Dustin “Sandman” Sutley realized at a young age that people treated him differently after winning his first fight with a school bully. He became a street fighter and, after some much needed training, an accomplished professional boxer.
Sutley was forced into early retirement due to an ankle injury, something that led him to focus on training other fighters and opening his own boxing studio in Calgary. Now, he’s learning to balance being a business owner as he steps back into the ring once again.
The making of the “Sandman”
Sutley moved with his family from Alix, Alta., to the much larger town of Okotoks when he was just a kid. By the time he was in junior high, he says he was bullied by the popular kid. He was soon fed up with the tyrant’s antics.
“Nobody wants to walk into a pro-club and learn how to box in front of a bunch of guys smashing their faces and bleeding all over each other.” Dustin Sutley
Although the two are friends now, that was not the case at the time.
“We got in a fist fight, and I won. Everyone looked at me different,” says Sutley.
As a result, Sutley says he became “guns for hire” for friends in need. Sutley says he was never a bully himself and even got along well with teachers and other students. He grins, “I just didn’t say no to a fight.”
Debbie Sutley, Dustin’s mom, says, “He was just a scrawny little thing. And all his friends were scrawny little things, but they would phone him for protection.”
Although he desperately wanted to start training in a boxing gym, Debbie says she wouldn’t let him. Apparently, that wasn’t enough to stop the 13-year-old from trying to learn the sport on his own.
“He went out in the garage and put a two by four up in between the joist – on the walls that weren’t finished – and he wrapped his hands with rags and would punch itto strengthen his hands,” she says.
Growing up with four brothers herself, and having a husband who was “a bit of a scrapper when he was young,” Debbie says Sutley’s continued fighting wasn’t too concerning for her, even when he was one suspension away from being expelled from the entire high school district.
“Things were different then,” she says, recognizing the shift in cultural acceptance surrounding boys who fight, “you wouldn’t want to do that now.”
A boxer on the rise
Sutley made it through high school without expulsion and respected his mother’s rules about professional training, but things changed the moment the aspiring boxer moved out of his parent’s house.
When Sutley moved out at 18 years old, he started training at a professional gym.
However, he learned very quickly that boasting about his street fighting wasn’t respected in the boxing ring. “You can be tough, you can be strong, but once the training side of it comes in, all that street fighting means absolutely nothing at all.
“Now, it comes down to skill sets,” says Sutley.
He started training with Dale “Cowboy” Brown, who represented Canadian boxing in the 1992 Olympics. He was a coach who knew how to deal with a fighter, according to Sutley. Rather than using an authoritative approach, he trained Sutley as though the two were equals, which proved to be an effective method for the “Sandman.”
“It was great having a coach who had been there and done that, because he treated you differently than a regular coach,” says Sutley.
But he wasn’t content just training. He wanted to face the challenge of an opponent in the ring: “I wanted to push myself,” he says.
“You have that risk of losing in front of everybody, but you also have that risk of winning in front of everybody.”
The first four
The boxer’s talent became obvious after he won his first four fights by technical knockout – when the referee or official ring physician decides a fighter cannot safely continue the match. His first match against Dylan Ferguson in March 2008, is still clear in his mind.
“You have that risk of losing in front of everybody, but you also have that risk of winning in front of everybody.” – Dustin Sutley
He says he remembers feeling excited before the fight, but between that excitement was anxiety.
“You have this terrible feeling that the guy you’re fighting in the ring is Superman,” he says.
When the night of his first fight approached, Sutley says he felt a rush of adrenaline.
“You walk up, and there’s a curtain in front of you. You hear your walkout song, and hear everyone start cheering. Everything changes.”
“And then, you step into that ring, and you can’t see anything. It’s just lights – all you see is bright lights, and somebody standing on the other side of the ring from you,” says Sutley.
Although this was the first fight for Sutley and Ferguson, the “Sandman” says it was intimidating to know that Ferguson was prepared.
“That person has been training for eight weeks to fight you specifically,” Sutley remembers of Ferguson.
This is where his team of trainers became crucial during his first fight.
Nearly losing focus due to the excitement, Sutley’s team surrounded him. He remembers them putting in his mouthguard and getting his boxing gloves on.
“And that’s when things get really crazy,” he says.
After touching gloves in the middle of the ring, the fighters stood in their corners and the support team stepped out of the ring. The referee had both fighters nod their head in readiness, and a bell sounded.
“Now it’s real,” Sutley says. “Now you’re in a ring legally trying to kill another man.”
The concussion was so bad that the boxer had to temporarily write notes for himself about where he was going or what he was doing. Otherwise, he would forget and have to drive back home.
Of course the aim is not to kill a man in boxing, but the feeling is as intensive for the fighter. “You have to understand in boxing, if you don’t hit them, they’re going to hit you.”
After dropping Ferguson in the first round, Sutley TKO’d his opponent before the first three-minute round was up.
“I’m the type of fighter that if I smell blood, I’m going to finish the kill.”
Winning his first four fights by technical knockout, Sutley says he “just felt like he was never going to lose.” And that’s when he was paired with Andrew Hernández.
“I didn’t find out he had 250 amateur fights until that night,” Sutley says. At the time, Sutley had five professional mixed martial arts fights, and zero amateur fights.
After four three-minute rounds, Hernández won, halting Sutley’s winning streak.
“It was ruthless. I was concussed for six weeks after that fight,” Sutley says.
The concussion was so bad that the boxer had to temporarily write notes for himself about where he was going or what he was doing. Otherwise, he would forget and have to drive back home.At that time of their professional careers, Hernández was 2 – 0, and Sutley was 4 – 0.
Hernández went on to win the World Boxing Council United States Middleweight title, which helped to change Sutley’s perspective on the devastating loss. “The guy’s a world champion, and I hung in there.”
Sutley continued to train though his injuries were catching up to him. Because of how intensive his training and previous fights were, he endured several injuries, including having torn both his medial collateral ligaments.
But he was forced into official retirement when he tore two of three ligaments in his ankle in the lead up to an upcoming Canadian title fight. “There’s not many sports where you’re fighting for eight weeks – as training – for a fight,” he says.
From trainee to trainer
That’s when Sutley shifted his focus from fighting, to training other fighters. “It got to the point where I was training some really good fighters,” he says.
One of those fighters included Ryan Wagner. As his trainer, Sutley watched Wagner win his comeback fight with Stuart McLellan in March 2015, which led to major offers including a fight against Yves Ulysse Jr. at the Bell Centre in Montreal in August 2015.
That experience made Sutley realize how much he missed being in the ring himself.
“Being in the corner, seeing the crowd and being part of it … It made me realize it was only a matter of time before I would start doing it again,” explains Sutley.
At 29, he started training for his own return to the ring. He also started planning to open up his very own boxing studio. With a background in business, Sutley – formerly a managing partner of Element Club Bar and Grille and The Best Damn Sports Bar in Penticton B.C., and a former manager of local nightclub Cowboys Dance Hall – started actively pursuing the next big thing.
“I always wanted a boxing gym,” he says.
In October 2016, the “Sandman” opened his newest venture, The Sweat Science, in Calgary’s trendy Inglewood neighbourhood, just four days before he suffered the second loss of his boxing career agains Jesús Olivares.
Looking outside the ring
Debbie, who can’t physically watch those fights, even though she is always in the same room, says that loss “tore his heart out.”
For his own part, Sutley pauses when asked about his defeat, seeming to hold back tears.
“You know, sometimes you take on more than you should,” he says.
Nevertheless, Sutley is determined to achieve his goals both inside and outside the ring. “You don’t learn anything in a knockout. You learn way more about yourself losing than you do winning,” he says.
“Nobody wants to walk into a pro-club and learn how to box in front of a bunch of guys smashing their faces and bleeding all over each other,” Sutley says.
Sutley says the biggest aspect of training a fighter is mental, and his new studio aims to make its clients feel as though they are number one. He says negativity isn’t allowed around his club because his goal is to “build your fighters up.”
While you won’t see professional boxers fighting in the studio, clients will see professionals training.
In fact, Sutley’s business model looks more badass than many fitness classes.
“I started training right when I went and worked with him a few times, and I realized that I was getting better,” Mike “Tornado” Smallwood.
“I don’t want to sell that fake shit. I want to sell hard work and dedication. I want clients to know they are learning something to take with them when they leave.”
That ability to learn from great fighters is one of many reasons professional boxer Mike “Tornado” Smallwood – a retired psychologist and former mixed martial arts fighter – decided to join The Sweat Science as one of the six trainers.
Smallwood, who got to know Sutley after working with him at a nightclub, said, “You won’t have a spin instructor teaching your class,” he says of The Sweat Science, which boasts four professional boxers training at the studio.
Teaching both fitness classes and providing private training to soccer moms, fighters and seniors alike, Smallwood can also speak to the value of Sutley’s training.
“I went and worked with him a few times, and I realized that I was getting better,” Smallwood says, having gone on to win his last four fights.
Even Sutley’s mom says she loves training with her son in the boutique studio.
“He puts his whole heart and soul into it. He isn’t just there to make a dollar, it’s his passion.”
As for Sutley, he says passion for the sport fuels him in fighting and training others at his new studio.
“You love it. That’s the whole reason you want to train. You almost get as much out of watching your fighters win as when you’re winning yourself.”
The editor responsible for this piece is Ingrid Mir, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org