Art Davie on the Origins of XARM

February 17, 2009

Ask the average MMA fan who invented the Ultimate Fighting Championship and they’ll probably say, “Dana White.”  Hard core fans might say, “Rorion Gracie.”  Wrong on both counts.  The man who invented the sport, wrote the business plan and coined the phrase “Ultimate Fighting Championship” back in 1992 was a Brooklyn-born ad man named Art Davie.  Three years later, in a move that will definitely not be remembered for its good timing, he sold his interest in the UFC.  After a successful stint at Mandalay Bay Entertainment and several attempts to re-enter the MMA fray, Davie is back with his latest big idea, XARM (www.xarm.com), which combines MMA with…you guessed it, arm wrestling.

XARM was officially launched last June, and its first heavyweight champion, Homer Moore, was crowned on January 14.  There are five weight classes, from light heavyweight to superheavyweight.  Each contest features three one-minute rounds, with fighters awarded a $100 “pin bonus” every time they pin their opponent’s wrist, and tournament champions awarded $10,000.  With a five camera production set up, including a ref cam, words don’t do XARM justice – it must be seen to be believed.

But whatever possessed Davie to come up with the idea in the first place?  And how did he get from idea to execution?

“I was approached by Piranha entertainment in Seattle in 2008,” he said.  Piranha, a TV production company whose clients include Microsoft and Starbucks, knew Davie from his Mandalay Bay days.  “They said that if I had a new idea for a sport they would back me.”

After leaving the UFC, Davie had unsuccessfully pitched proposals for new fight organizations to executives like Showtime’s Jay Larkin.  “I realized then,” Davie said, “that rather than trying to compete with UFC, which I thought would take $100 million, I should go back to my greatest strength, which is creativity.”

Davie was a fan of the arm wrestling competitions that used to air on ABC’s Wide World of Sports.  In fact, he discovered Gary Goodridge on that very telecast and signed him just prior to UFC 8.

“I got to thinking,” he said, “what if you weren’t happy with the way things were going in an arm wrestling match?  What if you could just reach across the table and punch the other guy in the face?”

Davie thought arm wrestling could be repositioned in a way that would appeal to the 18-34 male demographic.  “I wanted to capture the excitement of MMA,” Davie said,  “while minimizing the ground game, which the general public has a hard time understanding.” He also designed the production for the digital age – lots of close ups, the competitors literally joined together, so the entire event could be viewed on something as small a PDA.

He began by setting up an “idea lab” at the American Sports University in San Bernadino, CA, bringing in a dozen fighters for eight hours a day.  Supported by Promoter Ted Williams of Gladiator College, fighters experimented with different rules and techniques, including elbow smacks, fist chokes and neck cranks.  “The first week,” Davie said, “we had two knockouts from kicks and one dislocated shoulder.”

He then turned to recruiting additional fighters for two camps in August and September. Williams reached out to various trainers, reviewed fight records, watched fight DVDs and ultimately brought in athletes like Goodridge and world arm wrestling champ Rick Vardell for two sessions in August and September.   “We put them on camera 24/7 and had them in the gym for 9 hours a day.”

The experience proved too much for Goodridge, who dropped out.  “Some of these guys said it was tougher than MMA,” Davie said.  “One of them said ‘MMA is a road race, XARM is a drag race.”

He’s confident that the UFC’s success will help him get sanctioned within two years.  “They paved the way for us,” he said.  To help improve their chances, XARM has adopted a ten point must system, among other rules, to win the favor of regulators.  He acknowledges that a TV deal isn’t likely until 2010.  In the meantime, The William Morris Agency is shopping his idea to potential investors and Davie is aiming to attract fighters and fans through 6-8 live events in 2009 and a strong internet presence.  Until XARM is sanctioned, all events will take place at Indian casinos in states including California, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona.

So far, Davie says the response of the casinos has been very positive.  “If a promoter can create a viable opportunity for a casino to make money, there are plenty of opportunities and athletes.” His plan is to piggyback on events like Gladiator Challenge and create a “weekend of entertainment,” offering casinos a way to capture visitors for several days rather than a single event.  Among the promotions coming soon to an Indian reservation near you:  The Girls of XARM.

Will fans flock to XARM?  If the internet buzz is any indication, it’s going to be a tough slog.  But its founder has won over the haters before and is as fired up and determined as ever.  Bet on the Brooklyn boy to win.

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