What started out as a way to offset the ills of sitting at a desk all day has led a Richmond entrepreneur to the closing bell at Nasdaq.
Richmond-based SuckerPunch Entertainment, a company that manages about 130 professional mixed martial arts fighters and is run out of the West End home of Richmonder Brian Butler-Au, on Oct. 10 signed a letter of intent to be acquired by Alliance MMA.
The pending deal brings together two companies on different ends of the mixed martial arts spectrum. SuckerPunch is run out of Butler-Au’s West End home. Alliance MMA, which aims to be a minor league for mixed martial arts fighters, became a publicly traded company Oct. 6.
Expected to close this month, the sale would cap off a nine-year run for Butler-Au, a VCU alum and longtime martial arts fan who didn’t imagine a hobby would turn into a thriving source of income.
“I just fell into it,” he said. “I wanted to do something to stay in shape. Traditional exercise was boring.”
More than a decade ago, Butler-Au ran ad agency Roundtable Creative out of an office at North 19th and East Franklin streets in Shockoe Bottom. He described the firm as a boutique agency that specialized in doing things for larger agencies. The hours working as the owner and creative director motivated Butler-Au to do something to stay in shape.
The search eventually led him to a mixed martial arts gym in town called Combat Sports Center. Mixed martial arts, or MMA, is like boxing with one-on-one fights but incorporates techniques from fighting styles like Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and wrestling. It has entered the mainstream with the rise of promotion companies like the Ultimate Fighting Championship and gyms that teach MMA techniques to amateurs.
Butler-Au, 45, was one of those enthusiasts who watched UFC fights and worked out at a local MMA gym. Fate came calling when the owner of the gym asked if Butler-Au would parlay his marketing skills into doing promotional work for local fight shows.
One of the techniques Butler-Au used for ensuring a big crowd was to pair the fights with a special celebrity autograph session. Butler-Au, an outsider to the business of MMA, impressed one of those celebrity guests so much that he ended up being Butler-Au’s first client.
“You could tell he was in marketing and was different than the old school in this sport,” Jens Pulver, a celebrity guest who did a show Butler-Au was promoting, said of Butler-Au.
Pulver won the first UFC Lightweight Championship in 2001 and was on “The Ultimate Fighter 5,” a reality show produced by UFC. After the event, Pulver reached out to Butler-Au about being his agent to get sponsorships.
“He was outside the sport,” Pulver said. “He didn’t come from the world of MMA. He came from the world of advertising. I wanted someone who knew that world.”
For Butler-Au, it was an opportunity – both as a fan and a business man – he couldn’t pass up.
“I was enamored, too,” he said. “I just knew the sport was getting big and was getting bigger.”
Butler-Au eventually landed sponsorships for Pulver, a video game devotee, from companies that didn’t traditionally market to MMA fans: Activision’s Call of Duty video game, and the Paramount Pictures film Cloverfield signed on as sponsors.
The MMA industry took note. Butler-Au signed on more fighters and landed deals with more companies like Dell-owned Alienware. His roster of talent grew to include Max Holloway, Felice “Lil Bulldog” Herrig, Jeff “Big Frog” Curran and Carlos David Oliveira. And after years of trying to balance his MMA business with Roundtable Creative, Butler-Au closed the doors on his ad agency. It was a fun, albeit scary, time for the entrepreneur.
“I felt like I was on the ground floor of AOL before AOL exploded,” Butler-Au said, adding times were hard in the early days. “It got to the point where I was paying my mortgage on credit cards.”
To drum up more money, Butler-Au got into the management side of the business, which meant handling contracts on behalf of fighters. At the time, he said, a branded company that did sponsorships and management under one roof was a rare thing.
He also learned some hard lessons. Butler-Au said he had been primed to think that the business would be rooted in the traditions of respect he knew from the martial arts world. Instead, it was common for athletes to get taken advantage of by overzealous managers.
“There were a lot of scumbags,” he said. “It was like martial arts with Don King.”
Butler-Au eventually brought on two other managers who he felt he could trust and who added to SuckerPunch’s skills. Bryan Hamper was brought on as “a kind of Rain Man with stats and finding talent.” Shu Harata had connections in Asia that added business.
With a healthy business, SuckerPunch wasn’t desperate to sell. The industry is going through shakeup – with UFC recently being purchased for $4 billion – and SuckerPunch’s deal with MMA Alliance helps put the company on the right side of the changes in the works for the business.
MMA Alliance’s goal is be like a farm league for the UFC. The company has courted SuckerPunch for eight months, Butler-Au said. He wouldn’t disclose terms of the pending deal, but eventually they’ll be made public in SEC filings. The SuckerPunch brand will continue to be used.
“Their vision was to buy up all the viable entities outside the UFC and bring them together under one roof to create a ‘NCAA’ type of situation,” Butler-Au said.
Butler-Au will stay on to run SuckerPunch, which will see a boost as a result of the acquisition. Now, in addition to his office in the West End, Butler-Au has an office on Madison Avenue in New York.
“It really feels like it’s taking my business to another level,” he said. “It will free me up to focus on what I’m actually good at.”
It was hard for Butler-Au to believe a recent LinkedIn notification that his business was 9 years old. He still works out at Combat Sports and has been in four fights of his own.
“I still feel like I’m the new kid on the block,” he said. “I never thought that I would be cornering fighters at UFC. The only thing closer is to be in the cage.”