By: Jesse Donathan
There was always something spiritual involved in perfecting my jump shot from nearly every conceivable angle on the basketball court, spending countless hours in my youth on the make shift court behind my parents’ house dreaming of becoming an NBA sharp shooter. And while my NBA dreams ultimately gave way to mixed martial arts, the sport will forever hold a special place in my heart and among the most endearing topics in the game today are the seemingly endless tales of streetball legends who, for one reason or another, never managed to make it to the big leagues. Legends like Earl Manigault, Demetrius Mitchell and Jackie Ryan just to name a few, occupy a trail of shattered hoop dreams in an all too familiar tale.
In the world of combat sports, there are a handful of individuals who fit this same bill as incredible athletes in their own right, yet who, like their street basketball legend counterparts, never made it the leap in mixed martial arts stardom for one of any number of reasons of why a combat sports athlete would be hesitant to sign up for an exclusive trip behind some brutes woodshed. In this article we are going to examine a small handful of fighters from mixed martial arts history who are said to be some of the baddest dudes who ever walked planet earth who you’ve likely never heard of.
According to a September 21, 2019 Bad Guy Inc. YouTube video titled, “The toughest man I ever met…,” former UFC middleweight contender and ESPN MMA analyst Chael Sonnen went on to relay a fascinating story about Les Gutches, the first combat sports athlete on our list who is a mixed martial arts equivalent to a street basketball legend.
“The toughest guy I ever met in my life,” reminisced Sonnen, who has either trained with or fought a who’s who list of the very best fighters in mixed martial arts, “was a guy by the name of Les Gutches, and Les Gutches was a multiple time national champion, a world champion, and he was right up the street, he went to Oregon State University and he would train everyday with Randy Couture, they were training partners.”
“And when they went to compete, Les would go in Freestyle and Randy in Greco, and they’d come back and work out together all the time. And when we got together with Team Quest, there was Dan Henderson and Randy Couture, they started, boom, I went in when I found out about these workouts, I’m in there and then Matt Lindland comes and joins, so we got a pretty good four, I mean I’m name dropping right now with a lot of other guys, but we had some … this is hard, right? Les Gutches is right up the road and we never even invited him. Not one day was he even invited to come in, as bad as those four guys I just told you (about), throw myself, Dan, Randy, Matt, we knew there was no point. If Les comes up here we knew we don’t have a spot anymore, thats how tough this guy was,” said Sonnen.
In explaining just how tough of a competitor Gutches actually was, Sonnen went on to explain, “And some of his training room stories, so Matt Lindland was a very good practice room guy, just because he was such a competitor, he didn’t want to lose even in the practice room, right. This is a world, this is an Olympic medalist, the number one ranked middleweight of all-time, but he would show up every single day raring to go and he would do great in practice.”
According to Chael, “He goes and does a workout with Les, and this is according to Matt, Matt told me this story. The way the workout works is there were no coaches there, Les set the workout up, so Les is in charge, whatever he says they’re doing, they’re going to do. And Les goes great, here’s what we are going to do, we are going to set the clock for 60-minutes and we are going to go hard for 60-minutes, one hour later we’re done and we’re going to go home. So, Matt says for like 55-minutes Les just throws him around. And don’t forget, Matt is an Olympic medalist, he says he can’t do anything, Les is throwing him around. And at the very end they body lock each other and Matt steps in and throws him to his back.”
“So, Les jumps up and just goes again and Matt forces the same position and Les goes right back to it, he wants to solve the problem and Matt steps in, throws him right back on his back. So, they get back to their feet, same position, Les forces it and he wants to work, Matt throws him a third time, boom, clock goes off, out of time. Les sprints to one side of the room, then he sprints back to Matt, and there’s nobody else in the room, it’s the two of them and Matt’s standing there and Les sprints right to him and stops on a dime, puts his hand out and says thanks for the work out,” recounted Sonnen, who is a virtual Atlas of mixed martial arts information.
Continuing, Sonnen would go on to elaborate that, “I’ve always appreciated that story because I didn’t see the workout, but I know I haven’t seen anybody get over on Matt Lindland. Now that’s not a literal statement, but it’s awfully close and the fact Matt admitted somebody got over on him for 55-minutes of a 60-minute workout, I just know it was true.”
“And whenever you have a guy that is the toughest guy you know, but he has a guy that is the toughest guy he knows, and allow me to insert myself into this,” said Sonnen.
“If Les Gutches did to me what he did to me, and I wasn’t a consenting adult and we were not in the practice room, he would have been arrested, for sure. Like, if we were out on the street and we got into it, the cops would pull up, they would pull their guns, they would put him in handcuffs and they would take him away,” said Sonnen in a glimpse of just how brutal training with the most elite combat sport athletes in the world can truly be.
According to Sonnen, in recollecting tales of Gutches’ own hardships on the mat, “He would tell me stories about the baddest guy he knew, and the baddest guy he knew was a guy named Mark Schultz. And Mark Schultz was a three-time NCAA champion, Olympic champion, World champion, Schultz even went on and fought in the UFC, undefeated, 1-0, did one fight and never did it again. You might have seen the movie Foxcatcher, they made it about Mark Schultz.”
As recorded on the March 21, 2018 edition of the Joe Rogan Experience MMA Show #18 UFC Hall of Famer Pat Miletich relayed a few stories along very similar lines to Sonnen’s gym hero tales of Les Gutches being the toughest guy he had ever met. Miletich, a former UFC champion who has trained some of the greatest fighters in mixed martial arts history, has been around the block a time or two and is as respected of a mixed martial arts mind as there is in the sport today.
“Bernard Hopkins was getting his ass kicked by Antwun Echols (32-22-4, 28 KOs) who trained at Pena’s Boxing Gym in Iowa where I trained,” Miletich recalled to Rogan on his widely popular JRE internet podcast in early 2018. According to Pat, “Antwun was scary dude, scary, he got side tracked and derailed by horrible management, they really screwed his career up. But he was the scariest boxer that I have ever seen and been in the gym with. He’s looking like he is punching at half speed and just crushing people with 16-oz sparring gloves on, destroying people.”
According to Miletich, “Antwun went down to South America, Ecuador or wherever the hell it was, that was when Norris was fighting … Simon Brown? Michael Nunn was defending his title there, and Antwun got on the card because Michael Nunn was the pound-for-pound best fighter in the world and he was out of Davenport, Iowa also.”
“So, they were doing a bunch of sparring, they were training down there getting use to the altitude and Antwun walked into the gym and he started sparring with three-time world champions and beat the shit out of all of them,” Miletich said.
“When you were running your gym,” said Rogan, “The Miletich Fighting Systems was THE gym. I mean you guys were the kings, you got to think about who came out of your gym. Matt Hughes, Robbie Lawler, I mean, Jens Pulver, Tim Sylvia and then a host of other killers that people just forgot.”
“You know, we had a lot of people obviously who would come and train with us,” said Miletich. “Rich Franklin, Dave Menne, who was a 185-champ for a while, he was one of the best martial artists that I’ve ever seen, people don’t even know about him, the guy was incredible. Trained with Greg Nelson for a good portion of his career obviously, but I think we had 92 people (who) made it to televised careers and I think 30 or so made it to the UFC,” Miletich said.
On the topic mixed martial arts legend Mark Coleman, Miletich would go on to recollect that, “He was ungodly strong when I trained him for the Pride Grand Prix right, he called me up and he goes, ‘I want I come there and train with you.’ And he had lost two or three fights in a row at that point, so he was kind of cannon fodder put into that Pride Grand Prix, he was just a name at that point. ‘And I go, alright, but if you come here, you have to do everything that I tell you to do, we’re going to train hard. I’m gonna torture you,’ and he’s like that’s fine.”
“And he wanted to come there I think because I had so many scary dudes there at the time, like Steve Rusk, who wasn’t even a fighter, could kill every fighter I’ve ever trained. I mean, he would just walk in the room, take off his fatigues from hunting, beat the shit out of everybody in the room and then go back out hunting,” said Miletich.
“Lindland, after we fought, he came to my gym to train for one of his fights and (laughs) Steve Rusk is there that day. And Rusk was a great Greco-guy and now it’s the Olympic Silver medalist Greco guy going against a guy who is an unknown, and Rusk ragdolls him. We’re doing winner stays on the mat and Lindland gets taken down, and Lindland won’t leave the mat, and he can’t believe he’s getting taken down by a no name, right? So, Rusk does it to him again, does it to him again, does it to him again, and finally the whole team goes, Lindland gets off the mat, get the (expletive) off the mat. Lindland comes over and sits next to me and he goes, ‘Who the (expletive) is that guy?’”
That guy, according to former UFC heavyweight champion Tim Sylvia in a March 14, 2014 FightLand Vice report titled, “WHAT IT WAS LIKE TO SPAR AT MILETICH FIGHTING SYSTEMS BACK IN THE GLORY DAYS – PART 2,” was, “Steve Rusk, a three-time All-American, (who) is just a beast who ended up being my wrestling coach and he’s still today one of my best friends. But he would just get so heavy on my head and just hold my head down, and I couldn’t pick it up. We were in the wrestling room and I tried to get him to stop, and he wouldn’t stop, and he just put me in a pile in a corner and I started crying,” said the 6-foot-8-inch, 265 pound plus Sylvia.
“I couldn’t pick my head up. I couldn’t do anything. I was just mentally broke. He broke me. And after he did that, I said to myself, “I will never ever allow that to be done to me again.” And I didn’t. And now I do it to everybody. I actually just did it today.”
Its said iron sharpens iron, knowing that to be the case the Les Gutches and Steve Rusks of the world have played a pivotal role in helping to sharpen some of the greatest fighters the sport of mixed martial arts has ever seen, yet, to this day remain unknowns, mixed martial arts equivalent to street basketball legends. Athletes whose hand-to-hand combat abilities were elite, but who are forever destined to remain side notes, known to only the sport’s most elite historians. But using the “greatest middleweight of all-time,” Matt Lindland as a measuring stick, it sure sounds like Les Gutches and Steve Rusk could have been UFC champions.
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