‘My Entire Life’s Work’ – How Luke Lessei Went From Small-Town Iowa To The Bright Lights Of ONE Championship
Luke “The Chef” Lessei is poised to prove that the new generation of American-born Muay Thai fighters belongs among the best of the best in ONE Championship.
On December 8 at ONE Fight Night 17 on Prime Video, the 27-year-old standout will make his promotional debut when he takes on “Smokin” Jo Nattawut in a featherweight Muay Thai showdown live in U.S. primetime at Lumpinee Boxing Stadium in Bangkok, Thailand.
Widely regarded as one of the most promising rising stars to come out of the U.S., Lessei will enter the matchup him plenty of hype and lofty expectations.
Before he squares off with Nattawut, we take a look at “The Chef’s” journey to the global stage of martial arts.
Growing Up In Dad’s Gym
Lessei hails from the small Midwestern town of Dubuque, Iowa. He told onefc.com that his childhood was just like any other, save for one key difference:
“Super regular upbringing, except for the fact that I’ve been doing martial arts since age 4.”
The son of a former professional kickboxer with deep ties to Muay Thai in America, Lessei’s childhood was largely spent in his father’s gym – Dubuque Martial Arts Group.
“I came up in Iowa, middle of America, Midwest, USA, surrounded by cornfields. I grew up with a kind of traditional, hard-loving dad. He was a professional fighter as well.
“So he got me into martial arts and training when I was 4. My childhood, most of my memories revolve around martial arts, being in the gym with my dad, and just growing up with a father training his son to do what he loves to do. And that’s basically been my entire life’s work.”
Finding His ‘Man Strength’
It was at Dubuque Martial Arts Group that Lessei learned “the art of eight limbs,” quickly developing into the gym’s most promising striker.
But despite being a prodigiously talented teenager, Lessei simply considered himself a big fish in a small pond:
“Because we’ve always had a small team, I’ve always been the best guy at my dad’s gym… which isn’t anything to brag about.
Throughout high school, “The Chef” participated in other sports, including cross-country running and soccer, but he continued to train daily in Muay Thai under his father’s strict guidance.
And while he knew himself to be a skilled fighter with loads of potential, it wasn’t until the young Lessei started knocking out adults that he realized he could have a future in the professional ranks.
“Some grown men start coming in, MMA starts getting a little bit bigger, and now I’m getting beat up in my own gym a little bit. So it’s like… I wasn’t ever going to stop. But it’s like, ‘Okay, I have to be the best in my dad’s gym.’
“But it wasn’t like, ‘This is what I want to do. I want to be a professional fighter.’ It was like, “I just have to be the best in this place right now.” And then from that, I started getting my first knockouts, you know, at 16 to 19 years old, started knocking people out. I started getting a little bit more man strength.”
Lessons Learned In Difficult Times
Before long, “The Chef” had amassed an impressive amateur record, winning the massive Thai Boxing Association tournament 13 times to establish himself as one of America’s top young talents.
That success came at a price, though. While his high school classmates were out having fun, Lessei was a slave to training and weekly competitions.
But now reflecting on those times, he says he’s proud to have made those sacrifices:
“I’m gone every Friday night. Every Saturday morning, I’m at the gym. So like, I wanted to party a little bit. I mean, I’m from the Midwest, you know, there’s not anything to do here. Everyone here just drinks and parties, you know, there’s nothing to do. So I wanted to at least let loose and be a kid a little bit.
“That was probably the hardest thing [to miss out on]. But then looking back, it’s like, yeah, that stuff was dumb. I’m happy I didn’t do that.”
After high school, Lessei continued to dominate the amateur ranks.
In 2020, he turned professional and – in what he describes as one of the hardest times of his life – spent two years training outside of Dubuque, away from his father.
He views that stretch as an incredibly difficult yet beneficial time for him as a fighter. As hard as it was to be away from the man who taught him Muay Thai, it allowed him to develop his own signature style of combat:
“I had to go find myself. I had to go find my own style. I was fighting exactly how my dad wanted to fight me for a really long time. And it’s funny enough, this was the hardest time, but also, I grew the most within this amount of time, because I was like, ‘Whoa, I really am figuring out how I want to fight.’
“And the hardest time of not being able to train with my dad, but then figuring out… it was time to graduate from my dad. Eventually, I had to become a man.”
Motivated By Fatherhood
Now on the precipice of his much-anticipated ONE debut, Lessei is set to showcase a lifetime of training on the world’s biggest stage for martial arts.
He’s motivated in part to put Dubuque on the map and prove that a kid from Iowa can compete with one of Thailand’s finest in “Smokin” Jo Nattawut.
At the same time, Lessei admits that after so many years of hard training, he briefly lost some of that motivation. But now, with the birth of his 2-year-old daughter and infant son, “The Chef” says he’s found a new spark to push him toward greatness:
“Because I’ve been doing it for so long, motivation, obviously, isn’t there all the time. I guess I didn’t have motivation for a while. And it just came back because I had my daughter. And then I had my son.
“I became a father. I start seeing the light of where I could go in Muay Thai. I started getting noticed by ONE, and then I start falling in love with it again.
“It sounds dumb, but I want to make money for them. You know, I’m from a small town, so being able to do Muay Thai and just support them, it’s the coolest thing ever.”