In anticipation of this weekend's XFC 7: School of Hard Knox, I would like to share with all of you another interview in my five-part series - this one with XFC President, John Prisco.
John had a lot of great things to say about the XFC, its fighters and new line of gyms, what it is like to be in the same business as the UFC and the XFC's continued plans for expansion.
Check after the jump for the full interview.
FightTicker: John, thanks for agreeing to answer some questions – first, why don’t you tell me a little bit about yourself?
Prisco: Thanks so much for offering me this opportunity, Brian. I guess I’m a lot like most of your readers: I firmly believe MMA is the greatest sport on the planet and its best days are yet to come, and I’m an unapologetic fan of the sport. It’s really a dream come true for me to play a small part in helping to grow MMA across the United States, and I’ve built the XFC around one central premise – that there’s more undiscovered talent in MMA than established talent.
Modern MMA is only about 18 years old, and each year exponentially more aspiring fighters join the sport by training in an MMA gym, entering amateur tournaments, or competing on the pro level. And on top of it, as MMA becomes more readily accepted by mainstream America, an increasing number of top-flight athletes – I’m talking NCAA champions, Olympic medal contenders and Division I-A standouts – are now striving for MMA greatness. So we all know who the most famous fighters in the world are… but I’m not so sure we still know who the best fighters in the world are.
XFC firmly believes that there are dozens of fighters – maybe more – toiling away in anonymity in MMA gyms and low-end fight cards worldwide that could dominate the most celebrated champions of today. Maybe not right now – maybe they’d need a year or two of intense training, combined with the support of a promotion like the XFC that’s willing to invest its resources in their long-term development – but the undiscovered talent is definitely out there, Brian. And we’re gonna find it.
As for my personal background, I grew up primarily in the New York City area and was involved in multiple business ventures, including event entertainment, nightclub management, real estate, and professional boxing. I’ve been fortunate over my career to have made a pretty good living, and right now I’ve placed all my life’s savings into the XFC. That’s how much faith I have in our business vision.
I’m also married to a wonderful woman named Lisa, and she’s been my wife for over 18 years now. And we have two young children that I absolutely adore.
FT: How does it feel to be the promotion putting on the first regulated pro MMA show in Tennessee?
Prisco: It’s a tremendous honor because you’re introducing MMA to a brand new audience. We’re basically serving as goodwill ambassadors on behalf of MMA, and it’s a responsibility that the XFC takes extremely seriously. Tennessee is a big area, Brian. There’s over six million people in Tennessee – which means that this one state has a larger population than over 120 separate countries around the planet! If we do our job well, I really believe we can transform Tennessee into diehard MMA country for years to come.
FT: Your shows in Florida have been met with great success – averaging over 10,000 fans per show. What kind of numbers are expecting and hoping for in Tennessee?
Prisco: Honestly, I don’t know. We have a great deal of experience promoting in Florida, and we’ve reached the point where we can pretty accurately predict our final attendance numbers in the Tampa market based on pre-event ticket sales, media interviews and other factors. But Knoxville is a brand new market – and all markets have their own personalities. For example, live events in Tampa have a large number of attendees who purchase tickets day-of. The greater Tampa Bay region has a very large population – larger than Miami – and Tampa is used to hosting major sporting events all year long. Over just the past four-or-so months, Tampa has hosted the Super Bowl, the World Series, the ALCS, UFC, XFC, and countless headlining musicians and entertainers. Plus, you’re always competing with the weather and the beaches.
I’d expect there to be less day-of ticket sales in Knoxville than Tampa. The overall population is much smaller, but you also have less competition for our target audience’s entertainment dollars. So we’ll just have to see how everything plays out.
But one thing that I want to make very clear is that we want to do this right. XFC is returning to the 21 thousand-capacity Thompson Boling Arena in Knoxville, Tennessee on April 25 for our first-ever fight card that will be broadcast live nationwide on our new HDNet television deal. If we deliver the kind of product on February 20 that has made XFC the fastest-rising promotion in the sport, then our April 25 show will have fans literally hanging from the rafters. We’re not interested in a one-off event, or selling tickets by signing a past-his-prime fighter whose name recognition now outweighs his in-cage abilities, and boring the audience. We’re going to grow XFC’s presence in Knoxville the same way we’ve grown our company, and that’s by consistently delivering exceptional value and incredible action for our audience. Our plan from day one was to generate brand loyalty and cultivate a dedicated fan base that doesn’t just want to see XFC once – but repeatedly.
In my opinion, those big numbers that we’ve drawn in Tampa only tell half the story. See, with enough money, any promoter could draw a huge crowd once – but we’ve drawn some of the biggest numbers in North America not just once, not just twice, but five different times in that one single market. And fans aren’t stupid. If you don’t have a good product, they’re not going to come back. The secret to the XFC’s success is that we happen to have a damn good product, Brian.
FT: Talk to me about the XFC line of gyms. I know you started with a gym in Tampa and you’re looking to expand nation-wide. What gave you the idea for a line of XFC-branded gyms? So far, has the concept worked out like you thought it would?
Prisco: Our first gym opened in Tampa, and earlier in the month we opened our second gym in Brandon, Florida. We currently have gyms opening in Tennessee, Kentucky, and other areas throughout the Southeast and beyond.
The idea behind it is this: MMA is exploding in popularity nationwide, and you have an increasing number of people – old and young, men and women – who want to learn the art of MMA combat and emulate the stars they see on TV. And XFC is a company with proven experience and undeniable credibility in developing young talent in this sport, so why in the world would you sign with Brand X when an XFC gym is right around the corner? When we attach the XFC brand to a gym, you’ll know that you’re receiving expert tutelage at state-of-the-art training facilities. We’re very protective of our name, and will only offer customers the best MMA training available. For example, our Florida gyms are under the direct tutelage of Mike Yanez, a Popovitch BJJ black belt whose fighters have won 80% of their pro and amateur fights. That’s a standard of excellence few others can match, Brian.
When I was a kid, the trendy thing was learning judo or taekwondo at the neighborhood karate dojos. Movies like The Karate Kid had all kinds of folks interested in learning the crane kick! But these one-discipline martial arts dojos are completely antiquated now, Brian. MMA has proven them ineffective in fully preparing someone for one-on-one combat. So not only does MMA provide superior training, but it also offers a better cardiovascular workout, which is critical for lots of people who also want to lose weight and be in better overall conditioning.
Mark my words, Brian: Within 10 years, at least 90% of these karate dojos will be extinct. They’ll be replaced by MMA-themed gyms. And the XFC will be ideally positioned to take a leadership role in this emerging industry. If anyone is interested in opening an XFC gym franchise, please call our office at 813.374.0237, or e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
‘Course, there’s also one other benefit: If we do this right, XFC will have an exclusive pipeline of new fighters from these gyms that we’ll be able to promote on our shows. If our game plan is predicated on finding the superstars of tomorrow, what better way than through our own gym network?
FT: You once said that the goal of the XFC was never to compete with the UFC. You’re expanding into multi-state promotion, you’ve signed a deal with HDNet and you’re working on international distribution of your television programming, and you’ve hosted women’s mma fights (something the UFC has not done), and you’re hosting two shows in Tennessee, approximately six weeks before a UFC show and then about three weeks after that same UFC show. Is competing with the UFC still not a goal of the XFC?
Prisco: In a way, I suppose you’re always competing with everyone else to deliver the best possible product, so in that sense, the XFC is competing with the UFC. But it’s not an adversarial competition because we’re both pursuing radically different business models.
The UFC is one of the greatest sports business stories of all-time, and without any doubt whatsoever, they’ve done more good for MMA than anyone else. They’ve created an opportunity for the XFC and every other promotion out there, and all the industry insiders who grouse about Dana White’s sharp elbows should remember that. If the UFC hadn’t succeeded, none of us would even have a chance to make a living in MMA, and that’s something none of us should ever forget.
But the UFC is essentially a private fight club with its own rules, titles and regulations. See, traditionally in the fight game – particularly boxing – fighters from all over the planet would take fights on their own to move up the ladder of a sanctioning body’s top-ten list, and try to work their way into a title shot. And if they win the title fight, they’re the new world champion. It was a flawed system because promoters like Don King seemed to exert undue influence on who was ranked where, but for the most part, the deserving fighter would eventually compete for the title.
The UFC isn’t doing this, Brian. Instead, they sign a small number of fighters and match them up in the most marketable fights possible. Their champions are the champions of their own private fight club, and guys like Fedor [Emelianenko] don’t even exist.
At the XFC, we’re doing something different. We want to find the next generation of superstars and provide them with an opportunity to compete – no matter what t-shirts they wear or their past promotional relationships. We’ve brought in fighters from Africa, Russia – all over the planet, because MMA’s talent base is truly global, and being exclusionary limits your ability to grow. We’re not trying to sign the most established names of today; we’re an inclusive promotion that’s dedicated to identifying and promoting the champions of tomorrow.
I’m a huge fan of the UFC, and when they came to Tampa, Dana and I spoke briefly – not about anything earth shattering, but I wanted him to know firsthand how much respect and admiration I have for what he’s accomplished. The UFC is the most powerful entity in this sport, and deservedly so. From the ground up, they’ve built their own private universe of fighters, titles and feuds – and they have the infrastructure and TV relationships to sell these feuds and matchups better than anyone else in the history of the industry. God bless ‘em for it, and I wish the UFC nothing but continued success. But that’s not who we are, Brian. So I don’t view us as being in competition.
FT: You once spoke of the XFC’s brand identity as the “ultimate steel-cage proving ground for the “champions of tomorrow””. How do you think the XFC is filling this brand identity so far?
Prisco: It’s been the primary reason for our success. And I think it’s fair to say that we work harder than anyone else in MMA at elevating the profiles of our fighters – keeping the focus on them, not on us. You get our press releases, Brian, and I’m sure you’d be the first to acknowledge that we’ve dedicated our time and company resources not to just bragging about how wonderful the XFC is – but to educating our audience who these fighters are, and more importantly, why you should care about their careers.
Whenever the UFC, Strikeforce, Affliction or anyone else announces a new event, the first question on everyone’s minds is ‘Who’s fighting on the card?’ The more you recognize the various names on the card, the more likely you are to want to see the event.
The XFC is doing something diametrically different. And whether or not a fighter is a household name or is just beginning his career, if we honestly believe he has a legitimate chance to develop into a superstar, we’ll match him against another aspiring superstar – and let the best man win.
We’re not just a promotion company. We’re following a specific vision – and if we do our job right, the entire sport of MMA will be the beneficiary.
FT: You’re notching some great successes – any big setbacks you didn’t see coming?
Prisco: No, not really. Because we’re so deliberate with our decision-making, we tend to avoid the kinds of cataclysmic missteps that have killed so many other promotions. That’s not to say we’re perfect. Sometimes we’ll provide an opportunity to a young fighter who looks great on video and says all the right things beforehand, but when he gets in the cage he just doesn’t deliver. Even worse is when we have to drop a fight because the fighter failed to take the opportunity seriously.
I don’t want to name any names because I’m not into fighter-bashing, but we were planning on featuring a certain TUF alumn on the undercard of XFC 7. This person was gonna fight Robert “Iron Man” Thompson, a 5-0 fighter with some outstanding tools and impressive credentials – a real entertaining matchup. Unfortunately, this TUF alumn vanished after we signed the fight. I couldn’t reach him, nobody on our team could reach him, and even his own manager couldn’t reach him. We called the gym where he’s supposed to train and still couldn’t reach him. We didn’t want Robert Thompson to lose his opportunity to compete on the card, so we waited as long as we could, but eventually replaced the TUF alumn with a young man named Rafaello Oliveria, a rising prospect with a 5-1 pro record. It should still be a great fight, but it’s disappointing when things don’t go as planned.
FT: What’s the next state into which you’re looking to take the XFC?
Prisco: We’ve had Kentucky on our radar for a while now. I think Kentucky could easily become a hotbed of MMA action for a whole host of reasons. We’re also negotiating with other states, primarily in the Southeast but also several Western states, and quite a few international venues.
FT: You made big strides in the last year – where do you see the XFC a year from now?
Prisco: This time next year, we’ll have aired at least four live fight cards on HDNet at some of the biggest sports arenas in the country. A large number of XFC gyms will open nationwide, and XFC programming will be on the air in at least seven foreign markets. Unlike the other promotions that have to purchase their talent, we’ll continue to develop our talent – and these young warriors will become some of the most talked-about fighters in the sport. XFC DVDs and merchandise will be on the shelves of the leading retail chains, including Wal-Mart. Each fight card will continue to improve, and the XFC will continue to generate some of the largest crowds in the whole industry. Basically, we’ll still be doing what we’re doing – only more so.
What’s really exciting, Brian, is that this vision is executable. In many ways, we’ve already done most of the heavy lifting. We just need to work hard, stay smart, and understand what our target audience really wants to see.
FT: John, thanks for taking time out of your day – is there anyone you’d like to thank or give a shout out to?
Prisco: This might sound corny, but more than anything else, I want to thanks all the MMA fans reading this interview – including those who’ve never seen the XFC product yet. Believe me, I fully appreciate how deeply passionate you are about this sport, and without your dedication and loyalty, MMA wouldn’t be the thriving, growing sport that’s taken the world by storm.
And yeah, I know that other promotions out there are hostile to the online media; they want you to only visit their websites to learn about the fighters you care about, and don’t really cooperate with these sorts of interview requests because they want to control all the information. But that will never be how the XFC operates. Without the diehard fan, we don’t exist. So thank you!
You see, more than anything, we’re all MMA fans. We’re all united in wanting to see this sport grow and prosper – and be there on the ground level as the next generation of superstars launch their careers. The personal feuds and promotional politics only distract us from concentrating on what MMA is really all about, and that’s the fighters in the cage and the fans cheering in the stands. So the way I see it, we’re all in the same boat – and I wouldn’t want it any other way.
Thanks so much, Brian – and for any of you in driving distance to Knoxville, please come to XFC 7: “School of Hard Knox,” the first-ever pro MMA fight card in Tennessee state history! Tickets are now available at the Thompson-Boling Arena box office and Tickets Unlimited outlets, including Cat's Music, Disc Exchange, and Fye Music. For more information, please visit www.mmaxfc.com!
Thanks again to John for taking time out what I'm sure is a busy final week making sure everything for XFC 7: School of Hard Knox shapes up.
I am sure it is going to be a great show and I am really looking forward to covering the event for FightTicker.