When Dan “Punkass” Caldwell accepted complimentary tickets to UFC 26 from then-owners Semaphore Entertainment Group, he wasn’t sold the sport could be a pop-culture phenomenon. That moment didn’t come until UFC 40 Tito Ortiz battered Ken Shamrock for the first time.
“This is the loudest I had ever heard a crowd in my life,” he thought at the time. That card enjoyed the largest paid attendance of any UFC event to date and had the production to match it. “They had this curtain of sparks shooting down from the ceiling,” Caldwell said. “I just had the biggest fucking hard on you have ever seen.”
“You could really feel the house. It was in a small venue,” he said of the Cox Pavilion. “It wasn’t like this huge place. It was an intimate venue. People were just screaming out of their minds. To me it was just one of the greatest wars ever.”
It’s still a little hard for Caldwell to believe that MMA has blown up to the extent that it has. Just a decade ago he and friends were ducking cops to attend illegal shows in California, a time he remembers so fondly that he’s financing a documentary-style film about the underground fight culture of the 1990s.
Like his partner, Tim “Skyscrape” Katz, Caldwell’s fondest memories are of the duo’s late partner, Charles “Mask” Lewis. The TapouT crew once rolled deep in compact cars – now they fly in chartered jets and pimped out buses, but Lewis like to keep it real with pranks.
Caldwell recalled traveling in the TapouT bus one day when Lewis thought it would be funny to light him up with a bottle rocket. “He walks up to the front and he has [a bottle rocket] already lit and he thinks my window is open but the screen is closed…so it shoots off and it lands in my lap,” said Caldwell. “I think its gonna blow up, so I jump out of the seat and nobody’s driving the RV because I think it’s about to blow up in my lap and blow my dick off. I grabbed onto to it and tried to throw out of my lap and it stopped the explosion.”
The company will move forward with an empty seat on the bus, on every plane, and at every event in Lewis’ honor, but “Mask” won’t miss a thing. “I’m not gonna lie, I talk to him in my own way now,” Caldwell said.