After fighting in the octagon, former wrestling coach reflects on training two UFC athletes


Courtesy / Bleacher Report. Tony Ferguson and Kevin Lee

Josh Rochette, Editorial Intern

Rick Bolhuis said he was always a West Michigan kid. Coming to Grand Valley State University in the fall of 2000, half of the buildings on campus didn’t exist. There were under 12,000 students on campus.

What brought Bolhuis to GVSU was wresting, where he served as a coach. He coached the team for 13 seasons and trained perhaps the highest-caliber athletes that GVSU has given the fighting world. Bolhuis trained former UFC Lightweight Interim Champion Tony Ferguson and UFC Lightweight Contender Kevin Lee.

They both wrestled at GVSU during Bolhuis’ tenure, and despite them being with the team years apart, they both followed their dream into the world of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). That alone is an impressive feat for both the athletes and the coaching staff, but none of them could have guessed the two would headline UFC 216, 10 years after Ferguson’s departure.

For Bolhuis, it had been the culmination of a long and fruitful career to see the two square off in the octagon, and for the fighters it seemed that destiny had brought the two together again for one last fight.

“Tony was already on the team for a year when I started coaching, and he was a national champion in ‘06,” Bolhuis said.

When Bolhuis coached him, Ferguson was the kind of guy who would show his tenacity and competitiveness with every trip to the mat. He wasn’t surprised when Ferguson sat him down to discuss his move to MMA and knew that he had the potential to follow through on his goal of becoming champ someday.

“Back then, I was still relatively young and about his size, so I worked out with him quite a bit,” Bolhuis said. “We had a few other guys that could perform at his level, but it was crazy to watch the pace they worked at. Iron sharpens iron, and it was fun to be a part of that.”

Moving forward a few years to 2010, a young kid from Southfield by the name of Kevin Lee asked to join Bolhuis and the wrestling club. During this time, Ferguson started his UFC career with his time on the reality show, “The Ultimate Fighter.” Ferguson went on to win that season, earning his first UFC contract while Lee fought up the ranks as an ambitious fighter with a chip on his shoulder.

Lee grew up in the Southfield, Michigan and attended Southfield High School before moving across the state to Allendale. Southfield High’s wrestling program was new to the school when Lee attended, wrestling in a classroom for much of that time due to the school’s lack of gym space. He came to GVSU looking for a degree, but left with much more.

“He was someone that we didn’t recruit, so he came to us,” Bolhuis said. “He had a few years of wrestling experience but not in the same way Tony did, so for him it was more about turning that innate athleticism into wrestling ability.” 

Lee was never an All-American for the team, but that hardly mattered since he picked up more and more with each of his three seasons with the team.

“He’s one of the smartest guys I’ve worked with,” Bolhuis said. “I’m talking middle-of-the-match adjustments, extreme body awareness and inherent talent.” 

Interestingly enough, Ferguson came to visit from California and speak with the team during Lee’s stay at GVSU. He came in and talked about his time with the team and what he got from being a Laker. That was the first time the two would meet. The next time they would face one another was under much different circumstances.

“Tony would treat every match like a fight and would try to beat you up on the mat,” Bolhuis said. “I knew Kevin would learn that, but I never saw that same brawler that I saw in Tony.”

It wasn’t until Lee’s ventures into the amateur fighting that Bolhuis knew he could make it. Lee was a junior in college still wrestling with the team when he faced off against former D1 wrestling champion JP Reese for the Impact Fight League in 2012.

Reese was an established fighter with plenty of matches under his belt while Lee was still the undefeated up-and-comer. None of that mattered however when Lee came out a victor.

Five years later, Ferguson had moved his way up the UFC lightweight ladder while Lee was just starting as a fresh face to the big leagues. The two were in the same weight class, so it was bound to eventually fcae each other. When former Lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov pulled out of a fight with Ferguson from injury, Lee was given a shot at the interim title against his former alumni at UFC 216.

Both of them being GVSU wrestlers was a big part of the lead-up to the fight. As insults flew, it became evident that they remembered their former meeting a little differently. The fight was looking like a box-office smash as Nurmagomedov had dominated the weight class for what felt like forever, and Bolhuis along with other team members flew out to Vegas to watch.

“I followed MMA, but this was the first event I actually went too,” Bolhuis said. “To see two former GVSU club wrestlers fighting for a UFC title was wild.” 

Ferguson came out victorious, winning with a triangle choke in the third round, but it was a strong performance from both athletes. Bolhuis acknowledges that by the time the two met, Ferguson had much more time under his belt, so Lee may not have expected a former wrestler to spend most of the latter rounds on his back. Nonetheless, it seemed that GVSU and its wrestling program shined brightest that night.

As for what came out of this for coach Bolhuis, he’s just glad he could give people the chance to do something they love.

“If we contributed anything to their careers, it was making sure they left a better wrestler than they came in as,” Bolhuis said. “All we were trying to do is get people connected to campus, continue to do something they love and make better men out of them. Better fathers, husbands, employees and having fun doing it.”