One of the most talked about interviews I published this year was an extensive conversation with former ICON Sport promoter T. Jay Thompson that proceeded EliteXC’s October collapse.
Thompson, who sold ICON to ProElite in 2007, was retained by EliteXC as a consultant but it was a role that caused him great frustration. While the promotion made mistake after mistake, Thompson’s knowledge and wisdom of fight promotion that had been accumulated over 15 years was going largely unused.
When ProElite announced a massive downsizing in October, few with the company were willing to speak out. However, Thompson was one of the few exceptions and speak out, he did.
The original interview I conducted with Thompson was one of the longest I’ve ever conducted. Whenever I submit a column to CBSSports.com, there’s always a great deal of content that gets left on the “cutting room floor.” But in editing the Thompson interview, I had a difficult time figuring out what to keep in the interview because just about every response was relevant.
As a special treat this Thanksgiving Day weekend, you can now read the extended version of my interview with Thompson below.
Sam Caplan: ProElite employed both J.D. Penn and Rich Chou, of Rumble of the Rock. ICON and ROTR had a rivalry in Hawaii and word in the industry was that both sides did not get along. Was that true, and if so, what was it like working in the same company with them?
T. Jay Thompson: It really was true going in. Rumble in the Rock was competitive and they did a helluva job. They really raised the game of MMA in Hawaii and they made us step up our game with SuperBrawl at the time and later ICON. But we would see each other in passing and would be very cordial with each other but I think if you would have talked to J.D. or I, we really didn’t like each other. There wasn’t any love, at all. So the interesting thing of it is that the people I get along best with at ProElite is J.D. Penn. He and I get along very well and we realized early on that we were working on the same team, so let’s make it work. We had some great plans – if the company had stayed together – of re-building the rivalry between Rumble on the Rock and ICON in Hawaii. And that would have been really fun, but obviously that’s not going to happen under the ProElite banner, at least.
Sam Caplan: Is the committee approach that EliteXC employed for its matchmaking something that’s standard in MMA?
T. Jay Thompson: No. No, not that I know of. Certainly not mine. Again, there were too many employees guilty of not enough decision making. You’ve got to remember that I ran ICON Sport and SuperBrawl for 15 years either completely by myself or with one assistant. EliteXCs are bigger events and needed more personnel but it didn’t need 20 times or 30 times more personnel. It needed a few more people.
Sam Caplan: One of the public criticisms of ProElite was that they were over-staffed in certain areas. Layoffs took place several times during the company’s existence but it seemed like they always had too many generals and not enough soldiers. Do you think that’s a fair assessment?
T. Jay Thompson: (Stikeforce President) Scott Coker and I worked really close for the Frank Shamrock vs. Cung Le fight and basically I was in charge of promoting in San Jose, because Scott would basically only work with me. He and I did all the promoting and coming into the week of the show, I suggested that only Jeremy Lappen come in the week of the event (because) Scott has a great team up there ready to go. So I sent that back to, at the time, Gary (Shaw), he was in charge, and I think that Doug DeLuca was still on, and Jeremy. And they compromised and only sent out 17 people. So Scott and I were immediately like “What the hell is everyone doing? What do you do?” It was silly… and expensive.
Sam Caplan: The company expended tens of millions of dollars buying outside promotions, such as yours. Do you know who was the driving force behind that strategy and if roles were reversed, would you have gone ahead and bought your own company?
T. Jay Thompson: Absolutely. ICON was bought at a fair price. There was a valuable tape library that wasn’t used. Also, a lot of my compensation was in stock and we all know what that’s worth today. Know what I mean? But what you also got with the purchase of ICON was an asset in my 15 years of promoting knowledge. So if it were up to me, I would have used that asset to its fullest.
The other promotions that were losing lots and lots of money? I think those were mistakes. And they were run by people that didn’t have a history of MMA promotion, Cage Rage and SpiritMC.
Sam Caplan: Whose decision was it to go out and spend money on promotions as opposed to talent?
T. Jay Thompson: I believe it was Gary’s but I’m not sure. That was before my time. I came in while that was all going on.
Sam Caplan: It seemed like when it came to organizing and finalizing cards, EliteXC was usually behind the ball in that regard. Do you feel that’s a fair assessment?
T. Jay Thompson: Absolutely. I think a lot of it had to do with the indecision caused by that committee kind of thing. It just seemed like there was no one to actually make a decision and it was always thrown back and forth eight million times. Matchmaking isn’t rocket science. As a guy whose got a lot of years doing it, I can go ahead and put on ten fights and I can pick the three that I think are the absolute best and if those three end up being the best of the night, one out of ten times, I’d be lucky.
You do your events and you put fights on paper and you think they’re going to be great and they turn out good, they turn out bad, and sometimes they turn out great. You can put on a fight that you’re not excited about and then all of a sudden it turns out to be the fight of the night. So they’re only so much you can do and I think they were so concerned with having everything perfect that they didn’t realize that it’s not a perfect science.
Sam Caplan: You’ve been for a promoter for quite some time but I am sure there were still some lessons you learned from working with ProElite and EliteXC. What was the most valuable less that you learned?
T. Jay Thompson: That’s a great question because I really think when you talk about challenges and I always think that with anything in which there is a challenge, there should be growth with it on the other side. I don’t know what lessons I learned along the way. There were so few good things. There were some relationships that I’ve grown and some major TV events happened and now I think I’d be more comfortable running an event that size now. I think that would be a lesson learned.
I didn’t learn the lesson not to spend $55 million in two years because I would have never done that in the first place. None of it was my decision. Early on I had a conversation with (former ProElite CEO) Doug DeLuca when I first came on. He’ll back this up, but I told him that “It seems to me like we’re looking like we want to beat the UFC? And that’s our goal? If we do that, we’re going to be out of business in a year.” I go, “I’d like our company goal to be second place five years from now and only be making $150 million a year compared to the UFC’s $300 million with everyone having big smiles on their face while we work to catch up to them. But to do that we need to wake up every morning and say ‘What can I do to make sure we’re in business five years from now?'” I added that “Because whoever is in business five years from now of the groups that are in business now, whoever is just around in five years by default is going to be second place and in tremendous shape. So we need to wake up every morning and say ‘What can I do to be in business five years from now?'”
And with that said, you can’t wake up and say “What’s the biggest contract I can get? What’s the biggest promotion I can buy?” We needed to cut our expenses down and make money. It’s what I’ve done for 15 years, which is to find a way to put butts in seats. How much does it cost and how many people I can bring in? And now I can feed my family. And that needs to be the strategy. It didn’t get listened to. Now, a year later we are out of business and I’d bet that four years down the road from now that if we were still in business, we would have been in second place.
Now the person that’s really taken that business model that I talk and has done that same thing is a guy like Scott Coker. A year ago he was waking up every morning saying “What can I do to make sure I’m in business tomorrow and five years from now?” And I would bet that Strikeforce and Scott Coker in four years is in pretty damn good shape and maybe is in second place and probably making a lot of money. He’s someone that we could have learned a lot from at ProElite and chose not to.
Sam Caplan: Is there a specific example that you can point to?
T. Jay Thompson: Well, the K.J. Noons deal. He was really sort of hardlined. I disagree with the decisions that K.J.’s management has made but he was told from the beginning that “This is what you need to do if you want to be on CBS.” And it had a lot to do with CBS that they held their ground so much.
And again, the way that TapouT was treated was ridiculous. They had asked to use a picture for a cutout or something from ProElite’s website. And I guess they ended up using it for a t-shirt as well. And immediately a legal letter was sent because someone saw it. And Mark Criner, who is the president of TapouT and a longtime friend of mine, called me and said, “Hey, what’s going on?” And I said, “Let me find out. You should just be able to use it. I’d be happy to let you have a picture of Kimbo, let’s go forward.” And ProElite would not allow that. They saw it as their intellectual property rights and something that they would not give up and TapouT in the end had to spend $15,000 on a new (photo) shoot. It was ridiculous. When really it was a picture and it only helped us by having them market him. For the last CBS show, if we had let them get it done in time, there was going to be Kimbo standups in every foot locker at Champs across the country and we would have had advertisements for Kimbo and the CBS show on there. But hurt the relationship by not letting use the picture and they ended up deciding not to do that.
It was really common and really frustrating. But again, I looked on it that if it was my decision to make, yeah, have the picture. Great. Does it help you? Yes. But does it also help us? Yes. You talked about Monte Cox and we talked about having a positive relationship (but) there has to be a give and take. I’ve been in the business 15 years and working with a guy like Monte, he can call up and say “Hey, I really need this guy on the show. Can you put him on and can you pay him this?” And if he says “I really need it” and it doesn’t help me, I do it anyway. Because there’s going to be a time down the road where I’m going to say “I really need your guidance to get your guy to re-sign to do this. It would help me out a lot and I know it’s going to come back.” ProElite wasn’t willing to have the faith that favors would be returned down the road. They wanted everything up front.
They really wanted it our way only and ProElite really looked out for their own interests. And while it might seem like the smart business thing to do to only look out for your own interests, what I understand about the MMA game and the MMA industry as it is today, and as it has grown over the last 15 years, is that it is a family and looking out for other people’s interests in the end can be the right business decision in the long run. Although it might not seem like it in the short-term, in the long-term it’s the right business decision to help people out even if it doesn’t help you out immediately.
Sam Caplan: You had previously mentioned in the CBSSports.com interview that Scott Coker would only work with you and it had gotten out into the media that there was a lot of tension between Coker and Gary Shaw. Neither party ever elaborated there and I wanted to see if you could comment on the rift between those two.
T. Jay Thompson: I’m sure Scott would be happy to answer you. The word “hate” would probably be too strong. “Dislikes” and “disrespects” Gary Shaw to the utmost — or “didn’t want to be in the same room as him or didn’t want to have anything to do with him” [would be more appropriate] because he felt disrespected by Gary a number of times.