When he was a young law school grad, Jeremy Lappen had Tinseltown dreams of putting together megadeals, delighting audiences and being behind big hits.
Now 36, the Santa Monica native could soon achieve all of those goals, but they won't come via the silver screen or a killer script. Lappen is banking on the joint locks, body blows and kicks to the face of the rapidly emerging sport of extreme fighting to provide his Hollywood success.
The former movie producer is chief executive of the World Fighting Alliance, a local outfit that's trying to set itself up as a competitor to the Las Vegas-based Ultimate Fighting Championship, the sport's primary promotional organization.
"It's like a movie," said Lappen, a USC law school grad. "People tune in to watch the stars. For us, people tune in to watch the fighters."
Contrary to boxing, which operates under the Marquis of Queensbury rules, just about anything goes in extreme fighting or "mixed martial arts." That includes, but is not limited to, punches, karate kicks, joint locks, chokes, elbowing and head butts. Where boxing has feinting, counters and clinches, the strategies of extreme fighting include crawl-and-brawl, ground-and-pound and head stomps.
The bouts, which are typically staged in a cage rather than a ring, are sanctioned in 22 states.
While boxing purses and TV packages are far richer, in recent years boxing's popularity has plummeted while extreme fighting's popularity has spiked. A UFC event at the Staples Center this spring rang up $3.1 million at the gate and $24 million from pay-per-view. The Spike TV cable network has posted record ratings in the 18-to-35 year-old male demographic coveted by Madison Avenue with its "The Ultimate Fighter" reality program.
Lappen acknowledges that the UFC is the 600-pound gorilla, but he and his partners are hoping the extreme fighting world is new and popular enough to have room for two.
To solidify his Hollywood base, Lappen next week is opening the Legends Mixed Martial Arts Training Center on La Brea Avenue. The sport's fighters can train and spar there, and programs offering John (or Jenny) Q. Public the chance to hone their hammerlocks for fitness and fun will be available.
Not everyone's convinced the WFA can exist on the same turf that the Ultimate Fighting Championship has fought so hard to claim as its own.
"A lot of people are throwing three letters together and buying a cage and think they'll make millions," said Dana White, who owns and operates the UFC with Station Casinos executives Frank and Lorenzo Ferttita under the name Zuffa LLC.
A pay day can be a long way off, he said. White and the Ferttita brothers bought the nearly bankrupt Ultimate Fighting Championship in 2001 and spent a good deal of time resuscitating it into the multi-million dollar venture it is today.
"The question is, how long can your investors burn the cash?"
The early rounds
The World Fighting Alliance just closed a second round of financing "a few million," according to Lappen from a small group of investors.
He believes that to assure his company's viability he'll have to sign the most recognizable fighters in the sport and the gym is one way to get that done.
"In the entertainment world, people understand talent is king," said Lappen. "Here people don't," he said. "The fighter is king. They are the draw."
In the late 1990s, Lappen managed UFC fighters, including top names like Ken Shamrock and Randy Couture, before jumping into the business corner of the ring to start up World Fighting Alliance in 2001. Mired in contract dispute, however, it folded the following year after hosting just three events.
Lappen and his partners re-launched this year and held an event at the Forum in May that drew more than 8,000 fans.
White, president and co-owner of de facto market leader UFC, said that he welcomes competition in the space, but believes not all organizations trying to muscle in have the business chops to make a go of it.
"It's all great for me," said White. "Those who make it, those who don't, they are still all good for me, because they keep the young talent paid and getting experience, and there's more exposure for the sport. We can't take them all."
Both the organizations operate like the classic Hollywood studio system, with stables of fighters. The UFC has more than 100, while the WFA has roughly 30.
Lappen said he doesn't have any intention of being an also-ran.
Along with the big names he's already signed several lured from the UFC he's hoping that the new gym will become a draw for mixed martial arts hopefuls, as well as other established talent.
His business partners are former UFC standouts Randy Couture and Bas Rutten, along with former champion kickboxer Chris Reilly, who owned the popular Bomb Squad training gym in West Hollywood.
"At this stage of the business, we need a lot of promotion. It really makes the difference," Rutten said. "Even more, it's about the fighting talent. A lot of teams are coming through here, so we get some good word of mouth through the fighting community."
The gym is a rented space just south of Hollywood Boulevard, the former home of Groove Fitness, and cost more than $1 million to prep for its opening.
The gym partnership, all parties maintained, is a strategic one.
Rutten and Couture came in with their star power, fighting and training expertise. Reilly also brings his gym-management savvy and the more than 200 former Bomb Squad members, including celebrity clientele like actors Mickey Rourke and Scott Caan, and NBA point guard Marko Jaric. The gym has more than 250 members now, and Lappen said the group is hoping to lock in 150 more within a year.
For some of the partners, the alliance was riskier than for others. Couture is still employed by the UFC as a TV commentator and makes public appearances for the promoter.
"I've taken some heat. I don't think they like it," said Couture of UFC's reaction to his gym partnership with members of an upstart rival club.
Lappen is hoping to draw a distinction between the two organizations through his focus on the fighters and desire to make WFA character-driven sports entertainment.
"I'm looking for a total package from an entertainment standpoint," said Lappen, "characters that are interesting, exciting fighters, have charisma and play well on TV," Lappen said.
Lappen acknowledges that he has a ways to go before the WFA achieve an equal footing with the UFC and profitability. The top UFA fighters can earn as much $1 million a match and even more in bonuses if the pay per view take is big enough. Top WFA purses are $200,000 or $300,000 and fledgling fighters earn about $2,500 per match.
"It's still not boxing money by any stretch of the imagination, but the marquee players are now making lots of money, and it gets better all the time," Couture said. "The UFC is doing very well now, so I hope that the money will trickle down to all of the sport's fighters. It kind of has to."
A TV contract would go a long way toward putting the WFA in the black, and Lappen said his group is in talks with several cable distributors. The Showtime network aired a half-hour promotional promo in advance of earlier WFA bouts on pay-per-view, and similar promotions are planned for fights in December, February and four to six others planned for next year.
Eventually, the WFA would be interested in jointly promoting mixed martial arts events, as is often the case boxing, which has several sanctioning bodies. That idea is well down the list of UFC execs, however.
The UFC's White said his group "took a long time and a lot of money" to get off the ground. He said the organization turned a profit in its fourth year, and has made money for the past two to three years.
"To start a show, you will lose money at the outset no matter how big or small you are," said White. "If you break even, you are incredibly lucky."
Being prepared for that is standard ring wisdom, he said.
'There is no riskier business than the fight business."
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