FIGHT MANAGEMENT:
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Friday, November 27, 2009
By Brandy Dolce
Heath Herring and Cheick Kongo battle it out in the cage.

Heath Herring and Cheick Kongo battle it out in the cage.

November 2009
Extreme Fighter Magazine


The gladiators of ancient Rome were mostly two kinds of man; criminals or runaway slaves who were sentenced to entertain the public by engaging in mortal combat.  They had a choice; fight or be executed. But there was a third type of man who actually chose the life of a gladiator: The free citizen – his motivation to become gladiator unknown. No matter how one came to the familia gladiatoria, the rules of servitude were the same for all under the sacramentum gladiatorium – the gladiator’s oath. In it, criminal, runaway and free citizen alike vowed to be branded, whipped, beaten and killed under the gladiator’s creed. Then these men turned their lives over to their lanista – the jailor and manager of gladiators – who dictated every aspect of the gladiator’s life, including who and when he fought and how he would train. The manager literally owned him.

The landscape of MMA management is a frightening frontier littered with as many land mines as there are beautiful oases.  But more often than not a fighter’s career is waylaid by the smoke, mirrors and mere ineptitude of a “manager” who promises diamonds but delivers dirt.

“Anybody can negotiate a fight purse,” said Joe Cavallaro, who manages UFC contenders Patrick Cote and Marcus Davis, among others. “

“Sometimes it’s not about making the most money. You need to get in with someone who cares about what you’re doing.”

“Your brother may have your best interest, but he has no background (in sports management). Then there are the guys that just want to be part of the sport, and they (might) have a legal background, but they don’t understand the fights.”

With no license or formal education required, anyone can claim to be a manager. There are no regulations or commissions overseeing the conduct and contract fulfillment of an MMA manager.  If a manager is in breach of contract, it’s up to the fighter to seek retribution – legally speaking, of course. It’s costly and time consuming, and let’s face it, unless a fighter is rolling in dough, the chance that fighter-manager difficulties will actually be hashed out in a courtroom are pretty much nil.

Instead, the fighter will be stuck with the results of a relationship gone bad, and legally bound to pay a percentage of his earnings to a guy who has done nothing to earn it.

“Some managers are such liars,” said UFC heavyweight, Cheick Kongo. “They don’t respect the agreements. They say, ‘I can do everything for you.”  But most of the time, they do nothing.”

MMA is a baby compared to other sports. Therefore, it’s no surprise that MMA management is uncharted territory, and we seem to be making the rules up as we go. There is no formal guide advising how to find a manager, and outlining the questions fighters need to be asking.

For instance, what’s his MMA and business background? Does he have a history of financial negotiations? Is he honorable?  How do you know? Whom else does he manage? What has he done for those fighters? Are those fighters happy in their current management situation?

“Do research,” advises UFC contender, Marcus Davis. “Make phone calls. Ask him for names and referrals. Use his name in Google searches, and search him on MMA or boxing forums. You need to be a detective.

“I also do a trial run,” Davis adds. “Tell the new manager you want him to do one fight for you before you sign with him – still giving him his percentage, but (using this) one deal to see if he can get the job done. Then ask others how he was to work with. It worked for me!”

“Signs of good manager are when he or she follows through with what they say they’re going to do,” said Strikeforce contender Duane “Bang” Ludwig. “Good managers need to understand the fight game on multiple levels as far as style matchups, how the next particular fight will impact their fighter’s career whether it be a win or loss, the fight contract itself and the promotions intent of their fighter. For me, personally, a manager will look out for his or her fighter as if they’re part of their family.”

Think of it this way, you wouldn’t want to be trapped on an island with Megan Fox …okay, maybe for a couple hours. But ultimately, when your stomach starts to rumble and you’re cold and wet with no idea how to save yourself, you’d want the Survivorman, Les Stroud, there to guide you. The same philosophy goes for choosing a manager.

“A manager should be looking to build a champion – doing whatever is necessary to get his fighter to a title, providing the training he needs,” said UFC middleweight Nate “The Rock” Quarry.  “A manager once told me he doesn’t care if his fighter is the biggest badass in the world. He cares if he’s a champion.”

Spotting the Red Flags

“Anybody can tell you a story, but they don’t have to tell you the truth,” Cavallaro said. “Any time somebody tells you that you need to sign a contract right away, in my experience, it’s always been a bad deal. You need to get to know each other. The first red flag is when someone tries to get you into a contract immediately.”

Wolfslair MMA Academy’s, Anthony McGann, agrees. He and Lee Gwynn manage UFC fighters Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Cheick Kongo, and Michael “The Count” Bisping among others. He warns against signing long contracts filled with promises of large sponsorship deals.

“Genuine guys will perform first before asking a fighter to sign anything,” McGann said. “The good guys know they are good. A contract comes with ease once the fighter knows his guy can do the business. You can tell a faker a long way off in this business. The key is simple: Fulfill your promises, and a signature is easy.”

Another red flag is a fighter who claims also to be a great manager. No such thing. He may be a stud fighter. He may be a spectacular manager. But he certainly is not both – at least not at the same time that he’s concentrating on furthering his own career.

To be great, a manager needs to fully devote himself to the promotion and well-being of his fighter.  A winning record, fame and fortune does not equate to a successful manager.

Ultimately, there is no “best” manager. If the fighter’s career philosophy matches with his manager’s then it’s the perfect fit. A fighter must know what he wants to get out of the sport before attempting to procure management.  He must define his goals and determine the type of manager that will help him attain these goals.

“(A good manager) will look for deals that just make sense,” Davis said. “He will present all different avenues, ask for your input, then give you his direction. I manager must feel genuine when he speaks to you. If he sounds like a hustler, he is a hustler, and others will see him the same way, and that will only hurt you. What promoter wants to work with a fighter who has a dick for a manager?”

If a fighter feels he’s ready to take the next step and sign a contract, he must protect himself legally.

“You should always be able to look at any contract yourself and be able to easily take it to a third party for review,” added Ludwig.

The Ultimate Fighter Season 7 winner and current UFC contender, Amir Sadollah, agrees.

“…Whether it’s for a manager, fight promoter, or endorsement, always, always have your own lawyer look at any contract,” Sadollah said. “It’s worth the money many times over, and it shows that you’re not just a gullible athlete.”

If a manager balks at this, be wary. Having a lawyer examine the details of a contract is standard practice in any industry, and doing so could save a fighter thousands of dollars later on. For all a fighter knows, the contract could be a never-ending relationship – void only when the fighter dies. It could contain increased management percentages or any number of unscrupulous and disagreeable pitfalls.

Also, make sure the attorney who reads the contract is not employed or recommended by the management, such as the “team attorney.”  You want an impartial set of eyes, someone who isn’t the manager’s drinking buddy.

Types of Managers

“A lot of managers have 50 to 100 guys, but are basically pen pushers, and beyond that do little to ensure their guys win,” McGann said.  “We have around 12 really good guys, and we like to concentrate on them.”

Some manager-fighter relationships are based on quantity of fights not quality. For example, a fighter may not care about growing his career, its longevity, or making a name for himself. He’s focused on the here-and-now, the cash in his pocket on Saturday night, and the couple of Benjamins the owner of Average Joe’s Bar is throwing him to namedrop the establishment over the mic during the post-fight interview.

The manager of this guy is all about getting him as many fights as possible no matter if the matchup is ideal for his career. After all, whether his boy wins or loses this manager is at least guaranteed his 20 percent of the show money.

This type of manager is known as a farmer – he’s got a stable of scrappers ready to go – no contract negotiations necessary. This manager isn’t for everyone. He’s certainly not for those looking to develop a career. While this type of manager certainly appeals to some, the fighters focused on becoming champions will avoid this manager like a violent case of mat herpes.

“Too often I see green fighters getting thrown to the wolves because the manager does little or no research on his opponent,” Quarry said. “You need a manager that wants the best for you and your career. If you’re just meat, go somewhere else.”

The other type of manager is more of a shepherd. Sounds hokey, but that’s the perfect description for this guy. He researches opponents before pursuing a fight agreement for his client. He actively seeks opportunities for his fighter, be it through bouts, sponsorships, promotions or media coverage. Any chance to positively market his fighter will be seized, and he will never do anything to jeopardize his fighter’s reputation. His client’s career is a reflection of his own. He takes his reputation seriously. The fighter’s success is the manager’s success. And he never, ever forgets that the fighter hired him to do a job – not the other way around.

Who Works for Whom?

“When somebody hires me as a manager, I work for them, they don’t work for me,” Cavallaro said. “I do my best to get them fights that showcase what they do best – not what the other guy does best. Some managers don’t think that’s part of their job. A manager’s job is to showcase his fighter’s skills. Find them fights that stylistically make sense for them.”

Unfortunately, many fighters are under the impression that they somehow owe their manager for taking them on. Reality check. Managers provide a service similar to a hair stylist, a handyman, a lawyer, or a mechanic. They work for the fighter.

A manager’s job is to legally do whatever he can to promote his fighter. He earns his agreed upon percentage for performing the duties stipulated in the contract. A capable manager is able to “sell” his fighter, garnering him the right opponent for the right purse, along with sponsorships, paid appearances and similar promotions.

The only way a fighter can protect himself is to do the research. Take the time to network, meet other fighters and managers, and train at different facilities. Don’t take the first contract that comes along. If the manager is genuine, if he’s true to the sport, then that same deal or better will be there months down the road.

The familia gladiatoria of ancient Rome didn’t have a choice of manager. Their battles were brutal, their lifestyle was a never-ending sacrifice, but their blood kept their manager’s pockets lined with coin.  Even after years of service, most gladiators never gained their freedom. And all they had left to show for their bravery was a broken-down body and empty coin purse.

Fortunately, today’s fighters have a choice. Would-be managers would do well to remember that.

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