Three MMA Managers, Three Different Approaches
It’s Friday night after weigh-ins, and I’m sitting at the lobby bar at the Sheraton Harbour Castle in downtown Toronto at UFC 152: Jones vs. Belfort, when Jon Jones’s manager Malki Kawa walks in. As soon as he’s noticed, a man calls him over and the two start talking business. The man, a Canadian restaurateur, wants one of Kawa’s clients to open a franchise across the border. Before the meeting is over, Kawa notices the man’s watch, a Breitling that I would estimate costs $25,000.
“That’s a nice watch—I really like it,” says Kawa, in his trademark machine-gun patter. Without a thought, the man rips it off his wrist and hands it to Malki. “It’s yours,” he says.
Welcome to Malki Kawa’s world. Kawa, an MMA manager, who counts three current UFC champions among his clients (Jones, Carlos Condit, and Benson Henderson), is in constant deal-making mode. But his approach has certainly rubbed some people the wrong way. Is he misunderstood?
“I don’t know what’s to misunderstand,” says Kawa. “Nobody works harder than me in this business, and everybody knows that. I get the best deals done on paper, that’s for sure. If somebody thinks I’m a bad person, there’s nothing I can do about that. They obviously don’t know me. If other fighters misunderstand me, they should pick up the phone and talk to my fighters, because while they’re sitting at home trying to figure out how to pay rent, my guys are buying homes in cash. I’m not trying to brag, but that’s the reality of it.”
“There’s money in MMA for a few fighters,” says Karp, “but only for a few people who can crossover. If you’re only a fighter, I don’t know where you make money anymore. The sponsors who used to offer $5,000 or $10,000 for a patch on shorts are offering $500 or $1,000 these days. The money’s dried up in purely MMA. Or when a card falls apart, suddenly your fighter has no fight and no sponsorships. It’s a tough world for MMA-only clients these days, that’s why I try to represent people who have crossover appeal and can make a lot more money in other endeavors.”
Indeed, Carano is fielding offers from Hollywood daily, and Cung Le, who is coming near the end of his fight career, will jump fulltime into his movie-making career, which has already seen Fighting and Dragon Eyes break through into the mainstream consciousness.
Alchemist’s Lex McMahon is in Montreal at Tristar Gym when I catch up with him. He’s watching client Rory MacDonald train for his upcoming bout with BJ Penn.
“As a manager, the key to success in MMA is differentiating yourself from the others,” he says. “I’m the only manager with both an MBA and a law degree. MC Hammer is our CEO, and nobody has the Silicon Valley venture capital connections he has. Our chairman has been voted 40 Under 40 several times and has run one $100-million business after another. We have Ivy League lawyers on staff, and we provide excellent service.”
McMahon, who counts MacDonald, Brendan Schaub, and Nate Marquardt as clients, feels every client is unique and deserves a customized experience from him.
“The most challenging part of working as a manager is understanding the nuances of each individual athlete,” he says. “It’s not a formula-based business. You have to help build each athlete’s brand in their respective promotions. Tailoring athletes’ careers is the most challenging part. You can’t do the same thing for every guy—that would be a disservice.”
Karp says having the right manager is integral in making a successful career.
“There are so many avenues to success that you need someone who knows which ones to take and which ones exist,” says Karp. “My whole background is in entertainment. I worked at William Morris, I worked at Warner Brothers, I worked with Will Smith. I was Cung’s manager long before I ever met Gina. If Gina were coming up now—as opposed to a few years ago—with her talent and her looks, the exposure is so much bigger than just two years ago that she would be even more successful.”
Kawa seems to be an anomaly in the business. He started as an NFL agent in 2005 and transitioned to MMA after meeting Thiago Alves in 2008. He’s a single
father of a seven-year-old daughter. He doesn’t drink alcohol, and he is always on. This year, he made news by signing his star client Jon Jones to a global sponsorship deal with Nike, the granddaddy of sports marketers.
“When I first signed on with Jon, he had an idea of what he wanted to be, who he wanted to sponsor him, including Nike and all that,” Kawa says. “And it worked out. If you look at the guys who dress well, take the time to educate people about the sport—Georges St-Pierre, Jon Jones—those are the guys who have the best sponsors in this sport.”
Ari Emanuel, the chairman of William Morris Endeavor and the man who represented UFC in their FOX Sports deal, was instrumental in helping Jones sign with Nike. “He picked up the phone and called Phil Knight,” says Kawa. “He made it happen. He’s got a Rolodex of who’s who in any category—sports, movies, music, business. I look up to him. He’s the man.”
Kawa also looks up to NFL agent Drew Rosenhaus, another man who is universally disliked because of his success. “The guy was handling a billion dollars worth of NFL contracts at one time. He started from nothing,” says Kawa, who admits UFC president Dana White won’t be inviting him over for Thanksgiving dinner any time soon.
“Dana White doesn’t like me, but why would he?” he says. “I’m a manager. I’m his opposition. I negotiate for three of his champions. He doesn’t have to like me, but I do need to maintain a good relationship with the UFC. Some fighters think, I did this and won that, but they have to understand that no matter what they’ve done, the UFC has done more, and they continue to do more for the sport.”
And while Karp and McMahon are driven by the competition of business and breaking down walls for their clients, Kawa is driven by something a little more personal.
“My father died four years ago and left us nothing, so we have to take care of my mother,” he says. “I don’t want to be on my deathbed and look at my daughter and know I left her nothing.”
For Karp, MMA has helped him in the entertainment world because Hollywood is looking for more realism in one of its biggest categories—action films.
“For Gina, it was the right place and the right time,” he says. “An A-list director [Steven Soderbergh] wanted to show audiences what a real fighter could do in a big budget fight scene, and he cast her as the star in Haywire. Audiences can turn on the TV every night and see real action by watching UFC fights, so when they go to the movies, they get frustrated with quick cuts. You don’t even see the actor’s face during fi ght scenes. Now, with Gina and Cung, they do. In Dragon Eyes, Cung helped cast real fighters— Gil Melendez and Josh Thomson—in the fight scenes. There’s real opportunity for fighters with crossover appeal.”
McMahon was a venture capitalist and says that the lack of qualified managers in mixed martial arts is what compelled him to enter the space.
“I looked at the MMA landscape and saw a dearth of talent in the management ranks,” he says. “When I put my business hat on, I saw a need for quality representation, and on the business side, I saw tremendous growth globally. I saw it as a great opportunity to distinguish myself and make partnerships. There is a lot of money in MMA.”
Kawa agrees that managers can sometimes hurt not only their own clients but also an entire industry.
“I hate when I call a sponsor and they say they’re going to go with my guy’s opponent because he’s cheaper,” says an animated Kawa. “Why do my guys suffer and deals get passed because other managers are just taking deals without negotiating at all? Why do the numbers go down across the board because managers don’t know what their fighters are worth? It’s frustrating. These guys are leaving a lot of money on the table, not just for their fighter, but for everybody’s fighters.”
As MMA continues to grow globally and more and more opportunity for fighters presents itself, the need for the right manager will become even more imperative. But how will a fighter know if they’ve made the right decision?
“Look at your bank account,” says Kawa. “If you don’t see that number grow over time, then you should probably give me a call.”