COLUMBIA — Dustin Denes thought his professional mixed martial arts debut would be his only fight.
“What I thought I would do one time snowballed into 19 and to be continued,” Denes said. “I thought that would satisfy my hunger. It didn’t. It’s human nature, you always want more.”
Denes had been all over the martial arts map before coming to American Top Team of Missouri, a mixed martial arts school complete with all the necessities and luxuries to help Denes to not only train himself, but also to coach other Midwest fighters.
Because Denes helps run the facility’s day-to-day operations, he also saw the opportunity to use the knowledge he learned from both his bachelor’s degree in marketing and master’s degree in international business.
“For so many years, I’ve been playing one side of the game: train/fight, train/fight, as a fighter,” Denes said. “I wanted to continue to train and fight, but I wanted to really maximize and use what I spent so many years in school for. I’d like to coach fighters, train them, and I can still fight. And when the time is right and I do fight again, I lead ATT Missouri into battle.”
Denes’ focus resides in this spacious facility off E. Broadway, where his mind is filled with the diligence and desire necessary to feed his hunger.
He’s in Columbia to make a statement and show the MMA world the power of the “jiu-jitsu chop.”
“Becoming champion of a prestigious organization would satisfy my hunger for fighting,” Denes said. “To satisfy my hunger for training people, I’m always going to want more. I want to keep making champions. That being said, I may never be satisfied, but I’m going to enjoy the journey of chasing after the satisfaction.”
Denes was nicknamed “Clean” because he used to shave what is now a full head of brown hair, causing one of his trainers to say he looked like Mr. Clean.
“That was it, I had no choice,” Denes said. “There’s no turning back. Whether you like it or not, it’s stuck with you. But it’s a good one, It’s ‘clean. He stays clean.’”
It does, however, cause people to frequently mispronounce his last name.
“It makes me crazy,” Denes said. “That’s one of the only things. (People say) ‘Deans’. I say, ‘No, Dustin Den-es.’”
Denes, 30, said he has been determined to go “beyond the extra mile” for as long as he remembers. Since wrestling for his high school in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., he has had a desire for combat sports and decided to begin mixed martial arts.
MMA pits two fighters against each other in a match that is regulated by rules and a referee to keep them safe. A fighter’s goal is to win by either a knockout, submission or decision. It is sometimes referred to as cage fighting.
To get where he is in MMA, Denes traveled about 4,000 miles to study jiu-jitsu in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Brazil is a place where martial arts is known for its science rather than violence. Fighters train and learn jiu-jitsu as a student would study law at Harvard.
While there, Denes wasn’t afforded many of his present-day luxuries.
“A lot of the sparring took place with no headgear because they didn’t have headgear,” he said. “Half the gloves in the gym had no padding. It was just getting hit by a piece of leather. But we had the most important thing. We had the bodies and a bunch of people who were determined to become champions.”
Many of them did become champions, like the man who brought Denes to Brazil, former PRIDE heavyweight title holder Rodrigo Nogueira.
“You ask who I am, look at who I hang out with,” Denes said. “I was raised by champions. Those are my boys. If you hang around a bunch of champions, you want to become a champion. That’s what I want.”
Denes’ jiu-jitsu has transfered well to the cage. Of his 13 wins, 10 were by submission.
But jiu-jitsu wasn’t the only thing Denes learned in Brazil. When he first arrived, Denes said he only knew a little Portuguese - the country’s language - from his MBA program in international business.
“We communicated through body language, jiu-jitsu, mixed martial arts,” Denes said. “You don’t need to talk to train. The whole operation is body language.”
Denes said he became fluent in Portuguese in a matter of months.
During Denes’ training, his friends Wade Rome and Dan Lambert arranged for his return to the U.S. for a “superfight” grappling match against present-day Ultimate Fighting Championship fighter Jeff Monson.
It was at that competition in Ohio where Denes not only solidified his name in martial arts, but also his friendship with Rome, who owns American Top Team of Missouri. He points to a picture on the American Top Team wall as he tells his story.
“I went out there, competed and destroyed Jeff Monson,” Denes said. “Wade went out there, competed in his weight class, and he destroyed everybody. It was like we were friends, but on that day, we became something more. We became partners in demolition, destroying the competition. We became partners in winning, partners in working and competing to be the best.”
Denes wanted to continue this partnership with Rome at American Top Team of Missouri and Rome was more than happy to accommodate him. Now Denes trains and helps handle the day-to-day operations at the facility and he credits Rome for making it happen.
“I had all these other offers knocking on my door, but I didn’t have any true friends there,” Denes said. “Ironically, Wade was setting up American Top Team Missouri and he’s a person I consider a true friend.”
But American Top Team of Missouri might not exist had Ricardo Liborio, a Brazilian fighter, had not had a vision to bring Brazilian Top Team to the U.S. and if Denes didn’t act as a “middleman” by introducing Liborio to his fight connections in Florida: Dan Lambert and the Silvera brothers.
In 2001, what began as one Brazilian man’s dream, assisted by a U.S. fighter’s connections, evolved into a nationwide chain - American Top Team.
The Florida headquarters eventually spawned individual academies along the east coast and now in Missouri.
With over 1,000 members and more than 50 who fight professionally, American Top Team has rapidly integrated itself into the martial arts world.
“I expected us to be big and strong,” Denes said. “But I didn’t expect the sport to blow up like it did. We went from big to monster.”
Since Denes arrived in Columbia this summer, he’s passed his experience and determination along to American Top Team of Missouri members.
“He’s the most intense person I’ve ever met in my entire life,” said Brandon Domingo, American Top Team of Missouri competitor. “He’ll beat you down. You learn from experience in the cage. He does a good job of showing you what can go wrong in a fight. He’ll do it by example and once you’re in that position, you’ll know you don’t want to be in it.”
Zach Lenon is training for a fight in December and Denes has pushed him beyond his perceived limits.
“He’ll take you to the point of exhaustion and then a little more to make you know what you really have inside,” Lenon said.