IAVA's Paul Rieckhoff Talks Kris McCray, MMA and Veterans' Issues

via post.cloudfront.goodinc.com

As a prior service U.S. Marine, November 10 and November 11 hold special significance for me. The first is the birthday of the Marine Corps, the second is Veterans Day. This year I decided to talk to someone who is doing something in MMA while doing something for veterans. I sat down yesterday with the Paul Rieckhoff, Executive Director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA). IAVA recently sponsored TUF 11 runner-up and UFC welterweight Kris McCray who competes this weekend at UFC 122. I wanted to find out why the organization decided to sponsor McCray and what plans they have to work with the MMA community to benefit veterans.

Given the natural dovetail between veterans and MMA fans, it only makes sense the two communities would work together. Rieckhoff explains here the impetus behind sponsoring McCray, the significance of veterans who become professional athletes and how others can get involved to get veterans a hand.

Oh, and happy Veterans Day, everyone. Be sure to put a comment at the bottom of this post if you're prior service. Transcript below.

Thomas: How did you hear about Kris McCray?

Rieckhoff: The Ultimate Fighter. You came from the military, you know this. A lot of folks in the military are MMA fans. We're all trained, for the most part, in mixed martial arts in some capacity, especially if you're in the Marines or infantry. There's a huge percentage of people in our membership and our population that are huge fans. We saw him on the show and over the course of the show started researching him and found out that he was in the Reserves.

Originally we reached out to him on Twitter. He had Tweeted something about us or made contact over Twitter. We have a lot of folks who are big MMA fans who see the natural connection between our communities and the cultures, so they're constantly promoting us. And Dana White has met a lot of our guys from events. We know there's also a crop of folks like Brian Stann and others who are coming up who are prior service as well, so we reached out to Kris and said, "hey man, you really could be a powerful voice for us. You come from our community, you've lived on a military base, your family has been in the military. Here's who we are, what we do." He got behind it. This is going to be the first fighter we've ever sponsored. We hope it's the first of many. We're all rooting for him when he fights to kick some ass.

Thomas: Do you think sponsoring people like Kris McCray or other veterans going forward, do you think that's a good vehicle to get IAVA or veterans' issues more widely known to key audiences?

Rieckhoff: Yeah, definitely. Anybody who's a MMA fan has seen the explosion of brands that just a few years ago were off the radar. You look at Tapout, you look at Tokyo Five, you look at these brands that are now, in the MMA community, household names.

We recognize that there's a unique opportunity for us to reach our demographic. We know vets are coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan and they're watching UFC, they're going to be watching Kris' fight.  And I think we also know who the vets are, not just in the MMA community, but nationally. Most Marines know that Drew Carey is a Marine.  You know who these other guys are who are Hollywood stars, who are athletes, who served in the military. There's a real brotherhood and sisterhood that exists there.  We look out for our own and we always root for our own. Everybody's really rooting for Kris and I think that he could be a really powerful voice for us and create some serious exposure around IAVA and around veterans issues.

It's also important that he's a positive role model. He's a guy who's positive, who's articulate, thoughtful and he can dispel a lot of rumors about vets coming home being dumb meatheads.

Thomas: Do you guys sponsor any other athletes in any other mediums? Certainly the UFC is hugely popular obviously, but there are some guys in other sports leagues with some military experience. Do you guys get involved with that at all?

Rieckhoff: We do extend our support, actually, we're doing an event here tonight in New York City and we've got coach Bill Cowher from the Pittsburgh Steelers who has been a huge supporter. We're not officially sponsoring him, but we've done partnerships with a lot of different Major League Baseball teams. The San Diego Padres have been fantastic and we have a huge base there. The Washington Nationals have been great, the Yankees have been great, but no formal partnerships. This is our first sponsoring of an actual athlete and we think it's at the cutting edge of how you can reach people. To see MMA's explosion over the last couple of years, if we can get the MMA community to support veterans I think it can be a huge part of the transformation we talked about earlier. If the MMA community gets behind veterans, it can make a very huge, very fast impact in some of the most important issues. We're hoping that this is just the start.

Thomas: UFC has done one event, they're going to do another: UFC Fight for the Troops. That focuses more on traumatic brain injury and guys who come home with more serious injuries. Are you guys involved in that process at all? 

Rieckhoff: Yeah, the Fisher family and the Fisher House were original recipients and they're kind of like a big brother of ours. We work together with them on a regular basis. We actually honored Mr. Fisher a couple of years ago at our gala. We're not officially involved right now, but I'm sure we will be over time because we partner with them on just about every event they do. We're looking forward to it.

The other thing is obviously the UFC's been really behind the Marine Corps. The Marine Corps is a big sponsor there. I think that's another element that's really appealed to everyone in our community. A lot of folks learn about the Marine Corps from UFC, so they end up coming back there.

Two other things I'd want to point out, too. Mario Yamasaki's been a big supporter and invited us to a couple of fights. Also, my deputy director Todd Bowers has trained at his gym in Washington, DC with a couple of other guys from the area. Kenny Florian is another guy that's been a big supporter. We don't sponsor him formally, but Kenny had a bunch of our guys up when he had his fight in Boston. We were his guests and he came down to meet them in DC and had dinner with a bunch of our members. He's been another guy that's been a big supporter.

Thomas: Paul, if people want to find out more about you, what you guys do, how can they dig up more information?

Rieckhoff: Go to IAVA.org. That's the key. Especially this week we're going to be doing a lot of stuff around Veterans Day. Look for us on Twitter, look for us on Facebook and look for us on Kris McCray's back in just a couple of days.

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