Growing up in a small town in the Midwest still means something these days. It’s about hard-working salt-of-the-Earth people. It’s about family. It’s about fresh air. And, of course, it’s also all about wrestling. That’s the part that makes the life of Luke “The Chef” Lessei all the more unique. All of the above is true about his upbringing, but he was never really much of a wrestler.
“I grew up in Iowa, training under my dad, who was a former professional kickboxer, Muay Thai fighter, and martial artist,” Lessei told Combat Press. “He started training me at Age 4, and, then, at Age 8, I had my first Muay Thai fight. I’ve been training in the same gym since 1990 – here in Dubuque, Iowa, right on the Mississippi River – I’ve been training under him. And, I had other jobs – production jobs, painting jobs, FedEx driver – and, at the same time, going to school, being a fighter and living the regular Midwest life. I became super good as an amateur, winning a lot of amateur titles here in the Midwest and in the country. And then, near the end of high school, I started getting recognized by, like, Team USA and things like that. I was competing overseas with the IFMA championships, and, then, went pro in 2020. I don’t know when I started getting recognized by the bigger promotions, but, eventually, I was knocking everybody out in the pros.”
Lessei’s father, Dean “Leathal Legs” Lessei opened his gym, Dubuque Martial Arts Group, over 30 years ago. Achieving many certifications and belts across several martial arts disciplines, his highest instructor certification is that of Ajarn in Thai Boxing. The elder Lessei was a competitor in Muay Thai, Kickboxing, and Kali Escrima, and has won multiple titles. While this doesn’t seem like the typical activities for a tool and die maker from the Midwest, he provided his children with a pretty normal childhood.
“I mean, it’s pretty quiet here in Iowa – not a lot to do,” said Luke. “Most of my childhood memories are in the gym. I played outside a lot as a kid, regular kid, doing backyard football, backyard sports, hanging out with all the neighborhood kids, riding bikes and stuff like that. It was a regular upbringing here in a small town. And then, like I said, in the gym every day as well. Most of my memories are in the gym with my dad, but, other than that, I had everything I needed – food on the table every day, went to school, had, had friends, and a regular life.”
As one might imagine, Muay Thai is not your typical strip-mall martial art that is peppered across the Midwest. As previously stated, the most common combat sport in that part of the U.S. is wrestling, but, like most of the U.S., there is no shortage of Karate schools as well. And, with the famed Miletich Fighting Systems having only been about an hour south of Dubuque, many people are familiar with MMA.
“Whenever you tell people you’re a fighter, and then they’re like, ‘Oh, you do UFC?’” explained Lessei. “And then, it’s like, ‘No, I do Muay Thai.’ And then, people are like, ‘Oh, what’s that?’ So yeah, it’s all wrestlers here. Obviously, Iowa’s known for wrestling, so the high school wrestling programs are really big around here. But yeah, me and my father have always done traditional martial arts. My dad always trained me in Muay Thai. And yeah, I was kind of like the outcast, a little bit like that. But, you know, it’s all good. Whenever you’re a Muay Thai Fighter, you’re passionate about it. So, people eventually realized what it is now that it’s gotten bigger.
“I actually started in traditional karate with my dad, and then I competed a little bit in jiu-jitsu and judo, and, actually, Filipino Kali Escrima. I competed in a handful of different martial arts growing up. Muay Thai was the one that I became the best at. So, I did grapple and I did wrestle for a few years in middle school, but I just love striking. I never, like, trained MMA, but I definitely have done multiple martial arts.”
The highlight of Lessei’s fighting career happened in Oct. 2022, when he was competing under the Triumphant Combat Sports banner south of the border. It was his greatest achievement to date.
“I went pro, and, then, in three years, I became the Triumphant Muay Thai world champion,” said Lessei. “So I went down to Mexico, fought Mexican champions, and beat them in front of the Mexican crowds. A little Midwest dude going all the way down there – little white boy that nobody knew – and I had my one fight where it was like a super-hard, five-round battle where it was like two and two. I knew that, if I didn’t win the last round, they were going to give it to the hometown Mexican fighter. There’s a whole story behind that fight. And, that was really one of my first fights where I really had to dig deep and win in front of an away crowd where I knew I wouldn’t win without a knockout. And that was last October. And that was when I won the Triumphant World Championships, which was my first pro title.”
Lessei has fought in Mexico, Argentina, and, even the homeland of the sport, Thailand. He fought in Argentina and Bangkok under the IFMA banner.
“It was really cool,” Lessei expressed. “It was cool to be young and be able to see the world. Yeah, I mean, I’m pretty lucky that just being good at fighting got me to go to those places. And, especially being from the Midwest, it’s about getting out. It’s pretty cool to be like one of the only guys in my small little town that does things like that, because everyone here kind of hangs out with the same people for their entire life. They kind of do the same jobs for 20 to 30 years. So it was really cool, and I felt like, not like an outcast, but I felt like the different kid, the different guy. Like, everyone in the schools knew that I was like the kid going to do Muay Thai. So, I thought it was cool. I like being different like that.”
Lessei was never really a college-oriented kid, having only spent a year in community college. However, he is married with two young children – a two-year-old daughter and a three-month-old son – so he always used that Midwestern work ethic to provide for his family. However, the need to work a steady job changed when he received the biggest news of his career. In late 2023, Lessei was offered a contract to fight for ONE Championship.
“For the last seven years, I’ve been working at FedEx, between loading trucks in the early morning and then I was driving for like three or four years, driving for FedEx,” Lessei elaborated. “And then, once I got the call from ONE, I decided to make the jump to focus fully on being a full-time fighter, training full-time, because it’s tough to be a full-time worker, a full-time dad, and a full-time fighter. FedEx was the last job I had.”
Lessei knew he was on the radar, but he eventually found out he was being offered a ONE contract at 3 a.m. CT. Obviously unable to get back to sleep, he called every buddy that he could, just to see who would answer that early in the morning.
On Friday, Dec. 8, Lessei will finally make his promotional debut at ONE Fight Night 17. As the co-main event of the evening, he will face Muay Thai veteran Smokin’ Jo Nattawut on the all-Muay-Thai fight card.
Nattawut, who is currently ranked as the No. 4 featherweight in the ONE Muay Thai rankings, is a former WMC and two-division Lion Fight champion, who has been fighting professionally for well over a decade. His overall record is 71-11-2, and, since joining ONE in Apr. 2018, he has gone 5-5. The 34-year-old Thai fighter is currently on a three-fight losing streak, but the 27-year-old American is by no means looking past his opponent.
“I know who Jo is, obviously, being a Muay Thai fighter,” Lessei said. “I’ve known who he is for a long time, since he was fighting on all the other different promotions, different competitors. And yeah, now that he’s been in ONE, I’ve obviously seen a lot of the things he’s been doing, some of the knockouts he’s had, some of the fights he’s had. And yeah, like I said, I’ve known who he is for a long time.
“The way I see it, he wasn’t necessarily an idol of mine, but it’s like idols become your rivals. I feel this is just the life path that was meant to be. The guys who I was always watching growing up, I always thought I wanted to fight them. I never had favorite fighters. I always wanted to fight these top Muay Thai guys, and he happened to be one of the guys that has been at the top of the game for a while for Muay Thai fighters. We all kind of know his name. I know he’s powerful, I know he’s got good Muay Thai, and I’m excited for the fight. I’m excited to fight a guy that I’ve been watching for years.”
With plenty of tape available on Nattawut, Lessei has a really good idea of his opponent’s fighting style. He also knows that his own diverse martial arts background brings a lot to the table.
“He doesn’t have a slow, traditional Thai style, but he does a few things really good,” Lessei said. “He’s powerful, but he doesn’t have a lot of different tools. But the tools he does have are very good. With me, I think my toolbox has a whole bunch of different tools. I think my ability to adapt is going to be the difference here, because I’m comfortable in any part of the game, whether it’s just swinging and banging. I’m a hard working man from the Midwest, and I’ve always worked with my hands. So I’m definitely able to bite down and hit hard, but I also am able to do beautiful Muay Thai – setups and traps and fakes and feints. So, pretty much any part of the game, I feel like I have an advantage.
“I think this fight will go either one of two ways. I mean, I think it’s either going to be the Fight of the Year between the new kid on the block and, you know, a guy who’s going to go down as a legend in Muay Thai. Or, I’m just going to make him look lost in there, because the style that I bring is new. It’s fresh. It’s also successful in traditional Muay Thai. Because, I came up as your traditional Muay Thai fighter, but I’ve sprinkled in all the little flavors of the different martial arts that I’ve done with my dad between Jeet Kune Do and Karate, and I feel like my ability to adapt in any part of the game is going to be the difference maker. So, I’m either going to make him feel lost in there where he won’t know what to do, because I’m so unpredictable. And I’m always going for the walk-off knockout, so I see myself knocking him out in spectacular fashion, or it’s going to be Fight of the Year until the very last bell, and then all the fans will win.”
As one might have gathered, Lessei was never actually a chef, contrary to his moniker. In fact, it was a nickname given to him when he was an amateur fighter in high school.
“I was at this tournament, and I was beating everybody in the tournament,” Lessei explained. “I happened to be doing this move, where I was teeping everybody in the face in this tournament, which was so random, like four fights in a row. I landed like a couple teeps to the face every round. So then, after the tournament, my buddy, my best friend, was like, ‘Damn, you’ve been serving up those feet. You’re the chef.’ And then, boom, right there it was born. So I don’t know if people think that’s cool. I say it all the time, and, maybe because I talk about it so much, it doesn’t seem as cool to me. It’s just like one of my buddies had a quick little comment, and now I’m the chef feeding people feet.
Lessei has the biggest fight of his career at ONE Fight Night 17, when he makes his promotional debut against a Muay Thai legend. With a big opportunity and a lot of career ahead, it wants fans to know why this is so important to him.
“I hate how I always talk about how I’m from a small town,” said Lessei. “But, I think it’s so cool because there have been times where I really thought I wasn’t going to make it out. Not like, make it out, like I’m still living here, right? But just, get the notice that I deserve. Because there’s so many people that have been working for years and years and years, and, it’s like, it really is that simple. If you just don’t stop, there’s potential that one night might just change your life. And I think coming from a small town, coming from Middle America, I feel like I can resonate with more people. I’m not on the East Coast, and I’m not on the West Coast. I’m not living in a big city. So I feel like the regular American, the small town person, can really be inspired by just a regular working man doing Muay Thai, who works nine-to-five and still trains – like, if he can do it, then why can’t somebody else do it? And I think that’s one of the most important things, because it’s what pushes me to keep training. We’re not getting messages about these regular people, regular working men being like, ‘Dude, you’re inspiring.’ I feel like that’s what I’m doing it for right now.
ONE Fight Night 17 airs live on Amazon Prime Video on Friday, Dec. 8, at 8 p.m. ET, live front he Lumpinee Boxing Stadium in Bangkok, Thailand.
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