Gabe Ruediger opens up on infamy, evolving and survival years after his embarrassing stint on TUF

Elias CepedaYahoo Sports Contributor
Gabe Ruediger is making sure that the next generation of fighters learns from his experiences. (Instagram/@kaijumma)
Gabe Ruediger is making sure that the next generation of fighters learns from his experiences. (Instagram/@kaijumma)

It’s mid-morning on a fall day in Tarzana, California. Gabe Ruediger has just wrapped up a run before embarking on a full day of teaching at his Kaiju MMA & Fitness academy.

At 42 years of age and over six years since his last MMA bout, the former professional fighter still does it.

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“I hate running,” he tells Yahoo Sports.

“I never enjoy it. I’m always thinking of reasons why I should or could skip it. My knee hurts. We had wildfires recently, so I thought, ‘the air quality is pretty bad.’ Honestly, my favorite part is going through all the excuses that come up and telling myself, ‘shut the f- - - up.’ I hate running but I still do it. I’ve had a torn MCL going on four years, now, but it’s what I’ve got to do.”

Casual fans of MMA may not have that type of image of Ruediger. The Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt fought professionally for over a decade, in some of the world’s biggest promotions and even won the WEC lightweight championship — a title later earned by the likes of Benson Henderson and Anthony Pettis.

Despite all his accomplishments as an athlete, some of Ruediger’s toughest moments came on the biggest stages. He lost fights in the UFC and had an embarrassing run on one of the most talent-rich seasons of “The Ultimate Fighter” where he failed to make weight after being shown eating ice cream cake and was eliminated as a result.

To those who don’t know much about Ruediger and who may have seen him only on reality television shows or suffering tough losses in the UFC, his reputation may not be of someone willing to do the tough things that are needed at times. In fact, he says there were times when he indeed may not have been, over the course of his long MMA career.

Too much partying, too little self-care, overconfidence in spots and fighting through injuries and illness in others have contributed to bumps in the road for fighters since time immemorial. Ruediger experienced all that and more.

Some glimpses of his struggles may have been public, but much more happened away from bright lights and television cameras. Being in the public eye can magnify jubilation when success is had, and it certainly intensifies the depressing lows.

Like all fighters of his generation, Ruediger only ever got into MMA because of an almost inexplicable passion for it, and absent any real career opportunities at first. It was about love, about doing something few could understand with a commitment most would find dangerous.

All these years later, after earning his scars, Ruediger hasn’t gone anywhere. He’s just passing on all he’s learned to others and encouraging his students to not make any of the mistakes he did.


Exorcising demons

Ruediger began training Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu just about five years after the UFC debuted. Prior to that, Ruediger had dabbled only in wrestling and Kung Fu in middle and high school and once he tried BJJ he says it “initially blew my mind.”

Ruediger’s path to professional fighting was an accelerated one. Four years after taking his first jiujitsu class, he was fighting in the WEC cage.

Not all of his grappling teammates wanted that path for themselves, of course. “I remember a few of us were talking about fighting and so we asked our coach about it and what he thought,” Ruediger remembers.

“He said, ‘OK, come to practice tomorrow.’ The next day he brought in this heavyweight fighter from Brazil and just had us put on MMA gloves and spar with him. There was no instruction, not much talking about it, and it wasn’t even sparring. He just had us fight him. He beat the crap out of us.

“I got my lip split open and an eye swollen shut. We sat in the locker room afterwards and a lot of the guys were saying, ‘Forget this, I’ll stick to jiujitsu class.’ I was too stupid to do that. I came back the next day for more. I decided, then, to fight.”

Ruediger insists that he was not naturally drawn to fighting, nor particularly skilled at it. Still, being beaten up badly by someone who had over 50 pounds on him had an effect on young Ruediger.

“I think to be honest, I was always fearful of fighting,” he admits.

“It was just about getting past that, a way of exorcising my own demons, of dealing with my struggles, with things I was afraid of. And there was nothing scarier than a 230-pound, 6-3 guy smashing your face in. But, you know, the pain of it — and my lip was split, and my eye was shut — the pain didn’t bother me as much as not coming back would have. Back then maybe I was just a stupid kid but looking back on it now and thinking about why I decided to fight, I think I knew that if I didn’t exorcise those demons and fears, they were always going to be there … I wasn’t a born fighter but I had a fear of quitting, of stopping, that was bigger than any other fear.”

It’s likely not possible for anyone to have past public embarrassment cease bothering them completely. Ruediger may still not appreciate a reputation among casual fans or even some of his peers from TUF ever having been crafted based on brief moments in his life, but he’s certainly moved past all that.

Whatever frustrating annoyance trash talk of years past may still pose to him, Ruediger never stopped moving forward, accomplishing more and successfully coaching others. At the end of the day, it may be all those gritty moments in the gym before the rest of the world ever cared about MMA, those hours, days and years where he put himself through a grinder and eagerly came back for more, that give a fighter like Ruediger all the self-assurance they’ll ever need as a practitioner.

“People can say what they want about me, but I know I’m a fighter, a real fighter,” he says.

“I always have been.”


Lessons learned

While warming up before a noon fight team training the conversation moves to a student and fighter of Ruediger’s who he says is talented but can sometimes get overconfident and thus unfocused. “You’ve got to put the work in. Sometimes he’s just a bit too cocky,” Ruediger details.

Later, over lunch Ruediger recounts plenty of times that he let his own past youthful cockiness get the best of him. There was, for example, his trip to Thailand not long before he filmed season five of TUF.

To be sure, Ruediger trained during that trip, but he also found it difficult to say no to lots of partying when invited by a gym owner’s son and his pop star girlfriend. Even in his 30s, Ruediger admits to making mistakes of hubris.

Take, for example, the lead up to his 2012 fight against Scott Catlin. Ruediger had much more experience against higher level competitors than Catlin, and so overlooked the risks the tough opponent posed.

“I had just fought in the UFC and thought there was no way this guy was going to beat me,” he recounts, leaning against a matted wall after the noon practice.

“I took him for granted, thought he had no business in the cage with me and he got me. Luckily for me I got to come back and fight him again and end my career on a win, avenging that loss, but I was just too cocky that first fight against him.”

Ruediger is blunt but caring during practice with his fighters. He clearly wants to teach them about the common pitfalls in an MMA career, and has no problem using his own life to illustrate his points.

The lesson is clear – never get complacent, and never be outworked. Bellator fighter Thor Skancke seems to appreciate the approach from coach Ruediger.

“I could win a fight in 30 seconds and take no damage and afterwards Coach will still have a list of things I need to improve when we talk in the back,” he laughs.

Ruediger had coached fighters and civilians alike for years at academies for sometime before opening his own academy just over two years ago. He initially balked at the location because of its proximity to the established jiujitsu academy of grappling legend Jean Jacques Machado.

Circumstance prodded him on nonetheless, and Ruediger found himself with over 60 students signed up by Day 1. His academy is unique enough to continue to grow to this day in the midst of the jiujitsu and MMA hotbed of Southern California.

Ruediger is not just a black belt, but he’s got years of real fight experience, so students can be assured that his is a battle-tested mixed martial artist. As such, Ruediger’s MMA competition team is robust, but his gym also hits a decidedly familial note.

From early morning bootcamp classes to jiujitsu and kickboxing, Kaiju is filled not just with competitors but nine-to-fivers, dads, moms, children, all looking to work out and learn some useful skills in a safe environment. Ruediger’s own family is growing at home as well.

His wife delivered a daughter this past September, and Ruediger’s first-born daughter from a previous relationship is healthy, and smart, though further away from him than he’d obviously like.

Just like he had to battle his way into the sport, and to end his career on a high note after disappointments, Ruediger’s current situation of having a happy academy of his own and a healthy family was certainly not easy to come by.

After ending his MMA career in 2013 on the high note of a submission victory, Ruediger’s life dipped to a nadir. Speaking of how challenging it is for him to have his oldest daughter live in a different city than he does, Ruediger details some of those struggles.

“Without question, 2014 was the worst year of my life,” he begins.

“My ex took my daughter after a massive custody battle. I lost four friends. I lost my job at a gym that I thought I was a partner in and learned the value of contracts.

“I partnered with a business partner, well thought I did, who told me I was a 20% stakeholder in the business. I taught at that gym for almost two years and then I tried to talk to him about that 20% and he told me, ‘Oh, I just want to keep you on as an instructor. You’re not really a partner.’ I had been driving an hour and a half every day from my house in the Valley to Whittier to teach at the school and built the program up. So I lost that job and then three months later I caught my ex cheating, and then she took my daughter. … There was a lot of stuff going on. I won my last fight, my ex was at that fight and I was still teaching at the school and all the students were there to support me and it was such a great ending to my career, and then not much later everything went to s---.”

Just like Ruediger’s losses in the cage weren’t the end of his career, he’s not let that subsequent familial and professional tumult stop his forward movement. When asked what the key was for him to do what he’s gone on to do — open his own academy, continue his relationship with his eldest daughter, get married, have another child — Ruediger talks about a lesson learned when he felt close to ending his own life. “I was at a turbulent stage of my life in my late 20s and a buddy of mine talked me off a ledge,” he remembers.

“I was working at a strip club and all the girls gave me pills. I didn’t know what they were, and so I just started taking a massive amount of pills. I got super depressed one night and grabbed my gun and a buddy called me. He was actually a pastor, and he told me that God told him to call me. In reality, my ex girlfriend called him — I’m still really close with him — and she told him, ‘Gabe is in a rough, crazy place.’ He called me and talked me down. One thing he told me at that time stuck with me and helps me to this day with every hardship I’ve had since.

“He told me that life is based on hills and valleys. It’s an arduous trip. Sometimes your path dips low, there’s no water, it’s miserable. But, it eventually gets better, and then you reach a peak and it’s the most amazing thing ever. Then, inevitably, you’ll go down into a valley again. As long as I understand that, I make can make it through. Things get bad, but then they’ll get better. They’ll get bad again, but it goes up and down. I was suicidal at that point and got on anti-depressants, which I was on during TUF. But remembering that there are going to be hardships, hard times, and they’re going to suck, and it’s going to hurt, but eventually they’re going to end, things get better and improve, and sure, they get f---ed up again, helps me.”

Ruediger describes himself as a pessimist, and resists putting any glib and tidy bow on his life right now, including labeling himself “happy,” which he deems too simplistic a notion. What he’s evidently learned though is that life doesn’t need to be good all the time to be worth fighting through and fighting for.

“This is exactly how life goes. There are many, many valleys, and then amazing mountains,” he concludes.

“I think I understand that I’m a pessimist at heart, so I might believe that there are more valleys than mountain peaks. I’m OK with that, though. The mountains supersede all the pain and suffering. ...

“There’s a learning curve with life and even with s---ty things there’s something to take away from it all. ... We’re all accelerated children. We’re always moving forward, advancing, and learning a lot from it.”

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