MMA Goes Hollywood

If you can make it in Hollywood, you can make it anywhere. If that old adage holds true, then not only has MMA arrived, but it looks like it’s here to stay. Whether it’s Endeavor representing the UFC, Creative Artists signing TapouT, the IFL finding a home at William Morris, or Gersh representing fighters like Randy Couture, some of the most prestigious talent agencies in Hollywood are scrambling to enter the sport. With their resources, they have the potential to change MMA as we know it, expanding the profi le of the sport and its stars further than anyone would have dreamed possible fourteen years ago, when the first UFC event was held.

 

While other MMA players are getting their first taste of Hollywood, Tinseltown is old hat for the UFC according to Dana White. “Hollywood has been in our space for a long time. We’ve been dealing with people in Hollywood for seven years. Now all these upstarts and all these other people that are popping out of the woodwork are apparently talking to agencies too.”

 

The UFC’s relationship with Endeavor, home to Hollywood A-listers like Matt Damon,

Chris Rock, and Jessica Alba, started when a mutual friend brought White and Endeavor president Ari Emanuel together. White is effusive in his praise for Emanuel, noting that he is the basis for Entourage’s Ari Gold, and calling him, “the best agent in Hollywood without a doubt.” White also commented that, “There were a lot of people that came and pitched us. We talked to a lot of different agencies. There was no doubt, hands down, that Ari and Endeavor were the best.”

 

When asked about the advantages of working with Endeavor, White said, “When you have an agency like them, you can work on running your business and let them handle all the bullshit for you.” The agency handled all of the UFC’s recent negotiations with HBO and SpikeTV, allowing White and the UFC to maintain a good relationship with the network.

 

But it’s not just the sport’s premier promotions that have gone Hollywood. Many agencies are beginning to explore the arena of fi ghter representation. The entrance of high profile sports agents has long been thought to be a mere formality; a matter of the money being right. But the prospect of Hollywood talent agencies entering the space has the potential to revolutionize what it means to be a professional fighter.

 

The first agency to take the plunge into fighter representation was the Gersh Agency, which boasts a client list that includes Jamie Foxx, Dave Chapelle, and Megan Fox. Matt Walker, vice president of Extreme Sports at Gersh, has become a champion of the agency’s involvement in MMA, thanks to his relationship with Randy Couture.

 

Walker was a successful baseball agent before entering MMA. It is because of one of his clients, David Dellucci of the Cleveland Indians, that Walker first talked with Randy Couture and became interested in MMA. During the conversation, Couture mentioned that he had recently had his UFC hummer stolen, and with it all his hunting equipment.

Walker offered to help.

 

“I told him I’d get a bow for free from this company called Hoyt, but the guy that I knew at Hoyt happened to disappear at that time, so I ended up calling probably thirty times before I finally got his bow and got it to him,” Walker said. “Randy realized that if I said I was going to do something, I did it.” Subsequently, Walker’s sports agency began handling Couture’s endorsements. “Then we just organically over time built a trust and a friendship that I think is very, very special now.”

 

After ten years in the baseball industry, Walker was looking for a change, and saw MMA as an opportunity to apply his skill set to an exploding sport. At the same time, Couture was beginning to take some acting classes and becoming more serious about pursuing opportunities in Hollywood. Then, as both Couture and Walker said, the stars aligned when Walker’s sports agency was absorbed by the Gersh agency.

 

“Most of these athletes, at the end of the day, want to take the celebrity that they’ve built through their sports and translate that into other opportunities, whether that is business, entertainment, or whatever they may want to do,” Walker said. With Gersh, “I don’t have

to go outside of this offi ce; all I have to do is push the buttons, find the people here that believe in MMA, believe in my client in the same way, and then you can do it all internally.”

 

The relationship is already paying dividends for Couture, who recently sold his memoir to Simon Schuster. The book was a hot property when Gersh Literary agent Margaret O’Connor took it to the market earlier this year. According to O’Connor, “MMA is the new big realm in publishing right now. The sport is becoming part of the cultural zeitgeist; it’s infused in popular culture. It’s not a direct comparison, but seven or eight years ago, there was this huge flurry of books on the personalities of the WWE. This is like the next wave.” Becoming the Natural, co-authored by Loretta Hunt, will be available in June 2008.

 

On the acting side, Couture has just finished filming Scorpion King: Rise of the Acadian and Dave Mamet’s Redbelt, in addition to a spot in recent episode of The Unit. Couture’s acting career is off to a promising start according to his acting agent at Gersh, Brett Norensberg. “The interest is great, the opportunities are plentiful, and the appetite out there is quite strong,” said Norensberg. “The studios are willing to not only cast him in roles that are lead roles, but they are willing to develop features for him. So you’re going to see a lot of Randy in the next couple of years.”

 

Couture originally didn’t consider acting as a potential career, but he realized that,

“The more opportunities I got, I enjoyed the experience, enjoyed the process of making films, being involved with TV shows, and I started looking at it differently. I started saying, ‘you know what, I fi nd this very intriguing, this whole process, the finished products are really cool, it’s something I think I’d like to try.’”

 

His early roles were mostly as tough guys and thugs, with a focus on fight scenes, but since then, Norensberg says Couture has proven that he can act while building an impressive resume that can overcome typecasting. “I have to tell you that a lot of the roles that we’re talking about now are not necessarily roles where he is a big tough fighting guy. It’s not just marching into a room and beating up a bunch of people.

He’s cast more as the thinking man’s hero.”

 

Couture said that the reception he receives while making his rounds in Hollywood varies. “I’ve gone to some meetings and had guys coming from two floors up to get an autograph, and I’ve been to other meetings where it was a complete education process, telling the people you’re meeting with about the sport and how it works.”

 

At first glance, acting and fighting may seem like polar opposites, but Couture says there are more similarities than you might think. “You need to have focus in both. There is an intensity that I think fighting presents that I can now translate to acting, that a lot of actors don’t have the advantage of. Certainly work ethic. You either have some natural abilities and can wrap your brain around it and do it, or you can’t. Fighting is the same way.”

 

Norensberg says the goal is to have Couture starring in a variety of features, but shies away from comparisons to former pro wrestler Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, insisting that Randy will make his own way. “A lot of people make that comparison, but you could also make a comparison to Vin Diesel who is an educated, strong, thoughtful protagonist.”

 

When asked where he sees himself professionally five years from now, Couture responds,

“I’ll definitely be considered a bona fide actor and be more in the acting world, but I’ll always be involved in MMA and training, managing, helping fighters train, and seeing them progress in their careers. It’s a sport I love.”

 

As a fighter, Couture sees Gersh’s involvement as a welcome development. “I think that there are a lot of athletes out there in our sport that are being misrepresented. They’re not being done justice in their fight careers. I think a lot of those purely fight managers don’t have the capability of helping athletes try to diversify and make the transition somewhere else.”

 

But not everyone is excited about the prospects of an army of Hollywood agents descending on the MMA world with promises of fame and fortune. White has been an outspoken critic of Walker during the UFC’s dispute with Couture, repeatedly referring to Hollywood agents as parasites.

 

“They’re parasites, and what their job is, is to tell you how fucking great you are, how many other things you could be getting, how badly you’re getting fucked, and how much better they’re going to make your life,” White said. “That’s their job. But with most of the things that these guys tell the fighters, they’re lucky if thirty percent of it comes true. There are a lot of different agencies out there and when you get on the phone with them they’ll send the shivers down your spine, they’re so sleazy. The other ones are straight up guys who are looking to do business. Fortunately for me, I’m in a very lucky position; I don’t have to deal with any of them. I have people who work for me that have to deal with them.”

 

However, despite how difficult it is to break into the entertainment industry, White believes that someday someone will become a true crossover star. “I guarantee you that one of these guys, at least one of these guys, will break out of this thing and end up like the Rock. I guarantee it. Which isn’t a bad thing, I don’t frown on that. If some guy breaks out of fighting and ends up like the Rock, good for him, that’s awesome. You’ll never here me bitching about somebody making his life better. I’ve got no problem with that at all.”

 

Walker suspects that White is trying to drive a wedge between him and Couture. “At the end of the day, I work for Randy. Randy is a very well educated, grown man, and has accomplished a great deal, has a lot of respect in the industry, he’s going to make the decisions that are best for him. So [White] can blame it on me, try to make me a scapegoat, that’s fine, it doesn’t bother me one bit, especially coming from him. But the reality is that I didn’t cause this situation. It’s not about me, it’s about Randy.” Walker has a hard time understanding White’s resentment of agents, given White’s past role as a manager to fighters like Tito Ortiz and Chuck Liddell. “Certain people don’t want to deal with agents, even though they were management in the past, which is kind of odd to me. Someone that was on that side of the fence, jumped to the other side, and now refuses to deal with agents.”

 

When asked if he cared about Walker’s comments, White said. “No, not at all. We’ll see what happens. We’ll see. I have no comment. Believe me when I tell you that guy knows who he is, he knows what he’s done and what he hasn’t done. He knows.” White went on to say, “I’ve got no problem with the Randy Couture thing. It’s the way it was handled. Just like that parasite said, ‘we’re all grown men and there are tons of paths out in front of us and we all have to choose which path we want to walk down.’”

 

Regardless of White’s sentiments, it’s inevitable that other agencies will follow Gersh’s lead into fighter representation, especially with the early success Gersh has enjoyed. The agency’s investment in the sport is already paying dividends with an ever-expanding client list as well as interest from some of the top names in the sport. It has produced results not just with Couture, but also with Gina Carano, who is in talks to star in a major primetime network television series, and Cung Le, who has landed several movie parts prompting comparisons to Jet Li. Walker has also recently secured a trading card deal with Donruss, a poster deal with Wall Bangers, and an action figure deal with Round 5.

 

Walker believes the sport is just scratching the surface of its potential, and sees even bigger and better days ahead. “Eventually it’ll be the biggest sport in the world because it gets back to our roots. It gets back to the roots of mankind. It’s gladiators, it’s one-on-one, it’s just such a pure sport, and that’s coming from someone who didn’t grow up around it. I’ve never, ever, in my life felt the energy that I felt at the Randy Couture/ Tim Sylvia fight. It was unbelievable. In my humble opinion, I honestly think that in five years it’ll be the biggest sport in the country.”

 

For his part, White said that Hollywood can have its expectations, but “The bottom line is, I’m driving this fucker. I’ll tell you exactly where it’s going. We’re going global, we’ve got our office in the UK, and now we’re starting to move out into Europe. We haven’t even scratched the surface of how big this thing is going to be in the United States. People think this is big and mainstream now, you haven’t seen anything.”

 

For better or worse, wherever MMA goes in the years to come, it looks like Hollywood will be there to play its role.

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