Luke Lessei Talks Dad’s Bruce Lee Lineage, “Gang Initiation” Fight of the Year with Jo Nattawut

Dubuque, Iowa’s Muay Thai sensation Luke Lessei proved that he can hang with the best of them in his ONE Championship debut against ‘Smokin’ Jo Nattawut in December 2023. Now, just two months later, he prepared for another veteran test, this time against fellow American Eddie ‘Silky Smooth’ Abasolo at ONE Fight Night 19.

Though he lost the decision to Smokin’ Jo, Luke forced the Thai into an all-out war which was in contention for ONE’s Fight of the Year last year. He nearly won, arguably deserving the close decision and almost finishing Nattawut in the third round. After spending his early career on the American regional Muay Thai scene – which is a far cry removed from fighting in the legendary Lumpinee Stadium – almost nobody expected him to do that well against such a big step up in competition.

Although losing for the first time as a professional is not what he wanted, Lessi gained a lot of fans and can still take encouragement from his performance, “[It’s] disappointing in some ways, just the fact that there’s a one on my record as a loss… But besides all that? Everything’s been great, I’ve been having so much love and positivity, gaining fans. Fans that have been around are like, ‘Dude we needed to see this fight from you, we needed to see how tough you were.’ They got to see my gangster get tested, so the loyal fans are even more loyal now that they got to see the dawg in me. And the new fans, they’re like, ‘Saw Luke’s last fight,’ and now they’re going to watch my next fight.”

In a way he is even more happy with this result than he would have been with the quick knockout victory that most fighters want every time they compete, “If that fight would’ve been a quick knockout I probably would have less people tuning into this next fight… [The last fight] was a three-round, absolute banger, Fight of the Year contender. I think it just makes the story for my career even better. I think it’s meant to happen that way, a real ‘Rocky’ moment for me. I think more and more people are going to be hopping on board, wanting to see me win.”

It can be hard to win over the traditionalist fans of Muay Thai who almost always root for actual Nak Muay from Thailand. When asked about that, Lessei said, “For years and years [I’ve gotten] comments, ‘You need to go to Thailand, need to go international, I’d like to see this dude tested against a real Thai fighter.’”

Tested Luke Lessei was, and now on the other side of that test the tune has begun to change, “I feel like eventually people realize, ‘He does know what he’s doing.’ And now my first fight in ONE was against the Thai, number four ranked, well-seasoned, game-tested veteran and now everyone shut up because a little dude from Iowa went out there – yeah if you want [you can] be like, ‘He lost, he got beat by the Thai’ – but if you actually know you’re watching and know what you’re talking about, the pressures that I had on me. I just quit my job, went to go do that fight, everything was [set up] for me to get knocked out by him.

“You saw every other fight; it was almost like they’re supposed to – they have a 50% knockout rate! They’re trying to set up knockouts. I wasn’t supposed to do that to Jo. I’m just this dude from Iowa that’s getting a shot. I wasn’t supposed to do that against the #4 ranked guy in the world. And I did okay. Some people said I even could have won, and if there was another round? I would have won. And if it was in the streets? Jo Nattawut would be dead, so I think any fans that think I have to go to Thailand to fight, us Americans are just waiting for our opportunities, man.”

When asked about the confidence he can take from going blow for blow with Nattawut for nine minutes straight, Lessei said, “That was my gang initiation. And I think I’m glad I had it happen that way, because I don’t want to get into my fourth or fifth fight in ONE and not be tested. Now I feel like the whole roster, I’m ready to fight all of them. He broke my nose in the second round and I was still in there. I know how hard he ****ing hits. I know I can take a hit. A lot of people think he’s the hardest hitter in the whole division and I stood there and took that **** like a champ. I didn’t get wobbled, you didn’t see me get wobbled, not once. So I think of course that’s going to put my confidence up.

“And another thing… This is really personal for me: I never knew if I was really tough like that. I’ve just been doing what my dad said. In the gym, in the ring, doing sports, combat sport. I thought, ‘Oh I’m good at these moves, I’m good at the techniques, but can I really FIGHT like that? Do I really got that dog in me?’ And obviously we found that out, I found that out.

“I didn’t know there was that dog. I remember after the first round I was like, ‘Yo I might get knocked the **** out.’ I remember thinking that to myself, and I didn’t. So now going against other people, of course everyone can hit as hard as Jo in the division – well I think I do. I think I’m ready for all of them because I wasn’t ready for Jo’s power.”

Luke knows that being given Jo Nattawut in his first fight and Eddie Abasolo in his second fight means that he is not being protected, like some prospects in combat sports. “Part of me wants that because you want to be a star, you want to get wins. But then another part of me knows that that’s kind of a façade. Do you want to go the ‘Suga’ Sean O’Malley way? Or are you like [going] murderer’s row. When I lay down at night, I think about what I want, and to really be fulfilled when I lay down on my death bed I want to probably [have beaten] the best guys in the world. That’s ****ing scary, I’d [almost] rather fight the easy guys and get the Instagram [likes], but deep inside I know that’s not what’s going to fulfill me.

“So, I need to call out guys like Eddie, the other American who they think is the best. That needs to be me. I got to get him out of the way first. And then after that we are going to start going on this Thai fighter hitlist. I want to knock out all the Thais because in my division it’s ran by Thais: Tawanchai, Superbon, Jo, and then Sitthichai. Its like, ‘Yo, we need an American up in there.’

“I think going up against Eddie, it’s a dream come true. I’ve been watching him for a long time. When I was young, he was just coming onto the pro scene. He was smooth, he was chill, he was one of those guys who focused so much on being that powerful statue, hitting hard. Let’s be honest, I was doing this smooth **** before he was. I’ve been training for 20 years and I’m only 27. I think its time that people get an answer to, ‘Who’s the one?’ Is it me, or is it Eddie? I think it’s going to be a fight where we find out who the smoothest mother****er out here is.”

In his last fight, the ONE commentary team labeled Lessei as the best American striker in the world. When asked about it, he made no bones about agreeing with that statement, “Honestly, I think I am America’s best striker. This is nothing to do with wins and losses. If you follow me, you’ll see the knowledge I have on my page, the way I break things down. Yeah, I know I’m good at moves, and I know my style is clean and beautiful and it’s a little more elegant…than everybody… I know I’m like top when it comes to technique. And then when you see the things I talk about, the way I break things down, the perspective I have about the game, the philosophy of ‘you can make it [without] any connections.’

“All of these things are what make me viewed as America’s #1. Because I’m breaking down everything that I’ve done. I’m giving you all the recipes. I’m not just posting videos hitting pads… I’m spending time, I’m creating a culture, I’m creating a movement, and I’m trying to change the game. Not just winning fights, that’s the last thing I’m trying to do is win the fights. I’m trying to get BETTER and actually make a difference with this Muay Thai community. And I think the people who follow me sense that.

“There’s a couple other Americans: Eddie, Asa Ten Pow, even WBC ranked guys. But we’re in ONE Championship, you gotta win in ONE Championship to be the best. Once I beat Eddie there will be no more questions. If you do question it? Whatever, I’ll just keep beating people and it’ll just take a little bit longer for people to realize I’m America’s number one. Eventually, I’m going to be America’s number one and it will be a matter of fact. That’s the goal.

“The goal is to be champion, but also the goal is [when people think about] American Muay Thai, [they’ll say], ‘Oh, Luke!’ That’s what I want.”

Although Muay Thai is a less popular sport than the likes of MMA and boxing, it has grown in recent years, in part due to ONE Championship. The tight-knit community in the sport has really gotten behind influencer-fighters like Liam Nolan, like Luke Lessei. Luke sees that and appreciates it.

“The fans put you on a pedestal and its ****ing cool. If you actually are cool, you’re teaching good stuff, you’re not a fraud, then the Muay Thai fans are probably the best fans that there is. Real Muay Thai fans, its just awesome, they have so much respect for you.”

Those fans are the reason Luke was able to build a platform of over 80,000 followers on Instagram in a relatively niche sport, which helped him earn his chance to debut in ONE Championship and fight Smokin’ Jo. But the reason he got into the sport in the first place was his father. Yet how did his father get into the sport in the first place himself when Muay Thai was a relatively underground sport in America for so long?

He started back in the 80s, everyone’s watching Bruce Lee movies, samurai movies, kung-fu movies. That’s originally how he started, with his buddies. That planted the seed and then he went on this lifelong journey of traditional martial arts. He trained under Dan Inosanto, who trained under Bruce Lee… And then when he got into Muay Thai, the guy who brought Muay Thai to America in 1969, Ajarn Chai Sirisute, who was training the Dallas Cowboys back in like the 60’s and training the Hell’s Angels. Those are my dad’s teachers, Bruce Lee lineage.

“He just went all in, all different types of martial arts: boxing, karate, Muay Thai, fighting with the sticks and weapons. And then he became a pro fighter, had a couple fights, and then had me and my sister. He created this blueprint, I don’t know what he thought when I was born but he was like, ‘You’re going to be a fighter.’ The rest is history. I turned four, he got me in the gym, and I’ve been chasing that ever since.”

His chase has led him to Lumpinee Stadium in Thailand, and to a fight with Eddie Abasolo. Luke’s prediction for the result is much the same as his last one where he predicted a war or a quick KO, “This could be another fight of the year, but the last fight was my first fight in smaller gloves. So, there’s a bit of different energy in this fight. I might take some risks; I might really go for a setup or a knockout. It’s hard to take a risk when the #4 ranked Thai guy is trying to knock you out. I was nervous. So, it ended up being a back-and-forth.

“I think I have a better chance at finishing Eddie Abasolo. There’s less nerves, first fight jitters are out, I’m going to take some more chances… I think I can get Eddie out of there before the fight’s over. I think I can make him look not-so-smooth. He’s going to be laying there, motionless.”

As for which round he will send his opponent to the shadow realm? “I’m thinking end of the second, or third… That first round might be a complete chess match. The longer the fight goes, the more comfortable, the more powerful I get.”

Luke Lessei takes on Eddie Abasolo in ONE Championship’s Muay Thai Featherweight Division at ONE Fight Night 19 in Lumpinee Stadium in Bangkok, Thailand on Friday, February 16