A few years ago, a Dallas businessman named Buckeye Epstein was invited to an underground fight in an abandoned discotheque in Southern California. He had no idea what he was in for.
"There were these Charles Atlas-sized guys at the door, 50 bucks to get in, cash only and inside it was packed, wall to wall, everyone drinking out of beer bottles," Epstein recalls, his eyes lighting up at the memory. "The atmosphere was just electric. I said, 'This is just unbelievable. If this can turn the corner and become more of a sport, it will really take off.'"
When Epstein got back to Dallas, he began talking to friends about setting up something similar. Epstein worked in sports marketing—at the time he was trying to get an indoor rugby league off the ground—and he saw potential in this underground combat sport. Today that sport is most commonly known as ultimate fighting, although devoted fans know it as mixed martial arts. Epstein is one of a handful of businessmen across the country trying to make money off of it.
In a few weeks, his sports marketing company, Sun Sports & Entertainment, will host Art of War III, an MMA fight card that will feature some of the biggest names in the sport. Epstein has no idea how many people will show up at American Airlines Center to watch the fights on September 1 or how many will tune in on pay-per-view from around the globe, but he's dreaming big.
He has reason to be optimistic. Long regarded as a fringe sport, MMA events now routinely draw bigger pay-per-view numbers than WWE and boxing. A reality show on the cable network Spike TV based on up-and-coming MMA stars has attracted more viewers at times than the NBA playoffs.
For now, Epstein is just a small player. The undisputed king of the MMA universe is the UFC, or the Ultimate Fighting Championship, an organization that controls the most popular fighters and hosts the biggest pay-per-view events. Its stars have become household names. Chuck Liddell, who recently lost his UFC heavyweight championship, is featured in this month's GQ. Tito Ortiz, another UFC luminary, famously dated the porn star Jenna Jameson.
But Epstein thinks the MMA pie is big enough for more than one player, and he is convinced that, over time, his Art of War can become just as popular as the UFC.
"I look at how a small company in Dallas, Texas, can compete with a huge company that's funded with mega-million dollars," he says. "How do I make our company's brand known and get people to come watch us and accept us as a viable alternative to UFC? That is my buzz."
Epstein seems a natural fit for the MMA world. Built like a wrestler—neck shaped like a tomato can, forearms like Popeye's—he is the son of a Notre Dame football player and grew up near Chicago in steel mill country, where the first thing kids did off the school bus was beat each other up.
"That's what you did," he says with a chuckle. "I guess because that's what your dad wanted you to do." (His football-fanatic father named him Buckeye after the Ohio State University mascot. "If I had been born in South Bend I would have been named Irish," he says. "But I was born in Columbus.")
Had MMA been around when he was in his 20s, Epstein says, he might have given it a shot. As it was, he found his niche in sports marketing—first with Miller Beer hyping beach volleyball and motor sports, and then a partnership with Major League Baseball, which brought him to Dallas.
Of all the sports he's been around, he thinks there's something special about MMA. He brushes aside concerns that it is too violent. In MMA, fighters caught in a choke hold can "tap out" with no shame. "In boxing," he says, "a guy will stand there for 10 rounds taking shots to the head. And he's got to stay up because a couple losses on your record as a boxer, and you're done. In MMA, there are guys with just as many losses as wins, and they're fighting all the time."
The reason MMA has caught on, he says, is that it speaks to a generation disaffected with pampered athletes. He also thinks it's an outlet.
"This generation wants something real," he says of the 18-to-34 male demographic. "They've been coddled and controlled, and this speaks to them."
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Taking on the UFC will be an uphill slog: The UFC signs its fighters to contracts that can last for years, meaning the only way Epstein can get any of the sport's biggest names is if they are released from UFC contracts. And without big names, Epstein has no event.
For the upcoming Art of War III, he's signed on Jeff Monson, who recently fought for the UFC heavyweight title, as his headliner. He'll be facing off against Pedro Rizzo, another well-known MMA fighter.
If all goes according to plan, 14,000 or more will turn out for the Labor Day fight card. But Epstein hopes that's just the beginning. In the next two months, he'll be putting on MMA fight cards in places such as Wichita Falls and El Paso through another one of his ventures called Underground Cage Fighting, a sort of B-league to his A-league Art of War franchise. Eventually, he believes Art of War could sell out arenas.
"It's a young sport, and as a company we're just in the beginning, sort of navigating the strategic waters. It will take some time to build up the brand, but we're in this for the long haul," he says. "This is a sport that's here to stay, and we're going to be part of it."