Former UFC champ turned actor Bas Rutten readies for his close-up
Seventeen years ago this month, Bas Rutten stood on a Santa Monica beach and made the most pivotal decision of his life.
"It was 3 p.m. and I was drinking a Heineken and a tequila shot when I called my wife back in Holland," said Rutten, who was 30 years old at the time. "[Back] there you could skate on lakes, so I told her to start packing. We were moving to America."
That decision set in motion a sequence of career moves that would propel Rutten from UFC champion to industry-leading fight commentator to TV host to supporting actor in a major motion picture.
On Friday, Rutten shares the big screen in theatres nationwide with comedy virtuosos Kevin James and Henry Winkler in
It's no coincidence that Rutten's character, Niko, has some striking similarities to the actor portraying him. James co-wrote the script with no one else but Rutten in mind to play the role, as they've been MMA trainer and student off and on for 15 years, and have become close friends.
Like Rutten, Niko is an animated Dutch immigrant trying to get his U.S. citizenship when he befriends James' Scott Voss, who asks him to become his MMA coach when he learns of Niko's past as an international fighting superstar.
It might not be that much of a stretch for Rutten, who's accomplished all of the above, but that wasn't James' motivation in casting him.
And as James and many others within the fight industry figured out a long time ago, it's always best to set Rutten up and just let him go, as his instincts as an entertainer are as sharp as the trademark liver shots he used to unload on hapless opponents.
From age 6 to 14, Sebastian "Bas" Rutten spent weeks and sometimes months in bed, swathed from head to toe like a mummy. Rutten, the second son of a bookkeeper and a wildlife conservationist, was born with chronic eczema, a skin disorder that would erupt into pussy lesions up and down his body.
Outbreaks required 24-hour care; relatives would send bed sheets for Rutten's mother to rip into bandages to replace the ones that her son would tear off in the middle of the night when the itching became too much to bear. Bas's childhood was a blur of creams and cortisone shots, but the situation never seemed to get him down. Bas spent the time reading comic books and daydreaming about America. As early as six years old, he knew he would live there someday.
When he was well enough -- Rutten also suffered from intermittent bouts with severe asthma that weakened him to the point that he couldn't get down a set of stairs alone -- a young Bas attended school in his native Eindhoven, Netherlands.
He showed up in turtlenecks and protective gloves, and the other kids mercilessly teased him and called him "melaatse," or leper.
When a verbal taunting wasn't enough, the bullies would chase Bas, who'd escape into the forest behind his house and climb the trees, agilely swinging from one branch to another like Spiderman when the braver kids attempted to follow him. After one such attacker almost died from a fall, the other kids stopped climbing after him.
"I knew everything in the forest," said Rutten. "I had a secret home tree, where I pretty much lived. I also liked rooftops and streetlamps. My parents would get calls saying 'He's out there again.'"
Bas's parents were sympathetic but they didn't coddle him, not wanting him to think he was different than any of the other children. But Bas was always destined to be different. Trapped in the body of a misfit lie a born entertainer.
"I was this kid who never sat down," said Rutten. "Nobody liked me? Well, I'd make sure they'd like me. I was the class clown, always doing crazy stuff and causing riots."
The only place where Bas was unconditionally accepted was in P.E. class, where his superior athleticism made him a guaranteed first-pick for dodge ball and other competitive activities because the other kids knew they needed him on their team to win.
Bas's classmates didn't appreciate all of his talents, but his teachers certainly noticed them. One of Bas's instructors told him that he'd someday be famous, then named her son after him.
At age 12, while vacationing in the south of France with his family, Rutten ad his brother snuck into the cinema to watch Bruce Lee's
"I dropped him with one shot, but broke his nose in the process, so the police showed up," said Rutten. "So, that was it: no more Tae Kwon Do for Bas."
When Bas turned 14, he had a growth spurt and underwent a transformation of Clark Kent-Superman proportions. He switched from eyeglasses to contacts and got a new haircut. Suddenly, he was popular.
Bas started to compete in track and field, like his father had, and excelled in the high and long jumps. "I wanted to be the Dutch Bruce Jenner -- that was my goal," he said. "He was my hero." However, years of cortisone injections (sometimes 20 in one day) caused tendonitis in his knee joints and he'd have to stop for weeks after a track meet.
When he graduated at 16, Bas entered culinary school, studied French cuisine for three years, then began to work in a restaurant. Once he turned 21, he left his parents' home and immediately re-enrolled in Tae Kwon Do and added karate, then Thai boxing.
Rutten was ill-prepared for his first Thai boxing class and kept dropping his hands, exposing his body to the first kick he'd ever taken to his liver area -- a move he would someday become popular for. He went home that night and stood in the mirror with his hands raised properly for hours, then returned the next day and cleaned out 80 percent of the gym.
"They thought I had tricked them [the day before], but I'd spent four hours in front of the mirror with my hands up," said Rutten, who began competing on the local circuit six weeks later.
Rutten quickly collected 14 knockout wins, and fell into modeling in his spare time, posing for advertisements and catalogs. When he couldn't be bothered to fuss with his hair anymore, he had a barber shave it all off, which would become his signature look.
When he lost his next two fights, due in part to his boozy lifestyle, Rutten accepted an offer to join a martial arts comedy show that performed during the competitions' intermissions. With the troupe, he traveled through Holland and France, entertaining audiences of 6,000 or more with acrobatic feats. When the group performed in nightclubs, Rutten would spot where he wanted to be thrown in the air, so he wouldn't hit the hanging lights. During one of these shows, Rutten was scouted by Chris Dolman, a champion martial artist who'd won a title in RINGS, a pioneering MMA organization.
Training for RINGS, Rutten, now 28 years old, was exposed to submission fighting for the first time. He was roughed up so bad in his first class, he had to pull over on the side of the road because he couldn't make the rest of the ride home.
But rather than quit, he confidently told his wife Karin that he'd get his revenge in six months. When he began competing in Pancrase in September 1993, five weeks before the UFC debuted in Denver, his submission game was a work in progress.
Rutten said he became so "obsessive compulsive" about learning chokes and locks, that he began submitting his wife in his sleep. He plastered his house with post-it notes that explained the moves and would meet friends at the gym in the middle of the night when a new submission idea popped into his head.
Japan's Pancrase was another organization that allowed a mix of disciplines, though it asked that its fighters use open-handed head strikes and prohibited strikes altogether once the action hit the ground. Competitors also wore shin and foot guards that covered past their knee caps. Once Rutten found his legs in submissions, he was unstoppable. He became the King of Pancrase three times, and went 19 straight bouts without a loss (with one draw) until he left the promotion in 1998.
Rutten's repertoire of high-flying antics, submissions and striking, along with his outgoing personality, had made him a international martial arts star. In late 1998, Rutten got the call he'd been waiting for to come to America.
"Bing! Dang! Bong! Bang!"
If one didn't know any better, they'd think that an insane asylum escapee had slipped security and joined everyone on the floor of Axs TV's
It's only Bas, though, who uses the sounds effects right out of TV's old Batman series in his conversational speech as effortlessly as he breathes. This is the inner dialogue that must go on in his head as he demonstrates combos or describes a fight as it unfolds -- he's just sharing it with us for added effect. And it works.
There's a confident enthusiasm Rutten brings as co-host of the long-running weekly MMA news show, which launched on Mark Cuban's formerly-named HDNet in 2007.
Rutten is a lightning rod on- and off-camera. He'll segue off into a story about his former fighting days while the live cameras roll if it illustrates a point he's trying to make. During the two-minute commercial breaks, Rutten will break into song in his thick Dutch accent and choppy English, happily butchering everything from opera to Coldplay.
Part of what makes Rutten so unpredictable on set is his preference of memorizing scripts rather than using the teleprompter. During live broadcasts, a producer stands between Rutten's teleprompters and physically indicates which camera he should look into next because he's not watching the indicator lights or reading the cues. The system seems to suit Rutten's loose, improvisational style and makes for some of the show's best moments when he veers off the road with his by-the-book sidekick Kenny Rice in tow.
Most importantly, Rutten is innately funny. Few commentators can find the comedy in bloodsport in such an endearing way like Rutten can.
When Rutten came to the States in 1998 fresh off his career in Pancrase, he had a good understanding of his comedic gifts. He knew he wanted to entertain like the way he'd made people laugh during his traveling shows because it had given him "a good feeling."
Rutten had been invited to Los Angeles to participate in a martial arts seminar for the LAPD, but he was really there to plant roots. He'd decided he'd become an actor.
Rutten began taking classes privately and at the Beverly Hills Playhouse almost immediately. He also became an instructor at the Beverly Hills Jiu-jitsu Club, where Kevin James' manager called looking for Rutten not three months into his move.
James, in his first year of
"I thought martial arts was going to help me with my movies and TV stuff, but I realized it would not.," said Rutten. "Nobody knew Pancrase, but the hardcores."
The hardcores and UFC matchmaker John Perretti. Rutten fought only two times in the UFC, the latter a heavyweight championship bout against wrestler Kevin Randleman at UFC 20 and one of the most influential fights in the sport's short history. Rutten vacated the UFC title not long after he'd won it, announcing his retirement.
On a trip to Japan to corner Mark Kerr for a bout in Pride Fighting Championships, Rutten's next career move presented itself. Bas was sitting backstage prior to Kerr's fight watching the other bouts on a closed-circuit TV, when Pride executives overheard his lively play-by-play commentary and offered him a tryout show with the promotion on the spot. Rutten called his first Pride event in May 2000 alongside Stephen Quadros.
"I was so green, I didn't even know to bring a suit," said Rutten. "Nobody told me to bring a suit, so that's why we came up with those crazy openings [to Pride events]. The first time was me in shorts and a Hawaiian shirt."
Over the next seven years, Rutten would provide play-by-play for some of the greatest fights of MMA's golden era in Japan, featuring future legends like Fedor Emelianenko and Wanderlei Silva.
The Pride days were a crazy time for the fighters. Dream Stage Entertainment promoted Pride events as if it had a bottomless wallet, and fighters would leave Japan with tens of thousands of dollars stuffed in their socks to smuggle later past customs. After the extravagant shows, which drew crowds of 30 to 90,000 spectators, the fighters often retired to the Roppongi clubbing district for wild nights of drinking, and Rutten was always in the thick of it all.
"Nobody partied as hard as I did," said Rutten.
Back in Los Angeles, Rutten's acting career slowly gained traction. Rutten's first on-camera role was on the short-lived TV series,
"I started itching and sweating, my shades started sliding off my nose, and as soon as they put the camera in my face and said go, I asked what was my first line. I totally blanked on it. "
Rutten heard the room collectively groan, but instead of caving to the pressure, he started yelling at the crew.
"I said, 'I'm fucking dying over here. I'm trying to do this thing. You're not helping right now,'" recalls Rutten. "Everybody started laughing and I started laughing and we got it done in the next shot.'"
Rutten would continue to get small roles and eventually caught the attention of a film director attending one of his training seminars, which landed him his first lead role in
"You want to be perfect at first, but then you let it go and get comfortable," said Rutten of acting. "It's like fighting or anything else in life. The more you do it, the more comfortable you get."
In 2006, towards the end of Pride's run, Rutten abruptly decided to quit drinking.
"I just woke up one day and I saw some bottles of wine and I thought, 'Really? Did I just drink this all yesterday?' I didn't have a hangover and I didn't think that was a good sign," said Rutten, who didn't want to become a liability to his employers.
A few months later, UFC promoters Zuffa LLC purchased Pride from DSE and effectively closed up shop in Japan. Rutten was out of a job, but his body of work with Pride made him a hot commodity for upstarts like the International Fight League and Cuban's
"I remembered that feeling from the early days when I was 12," said Rutten.
In 2010, James sent Rutten the script for
"My acting coach said to me, 'This is the one. If you can pull this off, people are going to know you. This could be your ticket into the movies,'" said Rutten.
The role's meatiness also signifies the faith that James has in Rutten that he'll appeal to the masses. James sold Rutten to Sony Pictures, which was concerned that an ex-fighter might not be up to the challenge of a legitimate acting role, on the strength of Rutten's past projects.
"I kept telling Bas that he was a natural at [acting] and he didn't need to get punched in the face," said James. "Bas brings his own personality to [the role]. He has great charisma and I'm happy that the world's going to get to see it."
Rutten has already been cited by critics for his "delightfully affable screen presence" in
Seventeen years after he toasted to his future on a Santa Monica beach, Rutten is on the verge of realizing his own American dream and he can hardly believe it.
"You're hoping and you're praying, but it's all about getting through," said Rutten. "I really found out that it's not easy and not many people are going to be there to give you a chance, but you have to keep believing that you'll do it and you will."