Image via Esther Lin of MMA Fighting
Once upon a time, a fighter named Evan Tanner did something revolutionary. He declined to allow any corporate entities to sponsor him, and allowed his fans to make donations to cover the costs of his training needs. At the time, people were divided on the issue. Some mocked him for turning down good sponsor money, while the other half praised his resolve for allowing his fans to be included on his fight journey.
To date, no other fighter has done something quite so radical, but there is now something on the horizon that will allow fans to contribute their own sponsor dollars in much the same fashion. A new site called FundaFighter is drawing attention right now, and hopefully gains the momentum it needs to be a successful, useful tool for struggling fighters. Firas Zahabi, head trainer of Tristar gym, along with a few others are heading up the program, and plan to have it running at full speed by this fall. In a recent TapouT Radio interview, Firas discussed the ambitious program as well as fielded questions on Georges St. Pierre's recovery and training.
Stephie Daniels: Is Georges training at 100% right now, or is there still some rehab going on?
Firas Zahabi: Structurally, I think his knee is 100%. Of course the timing on his sparring is not 100% and the confidence in the knee is not 100% and the coordination, moving around on that knee is not 100%. For the last eight months, he's been over-compensating on one side, moving a particular way, and now we're trying to get him to move again like he used to.
It's going to take some time, but I tell you, Georges is a great athlete. He's been making leaps and bounds in the gym. He's progressing and every sparring session he's doing better and better. I really think in August, he'll be ready to start a training camp again. I don't want to count my eggs before they hatch, but he's really looking good.
Stephie Daniels: How long has he been back in the gym?
Firas Zahabi: He just started martial arts training, it's been about four weeks now. I'm talking like sparring and wrestling and moving around. After not sparring or wrestling for eight months, that first month is hard, but I think it went smoothly.
Stephie Daniels: How do you handle external pressures from fans or promoters that want to get your guys to fight each other? Specifically, Rory MacDonald and Georges, since Dana White made the comment that if Rory saw Georges' bank account, his reticence to fight him would change.
Firas Zahabi: We're familiar with Georges' bank account, and it's good, but it's not everything in life. There's more important things, and I think loyalty and friendship are more important. Rory is not starving to death, that's for sure. He does well for himself, and I think he'll have big money fights coming in the future. It won't be long before he's making big bucks, regardless if he's fighting welterweight or middleweight. We haven't decided what we're going to do. If I have the two best guys at 170, I'm going to be really happy. I'm going to think I've done my job, and we're not going to be looking to fight each other. If Georges moves up a weight class, we'll figure it out when we get there.
Right now we've got B.J. Penn coming up for Rory. That's a tall order, and I don't want anyone to be looking past that. People keep asking us, so yeah, our answer is that we'll change a weight class before we fight each other. It's not even really a topic. Our main topics are Carlos Condit and B.J. Penn. Those are the guys that are coming up for Georges and Rory. Our hands are full and our plates are full. We don't have time to think about what's going to happen after those two fights. Right now it's nothing but those two fights.
Stephie Daniels: What do you think about the criticism that Georges gets for fighting too cautious due to Greg Jackson's guidance?
Firas Zahabi: I think that's not true. If you look at who wins the most fight of the nights and submission of the night and knockout of the night, Greg is up there. His fighters are the ones with the most bonuses. I think it's just that when you're as big as Greg is, you're going to get criticism, because a lot of people are going to dislike you. If you look at it statistically, he's one of the most successful winning and bonus coaches around. I really don't see how anybody can scrutinize him so much.
Stephie Daniels: If you had the opportunity to work with any martial artist, past or present, who would it be?
Firas Zahabi: Helio Gracie. Carlson Gracie or Helio Gracie. Those two guys are the ones I really would have liked to have contact with and have talks with. I would have like to discussed the principles of jiu jitsu with them. It's very fascinating to me, the evolution of jiu jitsu. They changed everybody's lives. They changed the face of martial arts, and they did it within a very small period of time. I think theirs was the most exceptional contribution in the history of martial arts.
Stephie Daniels: What is FundaFighter?
Firas Zahabi: FundaFighter is a great way for fans to contribute to the fighter's training camp. You can donate any amount you want. The more you contribute, there are prizes for certain levels of contributions. The rewards range from signed cards to dinner with the fighter the night before his fight. There are prizes that consist of flying a person to the fights and giving them front row tickets. The prizes range from very small to very large.
It's also a good way to invest in fighters if you're an apparel company. If you don't know how to contact a fighter, through FundaFighter, you'll be able to bid on their shorts, T shirts, hats, and banners. You'll be able to get a space and network with these fighters automatically, as opposed to having to hunt down a manager to make contact and go through a negotiation process.
Right now, FundaFighter is going through it's proof of concept phase. We're only allowing two accounts, Chuck O'Neil and Joey Gambino. It's a moderate project. Their training camps are $1500 each. It's a good tool for fans to socialize with fighters, as well as help them with their training camps and promotion of their fights.
Stephie Daniels: With the apparel companies, does that have to be approved with the UFC, and does the sponsor tax apply to them?
Firas Zahabi: If a UFC fighter is registered with us, the corporate sponsors will be pending approval. The persons bidding on the shorts would be informed and called, and they would have to go through an approval process, but that's only on apparel. If you're not bidding on apparel, it doesn't apply. Also, this program is not exclusive to UFC fighters. The next person we're going to be registering on the site is Rick Hawn, who is fighting for the Bellator LW championship against Mike Chandler. He'll be running his campaign soon, and with Bellator, there is no sponsor tax, so the apparel will be fair game.
Stephie Daniels: Just to clarify, if an apparel company wants to sponsor a UFC fighter, the sponsor tax will need to be provided by them, correct?
Firas Zahabi: That's correct. If they want to put any type of apparel on the fighter, of course they have to pay the UFC fees associated with that. This is also a good way for these companies to know who's a free agent and not locked into an existing sponsorship deal already.
Stephie Daniels: How much interaction do the fighter's management have with the money each fighter raises for their needs?
Firas Zahabi: The money goes to the fighter, via a transfer to their bank account. If the fighter has a deal with his manager, or he owes him money, he would have to pay him out.
Stephie Daniels: What happens if the fighter starts a campaign and the goal is not met?
Firas Zahabi: If the goal is not met, the fighter doesn't make a dime. That money gets refunded back to the people that donated. It makes it where fighters keep their campaigns to realistic amounts. If they go over their goal, that's fine, and they get to keep the money, but the objective is to keep it to a realistic amount. This will keep people honest.
Stephie Daniels: What is the criteria to be able to participate in this program?
Firas Zahabi: Well, for now, you need to be a professional fighter in MMA. You have to be fighting in a sanctioned bout, somewhere in North America. That's all you really need.
Stephie Daniels: Is there a limit to how many fighters can particpate in the program?
Firas Zahabi: No, there's no limit. Right now, there is, because we're going through a proof of concept phase. We want to show that this can become the norm. We've started with two fighters, and both campaigns are moving along well. We'll be adding Rick Hawn in the next two weeks, and after that we'll be adding some bigger names.
Stephie Daniels: What do the promoters think of the program?
Firas Zahabi: I haven't talked with them yet. I'm going to wait for it to get bigger before I do that. I think they'll be happy with it because it helps fighters have more incentive to fight.
You can follow Firas via his Twitter, @Firas_Zahabi
You can follow Fundafighter, via their Twitter, @Fundafighter