Lessons Learned In The International Fight League

The IFL is gone now. It’s offi cial. It has fi led for bankruptcy, fi red its staff, released its fi ghters, and even sold its offi ce furniture. It’s sad to see, even for someone who knows as well as anyone that the organization brought it on itself.

The IFL is gone now. It’s offi cial. It has fi led for bankruptcy, fi red its staff, released its fi ghters, and even sold its offi ce furniture. It’s sad to see, even for someone who knows as well as anyone that the organization brought it on itself.

1) Don’t take it personally when Matt Lindland gets mad at you, but don’t expect it to stop, either. 2) Never miss a chance to drink with Don Frye, but don’t ask him to explain his homespun witticisms when there are women, children, or, well, people within earshot. 3) Stay away from Mike Whitehead altogether.

Perhaps the most valuable lesson I learned is that there is nothing good you can say to a fi ghter after a knockout. Nothh I ’ ffi l I h BY BEN FOWLKES ing will make him feel better. If you’re smart, you won’t even try. I have never been all that smart.

It seemed like every time a fi ghter had taken a bad beating I somehow ended up alone in an elevator with him afterward. No matter how hard I tried to avoid this, it was an inescapable law of the universe. His face would usually be a collection of multicolored bruises. Maybe he’d be popping Vicodin with a beer chaser. I’d be standing next to him feeling like I should offer sympathy, even though sympathy has never been something I excel at or even appreciate.

“I couldn’t believe how many punches you were able to take,” I said to Ryan Mc- Givern after his loss to Benji Radach. In my head, it sounded like a compliment. He just looked at me as if he was trying to fi gure out whether to say thank you or to belt me one. Fortunately, he did neither.

Bryan Vetell – one of Renzo Gracie’s heavyweights – was more gracious. He got knocked out by Devin Cole one dismal night in Connecticut. He’d been winning the fi ght until he hit Cole in the nose, which had just been broken badly a few months prior to the bout.

The blood came streaming out, and when Cole saw it he became rabid. He went after Vetell with a violent desperation. Suddenly, Vetell was on his back with Cole mounted on top of him and raining punches down. Vetell covered up and defended well. All at once his arms went limp at his sides. His mouthpiece was suddenly lying on the mat a few inches from his head. Frozen on his face was an almost quizzical expression, as if he were in the middle of a confusing dream.

In the hotel bar I bought Bryan a beer and a shot, my ham-handed attempt at cheering him up. “Tell me the truth,” he said. “Does my face look really bad?” It did. One of his eyes seemed lower than the other, and his skin had the look of spoiled fruit. His nose had already swelled up, and when he talked he sounded like he had the world’s worst cold. “No,” I told him. “You look great.” He smiled and said, “You’re full of shit. But thanks.” This was just one of the reasons why Vetell was always my favorite IFL fi ghter, even if he wasn’t the best or even the most fun to watch.

I got the job as the IFL’s writer and editor in November 2006. It seemed like the best thing that could have happened to me at the time. I had recently fi nished grad school (the always-lucrative master of fi ne arts degree in fi ction writing) and moved to New York City out of a lack of better ideas. I spent a few months sitting around my apartment. I struggled to pay the rent. I sent out resumés and never heard back. I spent my afternoons watching the stray cats fi ght in the alley behind my apartment.

Things had been better, in other words. That’s around the time I saw the IFL’s ad for an editorial manager.

All I knew about the IFL was that it had some bizarre team setup, it had been sued by the UFC, and it looked like it was going nowhere fast. I’d seen one event on tape delay. I’d been unimpressed. Still, unimpressed was better than unemployed. It was a job writing about MMA. It sounded so perfect I knew I’d never get it. I applied anyway. I went on a couple of interviews. I even wore the one suit I owned. Lo and behold, I was hired.

Later I learned that it had come down to me and one other guy with much better credentials. He was a shoe-in until his fi nal interview, when he jokingly threatened to “come after” one of our executives if he didn’t get the job. That exec was the nervous type. He wasn’t big on being threatened. This is how I got the job. Somebody else fucked up.

Bryan Vetell was one of the fi rst fi ghters I met. I liked him right away. He had a degree in philosophy and an easy, self-deprecating humor. He made you feel like maybe, just maybe, if you had been born 6 feet 2 inches tall and weighed 280 pounds, you could have been him.

But he had ferocity, too. One night in Atlanta he fought a British ex-boxer who knew nothing about the ground game. Within seconds, Vetell took him down and had him tapping to a shoulder lock. When he let the Brit go, Vetell hovered over him in a red-faced rage, screaming every obscenity he could think of until his corner man pulled him away. It was an uncharacteristic explosion that left everyone confused.

Afterward, during the press conference, there was that embarrassed smile again. The reporters pressed him about what had made him so angry. “He said some things to me during the fi ght, trying to make me mad. I overreacted. I don’t really want to get into it,” he said, trying to play the gentleman. Renzo Gracie interrupted. “He called him a bitch,” Gracie said. With his Brazilian accent, the word came out sounding like “beach.” Vetell hid his face in his hands as the room exploded into fi ts of laughter. “Can you believe it?” Renzo continued. “Him, a bitch. Look at the size of him! I’m his coach, and I call him Mr. Vetell.”

As much as I liked Vetell, it soon became apparent that he wasn’t a great fi ghter. He wasn’t a bad fi ghter, not by any means. He was an excellent wrestler and had the kind of sheer power that can give anyone problems. But he still wasn’t great. He was on the mediocre side of good. Unfortunately, the fi ght game isn’t kind to those who fall in that range, not even when you really wish it would be.

At some point, I started to realize there are only two kinds of people in the fi ght game: those who are genuinely talented and have a shot at going somewhere, and those who haven’t fi gured out yet that that isn’t them. The hardest part is that you can only fi nd out by having your ass kicked in front of several thousand fans (and in the IFL, only about half of them will have actually paid for a ticket).

As brutal as the fi ght game can be to fi ghters, it’s brutal in an entirely different way to organizations, especially the ones that don’t learn from their own mistakes. The IFL was struggling when I came on board. Ticket sales were lackluster. The weekly FSN show, which aired 2- or 3-weekold fi ghts (already a poor strategy), wasn’t pulling viewers. The executives couldn’t fi gure it out. Once a month they gathered all the junior staff in the conference room to point out the lagging fi gures and threaten us with unemployment. They seemed confused when this didn’t help.

What always surprised me while working for the IFL was how few people there actually knew or cared about MMA. Not that the VP of marketing has to be a rabid fi ght fan, but it seemed like he should at least take an interest. Outside of its Las Vegas offi ce – which was home to some great minds in the industry, such as Keith Evans – it wasn’t the case.

Kurt Otto, the league’s commissioner and co-founder, truly loved the sport. CEO Gareb Shamus was more of an opportunist who knew a rising trend when he saw one. The rest of the executives couldn’t be troubled with the particulars. Their job was to package and sell MMA. They might as well have been selling textbooks for all the interest they had in it. It’s no surprise that this led to some very obvious and very costly mistakes.

The fi rst episode of Battleground showed up in our offi ces a little over a week ahead of the airdate. We gathered in Shamus’ offi ce to watch it. My job was to take notes and point out any inaccuracies or parts that might resonate poorly with MMA fans. The repeated shots of Ryan Schultz being carried out on a stretcher were, to say the least, a concern. It took us more than 2 hours to get through the fi rst episode, noting all the stretcher references and long, drawn-out shots we wanted removed. There were other mistakes, too, but they were fairly minor when compared with the stretcher gaffe.

When it was fi nally over we presented the list of problems to future CEO Jay Larkin, who was our resident television expert at the time. “Will they be able to get all this stuff fi xed before the episode airs?” asked Joe Favorito, the IFL’s top-notch PR and communications man.

“Oh, no way,” Larkin said. “It’s already too late.” Note he said this after he had let us waste our time going through the episode with a fi ne-toothed comb. Unfortunately, he was right. I was in Portland to do a feature on Matt Lindland and Team Quest when the episode aired. Considering the Battleground portrayal of Schultz – sensationalized scenes of him leaving the arena on a stretcher, the 911 call sound effects and heart monitor beeps – it was just about the worst place to be. “They made it look like I got murdered!” he said the day after the show premiered. “What was that?”

I could only try and convince him that it wasn’t the IFL’s doing. That served as little consolation for a man who had sat down with his family to watch himself get carried out of the ring over and over again in slow motion. After that fi rst episode, my bosses at the IFL sent me to Los Angeles to supervise the television production company. That meant explaining why playing up sensationalized violence wasn’t the way to hook MMA fans, as well as why we couldn’t just edit the fi ghts to skip the “boring” grappling portions. “I gotta tell you. If I see this,” one television executive said, pointing at two men fi ghting on the mat, “I’m fl ipping to Dancing with the Stars.” “That’s OK,” I told him. “You’re not the viewer we’re after.”

The man looked at me like my head had just caught fi re. Apparently, ruling out segments of the potential audience is not something you say to television executives.

This is when I remembered how many times I’d heard people complain about the UFC’s obsession with control when it came to its product. How it wouldn’t even let HBO Sports take over production; how Dana White insisted on signing off on everything, no matter how minor. Suddenly it made a lot more sense.

It may be easier to relinquish control, but when things go wrong it doesn’t help to explain that somebody else was manning the controls. The only surefi re way to succeed is to take the time and make sure mistakes like that don’t happen. And you don’t get many opportunities to learn from those mistakes.

In the end, it was this failure that doomed the IFL. It knew enough to realize that it had to change, but it didn’t know exactly how to do so. It scrapped the “contrived” team system only to replace it with a slightly altered “camp format” that had all the same problems. It convinced Xtreme Couture to fi eld a team and then populated it with fi ghters who had never set foot in the Xtreme Couture gym. Fighters often met their “coaches” for the fi rst time a few days before the event. In other words, it did the same things as it always had and seemed truly surprised when they didn’t work any better.

I covered my last IFL event in April 2008. After that, I left to take jobs with CagePotato. com and Sports Illustrated. Not long afterward, the IFL announced it was ceasing operations. I knew it had brought it on itself, but that didn’t make it any less sad. The IFL started with the best of intentions, but we all know where good intentions alone will get you. I suppose the best thing you can say is it tried. It tried, in its own misguided way, to do something different.

If only trying were enough. And if only guys like Bryan Vetell could make a career out of being an affable but mediocre fi ghter. I guess everyone has to fi nd out the hard way.

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