KO’d him with a high kick. Impressive enough for those two guys from Japan so they were pointing at me.

In September 1993, I went to Japan and that’s when it all started

2.You weren’t always one of the most feared fighters in the world. You used to be a lot like me when I was a kid…skinny, asthmatic, and unathletic. What happened? How did you go from a scrawny wimp to a total bad-ass? 

I indeed had asthma and severe asthma attacks which kept me in bed for like 7 or 8 days at the time, not even able to eat because I couldn’t breathe. But fortunately I have the genes from my dad’s side of the family, they are all athletes and gymnasts, so I did very well at “track and field” and wanted to do decathlon. So once everything started to get a bit better (my asthma and eczema) I started developing muscle and felt even better at track and field and that all helped build my physique for fighting.

3. You’ve fought with a number of different combat sports, competing in a lot of different organizations. What do you love most about fighting? What were some favorite moments from your career? 

It’s such a raw sport, it’s really man on man combat. You don’t rely on anybody else, it’s just you in there and that is something really badass, to me at least, haha.

Training for a certain opponent and then finishing him with something that you worked on is very satisfying. I am proud of the fact that I went into this Mixed Martial Arts game as a striker, lost 3 times by submission, and told myself, “No more losing.” I started focusing on the ground game and then never lost a fight anymore and wrapped up my career, as you mentioned, with not a single loss in my last 22 fights. It’s cool to me when I see that in the end, from my 28 wins, I had only 4 DEC, 11KO and 14 submission victories, so I went in as a “striker” and in the end had more submission victories than KO’s.

And of course my title fights and rematches from fights that I lost are highlights of my career.

4. I discovered MMA in high school, back when it was still illegal in most states. I’d watch grainy reruns of the early UFC and Pride fights online, and watching exciting fighters like you and Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic kept me up late at night when I should have been doing homework. Things have changed a lot in the last decade, though, and MMA has exploded in popularity. Are you excited by what you’re seeing in the sport? Are there any fighters we should keep our eye on?  

I love it. I love that they changed the rules making it so much safer now for the fighters, including adding weight classes. Check this out, in Japan I found out ON the day of the fight that my opponent was 40 pounds heavier than me, I asked them about it and they simply said: “We have no weight classes.” I bluffed saying “Great, that sounds awesome, how many rounds we fight?” They answered, “One round.” I said: “Great, how many minutes?” The answer: “30 minutes.” Ouch, I really needed to keep my poker face up. I remember saying: “Great, because I trained really hard for this.” Haha, I wasn’t happy though!

5. There are some people out there who just don’t understand combat sports (like my wife!). They think they are brutal and barbaric, and I know some Christians object to them as too violent. How would you respond to these objections? 

Violent, (using physical force) yeah, but so is a hard game of Football, soccer, and other contact sports. “Brutal and barbaric,” I say “No, that’s not true.” And I can speak as having an insiders perspective, not so much on the moral theology of it. I think it would be “brutal and barbaric” when one of the two people fighting doesn’t want to fight but has to.

Once you both sign up for it, it’s really all about “testing your skills against his.” Like shooting hoops with a friend. It sounds unbelievable but I am serious; to all the fighters it’s just that. From the outside it “looks” barbaric since many promotions use a cage and you associate that with “animals” or “prisoners.” But it’s really nothing like that.

98% of the fighters are very friendly with each other. Sure I wouldn’t hang out with a guy I had to fight in the days before the fight, but afterwards MOST of them will be seen together drinking a beer and having fun. Real, true animosity (not acted) almost doesn’t exist in MMA. I can count those fights maybe on two hands (And that’s since 1993!), and I mean REAL, not “set up” to promote the fight. And even when it’s real, they ALWAYS hug each other after they’ve fought. The only person who didn’t want to make up, that I know off, was Ronda Rousey after she fought Miesha Tate. I am certain there have been a few more of those but it almost never happens – and when it does, the rest of the sport frowns upon that.

It’s also not dangerous because we are all professionals who know what is going on in that ring or cage. We train for that every day, often two times a day.

I know what the opponent can do, and he knows what I can do, and we just try to beat each other within the rules of the sport. There is no deliberate attempt for permanent damage. There is also less damage to the head like in boxing, since in boxing it’s all focused on the head (90%), in MMA you can submit each other as well. Fights are won by submission, by KO, and of course a bunch by “decision”.

The “eight count” doesn’t exist in MMA, when you can’t reasonably defend yourself anymore the referee will immediately stop the fight, unlike in boxing where they give you 8 seconds to regroup and then you can get back in to get some more.

KENNER, LA – JANUARY 08: Bas Rutten prior to his bout with Tsuyoshi Kosaka at UFC 18 on January 8, 1999 in Kenner, Louisiana. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

Big John McCarthy, the most famous referee said it really smart: “You have the mixture of 4 Olympic sports, Tae Kwon Do (kicks), boxing (punches), wrestling (wrestling) and Judo (submissions).” All these sports are OK for people to watch, but you can’t mix them up? That’s weird because of course there are a whole bunch of rules, unlike in the beginning of MMA where pretty much everything was allowed. Senator McCain called it Human cock fighting in the early days, he’s a HUGE fan right now (with all the new rules) and he even stated that it would have been something he would have loved to try when he was young

6. Let’s switch gears and talk about faith. Some people may not realize this, but you are a proud and devout Catholic. Were you raised Catholic? When and how did the faith become important to you? 

I was baptized and did my confirmation as a kid. The name Bas comes from Sebastiaan (in Holland it’s spelled like that), so St Sebastian is my patron Saint who happens to be the patron of athletes and soldiers.

My parents stopped going to Church when I was about 12. I think that was the age where people wanted to be “cool, modern and scientific” and started believing that “one cell” deal, which, to me, blows me away that people believe that.

They believe this whole planet is an accident and I simply refuse to believe that. I truly believe this life is a test to go on to something bigger. Think about it, we are here for about 80 years, that’s it? And in that short time, pretty much everything we do in life is a contest. Your job (you want to move up), sports (you want to be the best), studying (you want to go to the best school), you name it. So why is our life not a contest?

I got pulled back into the Faith about 3.5 years ago. I was just sitting in on a conference that was given by a friend, Leo Severino, a very smart theologian, and he has this way of “back tracking” everything in life which will really open up your eyes.

For example, when speaking about whether life was an accident, he gave the example of mousetrap – of how it has 5 essential parts that are required for the thing to work as a mousetrap.  Without any of those parts, it ceases to function.  In talks that I do right now about faith, I actually found an even simpler object that makes the same point, a clothespin.

Imagine we are explorers who sometime in the future land on another planet.  In the sand of this other planet, we find a clothespin… Now for the sake of this example, lets say we don’t know what a clothespin is (I know it’s stupid because we just landed on a different planet, but for the sake of the argument).

So we find a clothespin.  In studying it, we will notice that all three parts are necessary to make it work, if ONE part would be missing, one of the two boards or the spring, it doesn’t function as a clothespin.

Now, would anyone think: “Mmm, that’s interesting, what an interesting device that just happened to accidentally appear her.  The wind must have started blowing, or something, and shaped these two symmetrically identical pieces of wood, laying them side by side in exactly the same location.  Then that same wind started blowing harder and took a wire from somewhere (??) that coiled and formed in such a way that it could fit precisely in between those two symmetrical wooden pieces and, as by sheer luck happened to have landed and it fit itself perfectly between the two wooden pieces, adding just the desired tension for them to snap together, and BOOM, there is the clothespin!!!”

Would we think any of the above OR, would we obviously conclude: “Somebody designed this! There must be some intelligent life on this planet who made this clothespin!!”

Now even the biggest non-believer has to admit, that would be a design made by somebody/something – because of the nature of the complexity of the object. Then Leo said: “OK, so if we would conclude that such a simple thing as a clothespin (or mousetrap) was designed because of its irreducible complexity, what about the human eye?  It has thousands of irreducibly complex parts, all of which are necessary for the thing to work as an eyeball!!! A clothespin has 3 parts and you say THAT is a design but a human eye has 10,000 parts and that is NOT a design? (We can mention DNA later, which is arguably far more complex).

The human eye, when you talk about a purely “evolutionary” or “accidental” model would basically conclude that it must have started with 1 part, that became 2, etc?  So the object of the initial genetic accident or mutation was not even an eye ball in the beginning.  A totally blind organism accidentally sprouted something that, a few thousand accidental mutations and eons later became a totally functioning eyeball that could suddenly see depth, in color, etc?  That’s ridiculous.

By the way, DNA was the reason that Antony Flew, who was one of the most known and biggest atheists in the world, changed his verdict about being an atheist when he talked to Roy Varghese, who’s another smart individual, about DNA.

So Leo’s talk, and talking to a world-renowned theologian, Father Chad Ripperger, (another super smart guy) really changed my perspective on things and helped give me solid reasons to believe.

7. Not many fighters these days are vocal about their beliefs. Yet, you are proud to talk about the fact that you are Catholic. What is your favorite part about being Catholic? How has the faith changed your life? 

It changed my life in everything I do, all for the better. My wife likes me way better now, haha. I am much more relaxed and calculated and have a better understanding of things. When I just explained the talk from Leo Severino and Father Ripperger in the question before this, please understand that those are just two examples I gave. There is WAY more. It was not just those two talks, but those two sparked my interest. I have had hundreds of talks now and am confident in the reasons for my belief.

I believe the reasons for faith are so strong and clear that if a non-believer would give it a chance, they all would turn to faith. But unfortunately they don’t, they just repeat what other people say. Trust me, I am hard to convince of ANYTHING. Normally, “seeing is believing” with me. But to me, it opened up my mind in everything. Man, I can go on for two hours about things I have experienced and have seen and how much of the faith make so much sense in a systematic way.

I would love to tell non-believers: “Get off your phones and computers, forget about YOURSELF one time and about your “likes” and other social media crap, and actually spend some time reading/learning about faith and the ultimate questions and purpose of life. After you’ve done that for 6 months, THEN decide if you believe or not. Because what if you are wrong and you don’t do what you need to do in order to make the next big step. You wanna take that risk? Not me, but I am pretty sure that once you learn about it, you will be drawn to it.

And please don’t say: “I will do that when I am 60 years old,” because man, if you know how old you are going to be before you die please tell me that secret, because to my knowledge it can be over for any of us at any moment. NOBODY knows when his time is up, so act now!

8. Training to be a fighter takes a lot of discipline and hard work. So does the spiritual life. Has being a fighter changed the way you approach your spiritual life? Do you see any overlap between fighting and the faith? 

It’s the same; you wanna get better at fighting? You train. You want to become better in life? You learn about the Faith.

Also, for people who read this, please don’t think that every lesson about faith is simply about God directly, or how the world started, or how to pray, etc. The faith encompasses so much more.  You can learn about how the human mind works, and human psychology, and the purpose of life, and why you do certain things, how you can fix those things, how you can fix your way of thinking.

All these truths are seen in the Bible, and all these notions that we are talking about are used by every psychologist or whatever “mind Doctor” there is nowadays, sometimes just using different words.  There is nothing new under the sun.  Truth is truth.  They all use the same exact principles and they all are blown away when they realize that St. Thomas Aquinas (and others) already figured this stuff out long ago. Even crazier, those without the philosophical training of an Aquinas were writing about the same exact principles even if where uneducated shepherds or fisherman, men who never went to school, like many of the great apostles and saints. Well, what they say is, “We didn’t come up with that stuff. He (God) told us to write it down, or we learned it from His Church.” And since all of those teachings are so systematic and don’t contradict, you basically have to conclude that they come from the same divine source!

9. Do you have any favorite saints, ones that you are devoted to? 

Yes, of course. St. Sebastian, I already mentioned him, but also St. Therese, St. Joseph, St. Michael and St. Raphael. Those are the ones I pay the most attention to, but it all started with one, so probably a bunch more will come

10. You pray the rosary every day, which is awesome. What do you love about this prayer? 

It just let me focus; it’s meditating to me, as it is to many others. Take your time to do it, go to a quiet spot and start, when you really go over the “mysteries” and visualize them and repeat the prayers it will calm you down. Pick the right time, though. Don’t get up, look on your computer and phone, read some emails and think that you will answer them AFTER you did your rosary. Because that will mess it up all you are thinking.

To me it’s the best to do when I get up. The first thing I do when I wake up is make coffee, bring the coffee back into bed and read the “daily readings.” Then I read the “reflections” of those readings to make sure I understand it, all while drinking my coffee and waking up.

Then I get up, pick a quiet spot, most of the time in the backyard, and do the rosary.

If I have to work right away, but I can make it to daily mass at noon, I do it after mass. Otherwise, I pick a time somewhere during the day or even before I go to sleep. The rosary is a great way to relax and go to sleep.

My friends say: “That’s a lot of time to spend every day on the Faith,” but it’s not. And for people who are interested in Faith, but haven’t started yet, please don’t worry. The only thing you are required to do is to make ONE hour a week free to go to Church, yes, and also a few times go to confession and a few little other things. But pretty much NOTHING compares to what you do in life already. The thing is, once you start, truly start, you will not want to stop because you will sense your life improving. It’s as if God asks you to give a little to Him, but He gives way more back to you.

I just chose to do this myself because I started to feel better and better, and like in fighting, when things go well, you want to do more! But like in fighting, when the next day is a busy day and I can’t fit in a workout, I simply get up earlier so I can STILL do that workout.

You can always make time, especially nowadays, just take away 30 minutes from you being on social media, and you are DONE, haha. Funny right? We all have time for that, but not for things that really matter!

11. This a blog for men. Often times men stay away from the faith because they don’t want to be considered weak. They think praying and going to Mass is irrelevant and they leave the religious things to their wives and kids. What would you say to a man who thinks the faith isn’t manly, who doesn’t care? 

First of all, send these men to talk to me privately, and I will show them what it means to be a real man. If they disagree or dare say I am not a real man because I pray and put my faith in God first, watch out!! Haha.

The fact is, these men think just like I was thinking a few years ago. They think that being a “tough guy” is manly, like having a huge car with huge wheels is manly. Drinking, doing drugs, talking about shooting people, dropping F-bombs everywhere, it’s all considered “manly stuff” while in fact it is the opposite. Again, I was the same. It’s how we are programmed online, by the TV, movies, our culture. But it’s the opposite, trust me.

A REAL man sacrifices himself for others. Praying right and learning about our faith and living right is HARD work. It is manly. The man who dedicates himself to his family, works hard, treats his wife like he treats himself (you are “one flesh”), who is there for his kids, THAT is a real man. Not a guy who plays video games all day, has no time for his family, doesn’t have a job, smokes weed all day, etc. because that guy is the loser.

I am not saying you can’t do that stuff, like video games, drinking in moderation, etc. Of course you can, but it has to be ordered and moderated.  It has to be virtuous for it to be manly. Moderation is the key thing here, as soon as any of those things take over your life, you are not a man anymore. You are actually a slave to those things, the Bible said, if you are a drunk: “You are enslaved”. That line has made me a moderate drinker, I was out of control for a while, I drank a lot and everybody knows this. But I also wanted to be always in control, so as soon as I read that I was a “slave to alcohol,” meaning, that alcohol was controlling me and my life and not the other way around, I simply didn’t want to be a slave anymore and beat it.  All sin is the same way.  We are slaves to it until we grow in virtue.

But let’s stay in the mindset that I had as well a while ago and answer those “manly” guys who think that “it’s not manly to pray.”

So I am not manly? That’s what they are saying? Because there is one thing I know and that is that I am manly.

12. So manliness goes hand in hand with being virtuous. But why do so many men still feel the need to act macho and put on a show? 

Those men are insecure, they think it’s cooler to have a big car, big watch, perfect looking wife (forget about if she’s a good person, as long as she is hot and other guys see that, that’s why divorce rates are so high in the world), cool clothes, stupid $300 sneakers because, “hey look at me, I have $300 sneakers, I am cool!!” (Thankfully I never had that sneaker problem, I had a lot of problems, but not that one, haha).

They don’t realize is that all those things are exactly the opposite of being manly. It’s like using profanity. Trust me, years ago I was the worst one. But once I stopped it I realized it’s just something you use when you are insecure and want to “sound cool.” The more a person drops an F bomb, I truly believe “the more insecure that person is.” It’s like barking dogs. When I was a bouncer and kicked somebody out and that person was yelling in my face and said that he would “get me,” I knew 100% that he wouldn’t do anything. Now the person who would just look at me a certain way, nod and walk away, THOSE guys I made sure were followed by somebody who worked at the bar to get their license plate. The guys on the street who take off their shirts and scream? Those are the weakest guys and they split immediately when you call their bluff. The ones that don’t raise their voice, stay really calm and just talk to you, watch out for those ones! Every bouncer will tell you the same thing.

Flashing a piece? Sorry, you are insecure, I mean you think you are tough because you have a gun? Fight the person “man on man”, no you show guts. It’s like these guys who wanna race you when you stand in front of a traffic light and they have a car that you know has 200 more HP than yours, why would you race? My 15 year old daughter can beat me in a race with that car because it’s the CAR, it’s not YOU. Why don’t you both get the same car and go on a racetrack, and then you will know who can actually drive the best (I might still lose, I’m not saying I am a race car driver) but you see what I mean? You make it an even playing field and when you do that, then the person with the best skills will win.

You really think when I put on a pink tutu and would drive in a light green VW Beetle that you suddenly can beat me? OR do you think it doesn’t matter what I wear (or say) and my skills are my skills?

One more example. My cousin Hein in Holland was 16 years old and had his first Thai Boxing match. He faced a 24 year old who was covered with tattoos and said to me: “Man, he is all covered with tattoos” (He was a kid, it was intimidating to him). I told him that if tattoos would make me strong, I would be covered from head to toe. He got the message.

13. Some men do care about their souls and the faith, but it is easy to get distracted by the busyness of life. What advice do you have for men who want to be faithful but who struggle to make time for prayer?

Map it out, it’s simple. Every interview I did about my fighting career I always said that the reason I was successful in fighting was that I would do whatever I told myself to do. So, let’s use “training for a fight” as an example. I would tell myself before the workout what I was going to do, let’s say, 8 rounds of sparring and after that 10 rounds on the bag. I would ALWAYS do that, and you know why? Because I couldn’t look at myself when I wouldn’t do it. I just wired my brain like that; the most important person (not divine) in your own life is YOU. You never want to let yourself down, this is very important guys!

Whatever I tell myself I’m gonna do, I do! When I tell you I will be at your place at 10? I WILL be there and I probably will arrive 15 minutes earlier. I am a man of my word, ALWAYS. This I always did and you can apply this to any profession and you will succeed, but always set high goals.

Once you start doing that, do the same with Faith. Just tell yourself, “This is how my day is going to look!” And the best thing to do? I mentioned it before: do it in the morning before you start your day. I am telling you, you only have to force yourself for about a week, maybe two. After that, it becomes a habit and it will be easy to do, and you will also enjoy it more.

14. You say frequently, “Deo gratias!” This is Latin for “Thanks be to God.” Just curious: Do you happen to go to a Mass that is in Latin?

Yes, I do. I also do my rosary in Latin and learned a whole bunch of other prayers in Latin as well. It’s the language demons fear the most, and the universal language of the Church.  I find it more reverent and a higher form of prayer.

The more I pray, the more I see everything in my life as getting better, not only in regards to the Faith, but also for myself and automatically my family and friends. The more prayers I memorize the more it develops my brain, the easier it becomes for me to memorize scripts, whether it’s for movies, TV or commentating jobs. YES, it takes time to memorize, but it will help me with a whole bunch of other things as well.

Many people only train their bodies; not realizing you can train your brain and your soul as well.  Our biggest fights are not with mortal flesh but with the fallen angels.  Another great fighter once said something to that effect…

The post The Faith of a Fighter: An Interview with MMA Legend Bas Rutten appeared first on The Catholic Gentleman.

This article is reprinted with permission from our friends at The Catholic Gentleman.


Sam Guzman is an author and editor of The Catholic Gentleman whose work has appeared in several publications. He resides in Wisconsin with his wife and two small boys where he is also the Communications Director for Pro-Life Wisconsin.

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