Promoter's Spotlight: Monte Cox

November 25, 2008

It’s hard enough to operate one successful MMA promotion – let alone six – but Monte Cox, the man under today’s spotlight, has done just that.

Monte Cox has been described as “the gold standard in MMA” by UFC matchmaker Joe Silva not just because of the fact that he’s promoted over 500 MMA shows since 1996, but also because he’s managed nearly 60 fighters over the same period – winning seven UFC championship belts along the way.

Longevity and humility are two of the many words that come to mind in today’s spotlight and I sat down with Monte last week to get his thoughts on a variety of topics and issues relating to promoting and managing in mixed martial arts.

The Background

In 1995, Monte Cox, a former professional boxer and then newspaper editor, got wind that a “local tough guy” was about to participate in a “no holds barred” competition called Ultimate Fighting. He was intrigued by the sport and determined to give it a first-hand look.

Cox paid a visit to this local tough guy, Pat Miletich, whom at the time was training for his first competition – Battle of the Masters. Impressed with what he saw, Cox then agreed to accompany Miletich up to Chicago, Illinois to watch his fight.

Soon thereafter, Cox and Miletich returned home to Iowa with the idea to start their own promotion – one that would come to symbolize the longevity and success of both Cox and Miletich in the MMA industry, Extreme Challenge.

The relationship between the two would also serve as the catalyst for Cox to become one the sport’s best and most renowned fighter managers.

The Evolution of Cox’s MMA Business

Since the debut of Extreme Challenge in 1996, Cox has promoted over 500 shows and in 16 different states. If you’ve watched any live MMA in the Mid-West, chances are good that Cox promoted the show as his name is affiliated with many more organizations than just his flagship Extreme Challenge brand – XFO, ICE, Rock Town Showdown, Rumble on the River, and Adrenaline MMA…those are his too.

Even more impressive, however, is the fact that Cox has managed to promote a show at just about every type of venue and level of MMA possible. His events range from low-level MMA shows held at local clubs to high-level, million dollar revenue events at major sports arenas.

However, Cox is quick to point out that his aspirations are not to build any of his promotions into a direct competitor with the UFC, at the sport’s highest level.

“We have never tried to be the big show.” Cox said. “I want to be the show that people go to, to get exposure, to get attention, and then move on to the bigger shows – I don’t mind being the AA or the AAA.”

And there is a certain strategic value to promoting events at the A, AA, and AAA levels of the sport; Cox has essentially built himself a “feeder system” whereby fighters can work their way up from the amateur ranks, to the pros, and then in some cases all the way to the UFC. Not only has this feeder system allowed Cox to supply his organizations with fights, it’s also given him a way to develop fighters as a manager.

“A big difference between me and most of the managers out there is, I’m in [MMA] from the ground floor.” Cox said. “Rich Franklin, he started fighting amateur fights for me and then moved into the pros. I’ve picked every opponent [Franklin] has ever had.”

While the feeder system has played a large role in his success over the past 13 years in the industry, Cox credits his former mentor – an old boxing promoter out of Indianapolis, Fred Burns – with passing on perhaps the most vital approach to promoting and managing fighters: staying humble and trustworthy.

“Everyone liked Fred…that’s the guy that taught me how to do shows.” Cox said. “So, when I started, I said that I’m going to prove that you don’t have to be an asshole to be a promoter.”

“I just think that you treat people like you want to be treated” he added. “People know that when they deal with us, they’re going to be treated fairly.”

Cox’s reputation as a fair, level-headed businessman seems to be paying dividends as he is often approached by different parties looking to start new MMA promotions.

In 2007, the Russian M1 Management Group representing Fedor Emelianenko commissioned Cox to help them build and promote a new MMA organization in North America called M1 Global. While the two parties could never quite get on the same page, Cox regrets nothing as he was able to gain a host of new networking contacts that may allow him to expand his business in the future.

“I made a lot of connections at the CEO level“ Cox said. “That enabled me to cut through a lot of red tape on a bunch of levels. When I want something now, I call the CEO of the company – that guy would have never taken my call before.”

Cox was also fairly complimentary of the Russian management group that has helmed Fedor’s career.
“We didn’t see eye to eye on a lot of things, but I don’t think anybody can say too many negatives about [Fedor’s] management – [Fedor] makes $2.5 million a fight” Cox said. “They’re very shrewd and they’ve done great deals for Fedor – this is a guy that’s probably made over $20 million in his career.”

After M1 Global was dissolved, Cox was approached by another syndicate looking to start a promotion – this time called Adrenaline MMA. In Adrenaline, Cox is given full control of a substantial budget, which allows him to “put together a show that [he] could never afford to do on [his] own.”

The promotion debuted in June with a live HDNet broadcast in front of a near-capacity crowd in Chicago and is now looking to up the ante with its second event on December 11th – ironically, an event that will headlined by Pat Miletich and also feature Ben Rothwell.

Adrenaline made waves through the MMA community last March when Cox signed both Rothwell and Tim Sylvia to multi-fight, six figure contracts. This led many, including myself, to question whether the current business model and economics of Adrenaline could support such large salaries. Cox argues that you need ticket sellers to be successful.

“You have to be smart in what you’re doing, but you have to look at who your ticket sellers are.” Cox said. “Pat Miletich is the greatest ticket seller that I’ve ever run into – the first show we did together he, himself, sold over 4000 tickets.”

Although Sylvia and Rothwell are both fighter clients on Cox’s management side, he also signed them along with Miletich as a means to leverage brand recognition. He’s aiming to compete at that next level just below the UFC along with the likes of Strikeforce , WEC, Affliction, and maybe the MFC.

Interestingly enough, the difference – according to Cox – between shows like Adrenaline and the Maximum Fighting Championship (an organization we featured in our first Promoter Spotlight) is the calibre of fighters used at every event.

“It depends on [the criteria you use to assess levels]: do you go by attendance, or do you go by profitability, or by the level of cards?” Cox said. “[MFC] is not going to call me up and be able to afford Ben Rothwell or Pat Miletich. The last Adrenaline show that we did in Chicago, we spent $600,000 and that’s at a different level than [MFC].”

The Trials and Tribulations of a Fighter Manager

Monte Cox represents another one of those businessmen that “gets it” when it comes to diversifying risk. Being a promoter and a manager has not only created synergies between both of his businesses, but the dual role has also acted as a career hedge of sorts.

“I’ve had years where the shows just weren’t doing well, but the management part was kicking ass” Cox said, and “I’ve had times where the shows just can’t lose, but I can’t get guys fights. So, you just don’t put your eggs all in one basket.”

Under the guidance of Cox, seven different fighters have reached the pinnacle of MMA – a UFC championship title – and so he understands the value of a manager in the fight game.

“I think that anyone that’s making six figures or close to six figures and is still negotiating and doing everything for themselves…that’s silly.” Cox said. “You take a regular guy that’s making $100,000 on his own; if he comes with me I’ll make him $150,000, I’ll take $30,000 of it, and he’s still ahead. Then he gets my support, my expertise, and my knowledge on top of it.”

With the sport’s rapid growth continuing through otherwise tumultuous economic times, the role of a fighter manager is gaining importance. Monte had some great advice for fighters currently searching for the right manager.

“If a guy wants to manage you, ask the guy ‘give me an example of somebody who’s in the same position I’m in right now and how you took them to a successful level.’” Cox said, and “if they haven’t done that then you’re at your own risk.”

The issue of fighter poaching is something of a bother for Cox who has put years of work and guidance into a fighter, only to see him sold on the possibilities of “greener pastures” somewhere else. The offending agent and the fighter are equal parts to blame, but Cox continues to follow his own moral compass.

“I’ve never gone to the UFC to find talent – I’ve found it years before” Cox said. “I find the guys that don’t have management, need guidance, and then take it from there.”

Payout Opinion

They say the true test of any businessman is the ability to replicate success – you’ve got to prove that your first success was not a fluke. In the case of Monte Cox, I think it’s safe to say that he’s proven his competence as both a promoter and a manager several times over.

He’s also an incredibly humble individual and that’s probably because his success is contingent upon his humility. His business depends upon his reputation as a nice, easy-going, and fair businessman.

This level-headed business approach of Monte Cox’s is something that I plan to take away from this interview and keep with me as I move up the MMA industry ladder.

Additionally, the most interesting part of the interview for those aspiring to follow in Monte’s footsteps probably came when I asked him for the top three challenges he faces as a promoter and as a manager.

As a promoter:

  1. Scouting and developing talent.
  2. Searching for consistency on a show-to-show basis.
  3. Finding new markets.

As a manager:

  1. The difficulties associated with watching a fighter fall from stardom.
  2. Watching out for the poachers.
  3. Finding loyal fighters.

You can check out the entire interview here.

Stay tuned for the next Promoter’s Spotlight coming soon!

Adrenaline stumbles out of the gate

June 15, 2008

When launching Adrenaline MMA, Monte Cox spoke of his plan to model the promotion on the Bay Area power Strikeforce. One of the key components of success mentioned by Monte was a strong showing at the gate, but judging by the early numbers the promotion seems to still have a ways to go to measure up to Scott Coker’s creation from a business perspective.

MMAJunkie’s Steve Sievert reports attendance of around 2,000 while Sherdog is a little more generous with an estimate of 2,500. Either number represents a weak gate for such a large metro area. Cox commented to MMAJunkie:

“I talked to other promoters in music and other things, and everything seems to be down right now,” he said. “Last time I did a show here, we had people driving 100 to a 150 miles. We didn’t get that tonight. It’s hard. A 150 now is costing you 70 bucks, and I think people factor that in. Plus, the Quad Cities, where we normally draw really well from, is flooded. We just didn’t have a lot of things go our way.”

With no big stars on the card the payroll was likely on the low side, but with that level of attendance I doubt the card was profitable. While the show had several local fighters on the card, the show lacked a mainstream name or charismatic fighter to break through to a larger audience. Strikeforce has been lucky in that respect in that they have two charismatic guys in Cung Le and Frank Shamrock that both have strong local ties from which to draw strong crowds. Next week’s card being head lined by Gilbert Melendez should be an interesting test of how well Strikeforce can draw without either of their big two on the card.

The September card being put on by Adrenaline will face much more pressure at the gate. On that card will be Adrenaline’s two big ticket signings, Tim Sylvia and Ben Rothwell. Rothwell is set to make $200,000 for his Adrenaline fights and one has to believe that Sylvia is making somewhere slightly north of that, so right there you are looking at a half a million on payroll. If you are going to bring in half way decent names to face these two, you are looking at probably another 100 grand and then you have to fill out the undercard as well. Adrenaline will have to have a close to capacity crowd to break even with those kind of salaries being thrown around.

Monte Cox: I Want To Be Strikeforce

May 20, 2008

Monte Cox recently sat down with Bob Carson and discussed at length Adrenaline MMA and his business plan for the promotion. His main goals were crystallized in this quote:

I want to be Strikeforce. That is a show I can aspire to be. I’d like to be able to have one big fight like a Cung Le and Shamrock and a solid undercard. I want a little bit from TV and a good gate to make it.

Monte is nothing if not a good business man and he sees the folly in a direct challenge of the UFC’s supremacy. While the UFC is facing opposition on a national level from the likes of EliteXC, there are opportunities at the super-regional level for other promotions to become profitable niche players. Strikeforce in Northern California, Matt Lindland’s Sportfight promotion in the Northwest, and Monte Cox’s Adrenaline with his Midwest (Chicago and Quad-Cities)connections are prime examples as well as the IFL increasingly becoming an East Coast, and Northeastern in particular, promotion.

The interview also gave some insight into the salary structure of Adrenaline MMA and, indirectly, Affliction. Monte spoke at length about Ben Rothwell’s contracts with the IFL, Adrenaline and Affliction. Rothwell received $30,000 for his last few fights in the IFL. Monte then signed him to an Adrenaline contract at $200,000 per fight. Affliction acquired Ben’s services and, though he didn’t give a figure, he stated Ben was doing even better with Affliction, (presumably in the $250,000 to $300,000 range.)