Power 20 – The Biggest Players in MMA

It’s time for the annual FIGHT! Magazine Power 20, where we rank the top movers, shakers, and moneymakers in the MMA world.

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These 20 people make real things happen—running organizations, booking fights, closing large deals, opening new markets, increasing the MMA foothold, and putting asses in seats on fight night. When members of the Power 20 act, they affect the MMA space-time continuum—you just have to think fourth dimensionally.

From fighters and MMA personalities to entrepreneurs and executives, the Power 20 is a combination of all that MMA represents. When our panel of experts voted, these were the 20 people who moved the MMA compass.

20. Shannon Knapp
Invicta FC president

It’s difficult to imagine the upsurge in women’s MMA in 2013 without factoring in the contributions of Knapp, the Invicta FC president who put the girls on the map. A one-time executive with the UFC and Strikeforce, Knapp and Janet Martin created Invicta in 2012 to give female fighters their own spotlight. How instrumental was she? With the likes of Sara McMann, Liz Carmouche, Cat Zingano, and many others using the Invicta platform, it’s become a pipeline to the UFC—and the UFC, not all that long ago, didn’t feel there was enough talent to bring the women over. What a difference a year makes. Credit Knapp for deepening the ranks.

19. Sam Caplan
Bellator matchmaker

It’s true that matchmaking in a bracket-style tournament can look like mindless work, but consistently finding top global talent in what is a competitive marketplace speaks volumes for Caplan’s eye. From Douglas Lima to Andrey Koreshkov to Bubba Jenkins, Caplan is a class master in searching out every mat, ring, cage, or coffee shop for the next BIG thing. Now, with Viacom behind him, MMA diehards may want to become fluent in Russian to keep up with the superstars be dredges up.

image desc18. Bruce Buffer
UFC ring announcer

As if his James Bond double life wasn’t enough, the legendary “Voice of the Octagon” put out a tell-all book that recounts the time he beat the hatches off of Frank Trigg in an elevator. Hyperbole? Hey, nobody has done more with hyperbole than the sharp-dressed Buffer, who has trademarked his “It’s Time!” signature call into a small fortune. When not writing, Buffer plays poker professionally, surfs in Malibu, traverses the globe for UFC cards and/or speaking engagements, and—when it’s time to play—he can be found with a model on each arm (note: it’s always time to play). This man may be MMA’s modern Lothario, but, my god, what a deft hand he has with those name cards.

image desc17. Ariel Helwani
Fancy-shoe reporter guy

The Fuel TV broadcaster created his own mini MMA media empire, boasting the popular MMA Hour, UFC Tonight, 170,000 Twitter followers, and the largest library of fighter interviews in the sport. His access is unprecedented, as he regularly unearths scoops from UFC president Dana White. Thousands of MMA fans turn to him for their MMA news, meaning his influence is massive. He’s the hardest working man since James Brown, which is crucial, since he has a colorful shoe habit that can’t be quenched. It has to get expensive.

16. Cain Velasquez
UFC Heavyweight Champion

Velasquez is already closing in on becoming the UFC’s greatest heavyweight champion of all time, which, in itself, is worthy of plaudits. He’s a star in America because of it. But when you consider that he’s the connection between the UFC and Mexico, and that when the UFC finally does navigate the red tape to host an event in Mexico City, it’ll be Velasquez who’s cast as the hero/main attraction/superstar. You realize he’s literally carrying power in both hands. His October fight with Junior dos Santos might be one of the biggest (weight class pun intended) trilogies in UFC history.

15. Victor Cui
ONE FC owner/CEO

Cui has made the loose analogy that ONE Fighting Championship is the “UFC of Asia.” Imagine the grandeur of that comment in the context of countries—Japan, Korea, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia. And that doesn’t take into account China, which is the spiritual birthplace of MMA and the covet of both ONE FC and the UFC alike. The advantage Cui has is he understands Asia, and he’s only interested in harvesting Asian talent. In another couple of years, what’s the potential of mining talent in a continent of nearly four billion people? Let’s just say Cui could look like Rich Uncle Pennybags from the Monopoly game.

14. Randy Couture
MMA legend

Even two years into retirement, he’s still one of the most popular fighters out there. image descThe five-time UFC champion owns Xtreme Couture, runs a charity, stars in movies, and even has his own cologne. Who doesn’t want to smell like Randy? His crossover appeal outside of MMA means he’s the face of fighting to a lot people who aren’t fans yet. Starring in Sylvester Stallone’s Expendables franchise made him a legit movie star, and his new deal with Bellator and Viacom means we’ll be seeing the 50-year-old’s cauliflower ears on television for years to come.

13. Greg Jackson
MMA trainer

The Albuquerque-based trainer created an army in the desert. Jackson boasts the largest stable of top-level fighters in all of MMA, including Jon Jones, Donald Cerrone, Carlos Condit, and Clay Guida, and that’s not even counting other fighters who’ve called on him to supplement their normal coaching staff (Georges St-Pierre). His prestige pays off with more than just wins in the cage, as evident by his coaching stint on Bellator’s Fight Master reality show. And, according to Dana White, he was even able to single-handedly kill UFC 151. That’s real power!

image desc12. Chael P. Sonnen
MMA gangster

When the gangster from West Linn talks, people listen. His gift for gab helped land him spots on some monster pay-per-views (including three UFC title shots), Fox broadcasts, UFC Tonight, and a slew of media opportunities from outlets who generally shy away from MMA. Whether you love or hate his shtick, no one can argue his polarizing persona doesn’t draw attention. He went from a career journeyman to one of the UFC’s most recognizable faces. Few fighters could rejuvenate their careers the way Sonnen has. What does the “P” stand for in Chael P. Sonnen? Easy. Power.

image desc11. Joe Rogan
UFC commentator

The UFC color commentator is usually more famous than the fighters he’s calling. MMA fans caught their first glimpse of the comedian at UFC 12 in 1997. More than 15 years later, no one is in the ear of MMA fans more than the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt, who’s able to sway public opinion over a judge’s decision, a controversial stoppage, or the state of MMA regulation. His involvement also single-handedly made MMA the unofficial sport of comedians. Rogan cashes giant checks from the UFC, and he never has to get punched in the face. Guess who’s laughing all the way to the bank?

10. Ronda Rousey
UFC Women’s Bantamweight Champion

Want to talk about crossover potential? Rousey, a one-time Olympic judoka, is the link between this beautifully barbaric niche sport and the “casuals” who just don’t know they love it yet. In 2013, as the UFC Women’s Bantamweight Champion, she’s on magazine covers, talk shows, radio, headlines, Twitter, Nick Diaz’s butterfly guard, and every comet that shoots through the sky. How big is her potential? Royce Gracie big. She is inspiring legions of young girls to get involved in this sport. She is creating thousands of Ronda Rouseys just by being Ronda Rousey. Figuratively, she is the advancement of MMA.

image desc9. Jon Jones
UFC Lt. Heavyweight Champ

The Nike deal was a feather in his cap, but it still feels like Jones has barely scratched the surface of his overall potential. With a win in November, “Bones” officially breaks the UFC record for Light Heavyweight Title defenses. Cool? Yeah. But heavyweight is still on his horizon, and a new reign. Then the further outposts to his career: record books,UFC Hall of Fame, better Bentleys, comparisons to Ali…Jordan…Bruce Lee…Nijinsky. Are we getting ahead of ourselves? (Answer: Don’t be too sure.)

8. Georges St-Pierre
UFC Welterweight Champion

How big is Georges St-Pierre? Let’s see. He headlined the biggest live gate in UFC history (Toronto, UFC 129, 55,000 fans). He is forever linked into superfights/stadium shows with Anderson Silva. He just authored the book The Way of the Fight. He landed a villain role in Captain America 2. He has sponsors coming out the wazoo, makes millions of dollars, and he ground Nick Diaz into retirement. Is it any wonder his “dark place” doubles as a cellar for vintage wines and high-dollar champagnes?

7. Keith Kizer
Nevada State Athletic Commission executive director

Kizer directs the most scrutinized commission to ever cross our daily consciousness, acting as the sheriff behind the scale, the drug tests, the judging in Nevada, the referees, and all the acronyms—TRTs, TUEs, and TGIFs. Is it Steve Mazzagatti that Dana White puts on blast with happy regularity, or Kizer? It’s Kizer. It’s always Kizer. The silvery Kizer handles criticism with perfect aplomb because he represents, among other things, the very integrity of the sport. Try that on for power.

6. Marc Ratner
UFC VP of regulatory affairs

Lawrence Epstein
UFC COO

Mike Mersch
UFC senior VP of business and legal affairs/assistant general counsel

What goes on behind the scenes at Zuffa? Ice-T might say, “madness, insanity, living in profanity…” But there are pros doing unthinkable things, too. Ratner, who came from the Nevada State Athletic Commission, has been banging down doors into new markets and educating commissions about the sport. He is Mr. Inroads. Mike Mersch deals in X’s and O’s with sponsors and the 400 fighters on the rosters, and Lawrence Epstein has a hand in everything—from intellectual properties to regulatory work. In unison, they are the very backbone of the UFC.

image desc5. Bjorn Rebney
Bellator chairman/CEO

Bigger stars? More events? Wider audience? Since Rebney busted onto the scene with Bellator in 2008, the promotion has made gains in those endeavors each year. In the last five years, Rebney has taken Bellator from ESPN Deportes to MTV 2 to Spike TV, building standouts like Michael Chandler and Ben Askren, while acquiring star power in King Mo and Rampage Jackson. With 25 shows in 2012 (probably that many in 2013) and the new reality show Fight Master, Rebney has built Bellator into the second biggest promotion in North America. Rebney is like that little yodeler on The Price Is Right—just moving up that mountain.

4. Anderson Silva
UFC Middleweight Champion

When you’re the greatest mixed martial artist to ever grace the cage, there is an ample amount of power that comes along with it. Since joining the UFC in 2006, “The Spider” has been a wrecking ball of face-kicking goodness and has become the sensei master of separating his opposition from their respective consciousness. Along the way, the GOAT has shattered UFC records and solidified his place as the most dominant champion in the promotion’s 20-year history. While Silva is only recognized for his in-cage accomplishments in the United States and is yet to become a sports phenomenon in ‘Merica, the 37-year old is a white-hot superstar in his native Brazil, as he’s locked down lucrative sponsorship deals with Nike and Burger King.

3. Joe Silva & Sean Shelby
UFC matchmakers

image descWhile Dana White and Lorenzo Fertitta may be faces of the UFC when it comes to taking the promotion to the next level, in house, the man wielding the hammer of power is Joe Silva, and his former WEC matchmaking sidekick Sean Shelby. The longtime matchmaker has been a crucial element in the UFC’s rise and is primarily responsible for not only keeping the 400-fighter roster in motion, but also putting together the matchups fans want to reach into their pockets to see. There is an art to what Silva does. Finding the right fighters, who are on the same trajectory and share a similar amount of risk and reward, with a high probability of bringing the ruckus when the cage door closes, is high science where MMA is concerned. Even though the reclusive mad genius doesn’t like to log much camera time, there isn’t a fighter on the planet who doesn’t know Silva’s name.

2. Lorenzo Fertitta
UFC Chairman/CEO

Dana White’s mug is the public calling card for the UFC, but Lorenzo Fertitta is the rock-solid base upon which the company was built. Alongside his brother Frank Fertitta and White, Lorenzo has been mowing down barriers and conquering new markets for nearly two decades, while showing zero signs of slowing down any time soon. Where the Station Casinos owner initially provided the financial backing to White’s dream of a taking the fledgling company to new levels in 2001, Fertitta has drifted into the forefront on occasion over the past few years as he’s led the charge to get MMA legalized in New York. A billion dollar company and a track record of success makes Fertitta a major player in the fight game, and a well-groomed beard only solidifies his standing in the power rankings.

image desc1. Dana White
UFC president

You can’t talk about MMA without Dana White coming to mind, and that is why he’s sitting at the top of the list…again. For more than a decade, the UFC prez has been the driving force behind the Zuffa machine and has taken the UFC from a concept on life support to a global juggernaut. As the promotion’s brash-talking, no-nonsense leader, White calls things as he sees them, and he has zero issues letting the world know what’s on his mind. With more than 2.5 million Twitter followers and MMA media headlines jumping with every sound bite he produces, the UFC’s head honcho has become the face of the sport’s most successful promotion. At the end of the day, White’s cunning entrepreneurialism, bravado, and passion have made MMA the fastest growing sport on the planet. Don’t be surprised if he tries to conquer the galaxy next.

*****

Secret Agent Men

If you’re going to get punched in the face for a living, by damn, you might as well make that high cash—and you’re going to need an agent for that.

Ed Soares
Black House MMA

While UFC president Dana White is not shy about chiding Ed Soares for his “typical craziness” when it comes to managing his top-shelf fighters like UFC Middleweight Champion Anderson Silva, UFC Featherweight Champion Jose Aldo, Lyoto Machida, and the Nogueira brothers, the Black House MMA co-founder is the one who usually gets what his fighters want. New opponents, bigger contracts, more sponsorships? No problem. Is Ed Soares crazy? Crazy like a fox.

Glenn Robinson
Authentic Sports Management

The architect behind the Blackzilian team that boasts Vitor Belfort, Alistair Overeem, Eddie Alvarez, and Rashad Evans, Robinson has turned his South Florida base of operations into a one-stop shop for training, sponsorships, and high-profile fighter exposure.

Malki Kawa
First Round Management

The self-proclaimed “Best Damn Sports Agent Around” represents some of the best damn fighters in the sport today, including UFC champions Benson Henderson and Jon Jones. He’s also highly entertaining on Twitter, where he chirp his critics, discusses his mean sneaker game, and occasionally taunts certain members of the media.

Lex McMahon
Alchemist MMA

The president of Alchemist MMA represents the likes of Rory MacDonald, Stefan Struve, Tim Kennedy, Liz Carmouche, Brendan Schaub, and Mike Ricci. McMahon gets a healthy dose of street cred for being a Marine and lawyer (and for working alongside rap icon MC Hammer). Can’t touch Lex.

Jeff Meyer & Mike Roberts
MMA Inc.

The tag team champions of the world when it comes to fighter representation, the MMA Inc. duo works with an all-star cast of clients, including Anthony Pettis, Chael Sonnen, and Team Alpha Male standouts Urijah Faber, Chad Mendes, Joseph Benavidez, and TJ Dillashaw. We haven’t seen a tag team this well oiled since the Road Dogg and Mr. Ass.

DeWayne Zinkin
Zinkin Entertainment & Sports Management

If you think Zinkin’s roster of fighters is wrestling-centric, it’s no accident—he was a two-time NCAA All-American. In addition to grapplers Cain Velasquez, Daniel Cormier, Ben Askren, Josh Koscheck, and Phil Davis, Zinkin reps Luke Rockhold, Mike Swick, and a bunch more at American Kickboxing Academy in sunny San Jose.

Jason Chambers
Apex Sports Management

As a recognized TV personality, former professional mixed martial artist, and current commentator for ONE FC, Jason Chambers has the contacts and connections to make a startup agency work. With a rapidly growing roster of up-and-coming talent and some crafty vets, Apex Sports Management is out of the blocks running.

*****

Television Titans

It wasn’t that long ago that the only way to watch MMA was to shell out $50 for the pay-per-view or head to Blockbuster to rent tapes of year-old fights. How the times have a-changed. Nowadays, thanks to a bunch of pioneering television execs, you can flip on the tube and catch any number of promotions on the flat screen, from the UFC and Bellator to WSOF and Legacy FC.

Eric Shanks
Fox Sports Media Group co-president/COO

While he doesn’t have the same penchant for tight tees and frequent cursing as his UFC counterpart, Shanks does share Dana White’s vision of the brand as an integral part of Fox’s plans going forward. His shelf full of Emmy Awards and inclusion in the Sports Business Journal “40 Under 40” Hall of Fame is a good indication that the Fox/UFC relationship is in good hands.

Craig Piligian
TUF executive producer/co-creator

Go ahead, complain about The Ultimate Fighter. After 17 seasons domestically and three international spinoffs, the long-running reality TV competition is still going strong, and Piligian and his Pilgrim Films & Television have been their from the beginning. Did Griffin vs. Bonnar 1 change MMA? Or was it Piligian?

Kevin Kay
Spike TV president

As the head honcho at Spike TV, Kay helped showcase the UFC during its meteoric rise over the last decade. Now, he’s aiming to repeat that success with Bellator, whose first season exceeded expectations. With more established names and a reality series in the mix for season two, Kay is ready to prove that lightning can strike twice.

Mark Cuban
AXS TV president/CEO/owner

The Dallas Mavericks owner is helping deliver MMA to a wider audience with AXS TV, which broadcasts a number of regional promotions, including Resurrection Fighting Alliance and Legacy FC, as well as their flagship program Inside MMA.

Jon Miller
NBC Sports programming president

In less than one year, the World Series of Fighting has gone from non-existent fight promotion to NBC Sports Network headliner with three shows under its belt. Miller is a big reason for the success. The man behind the NHL Winter Classic and coverage of the Triple Crown, Formula One, and the Tour de France joined forces with WSOF president Ray Sefo to bring more MMA to your big screen.

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