Business of MMA: SuckerPunch Entertainment, Part Two

Looking ahead to the future and talking to the first member of the SuckerPunch family

Be sure to check out Part One of our Business of MMA feature on SuckerPunch Entertainment as well.

Mixed martial arts is on the cusp of experiencing another explosion.

With the announcement of the seven-year television partnership between the UFC and the FOX network of channels, the sport is poised to climb to new heights, and potentially see an influx of new sponsors entering the fray. Having already started branching out into some new areas with various members of the SuckerPunch roster, Brian Butler-Au hopes that trend continues now that MMA is going more mainstream.

“I’m super-excited to see how it plays out. Like everybody, I’m hoping that it finally creates that crossover. I’ve been dealing with corporations for years since I’ve been in this industry trying to pull companies in, and the reality is that a lot of them have still been scared.

“More and more of them have decided to take the leap and become involved — like we’ve got Dell with Alienware, but that was a two-year-process for me — but hopefully this Fox deal is going to open the eyes of some of these companies and put some of our boys in the mainstream. I’m hoping for the best, and I think everybody is including the UFC, so we’ll see.”

There are negative elements that come with the continued growth of the sport as well. Not everyone approaches what they do with the same ethical base that the SuckerPunch team adheres to, something Butler-Au says he learned early on and hopes to see weeded out from the sport sooner rather than later.

“I found that when I got into this sport, I thought it was going to be huge. The UFC was huge, but I didn’t realize that the infrastructure of the sport was so green. I thought it was going to be a respectful business, but it didn’t take me long to learn that it was cut-throat with a lot of shady people involved on the management side of things. I just kept my nose clean, people started calling, and we grew the stable.

“There was so much cut-throat business going on with the fighters. Managers and agents were all headhunting fighters, promising them the moon and telling them, `Come with me, I’ll get you this, and I’ll get you that’ and a lot of the fighters were falling prey to that.

“It’s happened to me a couple of times; I’m not going to name any, but there have been some pretty notable ones. The one that I will talk about — because we’ve talked about it before — was Jens Pulver. We ended up parting ways and he ended up coming back and publicly stating that he’d never do that again.

“I think that they’ll end up weeding themselves out,” Butler said of the less ethical set. “I think that ethics and karma all come around. I think slow and steady wins the race, and I don’t mean to say that we’re dragging our feet and slow. Steady wins the race, let’s put it that way. I have very good relationships (throughout the industry). We should build bridges with each other and help grow the sport, instead of being greedy and do the instant cash out and not worry about the fighter’s future.”

As detailed in Part One, Pulver was the first fighter to work with SuckerPunch Entertainment, but someone got in his ear, telling him all the things they would provide for him.

“The unfortunate thing is this: people come in, it’s a competitive world,” started the first lightweight champion in UFC history, speaking to Heavy MMA about this story earlier in the week. “As people come in and say, `I can get you this, this, this and this.’ You’re looking at this list going, `Dang! This is all I had the last time.’ So you’re just doing the scale. `This guy says he can get me all these things, and it’s ten-times better than this.’

“It turns out — at least in my situation — too good to be true, and it was all talk. So I learned my lesson and was like, `I’m going back to Butler and SuckerPunch.’ Brian’s an honest guy; I love SuckerPunch. I’ve been there from the beginning, and we’re working our way to that spot. He’s an honest guy, he’s a truthful guy, and that’s the one thing I’ve always loved of him.”

The 36-year-old known as “Lil Evil” also likes the way Butler and the SuckerPunch team work to tailor their sponsorship to the things each fighter is actually interested in. Instead of just finding random sponsors to put on a banner and on a pair of shorts, Pulver’s love of video games became a focal point in finding companies to work with, and made his job as a part-time pitchman all the more easy.

“The one thing that was so cool about when he branched out and did Call of Duty, in my off time or when I’m resting, I don’t watch TV — I like to play video games, I like to play Call of Duty. I didn’t just have the Call of Duty patch on my shorts and say, `I want to thank my sponsors’ when I was in the cage, I talked about Call of Duty with everything I did because it was part of my everyday life.

“It was a lot of fun to have a sponsor like that, where you’re not looking down a little checklist on your hand, `I gotta thank so and so, and so and so.’ The reality is I’m sitting here staring at an Alienware (computer) and I’m about to flip on Call of Duty; I can do this off the top. It’s right here in front of me and it’s what I do every day.

An excited Pulver continued. “Dang! You’re sitting at E3, you get to go to Comic-Con. For me, I love that. I’m like, `Yes!’ For me, it’s like getting to go to Disneyland. I’ll talk about it all day long. I get to play new XBox games. Really? I’m like a kid in a candy store. It’s not hard for me to thank those sponsors.”

Cultivating new sponsorships — and tapping into new sponsorship markets — is one trend SuckerPunch has already been at the forefront of in recent years. With the success they’ve exhibited since the creation of what Bryan Hamper calls SuckerPunch Version 2.0 — the original company plus the addition of he and Shu Hirata — will we see more management companies taking the same super-group approach.

Hamper believes there is both need and potential for such a shift, but is unsure whether we’ll see more firms following SuckerPunch’s lead in the near future.

“A lot of it has to do with — and I’m not directly speaking to anybody — a lot of it has to do with ego,” suggested the 28-year-old. “Some agents don’t want to give up what they have or they feel like they’re bringing something to the table more so than others.

“The great thing about Shu, Brian and I is that our priority is putting out the best product for the client. We put the client first in everything we do, so the ego gets pulled out of it. I think that’s one of the main drawbacks to some management companies looking to team up to provide better services is that everyone is worried about “I might lose this client” or “he’s mine.” There is a lot of ego involved in the mix. With us three, our main priority is putting out the best product for the client; that’s our main thing. As long as our guys are taken care of, everything else kind of takes care of itself.

“I think there is a huge need for it in the industry. Will that continue to happen? We’ll see. I think what we’re doing is setting a precedent that everyone is going to see in the next couple years and want to jump on board with. I feel like what we’re doing is definitely a step above where other people in the industry are, and I think you’re going to see that over the next couple of years.

“Will the industry go that way? Time will tell, but we’re very confident in what we’re doing and the proof is going to be there.”

The proof is already there.

In just a few short years, SuckerPunch Entertainment has emerged as one of the premier management agencies in the sport, displaying their forward thinking in tapping new sponsorship markets and taking to social networking sites en masse. They’ve created a strong brand, and a family environment built on looking out for their fighters’ best interests.

That’s the most important thing for young and emerging fighter to remember when they’re deciding who to work with according to Pulver, and something he knows he’s found with Butler-Au.

“You’ve just gotta go with what fits you — the person, the fighter — because at the end of the day… one thing I’ve learned through all this is that your business is you; you’re the fighter. You are the business, and you have to surround yourself with people that you trust, that you love.

“That’s not to say you’re not going to make some mistakes along the way or fall off the road — it happens — but if I could get somebody coming up and tell them, `Stick with the people that you love.’ The biggest thing is that when it keeps getting bigger, you’re going to hear all kinds of promises, but you’ve gotta go with your gut.

“If there’s one thing that I know about Brian Butler no matter what, this guy is honest, straightforward, and he does everything in his power to get you whatever you ask.”

The same goes for the rest of the SuckerPunch Entertainment team as well. No matter what level you’re at, they’re going to make sure you’re properly represented.