Friday, August 10th, 2007
“Carefully compare the opposing army with your own, so that you may know where strength is superabundant and where it is deficient. [6:24]” — Excerpt from the Art of War, annotated by Sun Tzu in the 6th century BC.
The Art of War is a 2,500 year-old treatise by the Chinese Sun Tzu, and one of the oldest books on military strategy in the world, famous for teaching survival and how to conquer one’s opponent through psychological and physical strategy. The book’s teachings have traversed from ancient battlefields to modern day combat, and even into the offices of corporate America.
CJ Comu not only has a copy of the book in his office, but carries around a pocket-sized copy when traveling. He’s not the only executive to apply the strategies and teachings of the Art of War to his personal and business life, but he is the first to apply it to an entire fight league.
Before getting into the sports marketing industry, Comu worked as a boxing manager for athletes such as David Telesco, Antonio Tarver, Roy Jones and Evander Holyfield beginning in 2002 - Comu worked with promoters to get the boxers involved in fights on HBO, Showtime and FOX.
Comu is now chairman and CEO of Dallas-based SUN Sports & Entertainment (Pink Sheets: SSPE), a professional sports and entertainment production company, certified and licensed as a combat sports promoter producing increasingly popular Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) events.
“When I started SUN as a sort of sports marketing company, we were looking to do a franchise model for this industry to be a consolidator - like a Century 21 approach, and found that you can’t franchise this industry because it’s too specialized,” said Comu.
Recognizing the hurdle, Comu changed gears, switching from a consolidated sports and entertainment company to an event production company in the MMA industry. Still, from there it wasn’t easy going.
It wasn’t until January of 2006 that the state of Texas approved the sport of cage fighting. By the end of August 2006, SUN Sports had finalized the vigorous process of obtaining a Texas-certified sports promoters’ license, which is much like that of a gaming license. Comu is one of about 12 people holding a Texas-certified sports promoters’ license.
The state is reluctant to hand out licenses, wanting to first make sure the applicant has the know-how and ability to produce the event, and is a person of character, abstaining from organized crime which may result in the person “fixing” the event. Like any other popular sport with any fraction of a fan base, there is a lot of betting that goes on within the fighting industry.
Aside from financial screenings, interviews, and much more, Comu said the state recognized his business model, proposal, and previous experience in the industry in combination with his current management team when granting him the license.
“A lot of people want to become sports promoters, and produce championship level events; but if you don’t have the experience, the state is not going to give you a license because you could potentially blow the whole thing up,” he said.
The whole cage fighting craze began with the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) in 1993. It was this entrance into the mainstream sporting world that has given UFC such a popular following.
“UFC is the juggernaut,” said Comu. “[They’re] the 10,000 pound gorilla in the space.”
In January 2005, UFC approached the state of Nevada with the proposition that if the league enforced rules and regulations, such as medical screening, then cage fighting would be able to advance toward mainstream sports. After Nevada gave the go-ahead, many states came forward one by one to approve the sanction - however, there are still a lot of states that refuse to recognize fighting at a professional level.
Humans have always had an attraction for fighting, and when cage fighting was introduced over the airwaves, the sport’s popularity spread like wildfire.
“When [UFC] went on the air through their relationship with Spike TV, people went ‘Oh my god - what’s that?’ That’s when all the sudden, the sport got such a huge fan base,” said Comu.
UFC fighters have a unique platform on how to get into the league and start fighting. Fighters within UFC must sign a long-term contract with the league, are forbidden to fight for anyone else in the world, and can only fight for a UFC title.
“Other people in the industry have what I call the Dallas, Texas, world championship - a closed fraternity of fighters from the community that can only fight each other for a Dallas belt,” he said.
In contrast, Comu, along with his SUN partner J. Buckeye Epstein, was one of the founders of the International Fighters Association (IFA), a non-profit based in Luxemburg that ranks and rates fighters and sanctions events. It’s the difference between disputed vs. undisputed. SUN produces the Art of War, which provides an arena for a true undisputed champion to appear where the fighters fight for an IFA belt fight in an IFA sanctioned fight.
IFA is a non-profit organization set in place to govern the fighters within the industry which, for a long time, had no governing body. SUN not only helped create the governing body, but also sits on the board.
Before IFA, the sport was much like the 1999 blockbuster hit “Fight Club,” featuring Brad Pitt and Edward Norton.
“The rules were as follows - there were no rules. There was no time limit. No rules on gloves or no gloves, a lot of guys fought bare knuckle, no tap out procedure. There was kicking to the head while the opponent was down - a lot of very vicious things that did not allow the sport to ever gain mainstream,” said Comu.
Once rules were created, the sport went mainstream, and the fan base spread to more than cage fighting fans, beckoning fans of martial arts from all “corners,” of the world. Comu said he believes people have become bored with boxing, its foreseeable movements in the ring, and the lack of headlining heroes.
“We’ve lost the champions; we don’t know who to root for,” said Comu. “The days of the Ali’s, the days of the Foremans, the Tysons … they’re gone. Ten years ago if you asked somebody ‘Who’s the heavyweight champion of the world?’ they would have told you. Now, nobody has a clue.”
It’s not just that the recognition of boxing heroes has diminished, but what has materialized in its place. Where children once played video games with players equipped with a limited array of moves, video games today have more of a martial arts appeal, featuring players that can perform specialized stunts.
Monkey see monkey do - as MMA becomes more action packed and specialized, the widespread love of boxing may be in threat of extinction as fans grow accustomed to merciless and brutal fighting, boasting kicks and turns and jabs never seen before.
“[Kids] loved that action. Boxing didn’t deliver that action - so when MMA came out is was about as raw and pure and unadulterated as you can ever imagine of what true gladiators faced when they get locked in a steel cage,” said Comu.
Those “true gladiators” have hit the 21st Century with vigor, appeal and tattoos. And they’re fighting in a league dedicated to the true sportsmanship, and the physical and psychological virtues of the Chinese military treatise, the Art of War.
“We took the Art of War name … because we felt it best represented the physical and psychological challenge of what a warrior faces when they walk into the cage,” said Comu. “There’s just as much physical as much as there is psychological attributes to being successful in the ring.”
The art of being able to use all three modalities required in martial arts, boxing, and wrestling, requires a great deal of discipline.
“These athletes are triathletes; they have to be great boxers, great wrestlers, and they have to have a great martial arts backgrounds,” said Comu.
Once the fighters have learned to condition their bodies through rigorous training, they must also learn to keep their minds open and clear in the cage.
“The sport is so fast … something can happen to you so fast that your mind has to be crystal clear and open. It’s like a chess game on steroids - things happen so fast that you must be prepared for thinking three moves ahead of the opponent verses in a traditional single mono y mono sport like boxing - you have an arm coming at you and another arm coming at you and that’s it. You have a choice - is it the left hand or right hand?,” Comu said.
The simple fact that psychological preparation rivals physical preparation should give inkling to what kind of person the average fighter is. While Comu said there’s not a standard demographic fighter, the men are more educated and financially stable than given credit for.
I’ll admit my own stereotype: when I encounter a guy with a shaved head and a grimacing smile, covered head to toe with scars and tattoos, I’m guilty of mistaking his outward appearance for an ignorant ogre with a criminal record; especially after having seen men like him in fights on TV, I may inch a little closer toward my boyfriend, reach for my tiny can of mace, or position myself for a dead sprint in the other direction if needed.
However, Comu continued that the fighters are usually college graduates, and married with children - blowing my misconception, and undoubtedly others’, out of the water. So what makes these men get in a 24-foot metal cage to beat the hell out of each other?
“They’re usually doing this thing because they have a true affinity and a love for the sport,” explained Comu. “They’re champions.”
Comu outlined the difference in the general attitudes of MMA fighters versus boxers, claiming MMA fighters carry a higher level of honor and tradition in their pre-fight delivery and initial appearance in the arena.
“There’s limited trash talk, if any,” said Comu. “Very rarely do you see trash talk in MMA. It’s a whole different breed of fighters.”
And those fighters are performing for a new and changing breed of audience. About 80 percent of the fans of MMA, or cage fighting, are males between the ages of 18 and 30, though Comu said the sport is quickly gaining female interest.
The “30 plus” crowd, as Comu describes them, is interested in the bare sport, have disposable income to spend on higher tickets, and is generally more loyal to the sport - they love the entertainment, action and violence each fight brings. Overall, it’s a youthful industry - both in the age of the crowd and the age of the sport.
“The industry is young, it’s got nothing but huge phenomenal growth,” said Comu.
Then there’s the other side - the mothers who pray their children will somehow miss the sweeping current of cage-fighting, and those who feel the sport is barbaric and cruel, viewing it as an attempt to glorify bloodsports and violence.
“It’s only barbaric if there’s no rules; if there are rules that means those rules have taken enormous amount of time with a lot of people with a lot of brain trust, researching what you can allow, what you don’t allow,” explained Comu. “It is what it is, which is a very aggressive, very raw fight, where two contenders are matched up pound for pound to try to see who is the better of the two opponents.”
And as Comu pointed out - this is hardly a “barbaric” sport - the fighters are paired to fight pound for pound. You won’t find a 350 pound man fighting a 185 pound man.
But it’s still the bare sport, the ruthlessness and blood that attracts fans - it’s an attribute Comu said the company can’t undersell, but won’t oversell either.
And business strategy, possibly based on the Art of War, is just as important for putting on a good show as the fight itself. IFA is an international company, producing fights with Russia, China, Canada, UAE, UK and Mexico. The only blatant competition the company faces is UFC, and its competition Comu doesn’t seem to find threatening.
“It is producing a very spectacular event and very few people can pull off the formula successfully; we think we can deliver as good, if not better, quality product than our competition,” he said.
SUN boast what Comu calls “tradition of the fight business,” featuring the Colorguard and other nuances to the business, with organizations belting the national anthem as the event begins.
“It’s like a miniature Superbowl when you come to the Art of War. None of our competition has done that yet - that we’ve seen,” he added. “We think a lot of people are going to get drawn toward the company because of how we deliver and what we deliver - people like to invest in companies that they enjoy.”
SUN’s next event will take place Labor Day weekend - the company will produce the largest MMA fight to hit Dallas, as well as the first MMA fight in Dallas to be available on Pay-per-View. Comu said the company expects it to be a highly attended event.
“If we continue to play our marketing cards as well as we anticipate - we can do a pretty good job of hitting the 14,000 to the 15,000 mark at American Airlines Center - we don’t know but obviously that’s our goal and objective and we’ll see how close we get,” he said.
In addition to Art of War, SUN has what Comu calls its marquee fight division, or under-ground cage fighting. The underground cage fighting idea came as the company searched for a way to generate revenue while in between fights.
“This is a kind of strange financial model of business - you invest and invest and then you have pay day. Then you invest, invest and invest, and then you have pay day,” said Comu.
So far the company has lined up six fights within the next two months. Comu said they eventually expect to have one every week.
Sitting in Comu’s quiet, dimly lit office, taking notes as he talks from across his large, dark wood desk, it’s hard to envision him in the fighting arenas he has grown accustomed to. For this reason he explained to me the high buzz of energy that runs through the crowd and fighters before each round.
“It’s a high level of energy and anticipation unlike any other sporting event - it’s like Game 7 of an NBA playoff where there’s absolute electricity in the air,” said Comu. “There’s a certain drama when you walk into the arena - all the lights are softly lit - in the center of the arena is this steel 24-foot circular cage just waiting.”
“It’s kind of like the old days of the Roman gladiators where the two gladiators are put into the arena to see who battles to the end. There’s great music going on, it’s high energy, we have video screens … electricity and energy is what you will experience when you walk into the arena.”
As the steel door of the cage slams shut, there in the light are two men standing face to face in a cage, each knowing the guy at the opposite can an inflict upon him just as much pain as he can him.
“So it is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will win hundred times in hundred battles. If you know only yourself, but not your opponent, you win one and lose the next. If you do not know yourself or your enemy, you will always lose.” - Excerpt from the Art of War, annotated by Sun Tzu in the 6th century BC.
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