Gutierrez, who also works as a local barber, has found a home in Lansing and as a MMA fighter on the verge of stardom.
There’s an old saying in the combat-sports world: You don’t play fighting. It’s that simple across all combat sports, but for Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighters, that statement rises to an even higher level.
For Lansing local and Chicago native Armando “El Toro” Gutierrez, fighting is not a sport - it’s his passion and way of life.
Unlike most traditional sports, MMA does not have a set-in-stone, empirical methodology to reaching the top. As of now, no high schools nor colleges have MMA as a sanctioned sport and because of this, most fighters have their own unique path towards success.
The pathway set before Gutierrez, 23, was one of heartache, chaos and failure.
“I was one of those guys who was born to lose, because like my whole life, I sucked at pretty much every sport,” said Gutierrez. “For whatever reason, I was good at wrestling—like when I started wrestling, I was ass for the first year, but I never wanted to quit, that's all I wanted to do.”
The success Gutierrez had as a high school wrestler prompted him to pursue it in college. He chose to try to walk-on at the University of Iowa - one of the top wrestling programs in the nation. He turned down scholarships to wrestle at the Division II level for a chance with the Hawkeyes.
“My problem was I was always in my own mind—I always thought I was better than I really was,” Gutierrez explained. “Instead of going D-2 or D-3, I chose to try to walk-on to the best school in the country and that did not work out for me at all.
“(I) went out there, got my ass kicked and that kind of took away my love for the sport and it left me with nothing.”
Gutierrez didn’t make the cut in being a Hawkeye wrestler, which plunged him into a dark void.
“I got really depressed, so I left school and I went back home to try to find myself,” said Gutierrez.
During his journey back home, Gutierrez attempted to fill his competitive void by competing in powerlifting events. He was doing bench press, deadlift, and squatting. Despite getting into this sport, he still felt like something was missing in his life. Powerlifting wasn’t the answer.
“I broke records, and I was really good at it, but it didn’t fill that void,” said Gutierrez. “I was winning competitions and I knew this wasn’t anything, I just didn’t care for it. After I quick stint of doing that I told myself, ‘I need to fight’.”
At 20 years of age, Gutierrez knew what he wanted to do – MMA fighting. Unfortunately, he could not find any MMA gyms in Chicago; so he began searching for gyms online and found Murcielago MMA in Lansing.
Gutierrez’s nickname is “El Toro,” which when translated to English means “Bull.” Much like a bull, Gutierrez charges headfirst in life decisions, which was the reason he walked-on to Iowa in an attempt to make the team - he failed.
Again, he found himself charging forward towards another major decision in life, this time, moving to an unknown city he’s never been to, without a place to stay, and low finances. His only plan was to train at the gym.
“I moved out here [Lansing], knocked on the door and never looked back,” Gutierrez said. “I didn't have a house, I didn’t have a job, I didn't have a gym, nor did I talk to anyone yet—I just did it.”
Prior to his arrival in Lansing, Gutierrez composed a roadmap to success within the span of a week. His plan was to live in his car, cut hair to make money and train each day to rise up the rankings.
Upon his arrival, Gutierrez met with the head barber where he applied to beforehand.
“Luckily the first place I stopped was a barbershop I had applied for,” said Gutierrez. “They gave me a shot and thank God I found a job right away. There was a guy there named Kenny and he told me I could stay at his crib and it all went on from there.”
Now having a place to rest, Gutierrez had to face his biggest challenge yet: getting in the gym. Much like his stint at Iowa, El Toro found out the hard way that MMA is not a sport you play.
“I had never had a fight before I moved to Murcie [Murcielago MMA]—I never had threw a punch before I came to Murcie,” said Gutierrez. “It's not uncommon to have guys walk-in, get beat up, leave and never come back. But I was one of the ones that got beat up and kept coming back until I started catching bodies myself - that’s just how it worked.”
As his talents grew, so did his experience and record at 11-1 both professional and amateur. Over the past three years, Gutierrez competed in the Xtreme Fighting Championship, Total Warrior Combat, Lights Out Championship and now competing in the Legacy Fighting Alliance—a regional circuit and breeding ground for UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) talent.
Coming off of his first career loss in September against Mo Miller, Gutierrez now seeks to redeem himself and build from another setback.
“It was a blessing in disguise,” Gutierrez, who fights at 135 pounds, explained. “I feel like I eased up a little bit because I felt like I was doing everything right. I felt like I was going to win because I worked hard and did things right but that's not always the case. I had to feel that adversity in a fight, I had to feel someone wanting it more than I did because I would’ve came home thinking I still did everything perfect and that I was untouchable.”
Gutierrez has received the opportunity of his life, in the form of a bid to become a member of The Ultimate Fighter season 29. Because of COVID-19, the UFC are hosting virtual tryouts. If he finds a way to get on the show and win out, he’d be awarded an automatic UFC contract.
“I look at the weight class that I'm in and I look at where I want to be and there's a lot of work to be done,” Gutierrez explained. “I always felt like God had a plan for me and it was this. My mission in life is to see this thing through go all the way with it and create opportunities for me and my family.”