On Friday night, one of the Netherlands’ best fighters will make his debut in the Bellator cage — a stoical, mildly bemused, completely nonplussed torrent of fist and foot who has largely gone unsung.
Talking about the middleweight Costello van Steenis, of course.
Van Steenis is Gegard Mousasi’s protégé, and he’ll show up to the Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, Conn., to kick off what he hopes will be a championship run against Steve Skrzat on the prelims. Van Steenis benefits from having an impossibly villainous name — Costello van Steenis — yet at 8-1 he emerged as one of the most coveted names fighting in the European theater.
Now he gets to come stateside and fight on the same card as his training partner Mousasi — who will headline the event against Alexander Shlemenko for his first fight under the Bellator banner — in what he believes will be a prelude to big things.
“This is a dream come true,” he told MMA Fighting. “It’s been my goal since I started this. I had one goal when I started MMA, and it was UFC or Bellator or some other big organization, and Bellator was perfect.”
Van Steenis is 25. He was born in Holland and moved to Spain when he was a just a toddler. When he was three years old he was bit by a dog on his cheek, and he wears the scar to this day. He doesn’t remember the encounter that well, but he wears the scar with fighterly pride. He first tried his hand at MMA at 18 years old. His coach, Ricardo Wondel, gave him the nickname “The Spaniard,” and not because he grew up in Spain.
“Well, maybe a little bit because of that,” he says. “But more because the first amateur fight I fought for him in the Netherlands I delivered a front kick, and that looked like the Spaniard in the movie 300 or something. He was like, dude, that is like something the Spartan would do, the one they called ‘The Spaniard.’ So I’m going to call you ‘The Spaniard.’”
His career began in Spain, yet it took wing in Holland.
“I was training in Spain, and I did some competitions there,” he says. “I did a tournament there after six months of training, and I won the tournament, and my trainer (Wondel) said, ‘Hey dude, you got some talent, you’re really strong, go to another country if you want to start doing this professionally.’ So that’s what I did. I went back to the Netherlands when I was 19 or 20 years old. I had the chance to live with my uncle at his house, and I found the best gym I could.”
Since that time, van Steenis has been absorbed in the mixed techniques – particularly in grappling. He won a couple of amateur fights in 2013, and had his pro debut in Kerkrade the following year. He scored a decision victory that night, which three years later sits on his record as a rarity — he’s finished nearly everybody he’s faced since then.
It irks him to have to wait on the judges.
“I like to finish fights,” he says. “I hate fighting until one of us gets a win through position or something like that. Let’s fight and let’s finish the fight, by KO, TKO, submission or anything. Do not leave it to the judges.”
Van Steenis has been training under the tutelage of Mousasi and Wondel at MMA Vlaardingen in the Netherlands for the last three years, since right around the time he scored his first submission victory over Cenk Toplar. He has quietly went about his business of collecting scalps since then, only dropping one fight in the process, which was a decision in 2015 against Jake Bostwick.
That loss is one of the reasons he doesn’t like scorecards. He says he can’t trust them. And it’s his aggressive style and pedigree that has attracted suitors. Van Steenis said he was vacationing with a sense of anticipation when he got the call that he was headed for Bellator.
“After my fight that I did in Poland for PLMMA (against Marcin Naruszczka) I was hearing from other people and my trainer, ‘Stay ready, because you might get a phone call at any moment from some bigger organization,’” he says. “And that’s what happened. I was in Spain on holiday and I did. I got the phone call. So that holiday got cut short and it was back to the Netherlands. I didn’t get to enjoy it very much because all I wanted to do was train and get better and better.”
If there’s been a constant in his rise to the Bellator cage, it’s that he’s had the even-keeled Mousasi — who has held multiple titles in various organizations over the years — helping him fine-tune his craft.
“To me Gegard Mousasi is a legend, and I’m very blessed to be training under his wing and under his gym together with the gym I started at with Ricardo,” he says. “I was lucky that he brought me there.
“And I’m lucky that I’m fighting on the same card as Gegard, so I am training a lot more this time.”
As for making his debut on the same night that Mousasi makes his under the Bellator banner, van Steenis — who arrived in Connecticut on Monday — said it hasn’t sunk in yet.
“I still don’t feel it really well,” he says. “I guess because of the weight cut and all that. At some point before the fight I’m going to realize it all, that I’m actually going to do this shit. I’m going to fight with the legends, and yeah, that’s cool.”
If there’s a similarity between Mousasi and van Steenis it’s the unnerving calm in which they approach a chaotic situation (such as a fight). Part of Mousasi’s cult following comes from the “zero f*cks” calm he wears on his face before a fight, during, and after.
Van Steenis is a chip off the old block —an iceberg of intention and determination.
“I’m not like Conor McGregor, I’m not someone who starts getting a big mouth everywhere. I just keep it calm,” he says. “If someone acts tough, I’m going to respond though, that’s just how I am. Other than that, I just am who I am.”
Van Steenis says that he would like to be fighting for the middleweight title by the end of 2018. Or, more precisely, he sees things playing out like this: Mousasi will win the middleweight title, then he’ll move onto the light heavyweight division, and win that title, too. Once the “Moose” is done with the middleweight division, that’s when van Steenis’ time will arrive. “I’ll come straight in after him,” he says. When starting out, the visions are tidy enough.
As for his fight with Rhode Island’s own Skrzat (8-9), who will likely have a fan presence on Friday night at the Mohegan Sun?
“It’s going to be a messy fight,” he deadpans in his Mousasi way. “Maybe first or second round, my hand will be up in the sky. That’s what probably will happen.”