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 411mania » MMA » Columns

411Mania MMA Interview: IFL CEO Jay Larkin!
Posted by Lotfi Sariahmed on 04.28.2008

It's been a very important year for the IFL. There's the new camp format and individual titleholders and all the while there's been one man behind it all. Jay Larkin is the CEO of the IFL and 411Mania recently had the chance to interview the CEO.

411Mania.com: I'll make the first question a simple one. You had a show in New Jersey not too long ago. How do you think that went?

Jay Larkin: I think it went very well. I mean certainly we had a spectacular night of fights and that's what it comes down to, the action in the ring. The rest of it is all window trimming. So if you look at the fights we had, I haven't seen a better card of MMA in years.

411Mania.com: One of the big storylines coming out of that card were the performances of Vladimir Matyushenko and Wagnney Fabiano. And a lot of sites have mentioned them as potential top 10 candidates. How do you feel as CEO hearing about these guys getting mentioned as Top 10 fighters who've done some of their best work in the IFL?

Larkin: In many respects Lotfi it's very gratifying and vindicating. We are at a course here of creating the next generation of MMA stars and the generation that's going to come into their own at a peak in the industry. If you look back over the years, it's very difficult to name breakthrough stars in MMA. For example I'll play a little game with you. Who would you say is the most recognizable figure in the UFC?

411Mania.com: First name that comes to mind is Chuck Liddell.

Larkin: Try again.

411Mania.com: Ok, how about Randy Couture?

Larkin: Try again.

411Mania.com: Quinton "Rampage" Jackson?

Larkin: The most recognizable figure in the UFC is Dana White. And that's a very bad statement for a sport and an industry when the frontman, or whatever he may be, the promoter, is more recognizable than any of the fighters. The names that you mentioned are collectively 120 years old. So it should be Chuck Liddell without question. But where are the Liddells or Coutures of the future? Where are the Jacksons of the future? They're here at the IFL and you named two of them in Wagnney and Vlady and I think Chris Horodecki is certainly in that group as well. Those are the guys we're concentrating on Lotfi. We're concentrating on the fighters and the rest of it is ancillary. Our show in New Jersey a few weeks ago was exactly on target.

"The most recognizable figure in the UFC is Dana White. And that's a very bad statement for a sport…"

411Mania.com: You talked about Chris Horodecki and we'll get to him in a minute. But one of the other storylines from the New Jersey show that I found interesting was the performance of Jim Miller. You bring him in from Ring of Combat after he had a couple of good fights against Chris Ligouri. Then you put him up against one of your better lightweights in the division in Bart Palaszewski and he scores a win. So how do you look at a fight like that with Jim Miller pulling off the win and Bart who's on a bit of a slide?

Larkin: What I have always said publicly since I came to the IFL, and my philosophy for the past 20 years making boxing matches at Showtime, has been that this is a sport that is entertainment as well as sport. If a fight is boring, then the fighters aren't doing their job as entertainers as well as athletes. I don't mean to say in any way that this is an entertainment entity like the WWE. But at the end of the day it is about entertaining your audiences. And I've always maintained that when a fighter comes to the table and fights his or her best, then win or lose they'll be back with the IFL. If the fighter comes in and wants to win at any cost and lays down on the mat and stays there and squeaks out a decision and gives me boring television that I have to then give to my audiences then that fighter won't be back no matter how many wins he has. So when a guy like Jim Miller comes along, he put on a great fight. I think it's very bad for any sport, particularly a one-on-one sport like MMA, for any promoter to have a particularly vested interest in who wins the fight. Then the natural tendency is going to be to protect the fighter who you want to win.

There are two ways to deal with that. One way is when the promoter controls both fighters, or has both fighters under contract, then it doesn't matter because the promoter has the winner. I don't like that. I think that's detestable. The other way to do it is for the promoter not to have a heavy investment in the individual but to have a healthy investment in the sport so no matter who wins the industry wins and the sport wins. So I have no problem letting fights occur between IFL fighters and other fighters who may not be signed to the IFL. It gets a little messy when you're talking about championships because it would be a little awkward to have an IFL title appear on an Elite or UFC show. However, I have encountered very little encouragement in this industry about promoters working together. We're out there saying we're willing to work with anyone in this industry; we'll take on all comers. We'll promote with anyone and I've seen a lot promoters run for the hills at the mention of co-promoting. So to answer your question a little more succinctly about Jim Miller, it was a great fight right? That's the business I'm in.

411Mania.com: It's interesting that you referred to having a stake in some of these guys because last year, it could be said that Chris Horodecki was the IFL's golden boy. Obviously he had some trouble at the end of last year with the fight against Ryan Schultz. He comes back this year on that card with his fight against Nate Lamotte and it doesn't seem like he could catch a break because while he did win, there's a lot of talk about how he should have handled Lamotte sooner than he did. So what do you take from that fight?

Larkin: Well I take excellent match making from our staff to put together a fight like that. And it's right on target with our strategy of trying not to get bogged down by the politics or business side of making a match and making the best possible match at whatever weight it is to put on the most compelling event. That would be a brawl, although certainly strategy is a major part of MMA and plays a big part. But at the end of the day I don't believe that the fans want to see two guys rolling around on the floor. The more exciting a fight is, the better we've done our job. So when upsets like that happen, it means we've done our job well.

411Mania.com: We were just talking about the Palaszewski v. Miller fight and the Lamotte v. Horodecki fight and they're both part of a bigger change the IFL has made this season. There's been the move to the camp format and one of the big questions a lot of fans have is how will the camp match-ups work come the end of the season? Will there be another team title handed out like there was last season?

Larkin: Well you know Lotfi, first of all like you said we made the major change from the team format to the camp format. We did that because the team format wasn't getting any traction. It was contrived and the fans felt it. Because of the structure of it, very often we had fights we didn't want and that were being dictated to us by the calendar more than anything else. So when we broke away from that team competition we found the ability to make better matches. We weren't being held to whether the Anacondas had to fight the Pitbulls this week. So we had much more flexibility now as a result of that change. Certainly we've seen the results of that change in the ring and we've had very good feedback from the industry and the fans on the concept.

411Mania.com: On that note, the camp format has definitely worked out so far putting on cards that people are excited about. But how do you respond to critics who say this is perhaps too little too late?

Larkin: Well I normally don't respond to them at all. Look, critics by definition criticize. I never met one that their function in life was to be positive and help things grow. Well you know the old expression, opinions are like a******* everybody has one. God knows there are enough of them to go around. Here's where we come around to the bigger problem. The bigger problem is the industry as a whole, not the individual companies, not the IFL's, the Strikeforce's, the M-1's, and the UFC's. The bigger problem is the overall industry and the lack of uniformity or consistency, the rules that change from company to company, the infighting, the dominance of one company in the industry and the heavy handed way they dominate. The question it all comes down to for me Lotfi is, is there a market for MMA? Now coming from the boxing world, when I first saw MMA I didn't like it. I didn't enjoy watching it. I found it boring and when it wasn't boring I found it grotesque. Now what I had to do was learn about it. I had to learn more. I had to learn the moves, the players, the disciplines and the different camps and what they meant. The more I learned about it the more I found I enjoyed it and the more I could appreciate the strategies and I have found that for the most part, the fan base out there doesn't have a clue. Not a clue what they're seeing, not a clue what they're watching and therefore they're almost uniformly attracted to the UFC light show. The dancing girls, the music, the UFC brand and the spectacular job the UFC's done in creating that brand.

I look around and I see all these other MMA groups and no one is doing well. People are squeaking by. Some are not squeaking by. Some are dropping like flies. Most audiences, even some UFC audiences, are papered. There is no fan following of individual fighters for the most part. If you stop anybody who even pretends to know anything about MMA, they're going to give you those same names you just gave me. They're going to give you Couture, they're going to give you Jackson and they're going to give you Liddell. But they're not going to get into the depth of knowledge that the average boxing fan has about boxing. This sport now is still too anonymous at the fighter level and I sincerely question whether or not there is a market place for legitimate MMA outside of the UFC. Now if you look at the card we had at the IZOD center that was spectacular. That was as good as MMA fighting ever gets and it didn't make a blip on the radar screen. It was difficult selling tickets, the Monday morning reviews of the event were the fights were spectacular but the place wasn't very full. What does one do to grow the audience? What does one do to sell tickets besides putting on the best show you could possibly put on? And when you put that show on and you still can't sell tickets well then you have to ask yourself does the public want this? Do they really want fights? Do they want mixed martial arts? Do they want competition at the highest level of the sport? Or do they want to run around wearing their Affliction t-shirts and swigging Xyience. What is this really about? Is there really a fan base for this or is it a cult? And I'll tell you, as truthfully as I can Lotfi I don't know the answer. Now as an executive in a public corporation that does this for a living you could argue that I should be a cheerleader. I should be saying it's the greatest thing since cream cheese and it's the new NBA and the fans are coming to us in droves. Well I'm also a very honest and pragmatic individual. I'll never lie in an interview or certainly make a statement where I could be caught lying so easily. So it leaves me with the truth and the truth is this is a struggling industry. Much more so than a struggling business. There is another half a dozen companies that are struggling as well. I think that a lot of the action and proprietary nature of the UFC is hurting the industry. The unwillingness of MMA companies to work together and promote together is hurting MMA. There has to be pretty significant changes or pretty soon there will be one group left and they'll be so inbred that their house of cards will cave in as well.

411Mania.com: If I understand this correctly, it seems like the TV deals EliteXC struck with CBS and the one Strikeforce struck with NBC don't do much for the sport in your eyes because there's still this issue of promoters having to work together.

Larkin: Correct. And right now everyone is trying to protect what little piece of turf they have. The CBS deal with Elite can become a major moving piece in this puzzle, if they do well. If they get the ratings and if they get the tune-ins well then the TV networks might just say that this thing really does have legs and lets invest in it and lets start getting some MMA competition on the air. If it does poorly, it'll have the opposite effect. The networks that are playing with the idea will then run for the hills. It's interesting because this entire industry should be watching the CBS show and hoping for good results.

411Mania.com: So you attribute a lot of the UFC's success to the light show they put on because if the XFO has the same roster it wouldn't have near the same success.

Larkin: That's correct.

411Mania.com: That's an interesting perspective because up until this point you've heard so many people talk about MMA finally being mainstream when referring to these deals EliteXC and Strikeforce made.

Larkin: It's far from mainstream. The Strikeforce deal with NBC was offered to us and we found it economically disadvantageous to make the deal. It's a time buy. It's when you go to a network and pay them money to get on their air instead of the traditional way where the network pays you for your programming you pay them for their airspace. So Strikeforce is paying NBC a significant amount of money for half an hour of NBC's time at 2 in the morning. They hope to make their money back through sponsorship and benefit from the exposure on NBC. So that's the Strikeforce deal. The Elite deal was when Gary Shaw went to Showtime and sold them the idea of investing in his new MMA Company. So Showtime has an equity position in Elite. CBS owns Showtime. CBS had a shortage of primetime television programming because of the strike. CBS decided well lets give MMA a try and we already own a piece of one of the MMA companies so lets do it with our piece. So that's how that came about. No one to my knowledge in the network side has gone out and said, "We think there is a future in MMA and we want to have it on our air." Right now all the TV guys are waiting to see if someone else is having success with it before they jump into the pool.

411Mania.com: With EliteXC's card for that May 31st show basically set in stone, I wanted to get your thoughts on that card overall with Kimbo taking on James Thompson as the main event.

Larkin: Well they've got Kimbo and Gina Carano on that card too. So what Gary is doing, which is very smart, is putting his most marketable assets up front. He's frontloading his shows. I don't think the level of competition is going to be that spectacular. I don't think you're going to see great fights. I think you're going to see exhibitions. Gary is very shrewdly putting out his best product, the very attractive Gina Carano and he's not going to put her in a tough fight. He's going to save that for a big PPV show. And Kimbo, look I'm not MMA expert, but a lot of the MMA experts I know say that a good half a dozen heavyweights out there could beat Kimbo without breaking a sweat. But Kimbo is marketable. He sells a lot of tickets down in Florida and makes for good TV. And again Elite is doing the smart thing by putting him up front because they know as well as we do that if they don't get good ratings they won't be back a second time.

411Mania.com: Last point on this whole EliteXC thing then we'll go back to what the IFL has coming up. I've gone off on multiple tangents on Kimbo Slice and his potential effect on the sport. I've said I'm ok with Kevin Ferguson doing all he can to make a name for himself in MMA. But it pushes me the wrong way with how they're marketing Kimbo Slice as this big Internet street fighter and he beats guys up now come watch him on CBS. I just wanted to get your thoughts on Kimbo Slice and how EliteXC is using him.

Larkin: That's a major split in MMA. When I came on board here, MMA was treated pretty much with a reverence, almost as a religion. Don King once told me people don't buy tickets to go to church. And there was not enough emphasis on the marketing and commerciality of MMA and MMA fighters. If you want to see pure unadulterated competition in MMA then get in your car and go down the road to your local community college and watch collegiate wrestling. Or join a gym and participate in competition on a gym level or watch it. However MMA, certainly IFL, Elite and UFC are businesses and need to be run as businesses. They need to be made attractive and palatable to the consumer who is buying the product. So I applaud when savvy and smart promotion and marketing comes into play in this sport. I think that Gary and Elite are doing exactly the right thing in putting their best product forward with more emphasis on the "sellability" then on the competitiveness of the bout. The idea is to get eyeballs to watch it and as I pointed out to you earlier, our card a few weeks ago was spectacular. It was as good as MMA gets. But if no one is watching it what difference does it make? We're talking to ourselves.

One of the things this industry has been lacking, and it's changing, is season promoters, people who know what they're doing to promote live events to the public. UFC got that and certainly the marketing muscle behind the UFC is formidable, the casino industry, the gaming industry is formidable. They know how to market. They know how to reach an audience. They know how to sell. So when that muscle and that financial clout got behind the UFC it worked. Gary Shaw is a seasoned promoter. I know every aspect of promoting live events and televised events. There may be one or two others out there that I can't recall immediately. There are some events that are doing well on a local level like Strikeforce. They're succeeding by staying small. But as far as this business goes, it's a young business full of a lot of knuckleheads who don't know the first thing about promoting or staging event. They run around in an Affliction t-shirt and swig Xyience and they think they're the next greatest thing to come down the road. To become profitable as a business, it needs more experienced people. So when a Gary Shaw puts together a card like that for CBS I say right on.

Actually he's developing into a small planet.

411Mania.com: Next month Jay you have another event coming up with what looks like another very exciting card. There's another three title fights at middleweight, lightweight and heavyweight and that last one is what I wanted to ask you about. Your champ Roy Nelson is quietly developing into a very marketable champ for you at the heavyweight division.

Larkin: Actually he's developing into a small planet.

411Mania.com: Hey you said it not me…But going off that note, obviously you know from your career in boxing just how profitable a heavyweight fight could be. But looking around throughout MMA, there are only a few really big heavyweight names out there and even the UFC doesn't have a strong heavyweight division. So with an asset like Roy Nelson in your hands here as the champ, how do you go about putting him in fights that people are going to watch and just help his star power even more? I mean you have him fighting Branden Lee Hinkle coming up but what's the mindset in terms of setting this guy up in title fights?

Larkin: Well would there have been a Muhammad Ali without a Joe Frazier or George Foreman? When you get in the ring, 1+1=1. You have to have that combination of fighter and opponent to come together to make that entity that becomes bigger than life. Without a Tommy Hearns or Marvin Hagler, would there have been a Sugar Ray Leonard? The problem we have here is there aren't that many good heavyweights in MMA. We could keep lining up heavyweights in MMA for Roy Nelson to knock down and without a payoff. So right now matching up Roy in good heavyweight bouts is a difficult thing to do. But he is becoming an asset. He is starting to crossover because of his marketability and that goes back to the conversation we had about Kimbo Slice. Roy's marketable. Eventually we're going to have to find someone to get in there with him to make a major fight.

(This question was asked before the Calzaghe v. Hopkins fight on the 19th)
411Mania.com: Last question here Jay. Obviously you have your background in boxing. A big fight coming up this weekend between Joe Calzaghe and Bernard Hopkins, who do you have in the fight?

Larkin: Well, for the sake of total disclosure I have to acknowledge I'm involved in that bout as an agent for Calzaghe's promotional company. So I was involved in the deal making to put that bout together. But that aside, I really believe Joe is going to take this fight. I really believe Joe is going to win. This will be a fantastic fight and Bernard is one of the sharpest and smartest fighters I've ever encountered. If Bernard chooses to fight on the outside, this could be a long and boring 12 rounds. If Bernard decides to step in and fight on the inside, I think Joe is just going to beat him up all night long.

411Mania.com: Saying you're the agent for Calzaghe now Jay, full disclosure here, how much is Calzaghe getting paid to fight outside of Wales?

Larkin: (*laughs*) That I can't say.

411Mania.com: He's certainly pulling in a nice dime to finally get out of the country to fight. I'm just saying.

Larkin: Lets put it this way, you and I should be making so much money.

411Mania.com: He is the CEO of the IFL. He's Jay Larkin. Jay thanks so much for giving us the time.

Larkin: Thanks for having me.


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