Two years ago we lost one of the most important figures in MMA history. Charles "Mask" Lewis was a visionary and a pioneer, a man who loved people and strived to leave his mark on the world. Killed in a tragic and senseless accident, Mask left a hole that won't soon be filled in the lives of those closest to him.
"In our world he was the general. He was described in an early article about us as 'a more infectious Tony Robbins.' Every person he talked to felt like they were the only person in the room," TapouT co-founder Dan "Punkass" Caldwell said. "He always knew the right thing to say. When he told you things were going to be okay, that we'd make something happen, it was settling. You believed things really were going to be okay. He read a lot and he was able to spit a lot of knowledge. I remember being worked up about something one day and he asked me 'Dan, can you do anything to change it?' And I said 'Not really.' And he asked "Then why worry about it? Your wasting a lot of energy and that's ineffective.' Little pieces of wisdom like that. He was a natural born leader. We would look to him for answers and he could deliver. He was just very inspiring. He was my best friend for 20 years and the most inspiring person I've ever been around."
I didn't know Mask well. I met him at a UFC event and we spent time just chatting backstage. He was articulate, passionate, surprisingly normal, with just a trace of that manic edge that came off so vividly on television. Like so many of us, he fell in love with the sport of MMA after watching Royce Gracie dismantle the competition in the early UFC's. He had the chance to train with Gracie, although he and his friends had to take turns going to the private lessons with the UFC champion because they couldn't all afford to go weekly.
By 1997, he was a part of the MMA business. Mask started TapouT from nothing, literally from the trunk of his car. His passion for the sport had grown to the point it became his life. He and his buddy Punkass and his young protege Timothy "SkySkrape" Katz, traveled long miles, criss-crossing the entire nation on their way to grassroots level shows wherever they could find them. Even when he was poor, Mask wasn't afraid to dream big.
"Charles was living in a friend's house in the back room on a mattress on the floor," SkySkrape said. "But on his wall, printed on a piece of white computer paper, he'd have all these sayings. 'To quit doesn't exist.'
He'd have 'I cleared $2000 this month.' Then 'I cleared $10,000 this month.' Meaning the company made that much money. Just little things that pushed him. They weren't always numbers he had achieved. They were things he was one day going to achieve. And it wasn't about money. It was about being able to go back out, to support more fighters. It was about giving back. There were times we were sleeping on Josh Barnett's floor at a UFC when we didn't have enough money for a room because we were paying the fighters."
"We just really believed in the sport even though it was failing at the time," Punkass remembers. "We just believed that anybody who saw it would be hooked on it. In our heart of hearts we knew it was going to be big. We just wanted to start a little t-shirt company based around the sport that we loved. It was fun. Even if the UFC hadn't turned into a big phenomenon, we would probably still be doing what we are doing."
Often they would sneak in the back, selling shirts without paying a vendor fee until they were eventually booted out of the building. Soon that wasn't a problem. Like it or hate it, Mask's aesthetic worked for the market. He knew the audience he was selling to - they were him - and his feel for what would sell was unparalleled. In the early years though, they struggled.
"We did a show in Arizona and we had two fighters. The choice was whether we were going to pay the fighters or get home that night. It was only about $200 or $300 bucks each, but after paying the venue for being there and each fighter, we didn't have enough for a hotel room. We were going to have to drive straight back. I can remember telling Charles 'Bro, don't worry about it. I can drive. I've got it.' We had driven there that day and were looking at another six hours on the road with no sleep after the show. I can remember him breaking down and crying. He was apologizing because he felt like he had failed," Punkass said. "Because we hadn't made enough money that night. He took that as a personal failure. I remember telling him it was cool, that it was going to be okay. Usually he was the anchor. He's the guy that everybody looks to when sh*t's going sideways. But we all had to support each other. It meant the world to us. As bad as things were, and I'm telling you things were bad, we wouldn't want to be anywhere else. We believed we were going to make this shit happen. It was like that Eminem song. You only have one chance to make it. And we preached it, promised ourselves. We are not going to fail.
"There is no Plan B. That was Charles's saying. It's the story of Cortez. I don't know if it is a true story, but the way Mask told it these guys land in the new world and were outnumbered by the natives five to one. The captain had his men burn all the ships. His first mate said 'What will we do if we have to retreat?' And Cortez said 'There is no Plan B. We have to win.' There is no escape. Burn these ships and we're going to go win this f*cking war. That was our mentality. That's how we thought."
The difference maker for the company was Mask's invention of the TapouT crew. The guys would come to shows decked out in costumes and face paint. It immediately separated them from all of the other brands in the MMA market. Skrape gets credit for inspiring what was literally a million dollar idea. Before becoming their own best advertising, the trio struggled to make an impact.
"We were just another company. No one cared about us. Mask was passing out these flyers, walking around the building passing out TapouT flyers and explaining who we are. On his way back to our table he saw all the flyers on the ground. He told us 'I never want to have that happen again. I want people to remember who we are.' The night before Skrape and Charles had gone out to a club and gotten all this attention," Punkass said. "Skrape had the afro and was wearing a crazy jacket or something. All these girls were paying attention and he got in free to the club. That spawned the idea. Charles came in with this military paint with the special forces hat, my look was kind of just how I looked at the time, all in black with a bandanna on. Kind of biker style or hardcore motocross. Skrape with the big afro and mismatched shoes - that was just kind of an extension of his personality.
"Our goal was for people to remember us. When we walked into the show we wanted people to say 'Oh, those are the TapouT guys.' Everytime we went out it was like going into battle. We took that shit seriously. It was how we lived. Charles, at one point, didn't have a place to stay so I offered him to come live with me in my condo in the room where I had all the clothes stored to sell online. He didn't want to burden me so he was living out of his car. So everytime we'd go to sell t-shirts at a show, that was the difference between eating and not. That was the difference between being able to pay the rent and not. We took it seriously. We would say those words 'We're going to battle. Let's go kill these motherf*ckers.' We would go grab all of our stuff, throw it in the back of them van, and go to the show with that mentality. We wouldn't let a sale go. We'd talk about it: don't let anyone walk away from the table without buying something."
It wasn't just about making money for Mask, although he did manage to grow his business from the trunk of his car into a multi-million dollar revenue machine. For Charles Lewis it was also about the fighters. Big or small, famous or unknown, in the Octagon or in the hastily erected steel mesh cage on a ball field in Iowa, Mask supported fighters across the board.
"It was always in our DNA. We started with small fighters. When we first started sponsoring fighters, we didn't have a connection to fighters in the UFC. We started at underground shows that were basically illegal in California at the time. I can remember going to a small show called Neutral Grounds in Southern California. It was at a U-Haul dealership in Compton. You paid $40 to get in the warehouse where there was a cage set up with bleachers on both sides. There was a tournament and Victor Hunsaker won. And he became our fighter. One of our first sponsored fighters," Punkass recalled. "You'd go to the small shows, figure out who was going to be good and eventually he'd end up on the bigger shows. That was how we did it. The guys were affordable. We'd start out with clothing, giving them lots of free TapouT clothes. They were happy to have it because there really weren't any sponsors in the sport. It wasn't like they could go to Nike. Nike was too f*cking scared to touch this sport."
After the Jump, the TapouT crew and the night that changed everything.
In the early morning hours of March 11, 2009, everything changed for the TapouT family. A two time DUI offender, speeding and out of control, crashed into Mask's Ferrari on Jamboree Road in Newport Beach. Lewis careened into a cement pole and was killed. The drunk driver fled the scene and was eventually sentenced to just nine years in prison. But no amount of prison time could bring back the spiritual leader of an entire company.
"It's like a dream still. I think about it and it seems unreal to me," Punkass said. "I got a text in the morning from one of my friends that asked 'Did one of you guys get in an accident in Huntington Beach last night?' Skrape and Charles both lived out there so I hit both of them with a text Skrape got back to me but we couldn't get in touch with Charles. I got a message that said Charles's Ferrari had been in the accident. I got in my car and went right to the office. Just as I got there I got the message from a friend - they didn't believe Charles had made it. I just fell apart."
"I got the text from Dan and I didn't know what to think," Skrape added. "And then all of the sudden I got a phone call from Joe Silva asking if everything was okay? As soon as I got that phone call I thought "Oh man, something's wrong.' Trying to get home, getting pulled over, getting tickets. I was just trying to get home so I could do more. Being so far away, I didn't feel like I could do nothing. Hearing that news....it was just a crazy time."
"Skrape had gone up to San Luis Obispo, staying at Chuck Liddell's place," Punkass continued. "It was about a four hour drive from there and he was driving like a madman. I told him to slow down, that he couldn't help nobody if he killed himself driving home. He got pulled over three times. Not thinking straight. We were not doing well. It was a nightmare.
"He was like a big brother to Skrape. The guy he looked up to. Anything that was in Skrape's life, he would talk to Charles about. Even though I looked up to him in the biggest way, when me and Charles talked it was man to man. I had a kid and a girlfriend that I lived with. It was a different situation. But I felt so bad for Skrape, because I knew how close he was with Charles. I'd had other deaths in my life, but I knew this was going to be on another level for Skrape. I was really worried that he wasn't going to get out of this without doing something crazy. To himself maybe. I knew both of our lives were going to be changed forever."
Last year the two sold TapouT to Authentic Brands Group, a company with a reputation for taking struggling clothing brands and rehabilitating them. They needed help taking their growing enterprise to the next level. TapouT had grown beyond their ability to handle it on their own. But an important part of the deal was being able to stay on and help fulfill Mask's dreams. Charles Lewis and TapouT are still linked in a powerful way. They always will be.
"There's not 10 minutes that go by in a day without thinking about Charles. Our life is surrounded and entrenched in TapouT. It's impossible to not think about him," Skrape said. "For six, eight, ten months I was kind of just numb. When I met Dan and Charles I was only 18 years old. I was just out of high school, just a kid. He was like a big brother, like a father figure. He was my best friend. I looked at him for everything in my life. And suddenly I couldn't go to him anymore. When we got into a city we would just walk, the three of us walking, talking, dreaming, all that nonsense. We'd end up on a bus bench or something. Memories like that are kind of cool to think about. There's still so much more to accomplish. We haven't come close to making it, to fulfilling Charles's dream of being the biggest brand in the world. Charles always talked about TapouT being his dream. I hope he inspires people to go out and live their dream. If other people can't see it, that's because it's not their dream. Do what is in your heart and don't worry about what anybody else tells you."
"Mask really put others first. He really cared about individuals," Punkass said. "This may sound stupid, but to me he was on the level of a Lincoln or a Lombardi. If you met him you were that much better because of it."