FIGHT! is proud to present the fourth installment of our annual Power 20, which centers on the most significant power players, movers, shakers, ambassadors, and game-changers in MMA. As with previous members of the honorary Power 20, the criteria isn’t based on how these personalities helped shape the landscape of MMA, but rather how their DNA can be found in its very existence. We tallied together votes from our panel of experts and came up with the following list of names with a common link in the industry—each one is a vital cog in the sustained growth of MMA worldwide. We decided to leave agents off the general list, but you can find the best of the best in the accompanying sidebar.
20. Ariel Helwani
Just to put things in perspective, Ariel Helwani covered his first UFC event at UFC 83 in Montreal, the home of his lost Expos. That was in 2008. In less than 50 cards, the Syracuse graduate has become the Howard Cossell of MMA, with an AOL microphone catching every grabbable fighter at nearly every event. He hosts a wildly inappropriately named show on MMA Fighting called the MMA Hour, which sometimes lasts longer that a Lord of the Rings movie. But Helwani gets the goods. From breaking the Zuffa purchase of Strikeforce to getting Jacob Volkmann to call out President Obama to withstanding vague threats from Nick Diaz and Quinton Jackson, Helwani is living the dream.
19. TapouT Crew
Has it been the same since the death of Charles “Mask” Lewis? Maybe not entirely, but Mask hovers over everything in spirit, and the duo of Punkass and Skyscrape carry the brand forward as pillars of inspiration in the sport. The TapouT signature is all over the Octagon—from the fighters wearing their gear, to the insignia on the turnbuckles and in the programs, to the knowledge in the back of a fighter’s mind that one of the big reasons they are in front of 20,000 fans about to prove themselves is because a magic-producing brand from SoCal believes in them.
18. Keith Kizer
The executive director of the Nevada Athletic Commission is instrumental to mixed martial arts, and he works tirelessly to uphold state regulations, the unified rules, and a standard of equanimity. He is the last to sign off on who judges a fight, who referees, medical suspensions, commission suspensions, and just about everything in between. Kizer and his team are also the matrix from which other commissions take their cues. He is a staunch 10-point must man, and he has presented the case of keeping the current scoring system intact. In short, just about everything that goes on, from manning the scales at weigh-ins to approving monitors at live events for judges, goes through the silver-haired gentleman.
17. Joe Rogan
You have to wonder how many Americans have signed up for jiu-jitsu classes after catching Rogan’s enthusiasm for the set up of an omoplata, or an arm-in guillotine, or an Eddie Bravo-approved twister. The longtime color commentator of the UFC has an astute eye for the intricate ground game, and his comedic side surfaces plenty in broadcasts with Mike Goldberg. Does Rogan sometimes get a little ribald and overstep the line? Sure, but in mixed martial arts, the line might not exist at all if it weren’t for Rogan’s contributions. Add to this a successful standup comedy career and a burgeoning following on his website and UStream broadcasts, and Joe moves out of the honorable mentions and into our top 20 this year.
16. Mark Cuban
The outspoken Dallas Mavericks owner is a billionaire with a lot of love for the fight game, and he’s demonstrated that by rolling out more and more MMA content on his HDNet cable station. Not only is Inside MMA with Kenny Rice and Bas Rutten one of the best MMA shows going, Cuban—a frequent talking head on the show—has now signed on to air Strikeforce prelims for free with Ron Kruck, Michael Schiavello, and Rutten. Will we see HDNet Fights again? Maybe, maybe not, but as far as movers and shakers in the industry go, Cuban has a lot of aces up his sleeve.
15. BJ Penn
For years, the former UFC Lightweight and Welterweight Champion has been the face of Hawaii and the warrior spirit of island life. He’s also called the “Prodigy”, because there are times when it appears to the naked eye that Penn transmogrifies into a rubber band yogi. Penn is one of the most recognizable faces in the sport, with his Penn Training & Fitness in Hilo and his name-bearing website a source of news and insight, he has become a global brand at 32 years old. When he comes out to Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s “Hawaii ‘78” medley, it just makes for gooseflesh. Oh yeah, he cowrote a New York Times bestseller called Mixed Martial Arts: The Book of Knowledge. Dude is synonymous with fighting.
14. Randy Couture
It wasn’t the highest note to go out on, but by the time the five-time UFC champion lost to Lyoto Machida at UFC 129, he had nothing left to prove. “The Natural” fought until he was 47 years old, and that was just about as improbable as his beating the widely considered unbeatable Vitor Belfort at UFC 15 in 1997, or TKOing Chuck Liddell at UFC 43 and following that up with a win over a prime Tito Ortiz at UFC 44, or thrashing the much larger Tim Sylvia at UFC 68 for the heavyweight strap. Now, his gym in Las Vegas is world-renowned, and he’s a successful actor, cornerman and entrepreneur. As a perennial underdog who defied odds until the end, Couture is one of the icons of MMA. Not bad for a wrestler who was an Olympic team alternate that tried MMA with nothing to lose.
13. Ricardo Liborio
He runs one of the most widely respected mixed martial arts compounds in the world at American Top Team in Coconut Creek, Florida, and the very mention of the name Ricardo Liborio is met with reverence and respect. In short, Liborio is one of the greatest practitioners and coaches of BJJ going, and he is considered to be the best black belt under Carlson Gracie’s system. He earned bronze and silver medals at Abu Dhabi, and he has been very effective at teaching his system. The old Leonardo da Vinci saying of “poor is the pupil who does not surpass his master” might be right in Liborio’s case, as ATT houses some of the best fighters in the world.
12. Firaz Zahabi
He’ll be forever linked to UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre, which is fine by Firaz Zahabi if he is to GSP what Angelo Dundee was to Muhammad Ali for all those legendary years. It takes otherworldly concentration, hard work, philosophy, mental manipulation, discipline, and intense game planning to stave off complacency for as long as GSP has, and Zahabi’s coaching influence is a big part of the success. As one of the head trainers at Tristar gym in Montreal, Zahabi also coaches the likes of Miguel Torres and Kenny Florian.
11. Jon Jones
In a word, Jonny “Bones” Jones is transcendent. The 23-year-old UFC Light Heavyweight Champion didn’t need to shock the world by beating Mauricio “Shogun” Rua at UFC 128—we all knew exactly what was coming. Is it possible that Jones has cleaned out a division in his first title fight? Probably not, but the way in which Jones destroys his opposition— an artisan blend of spinning elbows, suplexes, roundhouse kicks, and long-range strafing—makes you wonder. As big as he is now, just wait—he’s doing Bud Light commercials and is being groomed to be the face of the UFC. How crazy will this get in a few years? Let’s just say that maybe the comparisons to Bruce Lee and Cassius Clay aren’t hyperbole.
10. Urijah Faber
Chances are, if you’ve been to a UFC or WEC or a King of the Cage or a Strikeforce or any MMA show within a 100-mile radius of Sacramento, you’ve seen the “California Kid” signing autographs and posing for pictures with adoring mobs. The former WEC Featherweight Champion is wildly successful both in and out of the cage, with his own clothing brand (FORM Athletics), his own style (a laid-back, totally chill sort of menace), and plenty of stories for the rocking chair days (have him tell you about his trip to Bali sometime). Yet, the Team Alpha Male member is one of the most exciting fighters in the sport, as he looks to finish anybody put in front of him. He is the surf-born Adonis, the original poster boy of MMA.
9. Cesar Gracie
He is the king of Pleasant Hill, and the modern day perpetuator/founder of Brazilian jiu-jitsu—as a Gracie, he has a black belt that is closer in color to obsidian— yet Cesar Gracie also coaches and mentors a team of ridiculous champions, future champions, and promising prospects. Look at the elite list: Nick Diaz (Strikeforce Welterweight Champion), Gilbert Melendez (Strikeforce Lightweight Champion), Jake Shields (former Strikeforce Middleweight Champion, and Nate Diaz (Champion of the 209). His track record is impeccable.
8. Bjorn Rebney
He’s the son of the Winnebego man of the 1980s (Jack Rebney), yes, but he’s also a very smart businessman who founded Bellator Fighting Championships. Rebney found a niche outside the UFC with a tournament-style MMA product with viable competitors— Ben Askren, Eddie Alvarez, Hector Lombard— and television deals with MTV2 and ESPN Deportes. The allure? An ascending pay scale that could earn a fighter as much as $100,000 in a season. Bellator (which is Latin for “warrior”) holds regional events that are broadcast nationally. The smart play? Rebney willingly coexists with the UFC rather than trying to compete with it. (And don’t look now, but it’s the largest non-Zuffa promotion in North America).
7. Greg Jackson
It’s almost as if Greg Jackson has turned Albuquerque, New Mexico, into a Mecca for fighters looking to “find themselves.” Most recently, the beleaguered Melvin Guillard found his way to Jackson’s, and he hasn’t lost since. Clay Guida is now a contender at 155 pounds. Jon Jones is turning into a superhero under Jackson’s Yoda-like surveillances. Carlos Condit’s name is habanera hot. Fighters find Satori in the southwest. Yes, Mike Winkeljohn, Chris Luttrell, and his other guys deserve credit for part of Jackson’s success, but there is something about his absolute sincerity, his caring, his family vibe, about his mythical Gaidojutsu and wise never-yelling aplomb that is unparalleled. It doesn’t hurt that Jackson is also widely considered the best game-planning strategist in the game.
6. Sean Shelby
For those who thought the WEC’s explosive cards were the finest in MMA, Sean Shelby was the thankless orchestrator. He was the promotion’s matchmaker, and his pairings always came with detonation levers and canisters of TNT. To this day, he remains the hand controlling the lighter weight classes in the UFC, and now he has taken over the Strikeforce matchmaking as well. Dude is the perfect right-hand man to the UFC’s primary matchmaker, Joe Silva.
5. Georges St-Pierre
He’s the only guy to appear in a SportsCenter commercial on ESPN. He has been on the cover of dozens of magazines, and he was nominated for an ESPY. St-Pierre is an icon in Canada and a legend everywhere else. Yet, he’ll be the first to tell you, before he was GSP the UFC Welterweight Champion, he was Georges St-Pierre—a nerdy type, picked on, a one-time trash man who was always pretty poor. He’s worth millions now, but he trains like he has something to prove. GSP has won nine straight fights, and 15 of 16. He was Sports Illustrated’s “Fighter of the Year” in 2009, and Spike’s “Most Dangerous Man of the Year.” He wears a gi to the cage and a headband, and now the headbands are becoming a cottage industry for guerilla street vendors. He headlined a card that put 55,000 through the gates. We could go on. (And on and on).
4. Marc Ratner
Every time the UFC ventures into new territory, Marc Ratner was there first. He is a groundbreaker in every sense of the word, who lays the foundation for everything that ensues. Ratner helps educate political leaders, athletic commissions, lay people, and opposition, and even when he was the executive director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, he was an ambassador of the sport. In short, he paves the way for history in the making. Now, Ratner works for the UFC as the Vice President of Regulatory Affairs, which means he is a man that takes a word like “possibility” and turns it into “actuality.” His latest conquests have been helping regulate the sport in Massachusetts and Wisconsin. Next step: New York.
3. Joe Silva
Joe Silva is much more than a matchmaker in the UFC—he is a quick study of talent. There have been a million times that he has stuck a guy on a card whom he has scouted prolifically, yet the public knows next to nothing about. He knows how to take a jumbled equation— ramifications, timing, contracts, geography, injuries, fight potential, pay-per-view import, and rivalry— and arrive at the perfect match. How? He ain’t sayin’, but we’ll tell you one thing: the fighters themselves look at this southern gentleman like he’s a messiah. That’s power.
2. Lorenzo Fertitta
He’s been called a “sphinx,” and it’s true that he only speaks publicly when absolutely necessary (usually to convince somebody that they’re being dumb, like New York politicians), but Lorenzo Fertitta has that one piece of the puzzle that madcaps need to pull off historical significance—lots of money. His worth is more than a billion dollars, but the casino maven and entrepreneur was smart enough to load a few cash sacks up on a focused, outspoken, tireless worker in UFC president Dana White when White was training fighters part time. Boom—just like that, history. Since purchasing the UFC a decade ago, Fertitta has helped turn a dying company bought for a couple million dollars and peanuts into a billion-dollar enterprise where the sky’s the limit.
1. DANA WHITE
He has been called a lot of things—irascible, determined, a tyrant, a circus barker, an ego maniac, a genius, a philanthropist— but the reason that the magazine you hold in your hands and just about everything MMA-related exists at all is because Dana White genuinely cares about the sport. What White has done is make his brand infectious. Some of the top marketers and ad agencies in the world fall short of what he’s done. White’s made casual fans want to know more, and he gives diehard fans that familiar avuncular warmth. He’s never wavered for a minute about the merits of the sport, and he spends ridiculous amounts of time interacting with fans and media. Is he calculated, maniacal, crafty, blunt? Sure, and he has to be. But since day one, he has been completely open with his feelings towards fighters, agents, the media, fans, you name it. That can’t help but be anything but refreshing, even when it chafes. At the end of the day, Dana White’s enthusiasm, audaciousness, and shrewd business sense have made MMA, legitimately, the fastest growing sport on the planet. It doesn’t hurt that Zuffa now owns Strikeforce, either. Monopolies add up to power.
The Best Secret Agent Men
Ed Soares/Jorge Guimaraes
Anderson Silva, José Aldo, and Lyoto Machida have all given UFC post-fight speeches for title victories with their manager and translator Ed Soares by their side. The Sinister brand founder bridges Brazil to the City of Angels along with his business partner Jorge Guimaras, who aligned with the American-born Brazilian in 2003, to cater to the needs of his elite roster. Their Southern California-based Black House Gym is an invitation-only facility that stars the Nogueira brothers, Junior dos Santos, and includes top-notch guest training partners like Mark Munoz. In addition to training and sponsorship needs, Soares has helped develop his fighter’s English skills to widen their North American appeal.
Dewayne Zinkin/Bob Cook
As one of the oldest havens for mixed martial arts, San Jose, California, has evolved into an MMA training and business Mecca thanks in part to Zinkin Entertainment. Central California-based partners Dewayne Zinkin, a two-time NCAA All-American wrestler, and Bob Cook, who serves as a lead MMA trainer at the American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose, have taken former UFC champions Chuck Liddell and Forrest Griffin to crossover stardom. They also serve AKA’s world-class roster of Cain Velasquez, Jon Fitch, and Josh Koscheck. By locking down the best wrestlers transitioning to MMA, including Mark Ellis, Daniel Cormier, Ben Askren, and Phil Davis, expect the Zinkin-Cook connection to continue powering through the MMA ranks.
In only a few years in the MMA game, Dean Albrecht has been able to maintain a solid roster of fighters, including past champions Frank Mir and Miguel Torres. The former professional football agent successfully transferred from the gridiron to the Octagon, and he did it by securing big-named sponsorships, including Bud Light. His firm represents or has acted on behalf of or consulted for stars such as Quinton Jackson, Michael Bisping, Demian Maia, Stephan Bonnar, and Stefan Struve.
First Round Management CEO Malki Kawa has been the business behind the rising star that is Jon Jones. The UFC Light Heavyweight Champion sat on Jay Leno’s couch, and Kawa’s transition from NFL athletes to the UFC in the last three years has been stellar thanks to such accolades. Despite a public firing by Matt Mitrione following UFC 119, the Florida-based agent has the hottest commodity in MMA and a budding client roster to boot.
Jeff Meyer/Mike Roberts
Urijah Faber as the face of AMP Energy, and his teammates Joseph Benavidez and Chad Mendes’ increasingly notable presence as MMA stars and spokesmen, can be credited in part to Jeff Meyer and Mike Roberts’ MMA Incorporated. They have added dynamic stars such as Anthony Pettis, Chael Sonnen, and Mark Munoz to their client-base, which is only calling attention to the influential position they have behind getting Faber’s Team Alpha Male weighty deals beyond their 145-pound frames.
A stellar stable of female MMA talent helps Brian Butler’s SuckerPunch Entertainment stand out as one of the most well-rounded representation firms in MMA. Their roster hits every tier of the sport, and their solid employment of social media, along with notable clients like Amir Sadollah, Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone, and Pat Barry, mean SuckerPunch is always present on the scene. The addition of Bryan Hamper, founder of Blue Chip Management, and international agent Shu Hirata, earned SuckerPunch the “MMA Supergroup” tag from mmaweekly.com
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