(Photo courtesy CombatLifestyle.com)
Ken Pavia is a firm believer of the old adage, “Everything happens for a reason.”
When he inadvertently became an MMA agent six years ago, it was a result of the sport finding him and not the other way around, but looking back he says he’s thankful that it did.
Working as a traditional sports agent since graduating from the University of Miami School of Law and opening his first agency, Pavia says that he always had an eye for talent and would often put his skill to use outside of his practice, which caught the attention of an early MMA media pioneer.
“I had a men’s league softball team in Huntington Beach. I was acting as a pseudo-General Manager for the team and I had pretty much the best players from every team who competed on our team. There were probably 500 teams in the leagues and our team always made it to the ‘A’ league championships every year. The umpire for the league came to me and asked me how it was that I came to have all of the best players from all of the teams on my team and I told him I was a mainstream sports agent,” Pavia recalls. “He was told me, ‘I have a website that covers MMA.’ By coincidence, I was a fan and I bought UFC 1 and we chatted a bit about the sport and he told me to check out his website. That was [Sherdog.com founder] Jeff Sherwood. We struck up a friendship and have been great friends ever since. That was probably 10 years ago.”
In spite of his blossoming friendship with Sherwood, Pavia still wasn’t really thinking about taking on any fighters as clients as he had his hands full with the roster of hockey, baseball, basketball and football players he was representing as well as a second business he was also managing at the time.
As fate would have it, the sport would land on his doorstep once again a few years later, but this time he couldn’t ignore the knock of opportunity.
“About six years ago I was looking over a sales floor of a company I owned and Ricco Rodriguez walked into my office, and the big silverback that he is, he grabbed me by the throat and the leg and pinned me to the ceiling in front of my sales team and said, ‘You’re going to pay the people you owe,’ really aggressively. It was a practical joke. We had a mutual friend who had sent him into the office who came in a few minutes later laughing. I happened to know who Ricco was, which actually made me more nervous. We went to lunch and chatted about the business of MMA. Ricco told me about how the promoters were making money in the sport and the fighters weren’t and he said that they really needed some agents from traditional sports to cross over to bridge the gap and help fighters.”
Pavia says the problem wasn’t necessarily that the promoters were to blame; the problem was that most of the representatives fighters had were inexperienced.
“At the time they had guys representing them who changed tires for a living or who were their friends from the gym, or the guy they knew who worked at a bank who had some business acumen, but they didn’t really have a mainstream agent who had crossed over. Of course Ricco added the disclaimer, ‘Unfortunately, I can’t afford to pay you what you’re probably worth, but I can confer other benefits to you (other things sounds illegal).’ Ricco is a hustler and we struck a deal and he became my first client in MMA. I’m still with him 100%.”
A personality trait that Pavia has been able to identify in himself that he says was a double-edged sword before he learned to balance it was that he couldn’t separate between his personal and professional relationships he had with the fighters he represented. Three of his athletes, Rodriguez, "Razor" Rob McCullough and Tiki Ghosen, he counts as being three of his closest friends, but falling outs he had with the former two forced him to reexamine the agent-fighter dynamic more closely. After some time away to reflect on the situation, both fighters came back to Pavia after realizing they had a good thing going with the Rochester, New York native guiding their respective careers and are both experiencing resurgences in their respective careers under his tutelage.
In Rodriguez’s case, Pavia says the short split was a result of tough love he showed the fighter a few years back.
“When I met Ricco and I booked him for his first fight with us, he was a little heavy and he weighed 255. He had won the UFC championship at 238. Within a few years he had ballooned up to 355. Ricco and I were really, really close friends. I saw him every single day, we went on the road together, I talked to him and ate dinner with him nearly every single night and I told him I wasn’t going to book him any more. He said, ‘I have to fight. I need to pay my bills. You have to book me. You’re my friend.’ I told him, ‘I’m not booking you because I’m your friend and I’m not going with you to this Rage in the Cage fight if you take it, because I’m your friend.’ Against my insistence, he took the fight and he lost. He weighed 355 pounds for that fight and I think he had a realization,” Pavia says. “Fortunately for everyone – Ricco included – he turned his life around. He’s lost over 100 pounds now and when he got back down below 300 pounds, he came to me and he said, ‘How about now?’ We kissed and made up and I’m proud of him. It was a tough decision I had to make and I knew it would have an impact on our friendship. I’ve got a lot of love for Ricco. He’s like a brother to me and it was very difficult, but sometimes we have to do things for the betterment of the organization and client that you don’t want to do, but I don’t shy away from making difficult decisions. This isn’t just fun and games. It’s a business and if you aren’t going to treat your career as seriously as we do, we aren’t going to waste everyone’s time going to bat for you.”
That realization took some time to come to, but Pavia says when it did, he was able to not only do his job more effectively, he was also better able to ensure that his clients could do theirs better as well.
“I’m 44. When I was an agent who was 23, I made a lot of mistakes. I socialized and I maybe got caught up being in the limelight that the athletes were caught up in. It took me years to realize that our worlds are distinctly different,” he admits. “It’s not about the parties; it’s about making sure my guys don’t have problems at the parties. It’s not about having a good time; it’s about making sure that everybody keeps things in perspective. I see the party in the larger sense, not just the one they’re at that night.”
MMAagents boast some impressive stats.
Its 60 fighters fought 110 times in 33 organizations in eight countries in 2009, and are on track to well exceed those numbers in 2010. The sponsorship branch of the company, which includes several satellite offices around the globe, secured over $700, 000 in sponsorship for its athletes each of the last two years and procured over $800,000 in sponsorship for promotions already this year.
To say the latest incarnation of the agency is a far cry from its humble beginnings would be a major understatement
“Initially it started out with me in my home office, and then it grew to me and an assistant. Six years later I now have three licensed attorneys with almost 25 years of experience between them and we have four other guys on our team who do so much from the bottom right on up to the top. Our latest hire was Mike Lynch who was the former C.O.O. of [The World Alliance of Mixed Martial Arts],” Pavia explains. “He’s an attorney who has been doing class-action litigation for 15 years. He relocated from Florida to California to join MMAagents. Besides getting our guys fights and securing sponsorship for them, we’ve also begun a branch of the business that secures sponsorships for promotions and their events.”
His detractors will likely try to connect the dots between the recent lawsuit Zuffa named Pavia in as the reason why MMAagents employs a team of lawyers, but he says that attorneys make better agents because of their analytical way of thinking and because they understand the terms of deals that aren’t in the best interest of their clients. He points to the recent issue Roy Nelson is going through with a contract dispute between Roy Jones’ Square Ring Promotions and the UFC as an example of a problem MMAagents fighters will never incur.
“I think part of the reason why I was the go-to guy for the UFC for a long time is I pulled off some ‘Mission Impossibles’ over the years that people couldn’t get done. Case in point, their own visa guy told us that there was absolutely no way we could get a visa done in three weeks for a fight we were offered. He had been doing it for 20 years and said there was no way,” he recalls. “We really wanted the fight, so I got it done in 10 days. I staked my reputation on it. There was also a co-main event one of my guys was supposed to fight in, but the commission said that the fighter couldn’t be approved because of inconclusive results from an eye test that was done in another state, so a week before the fight we had him on a flight – on my own dime – to fly to the state in question to meet with an eye specialist. The specialist picked him up at the airport, brought him to the office, examined him, cleared him and had him back on the plane so his camp wasn’t interrupted. Had that not happened, the co-main event would have been scrapped. When I tell someone I’m going to get something done, it’s a credit to my team, but we get it done.”
The UFC isn’t the only promotion Pavia has helped out over the years.
His agency has also established itself as one of the most reliable and valuable resources that has contributed in part to the growth of younger ever-growing promotions like Bellator and Strikeforce for whom several of his fighters fight.
As far as the legal battle he is going through with Zuffa, Pavia is confident that the suit, which was spurred on by an ex-employee who he says fabricated much of the story as revenge for being let go by the company, will be resolved and his name will be cleared. He says he is dealing daily with the irreparable damage to his reputation that the allegations against him has done, including clients that have severed ties as a result, but he says that one of his longtime and favorite clients has helped him see the light at the end of the tunnel.
“Phil Baroni always puts things into perspective and I don’t think people give him enough credit for how smart he is. He told me that there are two types of people in the world, there are fighters and there are those who roll over and let people walk all over them. He said, ‘You’re a fighter and that’s why you’re my agent.’ Based on my personality, I draw the ire of people and based on my standing in the sport – because I have a lot of guys in the UFC – I have a target on my back from the competition,” Pavia explains. “I don’t fly under the radar; that’s not my style. As a result I think that I’ve taken a lot of shots.”
Although he feels that the outcome of the lawsuit, if it ever actually makes it to trial, will resolve in his favor, Pavia understands the UFC’s point of view on being protective of their brand and says that lines of communication with the promotion remain open. He says that contrary to popular belief, the situation has not affected any of his clients under contract with Zuffa and that they are in contact with his office on an almost daily basis. He remains tight-lipped on the details of the lawsuit as he has from day one, but what Pavia would say is that what actually went down and what is being alleged happened are distinctly disparate.
His goals for the future remain the same as they always have, Pavia says: That MMAagents keeps evolving and adding new talent while helping its clients do what fighters five years ago couldn’t, which is make a decent living in the sport while training and fighting full-time.
“Back then guys had to work another job or sometimes two jobs to supplement their meager incomes they earned as fighters. We make sure our guys are taken care of and I think we’ll see in the next few years as MMA continues to gain popularity, fighters will start to make the kind of money they should,” Pavia says. “The sport is still fairly young. If you look at is like football, we’re still in the leather helmet days, but we’ll get there.”
An admitted workaholic, Pavia says that he wouldn’t trade his role as a mapmaker of sorts of the career paths of many of today’s best mixed martial artists for anything. Like a proud parent, his love of the sport and the athletes he represents is evident when you ask him if he has considered getting out of the often stressful, breakneck speed career.
“People ask me what I would do if someone cut me a retirement check and bought me out of the business. The best answer is I would do exactly what I am doing now. I have passion for what I do. It is my job, career, obsession, and when I am not working it is my hobby. That is why I get up every two to three hours every night to check my phone and return texts, much to the chagrin of my fiancée,” he says. “It’s one thing to be a fan of a fighter and anxiously await the event, then sit on the edge of your seat during the fight. It’s a whole different level to have a personal and professional relationship with that athlete. It personalizes it when you share in their dreams, know their families, and helped in their preparation. On fight night I get more nervous than they do. I share their triumphs to a degree and commiserate in their losses. Everyone in my offices chases the highs of wins and we dread the lows that come with losses. I have been moved to tears by both extremes.”